Remembering the Great Famine — and the Irish refugees who came to Ontario

In the mid-1840s, tens of thousands of Irish immigrants arrived in the Province of Canada, desperate to find a home. At the Great Famine Voices Roadshow, you’ll hear their stories
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on May 15, 2019
An artist's depiction of immigrants arriving at Grosse Île in the 1840s. (Courtesy of 3M Canada)

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KINGSTON — About a dozen guests file into the advanced battery of Kingston’s Fort Henry: Irish emigrants and descendants of emigrants; a pair of Irish-history buffs from Toronto; a tourist visiting from upstate New York. They nibble on snacks, share stories, and listen to lectures about one of the most significant immigration crises in Canadian history.

They’re here for the Great Famine Voices Roadshow. Now in its second year, the event series — co-developed by the Great Hunger Institute, the University of Toronto, and Trinity College Dublin — brings together experts, Irish emigrants, and their descendants to commemorate the Great Famine and the consequences it had on both sides of the Atlantic. The Kingston event was preceded by stops in Ottawa and Washington, D.C.

Mark McGowan, a history professor at U of T, tells visitors to Fort Henry that, in the mid-1840s, Ontario — then known as Upper Canada — experienced the worst refugee crisis in its history. Tens of thousands of Irish immigrants, wracked by hunger, arrived by boat, desperate to find a home in the Province of Canada. Million of Irish people had relied on potatoes as a dietary staple, but the crop was hit by blight. While farms continued to produce enough food for the population, the British government allowed much of it to be exported.

At the peak of the crisis, in August 1847, about 2,500 refugees were arriving in Kingston every week. Some stayed; others continued on to Toronto. Cities and towns along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario were overwhelmed with migrants and struggled to provide shelter and medical care for them. Many were sick: poor conditions and overcrowding on the ships that brought them from overseas bred illness, including typhus. In 1847 alone, 1,400 Irish refugees died in Kingston.

“Famine migration provided the greatest refugee crisis up to that point in Canadian history,” McGowan tells his audience. “You have the emergence of a rather unwelcome people — because of their [Catholic] religious background, because of their poverty, because of their country of origin.”

Yet McGowan says the episode also demonstrates the human capacity for empathy and resilience. At the time, Kingston — a Protestant-majority town — was rife with sectarian division. Catholics often made to feel unwelcome, and the arrival of thousands of Irish-Catholic migrants inflamed religious tensions. But the migrants’ struggles inspired a “remarkable amount of co-operation between religious groups,” McGowan says. For example, the predominantly Catholic sisters of the newly created Hotel Dieu Hospital worked “hand in glove” with the Protestants who were running what would become Kingston General Hospital.

Caroilin Callery, a director of the National Famine Museum, in Ireland, argues that any worthwhile historical project should do more than merely explain the past — it should also give people a chance to learn from it. Callery, who’s touring with the roadshow, gets teary-eyed when she explains the Great Famine’s continued relevance. “The famine was, and will be, acknowledged as the greatest catastrophe of 19th-century Europe,” she tells the audience. “If you look at the way Irish immigrants were received, originally, into the countries, in a lot of ways, it mirrors how we are now — in Europe or America — receiving refugees, which is sad.”

In the room next door to the one where McGowan and Callery are speaking, a videographer is prepared to capture guests’ personal stories. The video clips, part of the roadshow project, will live online in a freely accessible archive. Eithne Dunbar, who drove the hour southwest from Brockville to Kingston to share her story, says she was discouraged from learning about the catastrophe when she was a child growing up in Ireland.

“Of course, we learned about the famine,” Dunbar tells the camera. “But it wasn’t often talked about in the house, perhaps because of the poverty and desperation and sadness associated with it. And we were in new times, different times.”

Dunbar, who moved to Canada in 1972, says that connecting with other Irish migrants has helped her feel more Canadian. She started the Brockville Irish Cultural Society in 1996 and was later inducted into the Brockville and Area Music and Performing Arts Hall of Fame for her contributions to the community as an Irish singer and folk dancer.

“You can’t forget where you came from. But, sometimes, fate will take us far away,” says Dunbar, before launching into an a capella rendition of “Buachaill Ón Éirne,” a traditional ballad.

Before they wrap up at Fort Henry and prepare for their next event, in Quebec City, McGowan and Callery urge their audience to remember this chapter in the province’s history, and to bear in mind the acts of charity and kindness that were so much a part of it.

“There’s a powerful story here, and it’s one of inter-religious co-operation,” McGowan says. “The situation was enough to make most Canadians apprehensive. But, for some, it really was a brief moment of courage.”

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