1847: A tragic year at Grosse Île

Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site

by André Charbonneau, Historian, September 1995
Drawing of passengers waiting for embarking in a port, with all of their possessions Embarking in an Irish port
© Illustrated London News / National Archives of Canada / C-3904

The tragic events at Grosse Île in 1847 stemmed from the Great Irish Famine, one of the pivotal events in the history of Ireland. During that agonizing upheaval, which lasted less than a decade, this country's population declined by over 2 million. One half of these died from starvation, disease or malnutrition, while the other half emigrated. The current population of Ireland is still smaller than it was in 1841!

Passengers crowded aboard unsanitary sailboats, unfit for transporting human beings Passengers crowded aboard unsanitary sailboats, unfit for transporting human beings
© Illustrated London News / National Archives of Canada / C-6556

The Great Famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1848-1849, reached a climax in 1847. In Québec and Grosse Île, the situation soon became tragic, with over 100 000 immigrants arriving in a single season. In previous years, the average number of newcomers had been 25 000 to 30 000. Most of the immigrants who landed here at the height of the famine were Irish. Already weakened by malnutrition and starvation, they had been crowded aboard unsanitary sailboats, unfit for transporting human beings. They reached their destination in a deplorable state, many already infected with typhus, a disease which soon reached epidemic proportions.

Vessel crossing the Atlantic ocean Vessel crossing the Atlantic ocean
© Illustrated London News / 1853

In 1847, 398 ships were inspected at Grosse Île and 441 registered in Québec. Seventy-seven carried over 400 passengers each. Seventy-three ships were from Liverpool, which was the main port of departure, while 50 hailed from Limerick. Another thirty-three were from Cork, 29 from Glasgow, 27 from Dublin, 26 from Sligo, 24 from Bremen, Germany, and 21 from Belfast. Although ships normally took an average of 45 days to make the crossing, 26 of those that set sail in 1847 took over 60 days to reach Grosse Île. And while vessels were usually quarantined for an average of 6 days at the island, several stayed there for over 20 days that year.

The situation was precarious at Grosse Île. Even though the quarantine station had been enlarged considerably during the season, it was barely equipped to meet the demand and its staff were overworked. Several ships had to anchor off the island while they awaited inspectors and medical personnel.

The Irish Cemetery The Irish cemetery
© National Archives of Québec, Québec / Fonds Livernois

The tragic events of 1847 took a heavy toll: over 5 000 people died at sea, and 5 424 people were buried at Grosse Île. Thousands more died in cities elsewhere in Canada.

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