Black ’47 Commemoration and Remembrance, Ottawa

Of course it rained yesterday. We were assembling at a graveyard. Not just any graveyard but one that held hundreds of remains of Irish Famine refugees who died in what was then Bytown, today Ottawa. And not a graveyard by the look of it. It had been leveled to make Macdonald Gardens Park. That it had been a graveyard for the town between the 1840s and the 1870s has been largely forgotten. Yesterday the Embassy and local historian Michael McBane hosted an event to commemorate those brave people who helped the desperate Irish, and to remember the Irish that had fled the Irish Famine. It was the first time such an event had been held there. Over 130 people turned up to listen to the speeches and music, to recall those dreadful events and to commemorate the compassion of some very brave people. My remarks below thank those involved and recall the events of Black ’47, the greatest humanitarian disaster to hit Canada. What happened that year accelerated Canada’s drive for Confederation and ultimately Irish independence.

Irish Famine Commemoration and Remembrance

Macdonald Park, Ottawa, 4 August 2022

Remarks by H.E. Dr Eamonn McKee, Ambassador of Ireland to Canada

I want to thank our MC Pat Marshall for doing such a great job. James Maloney MP and chairman of the Canada Ireland Parliamentary Friendship Group, our champion of Irish causes and the story of the Irish in Canada.  I want to acknowledge the presence of Sister Rachelle Watier, Superior General of the Sisters of Charity, Ottawa, the delegation of Sisters and  Oblate Father Laroche with us today, representing a great tradition of compassion. Thank you to Rev Tim Kehoe for your powerful remarks and to Kevin Dooley for the gift of song and music.  All those who have made this event possible, thank you. 

I want to recognise the presence of Prof Mark McGowan whose scholarship has championed the story of the Irish in Canada and in particular the role that the Famine played in that story. He has delved deep into the archives of Strokestown House to trace the story and experiences of the tenants and their families displaced during the Great Famine from their homes in Roscommon to Canada.

I want to pay a particular tribute to local historian Michael McBane, an extraordinary resource on the Irish heritage of Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley.  His book on Bytown 1847 and Élizabeth Bruyrèreis is evocative and perceptive, humane and strategic. This event did not exist a month ago but after my suggestion, Michael worked with the Embassy team, bringing his energy, commitment and passion to help make this happen.

This event is about Commemoration and Remembrance.  We commemorate all those in Canada who helped the victims of the Irish Famine.  And we remember those victims who lie beneath our feet here.

Only a month ago, I had innocently thought that Macdonald Gardens was just a park, that the bones that rested here from the 1840s to the 1870s had been moved to Beechwood Cemetery.  Then Michael set me right.  Hundreds of the remains of the early settlers in Bytown lie here.  Along with them lie Irish Famine victims of 1847.

Having come from a wonderful ceremony at Grosse Ȋle in July where almost 5,500 famine remains lie buried with dignity and respect, my new awareness of Macdonald Gardens was quite a contrast.  That conjuration of Grosse Ȋle and Macdonald Gardens inspired this commemoration and this remembrance.

This event is a commemoration because of the heroic compassion and bravery of people like Sister Bruyrère and her band of sisters, less than twenty in number, most young women, many teenagers, some of them Irish.  They treated the Irish who were sickened by a disease of unknown cause, but often deadly effect; ship’s fever, typhus.  The Oblate Fathers took similar risks tending to the sick and the dying.  Some volunteer women too defied the terror of typhus. Dr. Van Cortland also ranks among these heroes, along with emigrant agent George Burke. Most of the Irish survived but those that died did so in the care and compassion of the Grey Sisters and all those who helped them.  That compassion in Canada was in stark contrast to the callousness that had seen them off the island of Ireland.

Today, we commemorate these heroes who found themselves faced with the greatest humanitarian disaster in Canadian history. They join the religious, medical and official heroes in Grosse Ȋle, Montreal, Quebec, Kingston, Toronto and many other places who fearlessly assisted the tens of thousands of starving and distraught Irish, unloaded by the British Government along the St Lawrence from the coffin ships that had taken them in cruel and often fatal conditions across the Atlantic.

There are undoubtedly other smaller communities in the Ottawa River, Rideau and St Lawrence River catchments that had similar encounters.  Some we know about.  Only an hour’s drive down the road at Cornwall there is a common grave of some fifty Irish famine victims, honoured by a Celtic Cross.  Many we do not.

The sites of Irish mass or common graves  have been protected and defended by local Irish communities.  Grosse Ȋle is an honoured place of remembrance today thanks to the intervention of Irish communities across Canada in the 1990s who insisted that the remains of the Irish be treated with dignity and respect.  That the awful events of 1847 be remembered.  To them and all the Irish community groups and individuals with a passion for Ireland and their heritage, on behalf of the Government of Ireland I offer most sincere gratitude for your efforts over the generations.

Blight and the failure of the potato did not cause the Great Irish Famine.  Colonialism caused the Famine, the death of one million and the emigration of another million.

The road to disaster began almost fifty years earlier when the British Government in 1800 abolished the Irish Parliament and ran Ireland directly, with sad indifference to its decline into the worst poverty in Western Europe.

Without proper government and with capital flight, Irish poverty became rampant, the potato being the poor families’ staple food. Though studied and widely reported over the years, nothing was done about it.  Being Catholic, it was held, meant that the Irish were responsible for their poverty, even if they were not responsible for their own government.  For imperialists, contradictions can be convenient.

The economic and agricultural decline of Ireland after 1800 was immediate.  From being a leading city of Europe, Dublin’s development halted and the city declined.  Every government in Europe regarded population growth as the key to economic development.  Except in Ireland.   Only in Ireland was population growth regarded by the ruling government in London as a problem, only there. Why was that? Sovereign countries delighted in population growth.  Imperial powers dreaded it in their colonies as a risk and a danger.

Ideology within the British Government played its part.  Government funding to relieve starvation was cut back in 1846.  Despite the starvation, exports of food continued so as not to disrupt the market.  Would the ideology of laissez-faire economics have trumped compassion and political sense had starvation ravaged England?  I think not.  To allow starvation and mass exodus act as instruments of social engineering could only be tolerated, even commended, in situations of colonial management and imperial interests.

Without the prospect of help, the Irish panicked and fled by whatever means they could find in 1847, what we remember as Black ’47.

We had a population of 8 million in 1845.  If we’re lucky, we might reach 7 million within the next decade.  Ireland today has one of the lowest population densities in Western Europe.

Today, we remember our Irish kin here in Canada.  The thousands who found themselves in Bytown, having survived the awful Atlantic passage, quarantine at Grosse Ȋle, and trafficking by barge down the St Lawrence Rivers. 

Most survived and built new lives in Canada, helping to create this nation with their energy and talents.  The evidence of that contribution is everywhere, even on our doorstep here in Ottawa.  One of the constant surprises of my posting here is the discovery of the depth of the Irish story in the capital city and in the Valleys of the Ottawa, the Gatineau, Rideau and St Lawrence.

Fifteen to twenty refugees from the Great Irish Famine died every day in Bytown that terrible summer of 1847. Every day their remains were brought here, a short distance from the Temporary Emigrant Hospital, or the tents on Barracks Hill, or the fever sheds on the Rideau Canal or even the streets of Lower Town.

Three hundred in all were buried here where we stand in Macdonald Park.  Most lie there still. 

Today, we are here to remember them.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

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