The Untold Story

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Black '47: A Summer of Sorrow

by Gerald Keegan

Intoduction by Lorna Reynolds

We have heard frm childhood of the Great Famine of 1847, an event that traumatized a whole nation and the effects of which were still believed to influence Irish character and Irish behavior nearly a century afterwards. We had to read of the emigrant ships and the fever and starvation suffered by the poor souls on board. We knew the statistics- the drop in population frm eight million to four and a half, thousands of emigrants dead on board or on landing, tales of unbelievable rags, misery and poverty left us dazed and after awhile, one must admit, bored with that long-past, imponderable catastrophe. Well fed and energetic ourselves, we are inclined to think that the Great Famine might not have been so great, had not the Irish populace been so passive.

To read Gerald Keegan's account of his famine voyage across the Atlantic is to realize how helpless is to realize how helpless the poor Irish of the day were. It is to travel on one of those emigrant ships, to experience the day to day actuality of moving over the ocean in a sailing ship, open to the hazards of wind and wave. It is to share in the inhuman sufferings of the passengers, crowded together and confined, like animals, to the hold of the vessel, to realize what it would be like to try to survive on mouldy ship biscuits and foul water, to be ill and to have no access even to fresh air, let alone nrising or medicine. The hapless immigrants were lured away by their landlord, Lord Palmerston's remission of rent, the promise of 100 acres and ten shillings on landing in Canada. They left starvation at home, but faced little better on board- and if they did not die on the journey, arrived ill or exhausted and bewildered, unwelcome guests in a country not well enough organized to offer them the relief needed.

Gerald Keegan's own story unfolds like a Greek tragedy. A hedge-schoolmaster, a former student of Maymouth, he decides to emigrate with his uncle and cousins, hastily marries the girl he loves, who has agreed to travel with him; and from the beginning, constitutes himself spokesman and leader of the group. He arouses the animosity of the captain and mate by demanding better conditions and better food for the passengers, thus sealing his own fate. The smouldering enmity simmers for days, interspersed with a sense of comic relief when three old crones steal the tea meant for the cabin, and breaks out into open battle when the mate starts to rope-flog a deck boy who could not execute his orders. Physicially powerful though the mate is, Keegan escapes immediate retaliation because the sailors so hate the mate that they would not lay a finger on his assailant. But the bully exacts a hideous revenge. While anchored off the quarantine island of Grosse Isle, Keegan volunteers to row ashore to help bury the recntly deceased dead. When he returns to the wharf, he finds Aileen, his wife, and all their belongings awaiting them and the ship is on its way to Montreal. Aileen had been told by the mate that Gerald had left a message for her to land.

The rest is the tragic dénoument. Soaked through while she waited, and finding nothing but a flimsy shed to house them, Aileen develops the dreaded fever and dies. Gerald falls into a stupor of grief but is roused by the exhortations of a priest on the island, Father Moylan, who he recognizes and is told he must minister to the sick. He, too, in due course, falls ill of the fever and dies. His Journal was saved for posterity by an uncle, already sttled in Canada, who travelled to the island and bribed his way in and out of the island, some hours before Gerald died.

The tale Gerald has to tell of conditions on Grosse Isle, of the suffering and squalor of the sick, is horrifying. He and Father Moylan blame the Canadian government for inadequate measures and Dr. Douglas, the medical superintendant of the island, for being so hidebound by regulations. But the blame would seem to rest rather on those who sent the emigrants in such great numbers and in so destitute a state to throw themselves on the mercy of a foreign country. The real villans would seem to have been the Irish landlords, like Lord Palmserston, who saw an easy solution to the problem of starving and suffering tenants by packing them off to another continent.

We should remember that at the time the emigration department in Canada was under the control of the British government and that on June 25, 1847, the parliament of Canada had asked for the Queen's intervention. Under the affliction with which this land has been visited and is still being threatened, not to permit the helpless, the starving, the sick and diseased, unequal and unfit as they are to face the hardships of a settler's life, to embark for these shores, which if they reach, the reach in too many instances only to find a grave. Soem weeks earlier, on June 9, 1847, the Archbishop of Quebec, Jospeh Signay, had written to the bishops of Ireland, telling them that "already more than a thousand human beings have been consigned to their eternal rest in the Catholic cemeteries, precursors of thousands who will join them there if the stream of immigration from Ireland continues to flow in the same abundance."

The British North American colonies were at the time still comparitively poor, their political and social organizations as yet in a more or less primitive state. They were unable to imagine the measures necessary to meet the totally unprecedented problem by the invasion of the poverty stricken, disease rideen, panic-struck, lemming like hordes which descended on their shores. Many Canadians caught the disease from their unwelcome visitors and it is no wonder that even the healthy emigrants were often feared and shunned.

As against this normal reluctance must be set the examplary and heroic service of the clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, many of whom volunteered to go Grosse Isle to minister to the sick, at the cost, to some, of their lives. The same can be said of some doctors. But what lifts the spirit in the midst of the general horror of the situation is the spontaneous charity and open-heartedness shown to the poor children orpehned by the catastrophe. They were adopted by the French-Canadian families and brought up as their own children. One instance of this is the enchanting story of the country curé who went to visit Monseigneur Baillargeon, then Curé of Quebec, who had been left with one unadopted child still in his house, and the source of distraction, naturally to the good clergyman. Showing the beautiful boy to his visitor, he told him he had two hundred others like the boy and exhorted him to to get his people to come for them. "Take the child with you", he said, "show him to your people and tell them to come for the others." The next Sunday the child was shown at Mass to the congregation who were told there were 200 more, all the gifts of the Bon Dieu, and that everybody must set off the next day and fetch them." The next day, the story goes, the road was lined with wagons en route for Quebec: the children were fetched and adopted and grew up as the sons and daughters of the compassionate French-Canadian families who had taken them in.

Grosse Isle continued to be a quarantine station; it still is, but now a quarantine station for animals and a restricted district, open only for a month of the year. On August 15, 1909, a national monument, in the form of a huge Celtic cross, set on Telegraph Hill, was unveiled to the memory of the thousands and thousands of famine victims who had lain in unmarked graves since the terrible summer of sorrow in 1847.

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