The Journal of Gerald Keegan: The Entries from Grosse Isle
26-The weather has been steaming hot for a week, with heavy showers, and fog at night, making our situation worse and spreading infection. There is a stench both in and out of doors. Ships continue to come and the number of sick to grow; a doctor told me there are over 2000. The nurses,both men and women, that come from Quebec are a bad lot. They neglect their duties, smuggle in drink to those of the sick who can pay for it and rob the dying. On this lone island, when everything else is scarce, whiskey can be got by whoever wants it. The greed of the gain overcomes the fear of infection and it is smuggled in by small boats from Quebec. Last night there was an uproar in the camp for the healthy, caused by drunkeness. The military guard is a hurt to the emigrants. Like soldiers everywhere, they have neither morals nor decency. Bridget grows worse and poor Ellen is making a bad recovery, for she exhausts her strength by trying to nurse her sister. Monagahn and Stanhope talk by the hour and their converse has put new heart in them. Hope is better than medicine. Indeed, I have seen scores die from despondency or indifference to life, who, to all appearance, ought to have recovered. The two old enemies are the most cordial friends and will soon be able to leave. They have agreed to go with the survivors of their families to the London District and take up land together. Both are industrious and steady and having buried their senseless hatred will be of mutal help to one another. Both have enough money to start them.
27 - Father Moylan has got back for a few days. There is need for more like him but Irish Priests are few in this part of Canada and our pople want them alive. The ships now arriving report larger mortality than those that came in May. This is due to the heat. The condition of the holds of the ships that come in is unspeakablly revolting. Several buried over a hundred in the ocean, equal to a fifth of the number of their passengers.
July 2- Father Moylan wanted me to go to Montreal as a witness before a committee of enquiry appointed by the Legislature. I have no heart to leave here, and I told him if they wuold not believe him they wuld not believe me. There is no improvemnet in caring for the sick. The callousness of the Canafian government to the sufferings of God's poor on this island I cannot understand. The weather is not settled and beyond the sun being scorchingly hot at midday is as fine as could be wished.
9th - This evening I took a walk to the far side of the island and enjoyed the solitude and the peace of nature. I watched the sun sink behind the hills. I have a feeling my onw sun will soon disappear for I am sad and disheartened beyong all my experience. Dr. Fenwick told me the other day I should leave, that I needed a change. I cannot, indeed will not, for I cherish the secret wish to die where my Aileen left me. A ship has arrived with 31 dead on board; she lost over a fourth of those who embarked on her at Liverpool. Another out of 470 emigrants, dropped 150 into the Atlantic. Sure, tragedies like these ought to direct the eyes of the civilized world to what is happening. My heart is broken at the sight of thousands of my own dear people,men, women and little children, dying for lack of a crust on Canada's shore.
14 - I think the end has come. Tonight my head throbs and my bones are sore. Briget, after hovering a long while between life and death, sank to rest this morning and is buried. Ellen leaves by tomorrow's steamer and will be in Huntingdon in a few days. I gave her a message to uncle. My life has been a failure. May God have pity on me and my poor people. Oh that Aileen were here; that I felt her hand on my forehead.
How Gerald Keegan's Journal Survived
Ellen did in fact make it to her uncle's. Her journet from Grosse Isle to Montreal was another trial among the many tribulations suffered by the Irish emigrants. The steamer to Montreal took 36 hours and when she tried to land, a police officer turned her away. Finally, a Minister came and after reading the address of her uncle, led her to a steamer. From that steamer, she landed at Beauharnois. A Scottish man in the village kindly helped her make it to her uncle's farm. She informed her uncle that Gerald, his sister's only child, was still on the island.
His uncle managed to make it to Quebec and despite dire warnings from people not to go to the death ridden Grosse Isle, he was aided by Bishop Mountain who described Gerald as "one of our best helpers". When he asked if he could take Gerald with him, Dr. Russell replied, "He will go to his death in a few hours."
Records his uncle, "I knelt beside my nephew and put my hand on his forehead. It was burning hot. His lips were going and he was muttering something, which I could not make out. 'Gerald, won't you speak, I'm your uncle, come to take you home' Never a word. I filled a noggin and pressed it to my nephew's lips and wet his face. I watched him for a long while and saw others die and heard the beseechings for water to drink. I attended to those nearby as well as I could and it was when I was coming back with a pail of water I noticed the flush had left my nephew's face. I was bathing his forehead when he opened his eyes and stared at me. 'I'm your uncle, me poor boy; you feel better?'
"May God bless you", says he,"but what made you come to this fearful place?"
"Sure it's nothing; it's little I can do for my sister's child.
He squeazed my hand and closed his eyes and I knew he was praying for me
"Bring me a Priest."
He found a Priest in the next shed, one that was even worse than the one where Gerald lay. Gerald beseeched his uncle to "Take me out of here; ye can carry me. I want to die in God's free air."
"That I will ,says I, "and you'll be home in Huntingdon after three days." Adds his uncle, "he smiled a sorrowfil smile and said nothing. I lifted him in my arms and carried him out of the shed. I was powerful strong and tho' he was tall and broad-shoudered he was wasted to skin and bone. I laod him down in the shade of a tree, for the sun was hot. He didn't look at the river or the hills beyant but fixed his eyes on a spot that I took to be a burying place. "Go back", He whispered, "and bring the bad below my berth". I went and found a woman had already been put in the poor bed I had lifted him out of. I reached for the bag and took it to him. Pointing to a spot on the burying place he told me I would see a grave with a grave with a cross at its head and the name Aileen on it. "Promise me you will buty me beside that grave." His uncle promised him. Gerald pointed to the book and asked his uncle to save it. "Save the book; it will tell to those unborn what Irish men and women have suffered in this summer of sorrow."
His uncle managed to leave the island with two French workmen who sneaked out against the rules at night. After a door was slammed in his face when he searched for food, he walked to Quebec and returned by steamer to Huntingdon.
Gerald Keegan's Journal was suppressed for publication whern later Brother James Mangan wrote a book called The Summer of Sorrow. Of course, the government of Canada in 1895 was still controlled by the Hoome Office in England and they wanted the story of Grosse Isle kept secret! Later, Robert Driscoll met a Francisan Friar at Université de Laval, who had a photocopy of it.
The government of Canada even went so far as to deliberately destroy Grosse Isle by fire.