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Stephen De Vere's Biography

Stephen De Vere (1812-1904) was one of the most influential eyewitnesses of the Irish Famine migration of 1847. Although he was born into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish Protestant family in Curragh Chase, County Limerick, he felt closest to the Irish Catholic tenants on his estate, many of whom he sought to help escape from Ireland when it was stricken by the Great Hunger in 1847. He sailed with them across the Atlantic Ocean to start new lives in Canada. On 30 November, 1847, De Vere wrote a letter while he was in Toronto to Thomas Frederick Elliot that described the harrowing conditions Irish emigrants faced during the trans-Atlantic voyage. His letter had a profound impact on British parliamentarians after it was read aloud by the Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, in House of Lords and reproduced in the British Parliamentary Papers. It remains the most widely cited description of the Famine voyage. In De Vere’s own words:

Before the emigrant has been a week at sea he is an altered man. How could it be otherwise? Hundreds of poor people men, women, and children of all ages from the drivelling idiot of ninety to the babe just born, huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart, the fevered patients lying between the sound in sleeping places so narrow as almost to deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position, the natural restlessness of the disease, by their agonized ravings disturbing those around them and predisposing them, through the effects of the imagination, to imbibe the contagion; living without food or medicine except as administered by the hand of casual charity, dying without the voice of spiritual consolation and buried in the deep without the rites of the Church.

According to Stephen’s younger brother, Aubrey De Vere, he had risked his life when

he took passage for Canada with a considerable number of those who had been employed… under his supervision, and conducted them to Quebec, sharing with them all the sufferings and perils which then belonged to a crowded steerage passage. Those who escaped fever on their sea-passage frequently caught it on landing, the dormant seeds of disease becoming rapidly developed by the stimulus of better air and food, and by infection. It was so on this occasion. They reached Quebec in June of 1847, and in a short time nearly all of those whom he had taken with him and lodged in a large, healthy house were stricken down in succession, during a period covering about eight months, and received from him personally all the ministrations which they could have had from a hospital nurse... His letter describing the sufferings of emigrants was read aloud in the House of Lords by Earl Grey, then Secretary for the Colonies, and the "Passengers Act" was amended, due accommodations of all sorts being provided in the emigrant vessels. Most of those emigrants who on reaching Quebec went into the crowded and infected hospitals died there. It is impossible to guess how many thousands of emigrants may have been saved by this enterprise.
[Aubrey De Vere, Recollections of Aubrey De Vere (London: Edward Arnold, 1897), 253].

Indeed, De Vere’s eyewitness testimony was crucial in influencing British lawmakers to revise the “Passenger Acts” and improve conditions for emigrants on-board ships crossing the Atlantic.

Despite his influence, however, the fact that Stephen De Vere kept diaries during his voyage from Ireland to Canada in 1847-1848 remains little known. In April 1847, he had risked his life travelling below deck in the steerage of a transatlantic vessel while accompanying his former tenants to provide an eyewitness account of the hardships of the voyage. He personally escorted those who were at risk of starvation to help them resettle near London, Ontario, in the hope that he would inspire others to follow in his footsteps. His story is recorded in his remarkable red leather-bound diary. It remains unpublished and is made publicly accessible for the first time in this exhibit.

Stephen De Vere’s first diary entry for the voyage is dated 1 May, 1847, and the only thing that he writes is “sailed;” the next one is 9 June, when De Vere remarks that his passenger vessel the Birman is “Off Cape Breton in sight of land[,] having reached the banks of Newfoundland June 3rd.”.

It is not until his emigrant ship Birman reaches the quarantine station at Grosse Isle, Quebec, on 16 June, 1847, that De Vere begins to write lengthier entries into his journal:

Arrived at Grosse isle quarantine about 7 am. Detained waiting for dr till evening, when he inspected & gave us clean bill of health – abt. 40 ships detained there – villages of white tents on shore for the sick. Daily mortality about 150. One ship, Sisters of Liverpool, in with all passengers & crew in fever of this ship, all but the Cap’n and one girl died.

Laid alongside of “Jessy” in which many ill. Water covered with beds, cooking utensils refuse of the dead. Ghastly appearance of boats full of sick going ashore never to return. Several died between ship and shore. Wives separated from husbands, children from parents. Ascertained by subsequent enquiry that funds in agents hands altogether insufficient for care. Medical attendance bad. Exemplary conduct of Catholic Clergy.

As the Birman lay at anchor off Grosse Isle, De Vere bears witness to the grim traffic all around him of small vessels ferrying the sick and the dead from the coffin ships to the fever sheds and mass graves on the island. His journal records the spectacle of broken families, that moment of separation in which Irish children are orphaned and left bereft of their parents.

After he left Grosse Isle, De Vere remained a keen observer of his surroundings as he travelled up the St. Lawrence River. He arrived in Quebec City the next day on 17 June where he lodged a complaint against the ship’s captain, donated the £10 fine “for the use of destitute Emigrants,” and noted that the “Irish and [French-]Canadians dislike one another”.

At 6am on 24 June, De Vere reached Montreal, where he observed “Frightful mortality in the Emigrant Sheds hospitals & generally Throughout the town”. He remained in Montreal until 13 July and then travelled on to Toronto, marvelling at the beauty of the Canadian countryside, especially around a Thousand Islands, from the deck of his steamship. His first impression of Toronto was of St. Michael’s nearly completed “Magnificent Catholic Cathedral… building. Brick with cut stone door”.

Stephen De Vere remained in Ontario for a year between July 1847 and July 1848, though he never purchased a farm near London as he had intended. He was a keen observer of Canadian colonial growth and the cultivation of the wilderness. Indeed, De Vere was especially interested in the varieties of Canadian foliage, as his estate at Curragh Chase in County Limerick, Ireland, was in an area of old growth, hardwood forest – it is now an Irish state owned forest park – with its own arboretum. On 17 July, 1847, De Vere travelled by stage coach from Toronto to Holland Landing and he recorded the cultivation of the Canadian forests in each stage of its development.

Through his own eyes, Stephen De Vere saw the early spread of Toronto into its luxuriant woodlands and encroachment on the receding wilderness. He was highly sensitive to the Canadian landscapes he travelled through in Ontario in 1847 and 1848. Stephen De Vere’s impressions of Niagara Falls on 25 May, 1848 are beautifully described over several pages in his diary, as are his records of everyday Canadian life at that time, whether it is Christmas festivities, his frequent hunting excursions, his visit to the Munsee Delaware First Nation near St. Thomas Ontario and meeting with Ojibwa Methodist minister, translator, chief and author Peter Jones (1802-1856) on 23 June, 1848, or of trying to purchase a farm in the early settlement of London, Ontario. What recurs again and again in the unpublished De Vere diary are his perceptions and feelings of joy at the beauty of the Canadian landscape.

Ultimately, however, De Vere did not purchase land or remain in Ontario. In fact, he had an ulterior motive for his migration. As he wrote to his elder brother, Vere Edmund, on 11 February, 1848:

In my letters home I have left one thing unsaid, which is for you alone. You know what had been for a considerable time (8 or 9 years) the tendency of my religious opinions. I could no longer, when thrown independently upon the world, reconcile it to my conscience to conceal them & I have, since I reached America, conformed to the ordinances of the Catholic Church. Whether this has got wind at home, or not I do not know. My principal reason for leaving my own country was to save my mother the pain which I feared the avowal of my convictions would have caused to her, nor will I ever reside in Ireland if that avowal gives her more pain than my presence would give pleasure... I leave the matter wholly in your hands to disclose or conceal as you think best for my mother. Should your reply be unfavourable, I am determined, at any cost, to remain an exile for conscience sake. If favourable, being "functus officis" here, & having probably laid the foundation of much benefit to my native land, I am ready to return and share the fortunes of my family & home; but I will never live again at home concealing my faith, a faith from which I have derived strength to bear every hardship & consolation under every misfortune & privation.
[Trinity College Dublin, Manuscripts 5075a, 81-82].

There is no record of a reply to De Vere’s letter, but it must have been favorable, because he did return to Ireland in 1848 as an openly practicing Catholic, facilitating his younger brother Aubrey De Vere’s conversion a few years later.

As a convert to Catholicism who personally led his former tenants to resettle in British North America, Stephen De Vere does not fit the stereotype of the absentee Irish landlord whom many blamed for the extraordinary suffering during the Famine. Nevertheless, De Vere’s papers indicate that he decided not to remain in Ontario because of his former tenants’” disrespectful” attitude; he claimed “it is fortunate for me that I did not purchase a farm in the expectation of their performing their contract”. Several of his tenants left him and moved to the United States. Stephen De Vere also developed feelings of deep contempt for Americans on his own journeys to the United States. In Rochester, New York, on 3 September, 1847, he recorded these feelings in considerable detail.

More importantly, Stephen De Vere greatly admired many of the Canadians he met in Ontario. He was especially moved by people such as Toronto emigration agent Edward McElderry and Toronto’s Bishop Michael Power, both of whom gave their lives caring for Irish emigrants. He also bore witness to the intense suffering of the Famine Irish in Ontario. On 20 November, 1847, De Vere wrote:

A family from Mayo came out this year apparently in the most abject poverty. They consisted of a father mother uncle a little boy about 12 years old. They were transmitted to Toronto at the govt. expense. The mother was there taken into hospital suffering from a rapid cancer in the breast. She soon died. The father, uncle, little boy took a poor lodging close to me. I frequently met them and the father complaining to me of dysentery. I recommended him to send for a doctor, but he said he was too poor. He at last went into hospital, and died, from want of care in the early stage of the disease, leaving his little son in possession of 300 sovereigns tied up in an old rag, which had, during the voyage, been tied under the mother’s breast and had produced the cancer of which she died.

Moreover, on 9 January, 1848, Stephen De Vere was in Port Stanley, Ontario, when he observed the sight of:

a beggar in a lonely part of the bush heading towards an old burial ground [with] three coffins, [for each of his daughters] who had all died together of fever. So great was the fear of infection that none of the neighbours would attend the funeral. The old father… with the assistance of his wife, herself in fever, dug his daughters graves & buried their remains. In a few days the wife died, & the old man still survives, the last of his race.

These diary entries were never intended to be read by the public. They make clear that Famine Irish emigrants in Ontario were often feared and isolated in their suffering.

Stephen De Vere also paid tribute to their Canadian caregivers. On 6 November, 1847, he wrote that “I regret to hear of poor McElderry’s death of fever at Toronto”. He was also stricken by the death of Bishop Michael Power, whom De Vere recorded was “very ill of typhus fever” on 29 September. He was in Toronto on 1 October when Bishop Power passed away. De Vere recorded this in a very moving private obituary:

Rev. Michael Power Cath bishop of Toronto died this morning. He was a man of great generosity and nobleness, most kindly and charitable in a true and most extended kindly sense, an humble Christian. By his example, his justice, his unfailing attention to the duties of his high station, & the strictness of his discipline, he brought into perfect order a diocese which he found almost in anarchy. His death is attributable, under providence, to the noble and devoted zeal with which, since the illness of so many of his clergy, he has visited the beds of every sick and dying emigrant. He did not spare himself, but God has spared him a longer sojourn on earth. He was a man of no political party, of no religious bigotry. He was too strong-minded to be a bigot, & too wise to be a partisan. He was therefore respected and beloved by men of all creeds and parties. May Almighty God have Mercy on his soul.

Ultimately, Stephen De Vere was inspired by the Canadian caregivers of the Famine Irish such as Bishop Power and Edward McElderry who are commemorated in Ireland Park and Dr. George Robert Grasett Park in Toronto. He also increasingly saw it as his role to bear witness to the suffering of Irish emigrants and to remedy their plight. His famous letter that Lord Grey read aloud in the House of Lords exposing the harrowing conditions on coffin ships can be traced to De Vere’s unpublished diary entries and letters he wrote in Toronto. On 12 February, 1848, De Vere notes with satisfaction in his diary:

a report of a public meeting in Toronto, adopting almost verbatim my views as to the necessity of improvement in the emigration system. Thus I have the satisfaction of finding my opinions supported by the Canadian public, & at the same time likely to be adopted by the English ministry.

Ultimately, Stephen De Vere’s legacy was to help safeguard Irish emigrants at sea by bearing witness to their suffering. Before returned to Ireland in 1848, he was praised in the Church newspaper as a “zealous and devoted man”. “In Toronto he closely and frequently inspected the Hospital sheds, crowded as they were with contagious fever, and accompanied the Emigrant Agent [McElderry] in his visits to Steamers as they arrived with their loads of passengers, and to the Emigrants Sheds,” reported the Toronto “Patriot” on 23 May, 1848. The British Canadian (20 May, 1848) newspaper similarly noted that “in Toronto, this philanthropic gentleman attended in the emigrant office, and rendered much assistance to the lamented and indefatigable agent, Mr. McElderry, boarding with him every steamer filled with the wretched cargoes, and transmitting to the “proper authorities” the result of his laborious experience”. Stephen De Vere’s unpublished diaries provide an invaluable record of the Irish Famine migration to Canada and resettlement in Ontario 1847-1848.