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Grosse Île

For the week of Monday May 11, 1998

On May 14, 1847, the first ship of the season arrived at Grosse Île, Quebec. The little quarantine station near the port of Québec braced itself to receive thousands of sick and starving emigrants, mostly from Ireland. Grosse Ile Quarantine Station began the most terrible summer of its 105-year history.

Irish emigrants leaving Cork

Irish emigrants leaving Cork
© Library and Archives Canada / C-3904

When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, thousands of people began emigrating to Canada from Great Britain and Ireland. At that time, Québec was by far Canada's largest entry port. In 1831-32, epidemic cholera reached England from India, and many migrants leaving for Canada carried the disease. To protect the people of Québec and Montréal, colonial authorities built Grosse Île Quarantine Station. After this crisis the quarantine station was expanded, but no one was prepared for the number of Irish immigrants who would arrive the summer of 1847.

The tragic events of 1847 on Grosse Île are linked to the Great Famine that afflicted Ireland from 1845 to 1849. These were traumatic years in Ireland's history. In less than a decade the population of Ireland fell from eight million to less than six million. Over one million people died of starvation, disease and malnutrition, and one million more chose to emigrate. Even today, the population of Ireland is still lower than it was in 1841.

The Great Famine reached a climax in 1847. In Québec City and Grosse Île, the situation soon became tragic, with over 100,000 immigrants arriving in a single season. In previous years, the average number of newcomers had been 25,000 to 30,000. Most of the immigrants who landed here at the height of the famine were Irish. Already weakened by malnutrition and starvation, they had been crowded aboard unsanitary sailboats, unfit for transporting human beings. They reached their destination in a deplorable state, many already infected with typhus, a disease which soon reached epidemic proportions.

Aerial view of Grosse Île

Aerial view of Grosse Île
© Parks Canada

The toll in human lives in 1847 was astounding: more than 5,000 perished at sea and 5,424 were buried on Grosse Île. Thousands more died in Québec, Montréal and Kingston. As word of the calamity at Grosse Île reached the mainland, an outpouring of compassion resulted. Hundreds of Irish orphans were taken in by Quebec families, who brought them up as their own. The Irish catastrophe also led to heroic and courageous actions by station staff, including military personnel and civilian volunteers. Some lost their own lives bringing help and comfort to the suffering people.

By 1850, 'The Great Irish Famine' had ended. After Confederation, the Canadian government intensified quarantine regulations against vessels carrying sick passengers, and Grosse Île remained in service until 1937. Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial earned recognition as a National Historic Site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1974.

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