Grosse Isle and the Great Famine

Grosse Isle and the Great Famine

Grosse Isle was another tragedy made possible from the great famine, a mass death and heartbreaking tale of desparation continued from Ireland across the sea.

Any local from Dublin will tell you there was no famine but  there was …

a potato blight which destroyed the only food the British  allowed us enough land f to grow our own food from‘ It was more of a terrible hunger,  for if not for the British shipping every morsel of food out of our own country, there would be no famine at all..”

Famine shipsSeeing no other way to survive the famine, the Irish fled to America and Canada, bringing with them the lice in their clothes that created the dreaded ship fever (typhus) . Most knew absolutely nothing about the ocean. Nothing about ship travel, or how to prepare for their journey. Many died on board as surely as they would have died of the famine. Only the healthiest survived to land in Quebec or New  York City.

What happened at Grosse Isle  In the winter of 1847?

Grosse Isle tents

Regulations in Canada required ships with passengers coming up the St. Lawrence stop at a quarantine station on Grosse Isle, which was thirty miles downriver. At first glance, the first ship viewed the island as a welcome sight but this picture would change drastically. In the middle of the St. Lawrence, trees, shrubs, and a variety of colorful wild flowers grew down to the water’s edge giving Grosse Isle a magical fairy-land appearance to those looking on. A small white church nestled in the green trees. This was the promised land. The harbor of hope. The answer to every man, woman, and child’s prayers. Their misery was over. The long journey survived. Their life would be better from here on out, surely.

Grosse Isle 1The people of Canada were weary,despite reports from   Alexander Carlisle Buchanan the previous year. Buchanan  stated, ” the emigrants who landed to be well-to-do, healthy, and with a little capital.” Even if this were true the year before Canadians knew what to expect.


There were just too many of them. They tried to convince the government of the approaching catastrophe. It was all over the papers! The plight of the Irish! The mass exodus to the United States. The state of the feeble, ‘spectre-like-wretches’ as they docked in New York harbors. They worried about disease and implored the Canadian government to take action to protect them.

GRosse Isle Map #2

They also knew that Quebec was just a short stop before people descended on Montreal carrying with them pestilence from Ireland. When Canadians tried to convince Carlisle Buchanan to take up their plea he wrote, “it was a subject that did not come under the control of his department.”

Ship captain aboard famine ship


 Between the 26th and 29th of May thirty six vessels with 13,000 emigrants arrived at Grosse Isle. Doctor Douglas, the quarantine medical officer wrote, “in all the vessels cases of infectious dysentery and fever are present.” Forty more vessels stood in the St. Lawrence waiting; the line extended two miles downriver.

Grose Isle fever hospitalThe fever among the Irish was so great, stated Doctor Douglas, that relatives would desert each other when one got sick. Astronomical numbers of fever were reported and by July 2,500 people were sick on Grosse Isle! Many of the doctors who treated them died. Often, the only people who volunteered to help were priests and nuns until they too started to die off.  The famine had followed them from Ireland!

Grosse IsleMonument A monument  erected on Grosse Isle

Upon approaching Grosse Isle, the captain gave orders to steerage passengers to  throw out all their mattresses, refuse, and scrub down their quarters. If he had insisted on this throughout the voyage, lives could have been saved for it was the lice infested in bedding, clothing and disease from unsanitary conditions that perpetuated illness and death.

Grosse Isle PlaqueSeveral passengers kept diaries of their ordeals aboard ships with little water or food, terrible conditions and filth that kept typhus disease thriving throughout the journey. Read about the real descriptions of such things in my new revised version of 100 Things You Didn’t Know About Ireland  with 20 extra facts about the Irish Famine and 30 more about Irish history, the revised copy available September 1st. For a free Review copy add a comment here.

Grosse Isle GraveiyardA passenger aboard one of the worst famine ships called The Mersey, a man was heard to say after burying his wife on Grosse Isle, “I swear to you, Mary. I will avenge your death and go back to Ireland and shoot the landlord!”

7 thoughts on “Grosse Isle and the Great Famine

  1. I enjoyed this article so sad and hard to believe all the loss of lives from poor conditions. You can put yourself in those times with one’s imagination they way this was written. It make me say how lucky and grateful I am to have been born at a later time. I also loved 101 things about ireland it was nice to know facts I never knew. I hope the newer added version will be just as great. I look forward reading when I can get.

    • Hi Kathy, Yeah, I always think of my Great-Gran that came here too and if not for her what advantages I would not have had living in this great country. I hope we never forget the poor Irish that gave their lives or what they went through. I often think about them and all those other immigrants when I walk through a grocery store. Can you imagine! To have all those choices so easily obtained too when our ancestors had no choices at all, just the fact that food was there was a blessing if they had food at all. One thing I left out that some people are not aware of. The Irish did not land in a beautiful plentiful unprejudiced city. New York City was dirty, poverty stricken and loaded with pigs! Although parallel to this squalor were the upper class living in luxury.

  2. Yes, there is a significant difference between famine and enforced misery! As I got to the bottom of this piece wherein you wrote that many on the ships overseas kept journals. I said to myself, “Thank God for the written word!” This is an informative piece, Brighid. The small details , such as many not being versed in ship travel, were poignant. As usual, thank you for your post!

    • Hi Claire, thanks for visiting. I like how you phrased that ‘enforced misery’ and I have to wonder if the British thought to simply get rid of the Irish and saw this as opportunity. The landlords were not making any money and after the poor Irish left, a lot of those rural farms were replaced with cattle instead of crops. A similar thing happened in Scotland only they replaced the farms with sheep.

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