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FROM THE Heritage Minutes COLLECTION
A part of our heritage...
In the 1850s, many Québec families adopted Irish orphans, their parents dead from ship's fever on the Atlantic crossing
The Irish and the French Canadians share a part of history that goes back more than 150 years, at a time when waves of European immigrants were flooding into Canada, most of them arriving first in Québec. One tragic episode occurred in 1847.
That year, poverty, overpopulation and famine in Ireland had reached a crisis point, unleashing a mass exodus to British North America. In April, more than 28,000 families were crammed into timber transport ships bound for Québec City, the main port on the St. Lawrence.
During the long crossing, malnutrition and overcrowding hastened the spread of typhoid fever. Of the 240 immigrants on board one ship alone, 9 died at sea and another 40 died on arrival at the quarantine station of Grosse Isle near Montmagny.
The oppressive heat that summer only worsened an already disastrous situation, and still the overcrowded ships kept arriving – 12,000 more immigrants disembarked on June 1, another 14,000 a week later. The number of sick at the Grosse Isle station hospital totalled over one thousand. Medical staff and Anglican and Catholic clergy tended to the dying, often at the cost of their own lives. The dead were hastily buried in communal graves, while survivors continued their journey on to Québec City, Montréal and beyond.
The immediate victims of this tragedy were the children of those who perished. They numbered in the thousands, from Québec City, Montréal, and Gross Isle to Kingston and Toronto. One of the clergymen who helped was Father Cazeau, affectionately called "the curé of the Irish." He worked tirelessly to have the destitute children taken in by parish priests and placed in foster homes of the Québec Diocese. In Montréal, Monseigneur Ignace Bourget made an impassioned appeal to the rural French-speaking population, who answered the call from all the neighbouring villages.
Out of sympathy for the victims and their homeland, orphanages were careful to preserve the Irish identity of the children, keeping a record of their natural parents, their parish and county of origin, and the vessel that brought them over. The records also included the names and addresses of the foster families, most of them French-Canadian.
Despite this tragic beginning, French-speaking Québeckers of Irish descent have continued to enrich our cultural heritage.
Heritage Minute Cast