As most know, Saturday was St. Patrick’s Day. A national holiday in Ireland, the scale of celebrations in North America eclipse those of the home nation with many becoming “Irish for the day”. Around this St. Patrick’s day, Peter Aitken, our Communications Coordinator and I decided to reflect on an important chapter of Irish-Canadian history with deep ties to my new home: the City of Kingston. This blog is a combined effort, with Peter having done much of the writing and the research.
The Great Irish Hunger (Án Gorta Mór) of 1845-49 led to one of the largest migrations of people to Canada in our history. One hundred thousand people passed through the Grosse Isle quarantine station, in the lower St. Lawrence River. By some estimates almost half were infected with typhus, or “ship fever” as it came to be known. Sick and in appalling circumstances, many of these poor souls boarded ships bound for Montreal, Bytown (now Ottawa), Toronto and Kingston.[i]
Kingston was then a modest-sized port town of approximately 10,000 residents. In 1847, at the peak of the Án Gorta Mór migration, 50,000 Irish arrived at our shore. Thomas Kirkpatrick, Kingston’s first Mayor, and 17 of his 22 Aldermen/Councilors were Irish, and sympathetic to the plight of these people.
Not yet fully constructed (the men’s ward of Hotel Dieu had no roof and even still it was put into use), our local hospitals were absolutely overwhelmed. “Fever” sheds were constructed just across the street from my office near the Murney Tower. Under impossible circumstances, physicians, nurses and volunteers from our community did their best to ease the suffering. Their bravery and dedication is all the more remarkable, as many became infected and perished. “Caring for the sick, Sister Magorian died from typhus in December 1847, having become a novice in her Convent only six months earlier”[ii]
Of the more than 4,300 Irish who were hospitalized in Kingston, approximately 1,400 died. The victims were buried in a mass grave located at the site of Kingston General Hospital. The remains of the Án Gorta Mór epidemic were moved St. Mary’s Cemetery about two kilometres away. A Celtic Cross and angel of mercy statue mark this final resting place. The original burial mound is marked by a simple monument that is located on Stuart Street by the main entrance of KGH [iii].
Celtic Cross Memorials are also located at; Ontario and West streets, at Án Gorta Mór Park, and McBurney Park (also known as “Skeleton” Park). Notably, Án Gorta Mór Park and the Celtic Cross located there came to be largely through efforts of volunteers with the Kingston Irish Famine Commemorative Association.
Commemorative plaque at St. Mary’s Cemetary [iv]
Commemorative plaque in front of KGH on Stuart Street
And so, after the celebrations of Saturday, let us take a moment to reflect on their challenges of our ancestors. Indeed, for most of us Canadians, we are immigrants, recent or not so distant past. Let us think of the survivors who established a vibrant community in Kingston and our region. Let us also reflect on the members of the Kingston community who took in and tended to the sick and comforted the dying through this tragic period.
When writing this blog, I found myself thinking of the nurses, rehabilitation therapists, doctors, scientists, students, residents, and volunteers at Queen’s University and our partner hospitals; KGH, Hotel Dieu, and Providence Care, who are so dedicated to the patients of today. Then and now, I believe that Kingston is a caring community.
As a new Kingstonian, I am always delighted to learn more about the history of this wonderful city. If you have any interesting anecdotes or facts about the Irish community in Kingston, please comment on this blog, or better yet, please drop by the Macklem House…Peter’s door and my door are always open.
Richard and Peter