Speech by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys TD, to the 2015 International Famine Commemoration, Celtic Cross, St Patricks Square, St John, New Brunswick
Mayor Norton, distinguished guests, people of Saint John and friends, I am delighted to be here at St Patrick’s Square this afternoon for the 2015 International Famine Commemoration. It is difficult to articulate the horror and tragedy endured by the people of Ireland during the Great Famine.
The event was of such magnitude that it not only changed Ireland forever, but had a profound effect on many nations across the globe, such were the multitudes who were forced to leave our shores.
As we gather here today, it is very important that we not only reflect on the losses we suffered as a people and as a nation, but also that we honour the triumph over adversity of those who survived emigration and thrived in their new, adopted lands.
Here today, looking at this beautiful and prosperous city, it is it hard to imagine those who arrived here over 150 years ago on ‘coffin ships’ to the ports of Prince Edward Island, Saint John, Montreal, Kingston and Toronto.
In the year 1847 alone, termed ‘Black ’47’, over 110,000 people made the voyage to Canada from Ireland. Many of these people would never live to see Canadian shores, succumbing to disease and the effects of starvation during the the long Atlantic crossing. Perhaps most brutally, some were destined to perish with help in sight.
The story of the brig, ‘Hannah’, is a harrowing parable for the entire Famine era. The ‘Hannah’ set sail from Warrenpoint in Co. Down on 3rd April 1849 en route for Quebec with almost 200 passengers on board.
They were mostly from the towns of Newry and Warrenpoint, located in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains. 26 days into her journey, the ‘Hannah’ struck an iceberg in stormy conditions in the Gulf of St Lawrence and, abandoned by its captain and officers on the only lifeboat, sank with the loss of at least 49 lives.
In contrast to the horrific fate of those on the ‘Hannah’, other voyages were more successful. The Lady Caroline sailed from Warrenpoint on June 4th 1847 and arrived here in Saint John, a stone’s throw from where we now stand, on July 23rd 1847.
The following excerpt from a letter written to the Emigration Office in Saint John just four days after the Lady Caroline docked, describes how fortunate those on board felt to survive the journey:
“I have to report the arrival of the Barque “Lady Caroline” ….with 103 passengers…
“It is very satisfactory to report that neither sickness or death occurred on board this vessel during the voyage, and that the passengers were landed in cleanly condition and a healthy state. The emigrants by this vessel express much gratitude to the master for his kindness to them during the voyage, and the great attention paid to their comfort and cleanliness.”
Last month it was my great privilege to lead Ireland’s Annual Famine Commemoration in Newry, Co. Down. Newry is just 7 miles the port of Warrenpoint, from which both the Hannah and the Lady Caroline set sail almost 170 years ago.
The day after the ceremony in Newry we gathered in Warrenpoint and unveiled a monument to commemorate those who left that port during the Famine to find sanctuary here in New Brunswick.
So I am delighted to be unveiling a plaque here today which will also act as a lasting testament to the link established between this province and Warrenpoint, Co. Down over five generations ago.
Of course, not all emigrants who arrived here were as lucky as those on the Lady Caroline. Many reached these shores in a deplorable state, a great number already infected with typhus, a disease which soon reached epidemic proportions.
Quarantine stations, such as those on Partridge Island and Middle Island in Miramichi, provided shelter for the suffering and dying when they arrived and for many this care and compassion was the difference between life and death.
During these desperate times, the people of Canada, many of whom were descendants of earlier waves of Irish immigration, provided much needed help and compassion to the impoverished emigrants.
Indeed, many Canadians put their own lives in peril in order to assist the famished and desolate. The impact of the numbers arriving in Canada was staggering, illustrated in many of the accounts provided at the time, including that of G.M. Douglas, the Medical Superintendent in Quebec who wrote on 27 December 1847:
“There were still 35 vessels in quarantine, having on board 12,175 souls, and great numbers of these falling ill and dying daily. It is with much difficulty that people could be found to make coffins, dig graves and bury the dead. As already observed, all our regular hospital servants were either ill or exhausted by fatigue”.
There are numerous such stories of the heroism of Canadian medical staff that ministered to the Irish arrivals. Many of those people paid for their kindness and professionalism with their own lives.
The death toll amongst the arrivals was vast, with up to twenty thousand Irish Famine victims lying buried in mass graves in Saint John, Montreal, Grosse Isle, Hospital Island, Miramichi, Cornwall, Toronto and Hamilton. But the efforts of those Canadian medics and nurses helped ensure that many of you, descendants of those ill and starving masses, are here with us today.
One of my main reasons for coming here to New Brunswick is to pay tribute to these brave souls. We can imagine that those emigrants who did survive, against all the odds, who had suffered so much and witnessed horrors beyond measure, were uniquely determined to succeed in their new homes. With sheer force of will, these people recovered, laboured, prospered and began to build a legacy in their adopted homeland which continues to exert a profound influence today.
Here in Canada, as in the United States of America, Australia and Britain, the Irish Diaspora played a fundamental role in the development of the political, sociological and cultural life. I like to think of this as the true legacy of the Great Famine.
The emigration experienced during the Famine delivered a gift of Irish influence in Canada and all across the world, which remains as strong and influential in the times of Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney as it was in those of Lester B. Pearson and Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
You may be aware, we are three years in to the Decade of Centenaries. While many of these events we are commemorating, such as the First World War, recall shared loss of loved ones, they also represent an opportunity for us to honour the courage and idealism of our forebears and the progress that we have achieved as communities and societies who share a common heritage of humanity and democracy.
As Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht I am leading the Government’s commemorative programme. The forthcoming centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916 is a milestone for Irish people at home and abroad.
The Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme is a national and international initiative to remember the events of 1916, reflect on our achievements over the last 100 years, and look ambitiously to the future. We have developed a rich programme of events and initiatives to ensure that the 1916 Rising is remembered in an inclusive, appropriate and respectful way.
The programme has a significant international element, with numerous events planned across Canada. Our embassy in Ottawa is working closely with the Canadian schools of Irish/Celtic Studies, the Canadian Association of Irish Studies, and local historians on a series of conferences on 1916. Events have already been confirmed in St. John’s Newfoundland, Halifax and Toronto.
Just as today we celebrate the ongoing contribution to Canada of the descendants of those who travelled here in the 1840s, our programme of events in 2016 will celebrate the link between the Irish people at home and those who identify as Irish abroad.
Ireland’s first comprehensive Diaspora policy, published in March this year, finds its roots in Article 2 of the Constitution of Ireland which states that “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”.
There can be no more clear-cut statement of the importance of the relationship between Ireland and our diaspora. The bond will always remain strong and enduring.
Finally, I would like to express my sincere gratitude, on behalf of the Irish Government’s National Famine Commemoration Committee, to the Irish-Canadian Cultural Association and everyone else who have contributed to the commemorative events taking place here this week.
The Irish people will truly never forget this horrific time in our history, nor will we forget the generous welcome given by the people of Canada, and particularly the hand of friendship and assistance offered by the people of New Brunswick to those distraught and desolate masses that came to these beautiful shores.
Go raibh maith agaibh.