Irish Heritage Quebec visits Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site

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Photo: John O’Connor

Members of Irish Heritage Quebec gather around the large Celtic cross that was erected on Grosse Île in 1909.

Twenty-two members of Irish Heritage Quebec (IHQ) went on an excursion to Grosse Île on Saturday, August 5. After visiting the great stone cross, we went to the newer memorial where the names of those who died on the island are etched in glass. We later took the trolley tour to the lazaretto and finally visited the immigrant reception area. We were thankful that the rain held off until we were in transit back to Berthier-sur-Mer.

At the great cross, IHQ president Joe Lonergan delivered the following speech:
“On behalf of Irish Heritage Quebec, I thank you all for being here today 170 years after the Tragedy of 1847. We are here to remember thousands of Irish immigrants buried on this little piece of land they call Grosse Île. We remember as well over 5,000 that perished at sea en route to Grosse Île. Finally and equally important, we remember the tens of thousands who passed through here; the survivors who went on to settle in what would become Canada and in the United States. It was those survivors, our ancestors, and their descendants who saw to the erection of this great stone cross at which we gather.

“If you left Ireland 170 years ago in 1847 you had a 20 per cent chance of not being alive in 1848. The lost are buried in mass graves here on Grosse Île, in Quebec City, Montreal and points west as well as in the Atlantic Ocean. The context of the tragedy of Grosse Île was the greater horror of An Gorta Mor or the Great Hunger in Ireland, which lasted from 1845 to 1852. It led to a massive emigration that continued to 1855.

“The Gaelic inscription on this side of the monument refers to that emigration and reads, ‘Thousands of the children of the Gael were lost on this island while fleeing from foreign tyrannical laws and an artificial famine in the years 1847-1848. God bless them. This stone was erected to their memory and in honor of them by the Gaels of America. God Save Ireland!’

“The term ‘artificial’ reflects the awareness of the author of those lines that while over a million and a half perished from starvation, the British government’s military and constabulary served as guard and escort as thousands of tons of food were exported from Ireland. The Earl of Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, confided to the Prime Minister John Russell at the end of 1847 that, ‘no distress would have occurred if the exportation of Irish grain had been prohibited.’

“Nothing changed, the exportation of food continued as the people starved and laws were passed that led to mass evictions and emigration.

“All this saw the reduction of Ireland’s population by half of what it could have been expected to be by 1851. Within a decade there arose a determination among the Irish people who remained in Ireland and among its diaspora to see Ireland free and ultimately separate from the British Empire. It was by such as held these aspirations that this monument was erected. They put their shoulder to the Irish struggle for Home Rule and ultimately the struggle for independence as a republic.

“We remember and honour those who lie here in mass graves and we remember and honour those who survived and struggled to insure that such a calamity would not be allowed to be visited upon the Irish people again. Thank you all for being here, for listening and remembering.”