Émile Nelligan (1879 – 1941)

One of the most interesting of Canadian poets is Émile Nelligan (1879 – 1941). His father, David Nelligan emigrated with his parents from Dublin in the 1850s to a new life in Montreal. David did well at school and eventually entered the service of the Canadian Post Office in his adopted city where he was to carve out a successful middle-class career. He married Émilie Hudon, a member of one of the old families of the city, Catholic but French‑speaking. Their first child, Émile, was born on Christmas Eve, 1879. He was baptised on Christmas Day in Montreal’s ‘Irish church’, St. Patrick’s. The family was completed by the birth of two girls, Éva in 1881 and Gertrude in 1882.

David had high hopes for his son and expected him to achieve success in the professions or business. He was to be bitterly disappointed. Though required and able to use French in the course of his work, he let it be known that he would not tolerate anyone, not even his wife and children, speaking French while he was at home.

This had the result of pushing Émile very close to his mother. Her love for music, her intense Catholicism, her French language, all were to be formative, perhaps even fateful influences.

And so, although he read English literature extensively, including the American, Edgar Alan Poe (1809 – 1849), and the Irishman, Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852), when he began to write poetry at the age of fifteen he opted for French.

David Nelligan’s outright disapproval led in the end to a complete rift between Irish father and Canadian son but he always enjoyed his mother’s understanding and support.

He began to make friends outside the home. One of the most significant was a priest, Fr. Eugène Seers (see ‘Note’ below), who befriended the lonely youngster during an event in a church hall. This scholarly man encouraged Émile to continue writing. It was Fr. Seers who, using the pen‑name ‘Louis Dantin’, edited the first and still the most influential collection of Émile’s poems, ‘Émile Nelligan et son oeuvre’ (‘Émile Nelligan and his work’ ), which was published in 1904. The bleak opening words of the ‘Introduction’, “Émile Nelligan est mort” (“Émile Nelligan is dead”), retain their chilling force to this day.

One of his last great poems, ‘Le Romance du Vin’ (‘The Romance of Wine’), written and read in public to tumultuous applause in May 1899, coincided with a rare alliance between the French and the Irish in Montreal during a debate in that city as the prim Anglo‑Canadians campaigned for abolition or at least severe restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol. However, his thirty‑six lines of bubbly celebration of the joys of wine end with one line of anxious foreboding :

Les cloches ont chanté; le vent du soir odore...
Et pendant que le vin ruisselle à joyeux flots,
Je suis gai, si gai, dans mon rire sonore,
Oh ! si gai, que j'ai peur d'éclater en sanglots!

The bells have rung; the wind of evening is scented…
And as the wine gushes out in joyful streams,
I am glad, so glad, as I laugh aloud,
Oh! so glad, that I am afraid I will burst into tears!

Tragically, but perhaps not surprisingly, this highly intelligent, sensitive and literary young man, torn between two languages, two cultures and two parents, lurched into what may have been schizophrenia (the word was not used at the time). Diagnosed in August 1899, he entered the first of two psychiatric hospitals. He would never be cured.

During his four years as a teenage poet he had produced about 170 poems. He is now discussed, studied, and honoured as the most important poet of Quebec and as one of Canada’s most interesting and significant writers. Paul Wyczynski, a specialist in the study of Nelligan, tells us that today the poet benefits from the recognition of society having first endured its ingratitude :

The interest in Nelligan grows by the year. He is becoming closer and closer to those who study his life and work. Above all he fascinates young people who look on him with a devoted admiration which other writers can only envy.

The life of Émile Nelligan makes an astonishing and poignant page in the story of the Irish diaspora.

‘Le Vaisseau D’Or’, written in that final summer of 1899, has become one of the most quoted and anthologised of his output.

To the Irish reader this poem is of particular interest. It may possibly be read as reflecting the shipwreck of the Irish nation in the abyss of the Great Famine which had forced its author’s father and grandparents into exile. It may also be read as a comment on the shipwreck of so many individual Irish lives in coffin ships, quarantine stations and fever hospitals. What is certain is that it confronts his own fate as a writer and human being with a tragic realism reminiscent of the Gaelic poetry his Irish ancestors would have known :

Le Vaisseau D’Or

Ce fut un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif :
Ses m‚ts touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues ;
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues,
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif.

Mais vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène,
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil.

Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes,
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés.

Que rest‑t‑il de lui dans la tempÍte brève?
Qu’est devenu mon cœur, navire d0éserté?
Hélas ! Il a sombré dans l’abÓme du RÍve!

The Ship of Gold

It was a great ship made out of solid gold:
Across the uncharted seas its masts touched the skies;
The Goddess of Love, with hair streaming and flesh naked,
Flaunted herself on the prow to the blazing sun.

Then one night it struck the great reef
In that treacherous ocean where the Siren sang,
And the horrible shipwreck cast its keel down
To the depths of the abyss, an unchanging coffin.

It was a Ship of Gold whose diaphanous sides
Revealed treasures that those profane mariners,
Loathing, Hate, and Madness, disputed among themselves.

What remains of it in the brief tempest?
What has become of my heart, deserted ship?
Alas! It has foundered in the depths of the Dream!

With a strange poetic vision the early lines of the poem, ‘The Music‑Makers’ by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844 – 1881, born in London of Irish parents), which are quoted in full by Tim Pat Coogan at the beginning of his warm and sympathetic study of the Irish diaspora, Wherever Green is Worn (Hutchinson, 2000), reflect the life and poetry of the Irish‑Canadian Émile Nelligan :

We are the music‑makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea‑breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams:
World‑losers and world‑forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams. . .

Émile Nelligan’s remarkable life came to an end on 18 November 1941 as the world shuddered to the monstrous sound of the guns.


Fr.Seers had another (and very human) side to him. Just as his book was about to go to press, the revelation that he was having an affair led to his hasty exit across the 48th parallel into the USA. Émile’s mother then entrusted the task of getting the book published to another of his friends, Charles Gill.


The sixtieth anniversary of the death of Émile Nelligan was remembered in Cardiff at the Cardiff University RC Chaplaincy on Thursday 15 November 2001. The programme was as follows :

7.00 pm, Memorial Mass; Celebrant: Father John Owen, Chaplain.

First Reading: Madame Claude Rapport, Honorary Consul of France in Cardiff: Isaiah 25: 4 – 9 (read in French and in English).

Second Reading: Monsieur Denis Turcotte, Communications and Public Affairs Counsellor at the Quebec Government Office in London: 1 Corinthians 2: 4 – 16 (read in French and in English).

The Gospel of the Mass was: John 16: 20 – 22.

The sermon was preached by the Chaplain.

During the distribution of Holy Communion the ‘Ave Verum’ was sung in its Gregorian Chant version by a section of the choir from St. Mary of the Angels, Canton. Cardiff.


At 7.45 pm the Mass was followed by a Wake which began formally in accordance with the following programme:

1: John Sweeney, Chairman, Wales Famine Forum: Introduction.

2. Dr. Harri Pritchard‑Jones: ‘Émile Nelligan – a painful disjuncture’.
Doctor, psychiatrist, writer, broadcaster, a native Welsh speaker, fluent in French and a hibernophile to boot, Harri Pritchard‑Jones spoke about the historical, cultural, linguistic, social and linguistic context and conflicts which led to Émile's success as a writer and to his mental and emotional collapse.

3. Steve O’Regan, whose father was from Kinsale, is President of the Cardiff‑based Société Franco‑Britannique and also a fluent speaker of Welsh. He gave a brief summary in English of the much longer lecture on Émile he delivered in French during the meeting of the Société on Saturday 17 November.

4. Jim Carroll, Consul General of Ireland in Wales, read the poem, ‘La Vierge noire’ / ‘The Dark Maiden’, in French and in English.

5. Madame Claude Rapport, Honorary Consul of France in Cardiff, read the poem, ‘Le Vaisseau d’Or’ / ‘The Golden Ship’, in French and in English.

6. Monsieur Denis Turcotte, Communications and Public Affairs Counsellor at the Quebec Government Office in London delivered a short talk on Nelligan, ‘Nelligan – a view from the inside’ (see ‘Note 1’ below).

7. John Sweeney, Chairman, The Wales Famine Forum, presented Monsieur Turcotte with an Illuminated Address in appreciation of the help given in the late 1840s by the people of Quebec to famine refugees from Ireland (see ‘Note 2’ below).

Some weeks later, John Sweeney received a letter from Monsieur Daniel Audet, Director General of the Quebec Government’s London office, which says all that needed to be said (see ‘Note 3’ below).

8. Hywel Davies: ‘A cultural initiative by MIND Cymru’. Hywel Davies, on behalf of MIND Cymru, the charity dealing with people who are mentally ill or mentally disabled, spoke of how the organisation is working towards providing opportunities for the development of the artistic and creative abilities of its clients.

9. ‘Les Angéliques’ / ‘Evening Bells’ was read in French by Loreto Morgan, a member of the public, and then in English by Tom McGarry, President, Cardiff University Students Union.

10. Dr. Frank Trombley from California, Lecturer, Cardiff University Dept. of Theology and Religious Studies, read ‘Le Romance du Vin’ / The Romance of Wine’ in French and in English.

11. Leonard Ambourski, a student at the University, read ‘Rondel à ma Pipe’ / ‘Roundel to My Pipe’ in French and in English.

12. The poem ‘Rhythms in the Evening’ was read by Matthew Culpin, a student at the university, in an English translation. Then Anke Teresa, a music student from Frankfurt in Germany, sang the original French version, ‘Rhythmes du Soir’, in a setting by André Gagnon (1942 —), the Quebec pianist and composer. Anke was asked to repeat this several times during the evening.


Émile Nelligan – The Quest for Identity

One may try to argue that languages are divisive forces, frontiers between the minds, barriers for the hearts. That languages prevent mankind from sharing a common space, from participating to the same reality, thus condemning multitudes of speakers to isolation, if not oblivion. Yet, the world‑wide domination of the English language has been accompanied with an astounding renaissance of the lesser‑used languages and a movement of affirmation for universal languages such as French, Spanish or Italian. For languages are not mere vehicles of a daily reality, computer‑generated translations for domestic markets, obstacles blocking the way to globalisation; language is the very definition of one’s own identity.

Émile Nelligan’s quest for identity is the story of a struggle, the tragedy of a life torn between his French‑speaking mother and his Irish‑born father, the unashamed desire of being true to oneself. From the moment …mile Nelligan chose his mother’s language over his father’s to the dreadful day when his father signed his internment papers, the poet had effectively locked himself into a battle he was bound to loose. Choosing identity over anonymity was to prove fatal for this feverish young man.

Nelligan’s life is well documented, although conspicuously silent – at least for French‑speaking Quebeckers – on the poet’s estrangement from his Irish roots. May I say that I find it both unfortunate and unfair, and to both his father and his mother. From my own experience as a young student getting acquainted with Nelligan’s poetry, I was totally unaware of his Irish descent. His name was never pronounced Nelligan : he was Émile Nelliga’. There are reasons for that, historical and sociological.

In 1856, David Nelligan came to a country that was English‑speaking to him. Exogamous marriages were relatively rare at the time, religious differences preventing those who called themselves “Canadiens” and “Canadiennes” back then from entering matrimony with people who were not far from being still seen as the enemies. There was, of course, a notable exception: the Roman Catholic Irish who, at the time of the Great Famine, flocked to more hospitable shores. The Grosse‑Île Memorial in Québec is a testimony to their terrible plight, their indomitable courage.

French‑speaking Quebeckers are still very proud of the warm welcome they extended to those in need of a new life. Children were adopted by French‑speaking families who made sure that these orphans were taught English. Still today, one can experience the profound influence of this reluctant immigration on Québec’s life. Three Québec premiers come from the Johnson family, Union Nationale: Daniel, Parti Québécois: Pierre-Marc and Liberal Party: Daniel. The Editor of the nationalist paper ‘Le Devoir’, and later leader of the Québec Liberal Party, was Claude Ryan.

On a more personal note, I come from a small village, south of Québec City, Saint‑Patrice (Saint Patrick) de Beaurivage ; I still own a country home on Armagh Road at the junction of Belfast and Gosford! Father O’Reilly was Saint Patrick’s priest for more than forty years, only to be succeeded by Father James T. Cantin. The Mayoress is Marlene Demers, my cousin!

Émile Nelligan’s life and work remind us of a personal tragedy, his troubled and hyper‑sensitive mind battling against the trivialities of life at home. One cannot but think that his sense of belonging would have been easier found, had he not been made to choose between his mother and his father. One may selfishly add that beauty born in torments would have eluded us. But, let us hear the poet :

La Passante

Hier, j’ai vu passer, comme une ombre qu’on plaint,
En un grand parc obscur, une femme voilée :
Funèbre et singulière, elle s’en est allée,
Recelant sa fierté sous son masque opalin.

Et rien que d’un regard, par ce soir cristallin,
J’eus deviné bientôt sa douleur refoulée ;
Puis elle disparut en quelque noire allée
Propice au deuil profond dont son cœur était plein.

Ma jeunesse est pareille à la pauvre passante :
Beaucoup la croiseront ici‑bas dans la sente
Où la vie à la tombe âprement nous conduit ;

Tous la verront passer, feuille sèche à la brise
Qui tourbillonne, tombe et se fane en la nuit ;
Mais nul ne l’aimera, nul ne l’aura comprise.

A Woman Passing By

A woman in a veil. In the darkening park
Ghostlike she passed before me yesterday.
Mournful and singular she moved away
Hiding her pride beneath an opal mask.

One look from her was all I had to ask
To guess the grief that secret in her lay.
And then she vanished down a shadowy way
That seemed to match her mourning, dark to dark.

Compare my youth to that poor passer-by.
Many will meet it here, where joylessly
Life leads us down the pathway to the tomb;

All see it pass, like a leaf in the wind
That twists and falls and withers in the gloom:
But none will love it, none will understand.

Translation © : P.F.Widdows, ‘Émile Nelligan, Selected Poems’, Guernica, Toronto / New York, 1995.

Text of this address ©: Denis Turcotte, November 2001.



Nous Vous Remercions

En hommage et à la mémoire de tous ceux du Québec, laïcs et religieux,catholiques et protestants, francophones et anglophones, qui en 1847 ont accueilli et soigné les Irlandais malades et indigents quand ils sont arrivés à l'estuaire du Saint‑Laurent, et qui ont enterré leurs morts et donné un sanctuaire, un foyer et un avenir aux orphelins et autres survivants. Aussi à John Mill, Maire de Montréal, qui est mort d’une maladie contractée lors qu’il travaillait dans les baraques‑hôpitaux avec les Irlandais frappés par la fièvre.

We Thank You

In tribute to and in memory of all those people in Quebec, lay and religious, Catholic and Protestant, French‑speaking and English‑speaking, who in 1847 welcomed and cared for the sick and destitute Irish as they arrived in the estuary of the St. Lawrence River, who buried their dead and who gave sanctuary, homes and a future to the orphaned children and other survivors. Also to John Mill, Mayor of Montreal, who died from illness contracted when working with the fever‑stricken Irish in the hospital sheds.

©: The Wales Famine Forum, November 2001.


Dear Mr. John Sweeney,
I was delighted to learn of the warm tribute you paid to Québec and its people in Cardiff on 15 November on the occasion of a celebration to mark the life and work of Émile Nelligan.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Quebeckers welcomed Irish people and cared for them at times of great uncertainty and duress. This reluctant immigration has nevertheless left a remarkable imprint on Québec society which has thus become more diverse and consequently greatly enriched. It is a supreme irony that, after so much suffering in body and soul. these newcomers went on to succeed in all their undertakings, be they individual or collective.

I am aware that many Irish people were offered hospitality and comfort in countries closer to home, most notably in Wales. The very strong Irish community and its Welsh connection are ample testimony to the resilience of your forebears.

Thank you, dear Mr. Sweeney, and on behalf of the Québec Government, may I send my greetings to the Irish people in Wales, and wherever faith and misfortune might have brought them.

Kind regards,

Daniel Audet,
The Delegate General,
Office of the Government of Québec,
17 December, 2001.


Let us Irish continue to remember Émile Nelligan. He was after all, in so many ways, one of us.

The above is a very slightly amended version of an article published in The Green Dragon No 10, Spring 2002.

Alt sa Ghaeilge / an article in Irish.

Praise for Nelligan from young English‑speaking Canada

The story goes on...

In March 2010 Opéra de Montréal staged ‘Nelligan’, a revival of the 1990 musical tribute to the poet.

It get’s my Irish up...

An Irish‑Canadian looks at this Opéra de Montréal production as Saint Patrick’s Day 2010 approaches.

President Mary Robinson at Grosse Île, Quebec, August, 1994.

What happened at Grosse Île in 1847.

The dead Irish of the Rideau Canal (Kingston to Ottawa).