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Irish Famine Migrant Stories In Ontario

Welcome to the Irish Famine Migrant Stories in Ontario virtual exhibit. This exhibit tells the stories of the desperate and often disease stricken emigrants who fled across the Atlantic from Ireland’s Great Hunger in 1847 as well as those of their Canadian caregivers in Ontario. It is hosted by Canada Ireland Foundation (formerly Ireland Park Foundation) in Toronto (cover image: Bridget Ann Treacy).

Welcome from Robert G. Kearns, Chair and Founder of Canada Ireland Foundation (formerly Ireland Park Foundation), to Irish Famine Migrant Stories in Ontario Virtual Exhibit

Irish Famine Migration to Quebec
(Canada East) and New Brunswick in 1847

During the summer of 1847, over one hundred thousand people fled from Ireland across the Atlantic to British North America. They sailed on often ramshackle vessels that quick became known as “sailing coffins” or “coffin ships”. At least twenty thousand Irish emigrants died from infectious diseases such as typhus – or “ship fever” – on board these coffin ships and in fever sheds that were hastily set up for them in cities and communities across Canada. They were fleeing from the Great Hunger in Ireland (1845-1851). The Great Hunger or Great Irish Famine took the lives of over one million people from outright starvation and infectious disease. The underlying cause of the Great Irish Famine was the repeated failure of the potato crop in the mid-1840s which was the main source of food for the most destitute classes in Irish society. The enormous death toll was greatly exacerbated, however, by the failure of the British government to provide adequate relief, even when it had the means to do so. It was Europe’s most devastating catastrophe in the nineteenth century.

The sudden arrival of Irish Famine emigrants across British North America in 1847 overwhelmed the civic officials and priests and nuns who tried to care for them. They died in great numbers in Quebec or Canada East, where approximately six thousand Irish people were buried at the quarantine station at Grosse Île, now operated by Parks Canada as Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. Another six thousand emigrants died in the fever sheds located near Montreal’s Pointe Saint Charles neighbourhood. In Montreal, they were cared for by female religious orders such as the Sisters of Charity, or Grey Nuns, who kept detailed annals about their suffering. Irish Famine emigrants also lie buried in Middle Island, Miramichi, and Partridge Island, Saint John quarantine stations in New Brunswick.

The Irish Famine Migration to Ontario (Canada West)

The Irish Famine Migrant Stories in Ontario virtual exhibit allows you to complete their journey and follow in the footsteps of Famine Irish emigrants to Canada West. No less than in Quebec, the sudden arrival of the Famine Irish by steamboat and canal barge in cities and communities across Ontario quickly overwhelmed the people who sought to care for them. They often inadvertently spread infectious diseases like typhus inland. During the summer of 1847, almost forty thousand desperate Irish migrants arrived in Toronto, which had a population of only half that size. Many died and were buried in mass graves of approximately 1200 people in Toronto and 1400 in Kingston. Smaller burial grounds in Bytown (Ottawa), Cornwall, and Burlington Heights near Hamilton also filled with Famine dead. It was proportionately the most devastating refugee crisis in Canadian history.

This virtual exhibit allows you to discover the stories and pay tribute to these Famine Irish emigrants and their Canadian caregivers who risked and gave their lives. You will learn about these Canadian caregivers such as Dr. George Robert Grasett, Bishop Michael Power, Emigration Agent Edward McElderry, and Sister Élisabeth Bruyère. You will discover the unpublished eyewitness accounts of the Famine Irish in Ontario such as the diaries of Stephen De Vere and John Young. Ultimately, this exhibit will help you appreciate Canada’s history as an immigrant receiving country. This story of the Famine Irish in Ontario will inspire you with the legacy of care and compassion they received.

The Irish Famine Migrant Stories in Ontario virtual exhibit has six key themes and sections:

Theme 1
Sacrifice: Toronto’s Dr. Grasett

It begins with Sacrifice: Toronto’s Dr. Grasett and emergency responses to the arrival of the Famine Irish, as witnessed from the perspective of their Canadian caregivers.

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Street map grid with twelve black rectangles marking site of fever sheds.
Toronto Street Map with Fever Sheds at King and John Streets

Theme 2
Bearing Witness: Stephen De Vere’s Famine Diary (1847-1848)

The exhibit’s second theme is that of Bearing Witness: Stephen De Vere’s Famine Diary (1847-1848). It features the remarkable, unpublished diary of Stephen De Vere, who travelled below deck in the steerage of a transatlantic vessels with Irish emigrants in 1847. He sought to expose the harrowing conditions on board coffin ships.

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Photograph of red leather bound journal with gold coloured clasp, frayed at bottom.
Stephen De Vere’s Famine Diary

Theme 3
Traumatized Survivors in Niagara

Traumatized Survivors in Niagara provides the third exhibit theme. It traces a group of Irish emigrants who sailed on some of the worst coffin ships from the Strokestown estate of Major Denis Mahon in County Roscommon to the Niagara region of Ontario. Two of them were murderers.

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Man with beard and dark blue sweatshirt with 'Canada' inscribed in red faces camera at railing of Niagara Falls.
Professor Mark McGowan recounts how Strokestown Famine Emigrant Thomas Brennan Murdered his Companions in Niagara

Theme 4
Kingston and Toronto’s Famine Orphans

The fourth theme concerns the plight of Kingston and Toronto’s Famine orphans. It emphasizes the resilience of these child migrants who lost their parents during the trans-Atlantic voyage and in Canadian fever sheds.

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Nun in habit leaning over sick man in bed in open air, priest kneeling at his side, a second nun sitting at a small table preparing medicine, a bridge, tents, and sheds in the background with other people on the shoreline of a large lake. Large tree in foreground.
"Drawing of Sister Bourbonnierre and other sisters visiting the Irish ill with typhus in Kingston fever sheds on the shoreline of Lake Ontario". Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph, St. Joseph Region Archives, Kingston, ON, K-175.

Theme 5
Compassion and Struggle: Sister Bruyère in Bytown

Compassion and Struggle: Sister Bruyère in Bytown is the fifth theme. It explores her story of female empowerment and independence in caring for Famine emigrants, despite the barriers that faced many women in nineteenth-century Canada.

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Nun in habit clasping arms with female child in a dress, three wooden buildings with gabled windows and trees in background.
Bytown Grey Nun with orphaned child in front of Carney and Emigrant Hospital on Bolton (now Bruyère) street, Archives of the Sisters of Charity Ottawa -P-M1/0004

Theme 6
Remembering Family Stories

Remembering Family Stories is the final theme. It brings together the living descendants of Famine emigrants such as Bridget Ann Treacy, Sarah Kaveney, and Rose and Barney Murphy who survived shipwrecks on board the Carricks and Hannah to start new lives in Canada and Ontario. Their successors today share precious family heirlooms, mementos and memories.

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Black and white photograph of young woman in dark dress with arms folded in her lap, hair tied in a bun beneath.
Irish Famine Emigrant Bridget Ann Treacy: "The Belle of Whitby"

Explore The Map Of Irish Famine Migration Routes And Sites In Canada West, Ontario

John Tallis Map of West Canada or Ontario, 1850.
Map of Irish Famine Migration Routes in Canada West

Locations traveled for Irish Famine Migrants

  1. Ottawa

    Compassion and Struggle: Sister Bruyère in Bytown

    Remembering Family Stories

    Ottawa Valley Legacies

  2. Westport

    Remembering Family Stories

    Jane Murphy recalling the arrival of her ancestors on the shipwrecked vessel Hannah from Newry, County Down, in 1849

  3. Kingston

    Kingston and Toronto's Famine Orphans

    Finding Emigrant Graves

  4. Peterborough

    Finding Emigrant Graves

  5. Whitby

    Remembering Family Stories

    Terry Anne Smith recalling the arrival of her ancestor Bridget Ann Treacy to Whitby in 1847

  6. Toronto

    Sacrifice: Toronto's Dr. Grasett

  1. Mississauga

    Remembering Family Stories

    Rose Marie Stanley recalling her ancestor Sarah Ann Kaveney who sailed on the shipwrecked Carricks from Sligo in 1847

  2. Guelph

    Sacrifice: Toronto's Dr. Grasett

  3. Hamilton

    Sacrifice: Toronto's Dr. Grasett

    Remembering Family Stories

    Brenda Sissons recalling the arrival of her ancestor Margaret Conlon at Grosse Isle where she lost her family and was then adopted by the Mulholland family in Hamilton

  4. Niagara

    Traumatized Survivors in Niagara

  5. Port Robinson

    Chasing an Assassin

    The mastermind behind the assassination of Major Denis Mahon at Strokestown Park, Andrew Connor, fled to Port Robinson to become a labourer with his brothers on the Welland Canal.

  6. London

    Bearing Witness: Stephen De Vere's Famine Diary (1847-1848)

Discover The Interactive Timeline Of Irish Famine Migration To Ontario, Canada West, 1847-1849