Dean On Campus Blog

St. Patrick’s Day: A moment to reflect

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





4 Responses to St. Patrick’s Day: A moment to reflect

  1. Hossam Yassein says:

    Thank you Richard for this most interesting blog. I, myself, spent a decade in Kingston during my training and had never taken the time to make note of the various historical plaques. Last year, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my Queen’s Meds friend, Dr. Peter O’Neill (Meds ’85) who is currently on staff at KGH. He told me about his interest in adapting a walking tour of Kingston that highlighted historically significant sites. This would have been made available to new students and staff coming into Health Sciences. I certainly would have enjoyed and benefitted from this type of historical introduction to the area. It was he who first told me about KGH being the site of the mass grave you referred to in your blog. Having these historical reference points helps newcomers connect to the Kingston community. Thank you to you and Peter Aitken for enlightening us on this engaging bit of Kingston history.

    Hossam Yassein, Meds 86

    • reznickr says:

      Dear Hossam,

      Thanks for your comments and I am glad that you share in the view that this is an intersting piece of Kingston history. I am sure Peter O’Neill would be an engaging tour guide!.

      All my best,


  2. Thomas F Draper says:

    My Fowler ancestors came to Kingston in 1819 from Kilkenny, Ireland. They had farms which bordered the Rideau Canal which was the main route in 1847 for passage of the plague victims from Montreal via Bytown.
    By coincidence in the 1860smy Gr. Grandfather Michael Fowler acquired the farm on Collins Lake owned by the widow ofThomas Kirkpatrick. The Rideau Canal and Collins Lake farms remain in the family and are still active today.
    Thomas Draper, Meds ’55

    • reznickr says:

      Dear Dr.Draper,

      Thanks so much for sharing “your piece” of Kingston history. I am glad you still stay connected with us after 56 years! Hope to see you a one of our alumni events,


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