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A Candle at Solstice: Great Irish Famine Remembrance


Joint Press Release

A Candle at Solstice: Great Irish Famine Remembrance

The National Famine Museum in association with the Embassy of Ireland in Ottawa

21 December 4pm


The National Famine Museum and the Embassy of Ireland in Ottawa will light candles on the Winter Solstice, 21 December at sunset (4pm) at sites of significance in Ireland and Canada in remembrance of victims of the Great Irish Famine and in commemoration of those who came to their aid.

Ambassador to Canada, Eamonn McKee, and Director of the National Famine Museum, Caroilin Callery, said, “there is a universal message in our simple gesture this Winter Solstice. That those strangers on our shores in need find hope in our compassion and a new future in the opportunities that we offer them.”

Members of the public are welcome to join us. The sites of significance are listed below. 

Ambassador McKee noted that, “traditionally in Ireland, the Winter Solstice is a symbolic moment of remembrance and renewal. From the time of Newgrange five thousand years ago to today, we mark the shortest day of the year as an end and a beginning. Many people recall lost loved ones at this time of year. We light a candle as an act of remembrance and a symbol of hope.” 

Caroilin Callery said, “we light the candle in a spirit of remembrance but also of hope. Those who fled Ireland, like the tenants of Strokestown House, were met with compassion and humanity, notably in Canada and in the United States. They and later generations added to the Irish diaspora, now including some 70 million around the world with Irish ancestry.”

Ambassador McKee noted that “at risk to their own lives, the humanitarian actions of Canadians demonstrated the power of compassion extended to the stranger on the shore. Their compassion created hope where there was despair. Opportunities in Canada offered the new arrivals the prospect of decent lives and success. Canada’s humanitarian response in 1847 remains an inspiration to us today, a universal message of the power of kindness in transforming the lives of all those in need, those searching for hope, opportunity, and the promise of a brighter tomorrow.”

Ambassador McKee noted that since then, “Ireland too has prospered, as we can see in this, the hundredth year of our Independence. Our population has reached 5.1 million, or including the 1.89 million in Northern Ireland, almost 7 million. Our society embraces the future with confidence. We remember the victims of the Famine but also the survivors, those who had the resilience to endure and prosper, whether at home or abroad.”

Ambassador McKee paid tribute to Galway-born Breda Kelly who is part of the Embassy team and her brother. “Breda approached me with this idea and I immediately recognised how powerful it was.”

Ms Kelly recalled: “It was an idea that both my brother Gerry and I had as we stood at the top of that hill in Macdonald Garden Park in the centre of Ottawa, one of the few but extremely cold days in November. The ground was covered in snow and the wind was howling across the park. There was a couple with their two little children, playing and sliding down the hill oblivious to the history, and the plight of the lost souls buried beneath our feet. We were both moved to tears in that moment. Our family always light a candle on the graves of our family members over Christmas, and we thought it would be nice to remember these souls this Christmas too.”

Candles of remembrance will be lit at the following locations:

  • The National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park: Co. Roscommon in Ireland at the Glass Memorial Wall. This is the Trailhead of the National Famine Way starting point of the 1,490 Famine Emigrants on their final journey on Irish soil before those who survived the Famine Ships sailed into Grosse Ile, Quebec their last gathering place before they were dispersed across Canada and beyond.
  • Black Rock, Montreal: The plaque at this mass grave reads: “In 1847, six thousand Irish people, seeking refuge in a new land, died here of typhus and other ailments, and were buried in mass graves. The stone marks approximately the centre of the cemetery. Immediately to the east of here, twenty-two hospital sheds had been constructed. Many Grey Nuns, several priests, and also John Easton Mills, Mayor of the City of Montreal, who selflessly came to care for the sick, themselves contracted typhus and died. May they rest in peace.”
  • Macdonald Gardens Park, Ottawa: Here lie the remains of some three hundred victims of the Famine. They were among the thousands of Famine refugees who arrived in Bytown in the summer of 1847 in search of shelter and support from relatives who had settled in the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys. The refugees arriving in Bytown (as Ottawa was known until 1855) were met with heroic humanity by Sister Bruyère and the Sisters of Charity, their lay assistants, the Oblate fathers, Dr Van Courtland, other clergy, and countless others who cared for the tide of the sick and dying. Few of the remains of those buried in the Catholic graveyard were transferred to Beechwood and Notre Dame Cemeteries when those were established in the 1870s. Their final resting place was therefore largely forgotten by the time the site was levelled to create Macdonald Gardens Park. The first commemoration of Ottawa’s Irish Famine victims was held on 4 August 2022 under the auspices of the Embassy of Ireland with the support of local historian Michael McBane.
  • Ireland Park, Toronto: The Canada Ireland Foundation completed the park in 2007, creating a space to commemorate those who made the difficult journey to Canada to escape the famine. The Park includes a series of sculptures by Rowan Gillespie, ‘Arrivals’, as well as engravings of 675 known names of those who died shortly after their arrival in Toronto.


Background: Famine and the Transatlantic Passage

By 1847, the blight causing the failure of the potato crop in Ireland had spread nationwide. It was the third successive crop failure. The withdrawal of welfare and other supports by the British Government, combined with the continuation of food exports in deference to Britain’s defence of the market economy, caused widespread panic that mass starvation was inevitable. The exodus began, with emigrants more likely to be Catholic, Irish speaking and illiterate.  

From a population of eight million at the outset of the Famine, the population of Ireland by 1861 had dropped by three million - with one third of those having died of famine and related disease - and the remainder having emigrated. The flight from the land and generations of emigration precipitated an unparalleled decline in the population, reduced from 8 million to less than half that by 1911.

The existence since the Napoleonic Wars of shipping lanes transporting timber from British North America to Europe, including Ireland, facilitated the transit across the Atlantic. The exodus of Irish meant that they could substitute for the ballast stone normally required, with the added benefit of collecting a return payment. 

The British Government, in control of immigration policy, facilitated the exodus by failing to apply few if any conditions for the passage. Motivated by profits, many though not all ship owners, agents, and captains added decks to cram as many passengers on board and to minimize the cost of provisions. Motivated by the desire for more profitable pasturage, landlords often subsidized the removal of their tenants to Canada and elsewhere. 

According to Professor Mark McGowan, the leading historian of these events, 106,812 men, women and children, mostly Catholic, departed for Canada. Conditions on board were so frightful they earned the moniker ‘coffin ships’. On average, 26 passengers died on each voyage. Some 6,116 died on the passage across the Atlantic.

After a passage of as little as four, or as many as eight, weeks across the Atlantic, the refugees arrived in pitiable state. If typhus had broken out on board, known as ship’s fever, the ship had to call in at the quarantine station at Grosse Ile. Otherwise, ships could move up the St Lawrence to Quebec, Montreal and, often on barges, to Kingston and Toronto. Inevitably, typhus broke out repeatedly along the route.

Of those in quarantine and in hospital, 11,329 died. Some forty French and Irish priests helped, many contracting typhus and a number dying. McGowan writes that by the end of 1847, “one fifth of those who left Famine conditions in Ireland for safe haven in British North America were dead. That the fever epidemic also carried off doctors, clergy, orderlies, and nurses who had tended to the sick and dying only deepened the extent of the tragedy.”

The scale of the humanitarian disaster can be gauged by the fact that 441 ships landed at Quebec, discharging 80,000 emigrants, mostly Irish. 

Almost 17,000 migrants made their way to New Brunswick in 1847, most of them to the port of Saint John. 600 Irish refugees died and were buried at the quarantine station of Partridge Island. Others died at Middle Island, Miramichi, and at St. Andrew's.

In Montreal, of the 36 Sisters of Charity tending to the Irish, 28 contracted typhus, seven of them dying. Its Mayor, John Easton Mills, organised relief, caught typhus and died. Toronto was a city designed for 20,000 people yet over 38,560 arrived there, most of them Irish famine refugees. Bishop Michael Power of Toronto, born in Halifax to Irish parents, died ministering to the sick. Dr. George Grasett and head nurse Susan Bailey, among the first health care workers responding to the crisis in Toronto, also contracted typhus and died.

Common or mass graves of the Famine victims are located all along the St Lawrence River: 5,424 are buried at Grosse Île, 3,300 in Montreal, 1,124 in Toronto, and in Kingston 700 died in its fever sheds and were buried nearby. Graves such as those found in Cornwall contain fifty remains and other sites remain to be identified.


Bytown-Ottawa, 1847 and Macdonald Gardens Park

Packed on board river steamers and on barges towed behind them, exposed to the elements, thousands of Famine refugees were transported along the Ottawa River or up the Rideau Canal to Bytown. The conditions ensured the spread of lice bearing the typhus bacteria. Those arriving in Bytown equalled or exceeded in number the town’s population, reckoned around 5,000, lowered by economic recession.

Michael McBane tells the story of that fateful year in Bytown 1847, Élisabeth Bruyère and the Irish Famine refugees. When the Famine refugees, many sick with typhus, arrived at Bytown in early June, they encountered fear and hostility from some residents. Even Élisabeth Bruyère confessed her fear of dying but declared “I will not refuse to treat them.” Oblate Father Adrien Pierre Telmon, Emigrant Agent George Burke, and Sister Bruyère established a temporary emigrant hospital (located at present day Bruyère Street). Along with her community of nursing sisters, the Sisters of Charity or Grey Nuns, they prepared as best they could to meet the flood of refugees. They were part of a small, courageous network determined to offer help, including Dr. Edward Cortlandt, the Oblate Fathers, Protestant clergy and women volunteers from all denominations in town. None knew the cause of typhus.  All took the risk of contracting it: eleven nuns did, including Sister Bruyère, along with three priests and the emigrant agent Burke, though all but one city official survived.

“The emigrants kept coming”, writes McBane, “and by mid-summer four large fever sheds, the Emigrant Hospital, an annex, as well as tents, were full.” With people dying on Barracks Hill, in the streets of the town, hovels in Byward, and fever sheds along the Rideau Canal, the whole of Bytown was the site of a humanitarian disaster. 

In the absence of a medical cure, the Sisters and those assisting the victims cut off their dirty clothes, relieved them of their infestation of lice, washed and cared for them. There were between fifteen and twenty funerals every morning. Remarkably, each death was met with the dignity of a funeral. “In total, 531 patients were admitted to hospital and the Sisters registered 163 deaths in 1847.”

While almost 7,000 Irish emigrants poured into Bytown that year, many passed through and settled up the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys and along the Rideau, drawn by family and friends. Many moved on too but 3,100 settled, becoming farmers or working in the lumber industry and in the growing town. Their descendants entered the mainstream of society and this strong Irish presence shaped the evolution of the city.


Embassy of Ireland, Ottawa

National Famine Museum at Strokestown House

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