“Letter of June 19, 1847 to Mother McMullen”Courtesy of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute

Eyewitness accounts telling stories of Irish migration to Canada during the Great Hunger are being made available in an online archive curated by National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG).

The Digital Irish Famine Archive shares the tales of the Grey Nuns in Montreal who cared for the Irish arrivals, their sick and dying, and kept annals and correspondence of their experience. The records have since been translated from the original French, digitized and made available in an online archive.

At the height of the famine in 1847 and 1848, thousands of Irish left Ireland and immigrated to Canada. Upon arrival in Canada, however, the suffering of the famine Irish continued, as they remained among the poorest of the poor and many were stricken with typhus fever following the long voyage.

In acts of extreme kindness, a number of people in the English and French Canadian communities came to their aid and provided shelter and support for the ailing and dying. Leading the charge in helping the Montreal Irish were the Sisters of Charity, also known as the Grey Nuns. The Nuns not only looked after the sick but also adopted and cared for many of the orphaned Irish who lost their parents to sickness once in Canada.

Launched by the Canadian Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers, the new archive contains three sets of annals from the Grey Nuns: “Ancien Journal (Old Journal), Volume I” and “Le Typhus d'1847, Ancien Journal (The Typhus of 1847, Old Journal), Volume II” which are all translated to English, as well as the transcribed first-hand accounts of the nuns in French in “Récit de l’épidemie” (Tale of the epidemic).

The Grey Nuns acts of kindness saved many children. Photo by: James Duncin/Wiki Commons

The Grey Nuns acts of kindness saved many children. Photo by: James Duncin/Wiki Commons

The archive will also feature testimonies from several of the orphaned children the nuns looked after, such as Daniel and Catherine Tighe from Roscommon and Robert Walsh from Kilkenny.

The archive says of Robert Walsh: “For two weeks the boy never uttered a word, never smiled, never appeared conscious of the presence of those around him, or of the attention lavished on him by his generous protectors, who had almost come to believe that they had adopted a little mute, or that he had momentarily lost the power of speech through fright or starvation.”

Speaking at the launch of the archive, Ambassador Vickers said: “It gives me great pleasure to launch the Digital Irish Famine Archive. The archive commemorates and pays tribute to the Grey Nuns of Montreal and people of French and English Canada, like Bishop Michael Power in Toronto and Dr John Vondy in Chatham, who gave their lives caring for Irish immigrants during the Famine exodus of 1847.

“It is especially fitting that we launch the digital archive after Montreal’s Irish community has just made its annual pilgrimage to the Black Stone monument, which marks the site of the city’s fever sheds and mass graves for 6,000 Irish dead, and before the Irish Famine Summer School begins at the Irish National Famine Museum in Strokestown, County Roscommon.”

The Black Stone Monument in Montreal. Image: douareg/Flickr

The Black Stone Monument in Montreal. Image: douareg/Flickr

Irish President Michael D. Higgins is also a patron of the archive. He said: “During that bleak and terrible period of our history, an estimated 100,000 Irish people fled to Canada. It is impossible to imagine the pain, fear, despair and suffering of these emigrants, many of whom lost beloved family members on their journey.

The new archive is a tribute to the work carried out by the Grey Nuns in helping the Irish in Canada.

“The stories contained within the digital archive attest to the selfless devotion of the Grey Nuns in tending to typhus-stricken emigrants and providing homes for Irish orphans,” said Vickers. “In an age of increasingly desperate acts of migration, their compassion provides a lesson for us all.”

Grey Nuns Motherhouse. Photo by: Thomas1313/Wiki Commons

Grey Nuns Motherhouse. Photo by: Thomas1313/Wiki Commons

“As a country we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Grey Nuns,” continued President Higgins, “who cared for so many Irish widows and orphans who were left destitute, impoverished and alone in a strange country.

“This virtual archive is a very important project, which allows us to finally acknowledge the generosity and enormous humanity of those wonderful sisters whose great kindness and compassion, during one of the worst tragedies in our country’ history, must never be forgotten.”

The archive can be viewed at faminearchive.nuigalway.ie.

H/T: UTV Ireland