Gross Ile: The rededication of the Celtic Cross memorial to those who died in the Great Hunger

The ghosts of Grosse Ile


Gross Ile: The rededication of the Celtic Cross memorial to those who died in the Great Hunger

When the authorities in Quebec heard news of ships arriving with sick passengers, they quickly set up Grosse Île as a port of entry and quarantine station at which all ships were required to dock before moving on to the mainland. The island had dealt with epidemics before. In 1830, about 30,000 immigrants arrived in Quebec, and two-thirds were Irish. These huge waves of immigration were concurrent with cholera epidemics in Great Britain and Europe. Areas in the west of Ireland – mostly Mayo, Donegal and Galway – were also experiencing potato crop failure. In fact, the crop failed to various degrees all over the country throughout the 1830s, though no one is sure exactly when the blight that caused the successive crop failures of 1845-49 arrived in Ireland.

In 1847, 100,000 Irish traveled to Grosse Île to escape the starvation, unaware of the hardships they would encounter upon arrival.

The first “Famine ship” arrived on May 17th, 1847, the ice still an inch thick on the river. Of that ship’s 241 passengers, 84 were stricken with fever and 9 had died on board. With the hospital only equipped for 150 cases of fever, the situation quickly spun out of control. More and more ships arrived at Grosse Île each day, sometimes lining up for miles down the St. Lawrence River throughout the summer. On these coffin ships – named for their crowded and deadly conditions – the number of passengers stricken by fever increased exponentially.

The Virginius, from Liverpool on May 28, had 476 passengers on board but, by the time she reached Grosse Île, “...106 were ill of fever, including nine of the crew, and the large number of 158 had died on the passage, including the first and second officers and seven of the crew, and the master and the steward dying, the few that were able to come on deck were ghastly yellow looking spectres, unshaven and hollow cheeked, and without exception, the worst looking passengers I have ever seen...” wrote Dr. Douglas, Medical Superintendent at Grosse Île, in the 1847 Immigration Report.

The island was ill equipped to say the least – hastily built, the quarantine hospitals lacked proper sanitation, supplies and space to accommodate all the sick patients. Many of the doctors dispatched to Grosse Île had never even seen the effects of cholera let alone treated it, and all were overworked. Being taken to a quarantine hospital was soon viewed as more of a death sentence than an opportunity to get better.

Between 1832 and 1937, Grosse Île’s term of operation, the official register lists 7,480 burials on the island. In 1847 alone, 5,424 burials took place, the majority for Irish immigrants. In that same year, over 5,000 Irish on ships bound for Canada are listed as having been buried at sea. Today the island is a National Historic Site that serves as a Famine memorial, dedicated in 1996 after a four-year-long campaign to protect the mass gravesite. The Grosse Île Celtic Cross, erected by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1909, turned 100 last year. It bears an inscription in Irish commemorating the victims of the epidemic and condemning colonial rule. In English, it reads: “Children of the Gael died in their thousands on this island having fled from the laws of foreign tyrants and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48. God’s blessing on them. Let this monument be a token and honour from the Gaels of America. God Save Ireland.” Visitors to the island may also see the lazaretto, the only remaining quarantine hospital from 1847.

Those who survived the trip and could not be accommodated in the Grosse Île hospitals were transferred to Windmill Point, another quarantine area where almost 6,000 Irish died from typhus. The sick were crammed into poorly built quarantine houses called “fever sheds” where the Grey Nuns of Montreal acted as nurses, many contracting illness themselves.

Meanwhile the city of Montreal was in a panic over the epidemic. According to John Loye, his grandmother Margaret Dowling witnessed “a young Irish girl, stricken by the disease…dressed in a nightgown and holding a tin cup in her hand.” The girl had wandered into the city of Montreal and was apprehended by a policeman to keep citizens away from her for fear of contamination. “A military cordon had to be established around the area of the sheds to contain the infected immigrants,” Loye said.

When workers began construction of the Victoria Bridge in the area in 1859, they uncovered the remains of immigrants who had died of “ship fever” at Windmill Point. Wishing to commemorate the victims, the workers erected a large boulder from the bed of the St. Lawrence River as a natural tribute to the 6,000 Irish who died in 1847. Officially the “Irish Commemorative Stone,” most Irish and locals know it simply as “Black Rock.”

Though the death tolls were high at Grosse Île and Windmill Point, large numbers of Irish were able to get through the port, arriving in Toronto during 1847 and 1848. Between May and October of 1847, more than 38,000 Irish arrived at the Toronto waterfront. The city’s population was only 20,000. Some of the city’s officials and religious leaders were sympathetic to the Irish people, setting up “emigrant sheds” and offering medical care. Typhus and cholera, however, remained a danger as many invalid Irish had been allowed to leave Grosse Île and enter Toronto due to lack of resources. These “healthy” Irish could barely walk when they arrived, and those who could often developed the fever only weeks later. An entry from Robert Whyte’s 1847 Famine Ship Diary describes starving, homeless Irish families succumbing to the harsh Canadian winter. Just as before, more and more fever sheds were built, ineffectively run and infecting doctors and nurses in the process. By the end of 1847, 1,100 immigrants had died.

Toronto’s Ireland Park now serves as a memorial site for the Famine Irish. The park features Rowan Gillespie’s “The Arrival” sculptures, a response to his “Departure” figures that stand on the Liffey quayside in Dublin and depict Irish men, women and children waiting to leave Ireland on ships. The Ireland Park figures are just west of Reese’s Wharf where the immigrants landed and south of where the fever sheds were built.

The park also includes a limestone memorial engraved with the names of those Irish immigrants who died in Toronto in 1847. Of the 1,100 victims, 675 names have been recovered so far.


While the number of deaths at sea and burials at Grosse Île are vast, and the young ages of many of the victims are heartbreaking, the presence of marriage and baptism records make tangible the sense of hope that immigrants felt upon their arrival in North America.

Ellen Keane was the first person to die in quarantine on Grosse Île in the summer of 1847. She was four years and three months old. She was brought ashore on May 15 from the ship The Syria and died the same day. Within the week 16 others followed Ellen in death: Nancy Riley, 24; Thomas Coner, 40; Edward Ryley, 30; Ellen Murtilly, 50; Ellen Murtilly, 46; John Colville, 84; James Managin, 55; Patrick Fagan, 13; Patrick Jordan, 8; Mary Mark, 2; Eliza Whalen, 3: Ann Hooper, 10; Thers. Hooper, 5; Thomas Bennet, 4; John Whalen, 4; and Brid. Monaghan, 3.
Between 1832 and 1937, Grosse Île’s term of operation, the official register lists 7,480 burials on the island. In 1847 alone, 5,424 burials took place, the majority for Irish immigrants. The following is a list of some of those who died in 1847 and were buried in mass graves on the island.

Burials at Grosse-Île: 1847

Name    Age    Date of Death    County of Origin

Allen, David    57    9/16/1847    Sligo
Anderson, John    4 mos.    9/6/1847    Fermanagh
Anderson, Frances    20    9/1/1847    Fermanagh
Anderson, James    5      6/16/1847   
Ansley, Ann    76    6/6/1847    Armagh
Armstrong, Ann    4    5/29/1847    Fermanagh
Armstrong, John    1    5/23/1847    Cavan
Austin, Hamilton        5/27/1847    Antrim
Bailey, Eliza    3    6/6/1847    Tyrone
Baker, Mary        7/1/1847
Barnes, Jane    30    6/12/1847    Armagh
Barron, John    5    6/6/1847    Armagh
Barron, Robert    7    6/14/1847    Armagh
Benson, John    45    5/26/1847    Kilkenny
Blakely, William    5 mos.     6/5/1847    Fermanagh
Blank, William    24    6/28/1847    Tyrone
Bradshaw, Margaret     25    6/13/1847    Antrim
Brady, Joseph    40    8/23/1847    Monaghan
Brierly, Edward    45    7/5/1847    Cavan
Bryan, Judith    6    5/14/1847    Tipperary
Byrne, Thomas    26    5/26/1847    Mayo
Campbell, James    3    6/5/1847    Fermanagh
Clark, Mary    22    9/24/1847    Wicklow
Clarke, James    35    9/2/1847    Wicklow
Cootes, Margaret    33    8/24/1847    Cavan
Corbit, Lucinda    18    9/22/1847    Tyrone
Corrigan, Irvine    5    6/18/1847    Fermanagh
Corrigan, James    22    6/8/1847    Fermanagh
Davis, John    50    5/31/1847       
Delanay, Henry    15    9/5/1847    Wicklow
Dodson, William    19    7/5/1847    Cavan
Douglas, Thomas    7    6/7/1847    Tipperary
Drumm, John James     6    6/16/1847    Castle Knokles
Earl, Edward    30    9/15/1847    Wexford
Elliot, Andrew    50    6/6/1847    Donegal
Fannen, Margaret    11 mos.     5/20/1847    Dublin
Farley, Francis    8 mos.    6/2/1847    Monaghan
Farren, Eliza    19    5/22/1847    Donegal
Finlay, Margaret    18    8/23/1847    Monaghan
Gallaway, Margaret     2 year     6/1/1847    Antrim
Gault, Margaret    11    6/2/1847    Monaghan
Gilmour, John    34    8/20/1847    Armagh
Hawthom, John    54    6/2/1847    Armagh
Hayes, William    41    8/30/1847    Tipperary
Henry, James    2    5/29/1847    Monaghan
Hill, Francis     20    9/2/1847    Cavan
Hungerford, Francis     13 mos.    5/20/1847    Cork
Jameson, Eliza Ann     12    6/30/1847    Armagh
Kane, Ellen    4    5/15/1847    Mayo
Kennedy, Margaret     3    5/28/1847    Fermanagh
Kerr, Marianne    42    8/20/1847    Cavan
Kerr, Samuel    50    6/4/1847    Down
Lee, Ann    22    9/10/1847    Cavan
Lindsay, Ann    20    8/18/1847    Sligo
Macpherson, Ellen    1    5/21/1847    Armagh
McCall, John    15    9/2/1847    Monaghan
McComb, William    7 mos.     5/29/1847    Down   
McMullen, Rosanna     9    9/4/1847    Louth   
O’Hare, Sarah    48    9/14/1847    Tyrone   
O’Reilly, Edward    30    5/18/1847    Fermanagh
Orr, Dorothy    11    9/16/1847    Tyrone
Patterson, Thomas    15    8/29/1847    Cavan
Prestage, Elle    2    5/30/1847    Wicklow
Purcell, Alexander     2    5/21/1847    Dublin   
Reid, Elisa    5    6/7/1847    Roscommon
Reynolds, Margaret     6    6/2/1847    Antrim
Rice, Elizabeth    55    6/7/1847    Antrim
Robbs, Eliza    12    6/15/1847    Tyrone
Scott, George    31    9/9/1847    Cavan
Scott, Robert    28    7/5/1847    Cavan
Skews, John    1    6/1/1847    Cork
Soolivan, Margaret     30    5/15/1847    Tipperary
Sweedy, Robert    34    9/1/1847    Down
Tremble, Joseph    25    9/10/1847    Tyrone
Walker, James    5    5/31/1847    Armagh
Wilson, Mary    54    6/4/1847    Armagh
Wright, Margaret    5    6/3/1847    Cavan

Deaths at Sea: 1847
Parcs Canada has recorded information on 4,936 individuals who died on ships at sea, on the St. Lawrence River or on quarantined ships at Grosse Île, from 1832 to 1922. This list names a small portion of those who were buried at sea during 1847. Just a glance at the list shows us that in some cases, several members of the same family died enroute.

Name    Age    Date of Death    Ship    Port of Departure

Anderson, Jane    60    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Armstrong, Ann    4    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Bailey, Eliza    3    June 6 1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Blakely, William    1    June 5 1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Blakely, Francis    16    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Campbell, James    3    June 5 1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Campbell, John    40    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Coyle, George    3    June 1 1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Coyle, Robert    12    May 27 1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Doherty, Ann    1    1847    New York Packet    Liverpool
Doherty, Patrick    18    1847    Sisters    Liverpool
Doherty, Sarah    35    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Fitzpatrick, Bridget     50    1847    Minerva    Galway
Fitzpatrick, Dennis     2    1847    John Francis    Cork
Fitzpatrick, Eliza    14    1847    Progress    New Ross
Gallagher, Peter    1    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Harty, Thomas    4    1847    Lord Ashburton    Liverpool
Kelly, Bridget    50    1847    Avon    Cork
Kelly, Mary    32    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Kyle, Eliza    8    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Kyle, Joseph    1    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Kyle, Robert    13    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Kyne, Christiana    8    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Leslie, James    45    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Lindsay, Nancy    4    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
Mahoney, Catherine     28    1847    Wakefield    Cork
Mahoney, Jane    2    1847    Urania    Cork
Malone, Matthew    4    1847    Free Trader    Liverpool
McConaghy, Francis     1    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
McConnell, John    1    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
McCray, Alexander     52    Oct. 7, 1847       
McCullough    4    1847    Christiana    Londonderry
McKinney, Mary    24    1847    Wellington    Liverpool
McMillan, Samuel    1    1847    Rosalinda    Belfast
Moore, Anthony    50    1847    Triton    Liverpool
Moore, Arthur    3    1847    Triton    Liverpool
Murphy, Ann    1    1847    Progress    New Ross
Murphy, Bridget    16    1847    Sarah    Liverpool
Murphy, Bryan    27    1847    Margaret    New Ross
Murphy, Catherine     61    1847    Avon    Cork
Murphy, Charles    13    1847    Lord Ashburton    Liverpool
Murphy, Darby    3    1847    Sarah    Liverpool
Murphy, James    50    1847    Ann    Liverpool
Murphy, Johanna    5    1847    John Bolton    Liverpool
Murphy, John    6    1847    Gilmour    Cork
Murphy, John    41    1847    Naomi    Liverpool
Murphy, Mary    50    1847    Naomi    Liverpool
Murphy, Patrick    50    1847    Naomi    Liverpool
Neal, Daniel    20    1847    Avon    Cork
Neale, Margaret    50    1847    Avon    Cork
Neill, John    50    1847    Avon    Cork
Noonan, Dennis    20    1847    Avon    Cork
O’Hara, Catherine    17    1847    Naomi    Liverpool
O’Hara, John    8    1847    Naomi    Liverpool
Prendergast, James     2    1847    Avon    Cork
Roach, Mary    60    1847    Avon    Cork
Ryan, Allen    18    1847    Lady Flora
            Hastings     Cork
Ryan, Bridget    6    1847    John Munn    Liverpool
Ryan, Jenny    3    1847    Bee    Cork
Ryan, Lawrence    48    1847    Emily    Cork


Parcs Canada maintains information on 554 children baptized at Grosse Île between 1832 and 1937. Some of those babies listed below for the year 1847 may have been born aboard ship.

Baptisms at Grosse-Île

William     2/9/1847    7/9/1847    Waterford
Catharine    9/29/1847    10/1/1847             Roscommon
Rosanna    5/23/1847    6/1/1847    Kilkenny
John    6/12/1847    7/18/1847     Roscommon
Kildy, John    6/21/1847    7/18/1847    Roscommon
James    7/15/1847     7/15/1847    Kilkenny
Mary Jane     8/16/1847     8/22/1847            Fermanagh
James    7/11/1843     7/14/1847       Down
Molly    8/21/1847     9/14/1847    Antrim
Ryan, May    5/5/1847     5/18/1847    Tipperary
Patrick    7/17/1847     7/17/1847    Kerry
Owen    4/21/1847    5/15/1847          Monaghan


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