The island of Grosse Île lies 30 miles downstream of Quebec City in the St. Lawrence River. Once a quarantine station for ships bringing immigrants to the Canadas from Europe, mid-nineteenth-century outbreaks of cholera and typhus led to several thousand Irish deaths aboard ships in quarantine and on Grosse Île itself. This trauma has lived on in the Irish diaspora’s memorialisation of the island as a place of anguish and death that ultimately symbolised the Irish diaspora’s flight to North America.
In 1847, over 100,000 Irish sailed to Canada, although an estimated one in five did not survive due to harsh conditions on the ships.
The first “Famine ship” arrived on 17 May 1847, the ice still an inch thick on the river. Of that ship’s 241 passengers, 84 were stricken with fever and 9 had died on board. With the hospital only equipped for 150 cases of fever, the situation quickly spun out of control. More and more ships arrived at Grosse Île each day, sometimes lining up for miles down the St. Lawrence River throughout the summer. On these coffin ships – named for their crowded and deadly conditions – the number of passengers stricken by fever increased exponentially.
In 1832, a cholera epidemic in Europe led to the uninhabited island being turned into a quarantine station for immigrant ships on their way to Quebec City. The original low white hospital buildings and, behind them, a small church, still stand, hiding among the trees at what is now the Irish Memorial National Historic Site.
Today the island is a National Historic Site that serves as a Famine memorial. It was dedicated in 1996 after a four-year-long campaign to protect the mass gravesite.