Irish visitors to Quebec City and Grosse Île

Grosse Isle Celtic Cross.jpg
Photo: Jay Ouellet

The Strokestown Youth Group gather around the Celtic Cross on Grosse Île.

A group of nine Irish teenagers and their supervisors, Caroilin Callery and Maggie Gallagher, were in Quebec City this past week, as part of the Year of the Gathering activities in Ireland. They came to retrace the steps of their ancestors, those who had left Ireland during the Great Famine in hopes of a better life in Canada.

The Quebec trip is the final stage of a three-year project. The group have retraced the steps of the Tye Family and the other 1,395 people from Strokestown who availed of "assisted passage." In reality it was "forced emigration." Their landlord Denis Mahon was clearing his land; he offered passage to Canada on commercial timber ships, totally unsuitable as passenger ships, but offering cheap passage as they were packed full with "human ballast." The end result was inevitable - coffin ships.

Retracing the footsteps of the emigrants to their isolation on Grosse Île was an emotional journey for the young Irish visitors. They walked where 12-year-old Daniel and nine-year-old Catherine Tighe / Tye had walked after their horrific journey on the Naomi. During the trip, the children's mother and brothers had died of typhus and were buried at sea.

The statistics are staggering: in the summer of 1847, 5,424 Irish emigrants were buried on Grosse Île. The Great Irish Famine is called the most catastrophic event of 19th-century Europe.

The group were welcomed by Jo-Anick Proulx and guided by Jean François. François told of the "worst" ship to sail into Quebec City in 1847: only seven people were able to walk ashore unaided; all the others had died on the voyage or were so ill they couldn't walk. The ship in question was the Virginus, one of four ships carrying the Strokestown emigrants. In her desperate attempt to save her family from extinction, Mary Tighe lost her own life and three of her five children died.

The group did a short piece of "performance art," a playlet called Lazaretto, portraying the typhus-stricken emigrants who disembarked from the ships and were immediately sent into isolation, where they lived or died.

The people of Strokestown say they will always be grateful to Canada, to Quebec, and especially to those on Grosse Île who, 167 years ago, tended the emigrants as humanely as they could.

The group were delighted that Lotbinière's Tye family could go with them to the island. The young people followed in the footsteps of Daniel and Catherine Tighe and visited the Tye farm, the same farm where the children lived after being adopted by François Coloumbe. Daniel and Catherine had left their two-acre potato plot in Strokestown, which fed their parents and five children, and arrived at a 168-acre farm in Lotbiniere. The Coulombe family allowed the Irish children to retain their last name.

The young people found Lotbinière "a beautiful place," not unlike Strokestown, itself a Heritage Town housing the National Irish Famine Museum, which is twinned with Grosse Île.

The next step in the Strokestown Gathering Celebration - the Tye family will "return" to Strokestown for the first time since their ancestors sailed, 167 years ago. To follow the story, go to Facebook or get regular updates and photos of the trip to Quebec, at www.strokestowngatheringcelebration.com.

The group thanks the people of Irish Heritage Quebec for their support, guidance, accommodation, and taxi service. They are grateful for the Irish hospitality extended to them, particularly by Rosemary Casey-Rouzier, James and Noëlline Donovan and John O'Connor.