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Disease epidemics have been the inspiration for many a writer and his work.  Boccaccio  wrote his Decameron at the time of the Black Death in 1348.  A recent article in the Guardian newspaper asked whether Shakespeare wrote King Lear in the lockdown of 1606. Even Joyce may have been inspired to write his first play (now lost, presumed destroyed by the author), A Brilliant Career, by the Dublin bubonic plague scare of 1900, according to Frank McNally in a recent article in the Irish Times.

In these days of COVID-19, it is difficult not to be reminded of other epidemics that have been visited upon our own city of Montreal and what the people have endured.  If you’ve seen Gearóid Ó Hallmhuráin’s documentary, The Lost Children of the Carricks, you may recall that the ship that was wrecked off the Gaspé coast, carrying victims of the Irish Famine in 1847, the Carricks, was the same ship that brought Cholera from Ireland to Montreal in 1832.  By the end of 1832, cholera had claimed more than 9,000 lives in Canada, the majority in Lower Canada (Quebec). The city of Montreal eventually recovered but not before the tinder of that epidemic and its anti-British, anti-immigrant sentiments gave rise to the 1837 Lower Canada Rebellion.

The typhus epidemic that visited Montreal in “Black ‘47”, the darkest year of the Great Irish Famine (An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger) was a devastating event for the city.  Between the years 1846 and 1848, over 250,000 Irish men, women and children migrated to Canada fleeing famine and disease.  In 1847 alone, 400 ships from Ireland and Great Britain, and over 100,000 passengers passed by the Island of Grosse-Île, many of the passengers sick from typhus and related diseases, destined for ports further up the St. Lawrence: Quebec City, Kingston and Toronto, but no Canadian city felt the impact of this mass migration more than the city of Montreal where more than 60,000 migrants disembarked from steamers sent up the St. Lawrence from the quarantine station at Grosse-Île. The city of only 50,000 was overwhelmed.

Citizen groups and the Board of Health demanded that all incoming immigrants be quarantined outside city limits on of the Boucherville Islands.  However, the city’s Joint Emigrant Commissioners decided that the best way to manage the epidemic was to construct an additional twenty-two sheds near the riverbank in Ponte Saint-Charles.  By the end of the season, hunger and disease had claimed more than 3,500 lives in the city, with many more who had died aboard ship and were buried along with their fellow-migrants, related care-givers, people from religious orders, doctors, nurses, administrators and even the mayor of Montreal, John Easton Mills.

The Black Rock or Ship Fever Monument, constructed in 1859, and which now sits on lonely traffic island at the foot of the Victoria Bridge, marks the mass grave of 6,000 victims of that dreadful year.  It is the oldest monument to the Great Irish Famine in the world, and while the monument has often been the subject of controversy (right up to the present day), the victims have never been forgotten.

The National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park and the Irish Heritage Trust are launching the Great Famine Voices Roadshow 2020 with a series of virtual events (documentaries and online lectures) beginning April 19th. “These “Famine Heroes” virtual events provide uplifting stories about coping with epidemic and pay tribute to caregivers, both in the mid-nineteenth century and today.” The show includes a virtual stop in Canada, on April 26 with the documentary The Famine Irish and Canada’s First Responders  featuring scholars, Kevin Moynihan, Mark McGowan and Christine Kinealy. The documentary tells the story of courage and compassion of Canada’s first responders to the crisis that landed on Canada’s shores in 1847.  More information of the events can be found on their website:

One thing we have learned from our past is that we are a resilient people.  This pandemic too, shall pass.  In the meantime, we will continue to rely on our compassion and creativity to see us through. Even with, in Joyce’s words, “No pen, no ink, no table, no room, no time, no quiet, no inclination”, we will continue to find ways to reach out to one another, to make art and to celebrate life.

— Miles Murphy

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