Grosse Île and The Irish Memorial
Every year, the Montreal Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians organizes a pilgrimage to Grosse Île and The Irish Memorial, just outside of Quebec City. It is a humbling experience to learn what immigrants that came to Canada had to go through when this island was being used as a quarantine station.
A Brief History
Grosse Île was used as a quarantine station in Canada for over a century. It's name recalls the cholera plagues of 1832 and 1854, and rings sinister in the annals of the Irish people in Canada because of the appalling visitation of typhus fever that came primarily to the island in the fateful year of 1847.
The immigrant ships from Ireland carried throngs of malnourished, down-trodden, dispirited people who were ravaged by hunger and disease. Government and private measures to feed these people in Ireland were inadequate, which created an emigration. While many voluntarily emigrated in search of new horizons, others were forcibly "assisted" by pressures from landlords eager to be rid of tenants who were deemed unprofitable.
The emigrant ships, later known as "coffin ships," were in fact cargo vessels, not passage ships, carrying wood from Quebec City and Saint John's each summer, and the owners did not want their vessels returning to Canada empty. Space was offered, humble as it was, to these poor emigrants.
Immigrants endured this passage of several weeks living below decks in cramped bunks, cooking their own meals on communal stoves.
Upon arrival to Grosse Île, hospital personnel on the island provided whatever care they could, in medicines and bedside attention. The clergy constantly provided spiritual assistance and consolation to the dying and their families. When hospitals became over crowded, the military supplied tents to house the infected and their relatives.
As thousands died, burials became unceremonious and individual graves were unknown. One large field became a mass burial ground and because of the island's thin layer of earth, soil had to be transported from across the river, at Montmagny, in order to fill the trenches. These sad traces are still visible to this day.
A feature of the island is a prominent Celtic cross, erected upon a ridge and conspicuous to view from passing ships. It is a memorial of the victims of the typhus and ship fever who succumbed to the disease while quartered at the station.
The cross is made of grey Stanstead granite. It stands forty-six feet high and is placed on the highest point of the island, known as Telegraph Hill. It holds particular interest for the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Parks Canada Official Grosse Île and The Irish Memorial Website. - The site includes a virtual tour of the island.