They put the granite Celtic cross on top of a cliff overlooking the southern passage of the St Lawrence river. That way every passing ship on its way to Quebec and Montreal could see it. The members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians had commissioned a sixteen meter high monument in memory of the five thousand Irish emigrants who died on Grosse Ile in the summer of 1847, “Black ’47”, one of the worst years of the Great Irish Famine. The blocks of the cross are rough hewn and its cruciform top is cut square and unadorned. It is defiant and solemn, and has stood there since 1909.
My wife and I visited Grosse Ile during the summer. Since we had lived in Washington many years ago and become familiar with the history of Irish America, we had been aware of the small island’s place in the history of famine emigration to North America. The day we boarded the ferry the weather was cold and blustery, with heavy cloud cover. The great St Lawrence river churned under a whipping breeze. The ferry captain spoke briefly in English and at length in French about his family’s connection with Grosse Ile. As we slowed on the approach to the island, we could see the Celtic cross loom atop a short rocky cliff. It was a stirring moment.
Once landed and past the informal guidance about your visit, you approach the monument up a hill through a copse of short trees and stubby pines. If the cross looks grim and defiant from the deck of a passing vessel, it has an intimacy on the landward side. The cross stands in a gentle cusp of rock and grass, surrounded by the low trees. Beyond it as backdrop flows the wide expanse of the St Lawrence. It is a tranquil and intimate space, as if a ritual or performance has just taken place or is about to begin.
When you continue through the woods, the hill descends to a picturesque meadow, furrowed with oversized lazy beds. That it is dotted with small white crosses tells you that this is the mass grave, final resting place of desperate Irish emigrants fleeing a home now ravaged by starvation, disease and despair. Packed mercilessly into ships ill-fitted for their human cargo, many of the passengers died crossing the Atlantic, their bodies cast into its depths. Up to thirty percent of the 98,000 crossing on the cheaper route to Canada would die on the passage or shortly after arriving.
The complete failure of the 1846 crop was followed by the failure of new crop of potato in 1847. The impact on Ireland assumed the character of an apocalypse. Hope evaporated as the land and governmental indifference betrayed the peasant population to death by starvation and disease. Those who had the means realised that the future was bleak and cashed in to buy passage to America. Landlords seized the opportunity to clear their land of peasant holdings and offered money to leave. As death rates soared coffins to bury the dead became so scare that reusable ones with hinged bottoms were made. Mass graves became common place. Social norms of hospitality broke down, family bonds of affection broke as a morsel of food meant the difference between life and death. Even the instinct for rebellion was quenched by the imperative to survive as whole-scale demoralisation swept the land. As Kirby Miller writes in Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America: “Finally, and perhaps most revealingly, ancient rural customs surrounding death fell into disuse as the island degenerated into a vast charnel house….. Wakes disappeared from apathy and fear of contagion…” Those who fled were no longer emigrants but refugees and the 1847 exodus, as Oliver MacDonagh noted, “bore all the hallmarks of panic and hysteria.”
Whole families lie here in the lovely meadow of Grosse Ile Now their names float eerily over the grave when seen through the glass panels of the modern commemorative placement. It was their misfortune to die of disease here, mainly typhoid, but at least their names are now recorded as lying in the largest mass grave outside of Ireland.
Today Grosse Ile is a wonderful commemorative park, a gently immersive but profoundly moving experience about a terrible chapter in our history. Just about this time of year, some 170 years ago, Grosse Ile would be closing for the coming winter after its grimmest summer.