Multilingual musical tells horrors of 1847’s “Summer of Sorrows” for the Famine Irish on Grosse Isle quarantine station.

The horrific summer of 1847 experienced by the Irish who escaped the famine for Canada that year is to be depicted in a Canadian musical playing this weekend. Performed at the Oscar Peterson Hall Concert Hall, Montreal, through to Sunday, November 5, Grosse Île: The Musical was written by Irish-Canadian couple Margaret Forrest and John Halpin, alongside their friend Hubert Radoux, to tell the heartbreaking tale of the many Irish and Canadians who suffered as a result of the mass immigration through the quarantine station at Grosse Isle (Grosse Île in French) in Quebec.

Following the narration of Brigid and Seán, survivors of 1847’s “Summer of Sorrows”, the characters return to the island to visit a Celtic Cross newly erected there in 1909, reflecting on the stories of illness, death, love, hope, and the comfort extended by the clergy, medical professionals and local people of Quebec to the ill and dying newly-arrived Irish famine victims.

Read more: Experiences of the Great Hunger Irish seen again in refugee crisis

Remembeing the famine coffin ships. Image: Grosse-Île : Une histoire chorale / The Musical

Remembeing the famine coffin ships. Image: Grosse-Île : Une histoire chorale / The Musical

Some 100,000 Irish immigrants made the journey to Canada in 1847, descending on the quarantine station in Grose Île which welcomed the arrival of 14,000 Irish by the summer months alone, despite having just 150 beds. If they escaped the quarantine station, many Irish may have made it to Montreal, where typhus was killing those who survived the journey, while others carried along the river to Toronto.

A fifth of those who traveled that year - 20,000 immigrants - died.

Image: Grosse-Île : Une histoire chorale / The Musical

Image: Grosse-Île : Une histoire chorale / The Musical

The quarantine island is sometimes locally known as “L’Íle des Irlandais,” The Island of the Irish, because of the several thousand Irish buried in mass graves there. Many of those who succeeded in escaping the famine and survived the Atlantic crossing, died as a result of fever once on the island.

“The Grosse Île story was well known to the Quebec City dwellers with Irish ancestry.  Since the reopening of Grosse Île to the public (1980s) the story is growing new wings,” explained one of the musical’s authors Margaret Forrest.

Read more: Canadian refuge for Irish famine emigrants explores link with Wicklow town

Image: Grosse-Île : Une histoire chorale / The Musical

Image: Grosse-Île : Une histoire chorale / The Musical

“A 20-voice choir is present on stage as witnesses, singing in four parts and four languages (French, English, Irish and Latin).  The musical texture is strengthened by an instrumental trio, piano, flute and guitar.  The haunting score is the work of my husband, John Halpin.

“It was important to us to include Irish in the lyrics sung by the choir, because we believe that most of the dear Irish people arriving on Grosse-Ile in the summer of 1847 would have been speaking Irish (as opposed to English and French).  The Latin is included because it was the language of the Catholic Church, and so would have been common to the English, French and Irish-speaking Catholics on the island,” she continued.

Both Forrest and Halpin have Irish ancestry with Forrest’s grandmother leaving Irish first for Liverpool in the 1920s, while her husband's family came to North America in the 1800s.

While this is the first work that the couple has produced that focuses on an Irish theme, Halpin has previously worked on a musical adaptation of John Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” set in the Lac St-Jean region, north of Quebec City, called “The Playboy of Lac-St-Jean.”

“Our original musical works are quite diverse, re-imagining sacred and secular stories, as well as creating original scenarios exploring contemporary social themes (consumerism, migration, environmental issues, nationalism, the arts vs entertainment, etc),” states Forrest.

Grosse Isle: The Musical will be playing at the Oscar Peterson Hall Concert Hall, Montreal, through to Sunday, November 5. Tickets can be purchased here.

A musical is an unusual way to tell the story of the Irish famine victims - Do you think that more productions like this our needed to ensure we remember our history? 

Grosse Íle: The musical reflects on the painful history of the Famine Irish in Quebec, Canada.Grosse-Île : Une histoire chorale / The Musical