August 21, 2019
By Cormac Noonan
Upon boarding the ferry set for Grosse Ile, I chose a seat in the corner that was positioned in a way as not to entice others to sit beside me. I usually like striking up conversations with strangers while travelling alone but today I didn’t want any small talk to get in the way of my experience on that ferry. I was content to be alone with my thoughts. As we set off for the island I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds made by the ferry’s engine as it spluttered its way out onto the St Lawrence river. I drifted back in time and onto another boat.
This one was much bigger and less comfortable as it was built to carry timber from Canada back to Europe. The ship’s name was The Superior but we referred to it as a coffin ship. It was June 1847 and my family and I were about to set sail from Derry to escape the Great Famine. We had now placed all of our hopes and dreams in Canada. We were told it was a country rich with food and labour. After two years of famine, Ireland had become nothing more than a land of misery and death. The only choice left for our family was to leave.
The conditions on board the Superior were much worse than we had anticipated. The food rations were much less than we were told and many on board the ship were sick with Typhus, a bacterial disease that caused frequent headaches, fever and a rash. We tried staying above deck to keep away from those who were sick but harsh storms at sea often forced us back below deck. There we stood huddled together like rats in a cage without light or clean air. There were 366 passengers on board our ship and because they were built for carrying timber and not passengers, it also meant there was hardly anywhere to sit. We had to piss and shit in pots. We tried to keep them away from us in the corner but the harsh seas frequently caused them to topple and spill everywhere.
It usually took around 30 days to cross the Atlantic and reach North American shores but our ship took three weeks longer. Food was now running dangerously low and more and more people were becoming sick and weak. It was August before we landed at Grosse Ile for quarantine and by then 18 people had died on route and 150 were now ill. My younger brother John was one of the sick.
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Back on the ferry I was awoken from my daydream by the harsh Quebecois accent that was now blasting from the speakers. We were about to dock at Grosse Ile for our tour of the island. The energy I felt disembarking that ferry was not one of anticipation or excitement. Rather it was one of contemplation and deep sorrow at the horrors I was surely about to witness. I felt a profound connection to the Irish who made that treacherous trip over 160 years ago, almost as if part of my DNA could remember it.
Once on the island we were told to stand beside the sign indicating which tour we had chosen. I chose the Irish Heritage tour along with a good handful of others. However, when asked who would be doing the tour in English, I was only one of three who put up their hand. The other two were a couple living in New Jersey. Larry was originally from Toronto with Irish roots and his wife Sue was born in New York but was of Colombian heritage. They were a nice couple and I immediately engaged in friendly conversation when I realized we’d be stuck together for the day. Larry told me about his grandfather from Antrim and his grandmother from Cork. They moved to Canada and settled initially in Prince Edward Island before making their way further inland to Toronto. Larry used to visit Prince Edward Island every summer and he went on to tell me about what happened back in 1755 to the Acadians living there. The Acadians originally came from France and settled in the regions that are now New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Larry described how they were thrown off their lands by the British and deported elsewhere with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The fate of these French settlers seemed to resonate closely with what the Irish people would face just under a century later.
As we sat and chatted on the tour bus my mood once again fell sombre as I noticed we were approaching the makeshift hospitals where thousands of sick Irish people spent the summer of 1847. My mind was drifting back in time again.
When we docked at Grosse Ile there was a line of ships queuing to get onto the island. I’m not sure exactly how many but it looked to be at least thirty. We were told that we’d have to wait on the ships because there wasn’t enough beds to deal with the huge numbers of Irish that were arriving. They had already built an emergency hospital to hold 300 people and they had army tents erected behind it to hold more. But there was only one doctor for every 300 patients and one nurse for every 150. Grosse Isle tried their best to prepare for an Irish influx but they couldn’t have anticipated the 100,000 that reached Canadian shores that year.
After almost two months at sea the last thing we wanted was to stay on that ship, but we had no choice. Typhus continued to spread among the passengers and crew and many people died over the coming days and weeks. Eventually John was allowed to be taken to the hospital on the island to be treated. He was only 14 and the doctors and nurses wanted to give precedence to children. I was allowed to accompany John to the hospital but it was chaos in there. Beds were lined up side by side the whole way down the building and nurses and doctors ran around frantically, trying their best to get to everyone. I remember looking out the door of one of the rooms and watching the St Lawrence river flow gently past as the water sparkled in the August sun. Seeing that beauty in the midst of such chaos, I wondered what had happened to our Canadian dream. I wondered what could have been had John and my parents not got sick. Mam and Dad were still on the ship and they too had contracted Typhus. They told me to look after John and make sure he was getting treated. Unfortunately I was only allowed to visit him every few days because I was one of the healthy and I had to stay on the western side of the island.
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As the bus pulled off from the Lazaretto – the hospital building was named after the Italian word for “place where sick people are isolated” – I sat quietly, taking in all the pain and suffering that happened in the building I had just walked around. I imagined what it must have been like for those lying on hospital beds looking out that same door as they awaited certain death. A door that showed the way to Quebec’s shores and a new life they would never get to live. I thought about my own journey to Canada and the privileged life I’ve been able to make for myself here. I thought about the ease at which I entered the country and how welcoming Canadians are to the Irish that come here today.
The tour then took us to visit the graveyard where those who died on Grosse Ile in the summer of 1847 were buried. Over 5,000 bodies lay under the soil and over 90 percent of them were Irish. The staff on Grosse Ile also paid for their efforts that summer as 260 members of staff became sick and 38 died. I sat down on the bank overlooking the mass graves. There were about 20 white crosses spread over the field, representing over 5,000 people. As the tour guide spoke of dates and numbers, I yet again sat quietly, this time with tears in my eyes. We made our way to look at the names of those who had died and that’s when I saw it.
Ten Noonan surnames were carved onto the glass. The tour guide suggested that most of them were likely from the same family. Maybe they were related to me somehow? Maybe that was the connection I felt? Did one or two others survive and make it to Quebec? Or maybe it was all in my head, who knows? I looked closely at the first names and there was Alex, Joseph, Patrick and John among the male names. Maybe John was that young boy I had imagined?
After three years working as an IT Consultant in Dublin, I became disillusioned with the routine of it all and decided to quit and pursue my dream of becoming a travel writer. I started a blog and set off for Canada to pursue a new life for myself. To create the new person I wished to be I believed it was best to escape my old environment in Ireland. Now, after almost two years travelling around Canada, I am embarking on my greatest adventure to date – an 1,800 kilometer Canadian cycle from Montréal to Cape Spear, Newfoundland.
Read the rest of Cormac’s journey:
August 21, 2019
By Cormac Noonan
My mother’s journey immigrating from China to Canada
In Our Place – Dan & Taya’s IEC Working Holiday in Banff
My year in Canada on an IEC work permit
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