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A screen shot of Irish immigrants arriving on Canadian shores during the famine, from the drama Death or Canada Photo by: Still from deathorcanada.com

New Irish Famine documents shed light on incredible nuns and priests in Canada

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A screen shot of Irish immigrants arriving on Canadian shores during the famine, from the drama Death or Canada Photo by: Still from deathorcanada.com

Harrowing tales from The Famine are now available online courtesy of the University of Limerick – and a French Canadian order of nuns.

The new virtual famine archive at the University of Limerick is available online here.

A new collection of stories has been unveiled by the University in an archive featuring translations from the French language of the real life accounts of survivors who landed in Canada and those who helped them.

The collection, launched by Ireland’s Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan, features historic annals from the French-Canadian Sisters of Charity, or Grey Nuns, who cared for Famine emigrants in Montreal in 1847.

The new data adds information to existing sources such as The Irish Famine and the Atlantic Migration to Canada, archive at Queens University

The accounts of the bravery of the Grey Nuns and the priests of Montreal and all they did to save the starving and typhus ridden Irish pouring off the boats are extraordinary testaments to bravery and love.

The Montreal French Canadians were heroic. They adopted 800 Irish orphans who arrived with parents who had died on board.They looked after the sick and dying at great personal cost to themselves.

There are several heart rending accounts. In one, a grey nun has to separate an orphaned family of several young children from their dead father as they cling to him.

In another an Irishman arrives seeking his wife who had arrived on an earlier ship. Unable to find her alive he finds her dead and refuses to leave her side.

In another a heroic Protestant doctor saves countless lives only to lose his own to the typhus. He dies among those he has helped save.

To read this history is to be back on those quarantine stations in British Canada, the very hell hole on earth as the ships disgorged more and more famine stricken and the local nuns clergy and doctors gave eveything to try and cope and comfort.

“Throughout the grim and eventful year of 1847 Canadian settlers, from the Atlantic seaboard to the remotest parts of Upper Canada, saw with their own eyes the cruelty and suffering of the
Irish famine and the Atlantic Migration.

As one famine emigrant put it plainly 'We thought we could not be worse off than we were; but now to our sorrow we know the difference. At home we had the chance of a doctors car and the certainty of the spiritual administration of a priest. Should death overtake us there we would be buried beside our beloved dead, in consecrated Irish ground, with the prayers and last blessing of our church.'

In April, 1847, Stephen E.De Vere travelled as an emigrant to Canada in a converted lumber and cargo boat.  His description of conditions is appalling.

'Before the emigrant has been a week at sea he is an altered man.  How could it be otherwise?  Hundredsof poor people men, women, and children of all ages from the drivelling idiot of ninety to the babe just born, huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart, the fever patients lying between the sound, in sleeping places so narrow as almost to deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position, the natural restlessness of the disease.'  The food supply was of the poorest quality.  Drinking water was mixed with vinegar to kill the stench.”

Conditions were so bad that even  'TheTimes,' London, was forced to admit: 'the Black-Hole of Calcutta was mercy compared to the holds of these vessels.'

The Irish Times reports that the annals are said to contain extensive and highly evocative eyewitness accounts of the suffering of Famine migrants.

“The archives tell the tale of the harrowing experiences of priests and nuns who went to their aid and sought to provide homes for stricken widows and orphans,” says the report.

“The main story in the archive is that of the Grey Nuns, which was published in French in 1898 and has been translated into English for the virtual archive.”

Minister Deenihan has praised the University for making the historic document available to the public.

He has also welcomed the confirmation that Irish President Michael D Higgins is to lead an official delegation the overseas Famine commemoration in Boston on May 5th.

“I am delighted that President Higgins is leading the official representation at the Famine commemoration in Boston this year,” said Minister Deenihan.

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