The Irish came by the tens of thousands in 1847, packed like cordwood below deck in fetid ship holds meant for timber. They were fleeing famine and seeking salvation in the New World. Instead they found death, dying by the thousands at sea, in quarantine near Quebec City and finally in Montreal, victims of disease and neglect.
There were so many corpses, trenches were dug to dispose of the dead in what is now Point St. Charles. Twelve years later, labourers building the Victoria Bridge would uncover the bones of their brethren and insist the remains be protected. To make sure of it, they planted a massive 30-tonne, 10-foot high boulder dredged from the St. Lawrence River over the burial site, and inscribed it, in part: "To preserve from desecration the remains of 6,000 immigrants who died of ship fever."
Sunday marks the 150th anniversary of the planting of the stone, and as they've done every year for more than a century, Montreal's Irish community will march in the hundreds to the Irish Stone on Bridge St., just before the entry to Victoria Bridge, to honour the dead, those who tried to save them, and the descendants who survived and prospered.
"They came for a new life and found a grave," said Don Pidgeon, historian for the United Irish Societies of Montreal for the last 19 years. "We do it for them, and to remember all the Montrealers who risked their lives to help."
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The population of Ireland surged from about 5 million in 1800 to 8 million in 1841. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution robbed many of their livelihoods of sewing, spinning cotton and wool and metal work, forcing them to rely on agriculture in overcrowded territories. Potatoes were the main sustenance for much of the population, one-third of whom lived in one-room shacks with no beds or chimneys.
In 1845, potatoes were struck by a fungal infection that caused half the crop to rot in the earth. In 1846, the blight returned, wiping out almost the entire crop, followed by one of the harshest winters in living memory, and the people starved. With the British government unable (some say unwilling) to provide adequate social assistance, emigration became the only option. Many were forced from their homes by landlords worried about non-paying tenants.
Most would have preferred the well-established promised lands of New York and Boston, but America had set strict standards and fares for passage to the U.S. were too high for the impoverished. But British traders who shipped lumber from Quebec City and St. John's were happy to have emigrants paying a low fare to serve as ballast for their return trips to Canada. Many passage brokers told passengers food would be provided for the 45-day journey, which was untrue.
Meanwhile, a typhus epidemic was raging through Ireland. The disease, marked by severe headaches, high fever, rashes, delirium and death, is passed to humans through lice. Crammed as many as 400 thick in the holds, the Irish were easy prey on vessels that came to be known as coffin ships. An estimated 5,000 died on the trip over in 1847, their corpses flung overboard.
Canadian immigration officials, who had no say in emigration policies determined by the British colonial authorities, were sorely unprepared and underfunded for the deluge of emaciated Irish. At the immigration depot on Grosse Île, an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence 50 kilometres east of Quebec City, the medical officer in charge of the quarantine station prepared beds for 200 invalids, thinking 10,000 emigrants had departed from Britain. That summer, more than 100,000 would flee to Quebec.
By the end of May, there were already 40 ships lined up for three kilometres, awaiting to discharge passengers. The ships kept coming till the river iced over in October.
"I never contemplated the possibility of every vessel arriving with fever as they do now," wrote Dr. George M. Douglas. Of the 427 passengers and crew on one ship, the Agnes, only 150 survived.
The ill overflowed the quarantine stations, lying outside on the grass and sand beaches. Healthy passengers were stuck waiting on the ships for 20 days, a death sentence for many. Bodies were pulled from the holds with hooks and stacked on shore. Between 3,000 and 5,000 died on Grosse Île.
By way of comparison, one chronicler noted that German immigrants arrived on their boats well-fed, healthy and happy.
Overwhelmed health officials started waving many ships with "healthy" passengers on to Montreal.
They disembarked, malnourished and diseased, dying in the streets and on the wharves, begging for water on the steps of churches. Worried about an epidemic, authorities constructed three wooden "fever sheds" 150 feet long and 50 feet wide at Windmill Point, near where Victoria Bridge now stands in Point St. Charles. The sick and dying lay two or three to a bed, side by side with the dead, leaving hundreds of orphans behind. The number of sheds grew to 22. Military cordoned off the area so the sick couldn't escape.
Seeing the ill dying alone, the Grey Nuns went to help, attending to the sick and carrying women and children in their arms from the ships to the ambulances. Thirty of 40 nuns who went to help fell ill, and seven died, writes historian Edgar Andrew Collard. Other nuns took over, but once the surviving Grey Nuns had convalesced, they returned. Priests also came forth, many falling ill after leaning in close to hear the last confessions of the dying.
When a mob of frightened Montrealers threatened to toss the fever sheds into the river, Montreal mayor John Easton Mills quelled the riot, and later went himself to help in the evenings, giving them water and changing their straw bedding. The father of a large family, he died in November.
The Roman Catholic Bishop of Montreal urged French Quebecers, linked to the Irish by their Catholic faith, to help the orphans. Many came from the country to adopt one or two children, accepting them in to their families, in some cases passing their land on to them.
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More than one million died in Ireland of starvation and disease during the great famine; another million and a half emigrated. The country's population has never been as high since.
Grosse Île, site of the largest Irish famine graveyard outside of Ireland, is now known as the Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada.
And in Montreal, on a busy street in an industrial neighbourhood near a Costco superstore sits a rough, uneven 30-tonne stone, blackened with age, fittingly sombre, erected by labourers to ensure the suffering of their countrymen who came in search of a better land not be forgotten.
One hundred and fifty years later, their countrymen will march to the stone once again.
The "Walk to the Stone" organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians begins with a mass at 10:30 a.m. at St. Gabriel's Parish, 2157 Centre St. in Point St. Charles, followed by the walk and a complimentary buffet at the church hall.