Summer of Sorrow: Grosse-Île, 1847: Part 4.

The Allegations of Adam Ferrie and the Montreal Immigrant Committee

At the beginning of December, 1847, Adam Ferrie, a member of the Legislative Assembly in Montreal and Chairman of the Montreal Immigrant’ Committee, wrote a ferocious letter to Albert Henry George Grey, the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. The letter was published in pamphlet form and the most damning passages appeared in the press. He claimed that the immigrants had testified that it was the landlords who had sent them off “defenceless and unprotected”. He heaped scorn above all on Temple, saying that his tenants had been enticed on board with promises of food and money that had not been kept. He said that his charitable disposition would not permit him to blame Lord Palmerston himself, because it came naturally to those of his class to be caring, and that it could only be the case “that it was an unauthorised act of worthless and unprincipled hirelings, in whose bosoms every principle of humanity and every germ of mercy had become totally extinct.” He went on to say that “many thousands of these unhappy beings have fallen victims to that cruel system of marine imprisonment”, packed together without sufficient food or drink, and he claimed that it would not have been any worse to have killed them at home than to have sent them to a grave in Canada:

“I must here, my Lord, express my deep regret that men pretending to be Christians, and especially that Britons could be guilty of such barbarity, evidently for the paltry purpose of freeing themselves from the natural and just burden of assisting to support and provide for their own poor. Such an outrage on the claims of humanity, my Lord, might have been committed in the vile and heartless traffic of the slave trade, on which England has set the seal of her just reprobation, and against whose inhumane warfare she has pointed the cannon of her gallant Navy; but that such horrible and disgusting scenes as just described should have been enacted under the very flag which should be a protection to her unfortunate and defenceless subjects is unworthy of England, and throws a dark shade over the bright escutcheon of her well earned fame and glory.”

Adam Ferrie described a meeting of the citizens of St. John, New Brunswick, which adopted a resolution “to ship back to Ireland the decrepit, aged, and naked children and women brought to that port” who were tenants that Temple (Lord Palmerston) had sent out from Sligo. Ferrie expressed his sadness that more than five thousand of the hundred thousand dispatched had died on route and more than twenty thousand after reaching Canada.
Soon afterwards, the Montreal Immigrant Committee published its annual report, continuing the attacks on Temple and focusing on the the wretched plight of his passengers:

“They came out in the Robert Watson. Garments were, indeed, given out by the Captain; but in such a stinted measure that it seemed but solemn mockery – for how did they land here in the month of November? Men without coats, and with but partial representatives for pantaloons. Women without shawls, or cloaks, or bonnets, or stockings, or shoes – and, children with hardly a whole covering on their backs; to say nothing of their bare heads and arms, and feet. One woman was in such a state of nudity on arriving here, that a sheet was thrown over her to enable her to reach the Sheds. These were the tenants of a man who sits in the Cabinet of Her Majesty, of a sovereign whose ‘dominions encircle the globe, upon some portions of which the sun never sets, and over which the drum-beat is heard in one continuous sound throughout the twenty four hours.’”

Ferrie’s letter shook the authorities in London and the landlords and their agents went to great pains to answer it. They did not refer at all to the report of the Immigrant Committee. It is not without irony that on the very day that a rebuttal of Ferrie’s allegations and a fictitious account of the provision of food on the ships was being put before the Legislative Assembly in Montreal, the 21st of March, 1848, Henry John Temple was giving evidence to the Select Committee on the Slave Trade in London. He was claiming that slaves were much better off on British ships than on ships of other nations because of the William Dolbin Act that laid down strict conditions for food and medical attention. He did not mention that the provisions of the Passenger Act under which his own tenants had been sent to North America in 1847 were considerably worse.
As is well known, Major Denis Mahon, whose tenants had been sent out in the Virginius, was killed, and Henry John Temple succeeded in coming to power as Prime Minister of England; and within a few years officials were publicly admitting that the food on the ships of 1847 had been scarce and inferior.

The Legacy of the Great Famine

Hundreds of thousands of Irish people came to Québec during the Great Famine and they left their mark on Canada. By the time that the colonies were united in 1867 the Irish were the second most numerous ethnic group, after the French. The dreadful events of the quarantine became an enduring memory. The inhabitants along the St. Lawrence christened Grosse-Île “L’Île des Irlandais”, ‘The Isle of the Irish” and that name survives to this day. In Québec, most of the Irish joined the French-speaking community and some of the surnames gradually changed. “Moran” became “Morin” and “Sullivan” became “Sylvain”. Most of the orphaned children – a thousand at Grosse-Île and a similar number in Montreal – were adopted by French families. And, as part of the legacy of the Great Famine, Irish music forms the basis of the traditional music of Québec.
As has been mentioned previously, a large crowd of people gathered on Grosse-Île on the 15th of August, 1909 – around eight thousand in all – for the unveiling of the Celtic cross that had been erected on a hill by the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Speeches were delivered in English, French and Irish. The story of the Great Famine and of the quarantine was related. There were political speeches too which linked ancient injustices with the state of Ireland at the time.

The Canadian Government’s Plans for Grosse-Île

Eighty years on Grosse-Île was in the care of Parks Canada, a government department which looks after parks and historic sites of national importance. In 1992, as part of a plan to foster tourism, they published plans to develop Grosse-Île as a National Historical Site. As a theme they proposed “Canada: Land of Welcome and Hope”. They were considerably taken aback when, during public hearings on the matter, the Irish people of Québec spoke out vigorously against their plans. Parks Canada had declared in their published proposals that in the development “there should not be too much emphasis on the tragic aspects of the history of Grosse-Île.” The Irish had felt to the quick this contempt for the suffering and pain of their compatriots. Further hearings were called for and from coast to coast in Canada the response was the same. More than two hundred submissions were made at the hearings, more than twenty four thousand people signed petitions and upwards of a thousand letters were written opposing the plans.

The Visit by the President of Ireland

The future of Grosse-Île still (1995) hangs in the balance. However, the visit of Mary Robinson, President of Ireland, to the quarantine island on the 21st of August, 1994, was a morale boost and a source of pride to the Irish overseas. Her coming marked a turning point in the story of Grosse-Île and was an enduring event in Ireland’s history. She began her address as follows:

“Islands possess their own particular beauty and Grosse-Île is no exception. But Grosse-Île – Oileán na nGael – L’Île des Irlandais – is special. I believe that even those coming to this beautiful island, knowing nothing of the tragedy which occurred here, would sense its difference. I am certain that no one knowing the story could remain unaffected.
“This is a hallowed place.”
Then, speaking in Irish, she went on:

“There is a feeling of dignity about this place even if it be the dignity of grief. It is right and it is proper that we should commemorate our own people who lie beneath this clay. It is worth calling to mind the awful conditions which laid low their relatives and their friends in this place. They overcame all obstacles. They grappled with life. They grew and they prospered. Their descendants are flourishing in Canada. Those of Irish stock are of the warp and woof of Canadian society. They have left a not inconsiderable mark on every aspect of life. It is when we remember the adverse conditions of their time that we really appreciate their achievement. We have good reasons indeed for the national pride that we feel.”

The President paid tribute on her own behalf and on behalf of Ireland to those who had come to the aid of the Irish in their hour of need quoting the words of Máirtín Ó Direáin (1910 - 1988), a poet from the Aran Islands:

Maireann a gcuimhne fós i m’aigne
Is mairfidh cinnte go dté mé i dtalamh.
(“Their memory is in my mind still
And will surely remain till I go into the clay”.)

She then spoke of the famine and suffering in our own day in various countries, offering to her hearers a vision of compassion and recommending an active participation in alleviating the distress.

From time to time, events take place of a nature so profound that the places in which they occur are changed for ever. Such was the case of Grosse-Île at the time of the Great Famine.

©: Pádraig Breandán Ó Laighin, lectured in Quábec for a number of years. He now lives in Dublin.

This essay, one of a series to mark the Great Famine anniversary, was originally broadcast in Irish on Raidió na Gaeltachta in 1995. It was later published, along with the texts of th0e other lectures in the series, in the book, Gnéithe den Ghorta (‘Aspects of the Famine’), edited by Cathal Póirtéir, which was published by Coiscéim (Dublin) in 1995.
We are very grateful to the author and his publisher for permission to publish it in our own translation and to the author for providing the original English texts of all the passages quoted.
We are also indebted to Rod Eley of Trinity College, Dublin, for permission to make use of illustrations published with an article by Michael Quigley of Hamilton, Ontario, called Grosse Ile - Canada’s Island Famine Memorial in the Summer 1997 edition of History Ireland.
The original Irish version of the Pádraig Breandán Ó Laighin article contains extensive notes and references, which are omitted from our version due to lack of space.

Summer of Sorrow – Part 1

Summer of Sorrow – Part 2

Summer of Sorrow – Part 3

President Mary Robinson at Grosse Île, August, 1994.

The dead Irish of the Rideau Canal, Canada.

Published in
The Green Dragon No 6, Spring 1998