Grosse Ile: Canada’s Island Famine Memorial

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), The Famine, Volume 5

The approach to Grosse Ile is dominated by the fifteen-metre tall Celtic cross which bears this inscription (in Irish). It stands on a rocky promontory, the highest point on the island. Built by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, it was unveiled on 15 August 15 1909 by the Papal Legate before a crowd of 9,000 people.

Quarantine station

Grosse Ile, isolated in mid-river but still close to Quebec City, opened as a quarantine station in 1832, in response to Canadian fears of the cholera epidemic in Europe. The failures of the quarantine station are measured in the burial sites of thousands of Irish immigrants, on the island and down the length of the St. Lawrence as far west as Hamilton. They died of cholera in 1832—and of typhus, ship fever and starvation while fleeing from the Great Hunger in the 1840s. At the western end of the island, between Cholera Bay and the Celtic cross on Telegraph Hill, is a long meadow, corrugated by a regular series of ridges, which inevitably remind the visitor of lazy beds, ridge-and-trench potato fields. On Grosse Ile, too, the ridges are man-made, for they mark the mass graves where the Irish famine victims of 1847 were buried, ‘stacked like cordwood’.
In February 1847, before the first ships arrived, Dr George Mellis Douglas, Medical Superintendent, warned the Legislative Assembly that the approaching season would bring ‘a greater amount of sickness and mortality’ and that the closure of American ports would ‘augment the number of poor and destitute who will flock to our shores’. Douglas asked for £3,000 to expand the quarantine facilities to cope with the expected increase in numbers; he was given £300 to buy fifty extra beds.

‘Unprecedented state of illness and distress’

In 1847 the shipping season in the St Lawrence opened as usual with the thaw in mid-May. The Syria was the first ship to arrive. She sailed from Liverpool on 24 March carrying 241 passengers and anchored at Grosse Ile on 15 May. Six days later, 202 passengers from the Syria were ill. The quarantine hospital on the island, built for 150 patients, could barely accommodate 200, and was already filled to capacity.
Douglas was astonished by the ‘unprecedented state of illness and distress’ on the ships; he had ‘never contemplated the possibility of every vessel arriving with fever as they do now’, all of them carrying passengers ‘in the most wretched state of disease’. On 23 May, he reported between fifty and sixty deaths per day. By the end of the month, 900 people had died and a thousand more fever cases were on the island, housed in hastily erected sheds and tents. Douglas was resigned to the prospect that many more would fall sick and require treatment. But since ‘I have not a bed to lay them on or a place to put them in’, he was obliged to flout the quarantine law and confine all passengers on board the ships at anchor in the river. By 31 May, forty ships lay off Grosse Ile, with 12,500 passengers, old and young, healthy and sick, dying and dead, crammed into grossly overcrowded quarters, packed as human ballast in the holds of merchant vessels built to carry Canadian lumber to England.
Stephen de Vere from County Limerick, landlord, magistrate and social reformer, was no ordinary emigrant. He took passage on an emigrant ship to provide a first-hand report to the Colonial Office. His account of conditions on the ship which, he was assured, was ‘more comfortable than many’, is a funeral dirge:

Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children, of all ages from the drivelling idiot of ninety to the babe just born, huddled together, without light, without air, wallowing in filth, and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart…the fevered patients lying between the sound in sleeping places so narrow, as almost to deny them a change of position…living without food or medicine except as administered by the hand of casual charity, dying without spiritual consolation and buried in the deep without the rites of the church.

The Medical Commission

On 5 June, when the Medical Commission appointed to examine the crisis at Grosse Ile reached the island, there were 21,000 emigrants at Grosse Ile. The death toll had tripled: 150 people were buried that day. The doctors found the sick on the island ‘in the most deplorable condition, for want of the necessary nurses and hospital attendants’. On board the ships in the river, they reported ‘corpses lying in the same beds with the sick and the dying’. They also noted the demoralisation of the victims, ‘common sympathies being apparently annihilated by the mental and bodily depression produced by famine and disease’:

We entirely disapprove of the plan of keeping a vessel in quarantine for any period, however prolonged, whilst the sick and healthy are congregated together, breathing the same atmosphere, sleeping in the same berths, and exposed to the same exciting causes of contagion. This year’s melancholy experience has in many instances proved that the number attacked and the mortality of the disease increased in direct ratio with the length of time the ship was detained under such circumstances. As an evidence of the truth of the above statement, we may be permitted to instance the case of the ship Agnes which arrived about sixteen days ago, with 427 passengers, out of which number not more than 150 are now in a healthy condition, the remainder being dead, or sick on board, or in hospital.

Despite their criticism of Douglas’s management of the quarantine station, they were unable to offer any remedy beyond instructing him to comply with the regulations—which was no longer possible.

Witnesses to disaster

A month later, a special committee of the Legislative Assembly examined witnesses to the disaster. They testified unanimously to the awful situation on the island. The sheds, tents and other buildings were overflowing. Beds, such as they were, were shared by as many as three people. Many fever victims were lying on bare planks or on the ground, the more fortunate on a bedding of straw.
Fr Bernard McGauran, who led the first group of Catholic priests to the island, said, ‘I have seen in one day thirty-seven lying on the beach, crawling in the mud and dying like fish out of water’. Fr William Moylan, parish priest of St Patrick’s in Quebec City, told of seeing corpses left lying overnight in the bunks in the hospital ‘even when they had a companion in the same bed’. He estimated the mortality as a result of confinement on the ships was ‘at least twice as great as on shore’ and said, ‘the sick would have been better ashore under tents, having medical attendance close at hand, and besides would not have affected the healthy emigrants confined in the holds of the vessels with them’. On 20 July, when more than 2,500 fever cases were housed in the island hospitals, George Mountain, Anglican Bishop of Montreal, described ‘scenes of loathsomeness, suffering and horror, in the holds of the ships and in the receptacles for the patients’.
But even those who escaped confinement in the holds of the ships were not safe. De Vere said the hospital sheds on the island

were very miserable, so slightly built as to exclude neither the heat nor the cold. No sufficient care was taken to remove the sick from the sound or to disinfect and clean the beddings. The very straw upon which they had lain was often allowed to become a bed for their successors and I have known many poor families prefer to burrow under heaps of stones, near the shore, rather than accept the shelter of the infected sheds.

Fr Jean Baptiste Antoine Ferland reported that ‘in the greater part of the sheds on Grosse Ile, men, women and children are found huddled together in the same apartment…many who have entered the shed without any serious illness, have died of typhus, which they have caught from their neighbours’.

‘Ghastly yellow looking spectres’

In Ireland, meanwhile, the clearances continued, spurred on by the Gregory clause. Major Denis Mahon of Strokestown, while instructing his agent to evict more than 3,000 tenants, provided an exemplary summary of the landlords’ economic motives: ‘I think the first class for us to send is those of the poorest and worst description, who would be a charge on us for the Poor House or for Outdoor Relief’. The outcome was the first shipload of Mahon’s deportees, whose condition struck Dr Douglas as noteworthy even after weeks of unrelieved horror:

The Virginius sailed from Liverpool, 28 May, with 476 passengers. Fever and dysentery cases came on board this vessel in Liverpool, and deaths occurred before leaving the Mersey. On mustering the passengers for inspection yesterday, it was found that 106 were ill of fever, including nine of the crew, and the large number of 158 had died on the passage, including the first and second officers and seven of the crew, and the master and steward dying, the few that were able to come on deck were ghastly yellow looking spectres, unshaven and hollow cheeked, and, without exception, the worst looking passengers I have ever seen; not more than six or eight were really healthy and able to exert themselves.
As he was writing this report, two more ships commissioned by Mahon arrived. On the Naomi, Douglas said, ‘the filth and dirt in this vessel’s hold creates such an effluvium as to make it difficult to breathe’; 196 of her 421 passengers died before she reached Quebec. The Erin’s Queen sailed with 493 people; 136 died at sea. On arrival at Grosse Ile, the ship’s master had to bribe his crew, at the rate of a sovereign per corpse, to remove the dead from the hold.
As the summer wore on, the dying continued. ‘Six men are constantly employed’, said Douglas, ‘digging large trenches from five to six feet deep, in which the dead are buried.’ So many were interred, two or three deep, and so close to the surface, Douglas had to arrange to bring soil from the mainland to cover the dead. Even so, rats came ashore from the ships to feast on the cadavers.
In early July, Douglas finally addressed the critical problem of congregating the sick and healthy on board the ships. Attempting to prevent the spread of disease by segregating the healthy from the sick, he instituted a form of triage. He set up a tent camp at the eastern end of the island to shelter the healthy. The new hospital area was made permanent by the rapid construction of a dozen prefabricated wooden hospital sheds. By August, the hospital sheds and tents could accommodate some 2,000 sick people, 300 convalescents and as many as 3,500 healthy people. The year-end summary report of public works on the island listed a total of twenty-two hospital sheds.
Unfortunately, the primitive level of medical knowledge was compounded by the sheer size of the task. Despite good intentions, segregation was at best a palliative measure. At worst it exacerbated the situation, spreading the disease even more widely. Fr Bernard O’Reilly told the inquiry he had given the last rites to fifty people, on one July day, among the ‘healthy’ in the east-end tents; twenty-seven deaths among the healthy were recorded on July 31; and a month later the Montreal Gazette reported eighty-eight deaths in one week in the eastern zone.

The quarantine station closes

In September, as the shipping season drew to a close, there were still 14,000 people held in quarantine on board the ships at anchor off Grosse Ile. Twelve hundred of the sick were transferred to the hospitals at the east end of the island on 13 September, to allow Douglas and his staff to fumigate the sheds and tents at the western end. As late as 16 September, the Quebec Mercury reported a large number of dysentery cases among the healthy. In the first three weeks of October, the parish register of St Luke’s church on the island recorded ninety-seven anonymous burials. At the end of October, after the first snowfall of the winter, the final sixty patients on the island were transferred to hospitals at Quebec and Montreal and the Grosse Ile quarantine station closed for the winter.
As early as 8 June, Douglas had warned the Canadians of the imminent danger of the spread of disease:

Out of the 4,000 or 5,000 emigrants who have left this island since Sunday, at least 2,000 will fall sick somewhere before three weeks are over. They ought to have accommodation for 2,000 sick at least at Montreal and Quebec, as all the Cork and Liverpool passengers are half dead from starvation and want before embarking; and the least bowel complaint, which is sure to come with change of food, finishes them without a struggle. I never saw people so indifferent to life; they would continue in the same berth with the dead person until the seamen or captain dragged out the corpse with boat hooks. Good God! what evils will befall the cities wherever they alight. Hot weather will increase the evil. Now give the authorities of Quebec and Montreal fair warning from me. I have not time to write, or should feel it my duty to do so. Public safety requires it.

Later that year, in a work memorably entitled The Ocean Plague, Robert Whyte recalled his journey as a cabin passenger, sailing from Newry. He forecast more deaths, as his fellow passengers ‘wandered over the country, carrying nothing with them but disease, and that but very few of them survived the severity of the succeeding winter, ruined as their constitutions were, I am quite confident’.
‘Those who are healthy, if sent up as hitherto to Montreal, must bring with them the seeds of sickness’, said Fr O’Reilly, ‘while out of the numbers who can leave Montreal for a further destination, the large majority are pre-doomed to expire on the wharves of Kingston or Toronto, and to carry with them whithersoever they direct their steps, the dreadful malady that now hangs over the country like a funeral pall’.
These gloomy predictions were all too accurate. In Montreal, the growing danger of contagion—the death toll reached thirty people a day in June—led to the establishment of a second quarantine station. Hospital sheds and open-sided shelters for the healthy were built at Point St Charles, forming ‘a large square with a court in the centre where the coffins were piled, some empty waiting for the dead, some full awaiting burial’. Twelve years later, when the site of the fever sheds and mass graves was cleared for construction of the Victoria Bridge, the workers—mostly Irish—downed tools and refused to continue until a proper memorial was built. They dredged a huge black stone out of the river and had carved on it the inscription:

To preserve from desecration the remains of 6,000 immigrants who died from ship fever AD 1847-48 this stone is erected by the workmen of Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts employed in the construction of the Victoria Bridge AD 1859.

Canadian generosity

The Montreal experience was repeated as the epidemic swept down the St Lawrence from Quebec to the western end of Lake Ontario. The emaciated, starving, destitute and febrile Irish brought disease and misery with them. They caused alarm and fear but, for the most part, charity outweighed xenophobia in the Canadian response. Indeed, the story of 1847 is as much one of Canadian generosity as it is of Irish suffering. Fever sheds were built, the victims were hastily segregated, and they were tended—tirelessly and heroically—by clergy and laity in each community, but still they died in their thousands.
And as the Irish died, they infected their hosts. At Grosse Ile, two of the seventeen Anglican clergymen died, as did four of the forty-two Catholic priests who served there. Douglas also reported the deaths of thirty-four workers: stewards, nurses, orderlies, cooks, policemen, and carters. The ‘ocean plague’ exacted its price further afield, claiming more victims in Quebec City, Montreal, Kingston and Toronto. Among the nurses of the Order of Grey Nuns, most fell ill and several died. Nine priests including Fr Hudon, Vicar-General of Montreal, died in that city. In November, John Mills, the Mayor of Montreal whose energy and altruism ensured relatively safe and healthy conditions for the famine victims, caught the fever at the sheds and died. The same fate befell Toronto’s first Catholic bishop, Michael Power.


Like other witnesses, Bishop Mountain was particularly touched by the plight of the hundreds of children orphaned by the epidemic. Among the dozens of miserable waifs, a couple particularly caught his attention: a dying child, huddled under a pile of rags in one of the tents; and the body of a little boy who was walking with his friends, sat down to rest under a tree, and died.
The most resonant part of the story is the fate of the 2,000 children orphaned at Grosse Ile. Fr Charles-Félix Cazeau, ‘priest to the Irish’ and future Vicar-General of Quebec, oversaw the childrens’ future. In Quebec and Montreal, Catholic charities took charge of the children and the priests went on the circuit of parishes in Quebec urging the faithful to adopt them. Fr Thomas Cooke of Trois Rivieres wrote that his parishioners were arguing over the right to adopt the orphans. That so many Irish names continue to exist in Quebec, in the francophone population, testifies to astonishing magnanimity, for many of the adopted children were allowed to retain their Irish names.
At the end of the year, Douglas raised a monument at the mass graveyard on Grosse Ile, to mark the sacrifice of the four doctors—Benson, Pinet, Malhiot and Jameson—who ‘died of typhus fever contracted in the faithful discharge of their duty upon the sick’. Dr John Benson is a striking symbol of the whole complex of the epidemic of 1847. He was a sixty year-old physician with experience in the fever hospitals in Ireland, who had been evicted from an estate in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny. He arrived at Grosse Ile on the Wandsworth on 20 May, volunteered to assist Dr Douglas, contracted typhus and died within a week. The monument also bears this inscription:

In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5,424 persons who fleeing from Pestilence and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 found in America but a Grave.

On St Patrick’s Day 1996, Sheila Copps, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Canadian Heritage, announced plans for a National Historic Site at Grosse Ile. ‘The Irish Memorial’ will commemorate the Irish tragedy at the quarantine station in 1847. Its focus will be the mass graves of the Irish famine victims and the only remaining hospital building from 1847, a long wooden shed called the Lazaretto. Equally important, it will ‘pay homage to the welcome, generosity and devotion of the local population’ who comforted the afflicted. The minister’s announcement was the culmination and vindication of a four-year-long campaign to prevent the Parks Service from turning it into a Canadian Ellis Island. In the longer view, it marks a full century of activity by Irish Canadians to assert the importance of Grosse Ile, from the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Hunger in 1897 to President Mary Robinson’s visit in 1994.

Michael Quigley is historian for Action Grosse Ile, the Irish Canadian lobby group.

Further reading:

T. Coleman, Passage to America (London 1972).

D. MacKay, Flight from Famine: the Coming of the Irish to Canada (Toronto 1990).

M. O’Gallagher & R. Dompierre, Eyewitness Grosse Ile 1847 (Quebec 1995)

Robert Whyte’s 1847 Famine Ship Diary (Cork 1994) [reprint of The Ocean Plague (Boston 1847)].


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