The Irish Exodus to Canada: Grosse Isle, 1847-8.From `The Irish in America' by John Francis Maguire, 1868.
The Irish Exodus--The Quarantine at Grosse Isle--The Fever Sheds -- Horrors of the Plague--The 'Unknown' -- The Irish Orphans--The good Canadians--Resistless Eloquence--One of the Orphans--The Forgotten Name--The Plague in Montreal--How the Irish died--The Monument at Point St. Charles--The Grave-mound in Kingston--An illustrious Victim in Toronto--How the Survivors pushed on--The Irish in the Cities of Upper Canada --The Education System--The Dark Shadow--The Poison of Orangeism--The only Drawback.
I HAVE more than once referred to the unfavourable circumstances under which the vast majority of the Irish arrived in America, and the difficulties with which, in a special degree, they had to contend; but the picture would be most imperfect were not some reference made to the disastrous emigration of the years 1847 and 1848--to that blind and desperate rush across the Atlantic known and described, and to be recognised for time to come, as the Irish Exodus. We shall confine our present reference to the emigration to Canada, and track its course up the waters of the St. Lawrence. A glance even at a single quarantine --that of Grosse Isle, in the St. Lawrence, about thirty miles below Quebec--while affording a faint idea of the horrors crowded into a few months, may enable the reader to understand with what alarm the advent of the Irish was regarded by the well-to-do colonists of British America; and how the natural terror they inspired, through the terrible disease brought with them across the ocean, deepened the prejudice against them, notwithstanding that their sufferings and misery appealed to the best sympathies of the human heart.
On the 8th of May, 1847, the `Urania,' from Cork, with several hundred immigrants on board, a large proportion of them sick and dying of the ship-fever, was put into quarantine at Grosse Isle. This was the first of the plague-smitten ships from Ireland which that year sailed up the St. Lawrence. But before the first week of June as many as eighty-four ships of various tonnage were driven in by an easterly wind; and of that enormous number of vessels there was not one free from the taint of malignant typhus, the offspring of famine and of the foul ship-hold. This fleet of vessels literally reeked with pestilence. All sailing vessels,--the merciful speed of the well-appointed steamer being unknown to the emigrant of those days,--a tolerably quick passage occupied from six to eight weeks; while passages of ten or twelve weeks, and even a longer time, were not considered at all extraordinary at a period when craft of every kind, the most unsuited as well as the least seaworthy, were pressed into the service of human deportation.
Who can imagine the horrors of even the shortest passage in an emigrant ship crowded beyond its utmost capability of stowage with unhappy beings of all ages, with fever raging in their midst? Under the most favourable circumstances it is impossible to maintain perfect purity of atmosphere between decks, even when ports are open, and every device is adopted to secure the greatest amount of ventilation. But a crowded emigrant sailing ship of twenty years since, with fever on board!--the crew sullen or brutal from very desperation, or paralysed with terror of the plague--the miserable passengers unable to help themselves, or afford the least relief to each other; one-fourth, or one-third, or one-half of the entire number in different stages of the disease; many dying, some dead; the fatal poison intensified by the indescribable foulness of the air breathed and rebreathed by the gasping sufferers--the wails of children, the ravings of the delirious, the cries and groans of those in mortal agony! Of the eighty-four emigrant ships that anchored at Grosse Isle in the summer of 1847, there was not a single one to which this description might not rightly apply.
The authorities were taken by surprise, owing to the sudden arrival of this plague-smitten fleet, and, save the sheds that remained since 1832, there was no accommodation of any kind on the island. These sheds were rapidly filled with the miserable people, the sick and the dying, and round their walls lay groups of half-naked men, women, and children, in the same condition--sick or dying. Hundreds were literally flung on the beach, left amid the mud and stones, to crawl on the dry land how they could. 'I have seen,' says the priest who was then chaplain of the quarantine, and who had been but one year on the mission, `I have one day seen thirty-seven people lying on the beach, crawling on the mud, and dying like fish out of water.' Many of these, and many more besides, gasped out their last breath on that fatal shore, not able to drag themselves from the slime in which they lay. Death was doing its work everywhere--in the sheds, around the sheds, where the victims lay in hundreds under the canopy of heaven, and in the poisonous holds of the plague-ships, all of which were declared to be, and treated as, hospitals.
From ship to ship the young Irish priest carried the consolations of religion to the dying. Amidst shrieks, and groans, and wild ravings, and heart-rending lamentations, --over prostrate sufferers in every stage of the sickness--from loathsome berth to loathsome berth, he pursued his holy task. So noxious was the pent-up atmosphere of these floating pest-houses, that he had frequently to rush on deck, to breathe the pure air, or to relieve his overtaxed stomach: then he would again plunge into the foul den, and resume his interrupted labours.
There being, at first, no organisation, no staff, no available resources, it may be imagined why the mortality rose to a prodigious rate, and how at one time as many as 150 bodies, most of them in a half-naked state, would be piled up in the dead-house, awaiting such sepulture as a huge pit could afford. Poor creatures would crawl out of the sheds, and being too exhausted to return, would be found lying in the open air, not a few of them rigid in death. When the authorities were enabled to erect sheds sufficient for the reception of the sick, and provide a staff of physicians and nurses, and the Archbishop of Quebec had appointed a number of priests, who took the hospital duty in turn, there was of course more order and regularity; but the mortality was for a time scarcely diminished. The deaths were as many as 100, and 150, and even 200 a day, and this for a considerable period during the summer. The masters of the quarantine-bound ships were naturally desirous of getting rid as speedily as possible of their dangerous and unprofitable freight; and the manner in which the helpless people were landed, or thrown, on the island, aggravated their sufferings, and in a vast number of instances precipitated their fate. Then the hunger and thirst from which they suffered in the badly-found ships, between whose crowded and stifling decks they had been so long pent up, had so far destroyed their vital energy that they had but little chance of life when once struck down.
About the middle of June the young chaplain was attacked by the pestilence. For ten days he had not taken off his clothes, and his boots, which he constantly wore for all that time, had to be cut from his feet. A couple of months elapsed before he resumed his duties; but when he returned to his post of danger the mortality was still of fearful magnitude. Several priests, a few Irish, the majority French Canadians, caught the infection; and of the twenty-five who were attacked, seven paid with their lives the penalty of their devotion. Not a few of these men were professors in colleges; but at the appeal of the Archbishop they left their classes and their studies for the horrors and perils of the fever sheds.
It was not until the 1st of November that the quarantine of Grosse Isle was closed. Upon that barren isle as many as 10,000 of the Irish race were consigned to the grave-pit. By some the estimate is made much higher, and 12,000 is considered nearer the actual number. A register was kept, and is still in existence, but it does not commence earlier than June 16, when the mortality was nearly at its height. According to this death-roll, there were buried, between the 16th and 30th of June, 487 Irish immigrants 'whose names could not be ascertained.' In July, 941 were thrown into nameless graves; and in August, 918 were entered in the register under the comprehensive description--'unknown.' There were interred, from the 16th of June to the closing of the quarantine for that year, 2,905 of a Christian people, whose names could not be discovered amidst the confusion and carnage of that fatal summer. In the following year, 2,000 additional victims were entered in the same register, without name or trace of any kind, to tell who they were, or whence they had come. Thus 5,000 out of the total number of victims were simply described as 'unknown.'
This deplorable havoc of human life left hundreds of orphans dependent on the compassion of the public; and nobly was the unconscious appeal of this multitude of destitute little ones responded to by the French Canadians. Half naked, squalid, covered with vermin generated by hunger, fever, and the foulness of the ship's hold, perhaps with the germs of the plague lurking in their vitiated blood, these helpless innocents of every age--from the infant taken from the bosom of its dead mother to the child that could barely tell the name of its parents--were gathered under the fostering protection of the Church. They were washed, and clad, and fed; and every effort was made by the clergy and nuns who took them into their charge to discover who they were, what their names, and which of them were related the one to the other, so that, if possible, children of the same family might not be separated for ever. A difficult thing it was to learn from mere infants whether, among more than 600 orphans, they had brothers or sisters. But by patiently observing the little creatures when they found strength and courage to play, their watchful protectors were enabled to find out relationships which, without such care, would have been otherwise unknown. If one infant ran to meet another, or caught its hand, or smiled at it, or kissed it, or showed pleasure in its society, here was a clue to be followed; and in many instances children of the same parents were thus preserved to each other. Many more, of course, were separated for ever, as these children were too young to tell their own names, or do anything save cry in piteous accents for 'mammy, mammy!' until soothed to slumber in the arms of a compassionate Sister.
The greater portion of the orphans of the Grosse Isle tragedy were adopted by the French Canadians, who were appealed to by their cures at the earnest request of Father Cazeau, then Secretary to the Archbishop, and now one of the Vicars General of the Archdiocese of Quebec. M. Cazeau is one of the ablest of the ecclesiastics of the Canadian Church, and is no less remarkable for worth and ability than for the generous interest he has ever exhibited for the Irish people. Father Cazeau had employed his powerful influence with the country clergy to provide for the greater number of the children; but some 200 still remained in a building specially set apart for them, and this is how these 200 Irish orphans were likewise provided for:
Monsignor Baillargeon, Bishop of Quebec, was then curé of the city. He had received three or four of the orphans into his own house, and among them a beautiful boy of two years, or perhaps somewhat younger. The others had been taken from him and adopted by the kindly habitans, and become part of their families; but the little fellow, who was the curé's special pet, remained with him for nearly two years. From creeping up and down stairs, and toddling about in every direction, he soon began to grow strong, and bold, and noisy, as a fine healthy child would be; but though his fond protector rejoiced in the health and beauty of the boy, he found him rather unsuited to the quiet gravity of a priest's house, and a decided obstacle to study and meditation. In the midst of his perplexity, of which the child was the unconscious cause to the Curé of Quebec, a clergyman from the country arrived in town. This priest visited M. Baillargeon, who told him that he had 200 poor orphan children--the children of 'the faithful Catholic Irish'--still unprovided with a home, and he was most anxious that his visitor should call on his parishioners to take them. `Come,' said he, 'I will show you a sample of them, and you can tell your people what they are like.' Saying this, M. Baillargeon led his visitor up-stairs, and into the room where, in a little cot, the orphan child was lying in rosy sleep. As the light fell upon the features of the beautiful boy, who was reposing in all the unrivalled grace of infancy, the country cure was greatly touched: he had never, he said, seen a 'lovelier little angel' in his life. 'Well,' said M. Baillargeon, 'I have 200 more as handsome. Take him with you, show him to your people, and tell them to come for the others.' That very night the boat in which he was to reach his parish was to start; and the cure wrapped the infant carefully in the blanket in which he lay, and, without disturbing his slumber, bore him off to the boat, a valued prize.
The next Sunday a strange sight was witnessed in the parish church of which the cure was the pastor. The priest was seen issuing from the sacristy, holding in his arms a boy of singular beauty, whose little hands were tightly clasped, half in terror, half in excitement, round the neck of his bearer. Every eye was turned towards this strange spectacle, and the most intense curiosity was felt by the congregation, in a greater degree by the women, especially those who were mothers, to learn what it meant. It was soon explained by their pastor, who said:--`Look at this little boy! Poor infant! (Here the cure embraced him.) Look at his noble forehead, his bright eyes, his curling hair, his mouth like a cherub's! Oh, what a beautiful boy! (Another embrace, the half-terrified child clinging closer to the priest's breast, his tears dropping fast upon the surplice.) 'Look, my dear friends, at this beautiful child, who has been sent by God to our care. There are 200 as beautiful children as this poor forlorn infant. They were starved out of their own country by bad laws, and their fathers and their poor mothers now lie in the great grave at Grosse Isle. Poor mothers! they could not remain with their little ones. You will be mothers to them. The father died, and the mother died; but before she died, the pious mother--the Irish Catholic mother--left them to the good God, and the good God now gives them to you. Mothers, you will not refuse the gift of the good God! (The kindly people responded to this appeal with tears and gestures of passionate assent.) Go quickly to Quebec; there you will find these orphan children--these gifts offered to you by the good God--go quickly--go to-morrow--lose not a moment--take them and carry them to your homes, and they will bring a blessing on you and your families. I say, go to-morrow without fail, or others may be before you. Yes, dear friends, they will be a blessing to you as they grow up, a strong healthy race--fine women, and fine men, like this beautiful boy. Poor child, you will be sure to find a second mother in this congregation.' (Another embrace, the little fellow's tears flowing more abundantly; every eye in the church glistening with responsive sympathy.)
This was the curé's sermon, and it may be doubted if Bossuet or Fenelon ever produced a like effect. Next day there was to be seen a long procession of waggons moving towards Quebec; and on the evening of that day there was not one of the 200 Irish orphans that had not been brought to a Canadian home, there to be nurtured with tenderness and love, as the gift of the Bon Dieu. Possibly, in some instances that tenderness and love were not requited in after life, but in most instances the Irish orphan brought a blessing to the hearth of its adopted parents. The boy whose beauty and whose tears so powerfully assisted the simple oratory of the good cure is now one of the ablest lawyers in Quebec--but a French Canadian in every respect save in birth and blood.
As soon as good food and tender care had restored vigour to their youthful limbs, the majority of the orphans played in happy unconsciousness of their bereavement; but there were others, a few years older, on whom the horrors of Grosse Isle had made a lasting impression.
A decent couple had sailed in one of the ships, bringing with them two girls and a boy, the elder of the former being about thirteen, the boy not more than seven or eight. The father died first, the mother next. As the affrighted children knelt by their dying mother, the poor woman, strong in her faith, with her last accents confided her helpless offspring to 'the protection of God and His Blessed Mother,' and told them to have confidence in the Father of the widow and the orphan. Lovingly did the cold hand linger on the head of her boy, as, with expiring energy, she invoked a blessing upon him and his weeping sisters. Thus the pious mother died in the fever-shed of Grosse Isle. The children were taken care of, and sent to the same district, so as not to be separated from each other. The boy was received into the home of a French Canadian; his sisters were adopted by another family in the neighbourhood. For two weeks the boy never uttered a word, never smiled, never appeared conscious of the presence of those around him, or of the attention lavished on him by his generous protectors, who had almost come to believe that they had adopted a little mute, or that he had momentarily lost the power of speech through fright or starvation. But at the end of the fortnight he relieved them of their fears by uttering some words of, to them, an unknown language; and from that moment the spell, wrought, as it were, by the cold hand of his dying mother, passed from the spirit of the boy, and he thenceforth clung with the fondness of youth to his second parents. The Irish orphan soon spoke the language of his new home, though he never lost the memory of the fever-sheds and the awful death-bed, or of his weeping sisters, and the last words spoken by the faithful Christian woman who commended him to the protection of God and His Blessed Mother. He grew up a youth of extraordinary promise, and was received into the college of Nicolet, then in the diocese of Quebec, where he graduated with the greatest honours. His vocation being for the Church, he became a priest; and it was in 1865 that, as a deacon, he entered the College of St. Michael, near Toronto, to learn the language of his parents, of which he had lost all remembrance. Ho is now one of the most distinguished professors of the college in which he was educated; and, in order to pay back the debt incurred by his support and education, he does not accept more than a small stipend for his services. Of his Irish name, which he was able to retain, he is very proud; and though his tongue is more that of a French Canadian, his feelings and sympathies are with the people and the country of his birth. The prayers of the dying mother were indeed heard; for the elder of the girls was married by the gentleman who received them both into his house, and the younger is in a convent.
Absorbed thus into the families of the French-speaking population, even the older Irish orphans soon lost almost every memory of their former home and of their parents, and grew up French Canadians in every respect save the more vigorous constitution for which they were indebted to nature. It is not, therefore, a rare thing to behold a tall, strapping, fair-skinned young fellow, with an unmistakable Irish name, and an unmistakable Irish face, who speaks and thinks as a French Canadian. Thus genuine Irish names--as Cassidy, or Lonergan, or Sullivan, or Quinn, or Murphy--are to be heard of at this day in many of the homes of the kindly habitans of Lower Canada.
Though it was the humane policy of those who took care of the orphans of Grosse Isle to keep the same family in the same neighbourhood, so as not to separate brother from sister, it has happened that a brother has been reared by a French family, and a sister by an Irish, or English-speaking, family; and when the orphans have been brought together by their adopted parents, they could only express their emotions by embraces and tears--the language of the heart.
In some, but rare instances, visions of the past have haunted the
memory of Irish orphans in their new homes-One of these, a young girl
who bore the name of her protectors, was possessed with a passionate
longing to learn her real name, and to know something of her parents. A
once familiar sound, which she somehow associated with her former name,
floated through her brain, vague and indistinct, but ever present. The
longing to ascertain who she was, and whether either of her parents was
still living, grew into an absorbing passion, which preyed upon her
health. She would frequently write what expressed her recollection of
the name she had once borne, and which she thought she had been called
in her infancy by those who loved her. The desire to clear up the doubt
becoming at length uncontrollable, she implored the cure of her parish
to institute inquiries in her behalf. Written in French characters,
nearly all resemblance to the supposed name was lost; but through the
aid of inquiries set on foot by Father Dowd, the Parish Priest of St.
Patrick's, in Montreal, and guided by the faint indication afforded by
resembled a sound more than a sirname, it was discovered that her mother had taken her out to America in 1847, and that her father had never quitted Ireland. A communication was at once established between father and child; and from that moment the girl began to recover her health, which had been nearly sacrificed to her passionate yearning.
The horrors of Grosse Isle had their counterpart in Montreal.
As in Quebec, the mortality was greater in 1847 than in the year following; but it was not till the close of 1848 that the plague might be said to be extinguished, not without fearful sacrifice of life. During the months of June, July, August, and September, the season when nature wears her most glorious garb of loveliness, as many as eleven hundred of 'the faithful Irish,' as the Canadian priest truly described them, were lying at one time in the fever-sheds at Point St. Charles, in which rough wooden beds were placed in rows, and so close as scarcely to admit of room to pass. In these miserable cribs the patients lay, sometimes two together, looking, as a Sister of Charity since wrote, 'as if they were in their coffins,' from the box-like appearance of their wretched beds. Throughout those glorious months, while the sun shone brightly, and the majestic river rolled along in golden waves, hundreds of the poor Irish were dying daily. The world outside was gay and glad, but death was rioting in the fever-sheds. It was a moment to try the devotion which religion inspires, to test the courage with which it animates the gentlest breast. First came the Grey Nuns, strong in love and faith; but so malignant was the disease that thirty of their number were stricken down, and thirteen died the death of martyrs. There was no faltering, no holding back; no sooner were the ranks thinned by death than the gaps were quickly filled; and when the Grey Nuns were driven to the last extremity, the Sisters of Providence came to their assistance, and took their place by the side of the dying strangers. But when even their aid did not suffice to meet the emergency, the Sisters of St. Joseph, though cloistered nuns, received the permission of the Bishop to share with their sister religious the hardships and dangers of labour by day and night.
'I am the only one left,' were the thrilling words in which the surviving priest announced from the pulpit the ravages that the 'ocean plague ' had made in the ranks of the clergy. With a single exception, the local priests were either sick or dead. Eight of the number fell at their post, true to their duty. The good Bishop, Monsigneur Bourget, then went himself, to take his turn in the lazar-house; but the enemy was too mighty for his zeal, and having remained in the discharge of his self-imposed task for a day and a night, he contracted the fever, and was carried home to a sick-bed, where he lay for weeks, hovering between life and death, amid the tears and prayers of his people, to whom Providence restored him after a period of intense anxiety to them, and long and weary suffering to him.
When the city priests were found inadequate to the discharge of their pressing duties, the country priests cheerfully responded to the call of their Bishop, and came to the assistance of their brethren; and of the country priests not a few found the grave and the crown of the martyr.
Among the priests who fell a sacrifice to their duty in the fever-sheds of Montreal was Father Richards, a venerable man, long past the time of active service. A convert from Methodism in early life, he had specially devoted his services to the Irish, then but a very small proportion of the population; and now, when the cry of distress from the same race was heard, the good old man could not be restrained from ministering to their wants. Not only did he mainly provide for the safety of the hundreds of orphan children, whom the death of their parents had left to the mercy of the charitable, but, in spite of his great age, he laboured in the sheds with a zeal which could not be excelled.
'Father Richards wants fresh straw for the beds,' said the messenger to the mayor.
'Certainly, he shall have it: I wish it was gold, for his sake,' replied the mayor.
A few days after both Protestant mayor and Catholic priest ' had gone where straw and gold are of equal value,' wrote the Sister already mentioned. Both had died martyrs of charity.
Only a few days before Father Richards was seized with his fatal illness he preached on Sunday in St. Patrick's, and none who heard him on that occasion could forget the venerable appearance and impressive words of that noble servant of God. Addressing a hushed and sorrow-stricken audience, as the tears rolled down his aged cheeks, he thus spoke of the sufferings and the faith of the Irish:--
'Oh, my beloved brethren, grieve not, I beseech you, for the sufferings and death of so many of your race, perchance your kindred, who have fallen, and are still to fall, victims to this fearful pestilence. Their patience, their faith, have edified all whose privilege it was to witness it. Their faith, their resignation to the will of God under such unprecedented misery, is something so extraordinary that, to realise it, it requires to be seen. Oh, my brethren, grieve not for them; they did but pass from earth to the glory of heaven. True, they were cast in heaps into the earth, their place of sepulture marked by no name or epitaph; but I tell you, my clearly beloved brethren, that from their ashes the faith will spring up along the St. Lawrence, for they died martyrs, as they lived confessors, to the faith.'
The whole city, Protestant and Catholic, mourned the death of this fine old man, one of the most illustrious, victims of the scourge in Montreal.
The orphan children were gathered to the homes and hearts of the generous Canadians and the loving Irish; and most of them had grown up to manhood and womanhood before either monument or epitaph marked the spot in which the hones of their dead parents were mingling with the dust. But there is a monument and a record, the pious work of English workmen, inspired by the humane suggestion of English gentlemen. In the centre of a railed-in spot of land at Point St. Charles, within a hundred yards or so of the Victoria Bridge, that wondrous structure which spans the broad St. Lawrence, there is a huge boulder, taken from the bed of the river, and placed on a platform of roughly hewn stone; and on that boulder there is this inscription:--
Preserve from desecration
THE REMAINS OF SIX THOUSAND IMMIGRANTS,
Who died of Ship-fever,
A.D. 1847-8, This stone is erected by the
WORKMEN OF MESSRS. PETO, BRASSEY, AND BETTS,
Employed in the
Construction of the Victoria Bridge,
In the church of the Bon Secour one may see a memorial picture, representing with all the painter's art the horrors and the glories of the fever-shed--the dying Irish, strong in their faith--the ministering Sisters, shedding peace on the pillow of suffering--the holy Bishop, affording the last consolations of religion to those to whom the world was then as nothing: but, in its terrible significance, the rude monument by that mighty river's side is far more impressive.
Let us follow the Irish emigrant--'the faithful Irish'--farther up the St. Lawrence.
In the grounds of the General Hospital of Kingston there is an artificial mound, of gentle swell and moderate elevation, the grass on which is ever green, as if owing to some peculiar richness of the soil. When verdure has been elsewhere burned up or parched, on this soft-swelling mound greenness is perpetual. Beneath that verdant shroud lie mouldering the bones of 1,900 Irish immigrants, victims of the same awful scourge of their race--the ship-fever. With the intention of pushing on to the West, the goal of their hopes, multitudes of the Irish reached Kingston, 350 miles up the St. Lawrence from Quebec; but the plague broke out amongst this mass of human misery, and they rotted away like sheep. So fast did they die, that there were not means to provide coffins in which to inter them. There was timber more than sufficient for the purpose, but the hands to fashion the plank into the coffin were too few, and Death was too rapid in his stroke; and so a huge pit of circular form was dug, and in it were laid, in tiers, piled one upon the other, the bodies of 1,000 men, women, and children: and even to the hour when I beheld the light of the setting sun imparting additional beauty to its vivid greenness, there was neither rail, nor fence, nor stone, nor cross, nor inscription, to tell that 1,900 of a Christian people slept beneath the turf of that gigantic grave.
Twenty years ago Kingston was a small place, with little more than half its present population; and the Irish, who now form an important portion of its community, were then comparatively few in number. But in no part of British America did the Irish display a more heroic devotion to humanity and country than in that city, from which the greater number of the inhabitants had fled in terror, at the presence of the migratory hordes who brought pestilence with them in their march. The Irish of the town stood their ground bravely; and not only were their houses thrown open to their afflicted countrypeople, and their means placed unreservedly at their disposal, but they tended the sick and dying, and ministered to them in the holiest spirit of charity. Among the best and bravest of those who succoured the plague-smitten of that dreadful time were three Irish Protestants--Mr. Kirkpatrick, then Mayor of Kingston; Alderman Robert Anglin; and Mr. William Ford, afterwards Mayor--who were in the sheds both day and night, and by their ceaseless efforts to relieve the sufferers inspired others with increased courage and still greater self-devotion.
Father Dollard, an Irish clergyman, had to bear the chief share of the priestly duty; and from the first moment that the fever broke out, until the earth was beaten down on the top of the grave-mound, he was in the midst of the danger. So shocking was the condition in which the unhappy people reached Kingston, the last resting-place of many of them, that the clergymen, three at the most, had to change their own clothes repeatedly in the day. One of the three priests, who had been only just ordained, died of the contagion.
When the plague abated, and the danger no longer existed, the inhabitants returned; and now there began an unseemly scramble for the orphan children of the Catholic parents who slept beneath the mound in the grounds of the Hospital. The Irish Catholics of the surrounding locality strained every resource in order to afford a home to the orphans of their native country and religion, and through their charity the greater number of them were well provided for; but others of a different faith secured a certain proportion of the children, who are now perhaps bitter opponents of the creed of their fathers.
The same scenes of suffering and death were to be witnessed in the city of Toronto, as in the other cities of Canada during those memorable years 1847 and 1848. Sheds were constructed, and hearses and dead-carts were in hourly requisition. The panic was universal; but the humane and high-spirited, of all denominations, did their duty manfully. Two and three coffins were constantly to be seen on the hearse or waggon used for bearing the dead to the grave-pit outside the town. One day the horse drawing this hearse got restive, and, breaking from his conductor, upset the three coffins, which, falling into pieces, literally gave up their dead. This occurred near the Market Square, about the most public thoroughfare in Toronto, and at once a crowd assembled, horror-stricken but fascinated by the awful spectacle. Every effort was made to repair as speedily as possible the momentary disaster; but it was some time before the three wasted bodies of the poor Irish could be hidden from sight. The priests, as in all similar cases, were ceaselessly at work, with the usual result--the sacrifice of several of their number.
Among the losses which the Catholic Church had to deplore during this crisis was that of a venerable Irishman, Dr. Power, Bishop of Toronto. He was implored by his people not to expose a life so valuable to his flock; but he replied, that where the souls of Christians, and these the natives of his own country, were in peril, it was his duty to be there. 'My good priests are down in sickness, and the duty devolves on me. The poor souls are going to heaven, and I will do all I can to assist them,' said the Bishop. And, in spite of the most earnest and affectionate remonstrance, he persevered in performing the same labours as the youngest of his priests. The Bishop prepared for his post of danger by making his will, and appointing an administrator. The letters of administration were lengthy, and of much importance, embracing necessarily the financial and other concerns of the diocese. This document, most precious from its association with the voluntary martyrdom of the venerable Prelate, is preserved among the episcopal archives of Toronto. It was commenced with a bold firm hand; but as it proceeded amid frequent interruptions--his visits to console the dying being their chief cause--the writing became more and more feeble, until one might mark, in the faint and trembling characters of the concluding lines, the near approach of death, which soon consigned him to the tomb, another martyr to duty. Rarely, if ever, has a larger funeral procession been seen in Toronto, and never has there been a more universal manifestation of public sorrow than was witnessed on that mournful occasion. Every place of business in the streets through which the procession passed was closed, and Protestant vied with Catholic in doing honour to the memory of a holy and brave-hearted prelate.
Partridge Island, opposite the city of St. John, New Brunswick, was the scene of more horrors, more destruction of human life. In fact, wherever an emigrant ship touched the shores of the British Provinces, or sailed into their rivers, there is the same awful carnage to be recorded.
A portion of the survivors pushed on to the West, their march still tracked by fever, and marked by new-made graves. The majority stopped at various places on the way, or spread over Central and Western Canada, many settling on Crown lands placed at their disposal by the Government, but others hiring themselves as farm labourers, not having, as yet, the energy to face the forest, and engage in a struggle for which disease and sorrow had rendered them for a time unequal. But in half a dozen years after might be seen, along the shores of the lakes, and on the banks of the great rivers and their tributaries, prosperous settlements of those fever-hunted exiles, who, flying in terror from their own country, carried plague and desolation with them to the country of their adoption. It was remarked of them that, though they bravely rallied, and set about their work as settlers with an energy almost desperate, many seemed to be prematurely old, and broke down after some years of ceaseless toil; but not before they had achieved the great object of their ambition--made a home and realised a property for those who, with them, survived the horrors of the passage, and the havoc of the quarantine and the fever-shed.
Even to this day the terror inspired in the minds of the inhabitants through whose districts the Irish emigrants passed in the terrible years of 1847 and 1848 has not died out. I was told of one instance where, little more than a year since, whole villages were scared at the announcement, happily untrue, that 'the poor Irish were coming, and were bringing the fever with them.' It was scarcely a subject for the pleasantry of the wag.
As explorers and pioneers, the Irish have been as adventurous and successful as any others in Canada. As lumbermen, they have pushed far in advance of the footsteps of civilisation. Twenty-five years since they were to be found in the forests along the banks of the Moira, which empties itself into the Bay of Quinte, cutting down the great trees, 'making timber,' then guiding it down the rapids, and bringing it to Quebec. And among the most fearless and daring, as well as skilful, of the navigators of the tremendous rapids of the St. Lawrence are the Irish. The Canadian, though dexterous with the axe, is occasionally rather apt to depend on his prayers in a moment of emergency; whereas the Irishman, who, to say the least, is fully as pious as the Canadian, acts on the wise belief that Providence helps those who help themselves. At the head of the Ottawa, which is the great lumbering centre of Canada, the Irish have principally settled the town of Pembroke, in which reside many who, once enterprising lumbermen and bold raftsmen, are now living at their ease, in the enjoyment of their hard-earned wealth. There is one in particular, who went miles up the river beyond Pembroke, and brought his family into the almost impenetrable forest. Twenty years ago he was a raftsman, earning 16 dollars a month, and he is now one of the richest men on the river. Within twelve miles of Pembroke, at Fort William, a station belonging to the Hudson Bay Company, the keenest competitors with the Company in the purchase of furs are Irishmen. Following up the Ottawa, to French River, which empties itself into Lake Huron, along that river and the small tributaries of the Ottawa, are to be found thriving Irish settlements of not more than six years' date. In fact, the Irish have penetrated everywhere, and have proved themselves bold and self-reliant, and, even perhaps in a greater degree than the other nationalities, have displayed the most wonderful faculty of adapting themselves to every possible circumstance. This faculty, whether of adapting themselves to natural circumstances or to political institutions, specially distinguishes the Irish race.
Throughout the cities and towns of Upper Canada the Irish hold an eminent position in every profession, and in every department and branch of industry; and in the professions, as in mercantile life, the Catholics already enjoy a fair share, especially when their former poverty and religious faith are taken into account. Indeed, considering the circumstances under which so many of the Catholic Irish of the towns emigrated to Canada, not only with little means, and few friends to help them, but with all manner of prejudice arrayed against them, they have done more and succeeded better than those of any other creed or nationality. They have done more in a shorter time, and in the face of an opposition which neither the English nor Scotch nor their Protestant brethren knew anything of. There is not a town in Canada in which there are not to be witnessed instances, equally striking and honourable, of the progress of young Irishmen, who, bringing out with them a few pounds at most, but more probably a few shillings, are now extensive traders, enterprising manufacturers, and large employers. It is not necessary to particularise by individual cases; but were it right to mention places and persons, I could give a long list of the most gratifying instances of the results of unaided industry and unbefriended energy. I was much struck, when walking with a friend through a city in Western Canada, at observing the fine ranges of buildings for commercial purposes recently erected, or being then put up, by Catholic Irishmen, with whose history I was made acquainted. To industry, integrity, and sheer mother wit, they--not a few of them poor but intelligent lads, who came out to seek their fortunes--owed everything; to human favour or patronage they were not indebted to the value of a shilling. One of these Irishmen had studded the country with young traders, whom he established in various directions, and nearly all of whom were prospering. Another was then on his way to Europe to purchase his goods direct from the manufacturers, instead of buying them through Canadian houses; and his calculation was that he would save from 1,500l. to 2,000l. a year by adopting this plan. When he landed in Canada he was not master of twenty dollars in the world. This is what I saw in a single city, and that by no means the most extensive in either business or population.
There are new generations of Irishmen rising up every day in Canada, the sons of men of humble origin or modest beginning, who, having pushed their way successfully in their new home, sent their boys to college, and 'made gentlemen of them.' As lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects, these young men are bringing to the various professions the sturdy energy of the class from which they sprang, and are vindicating by their ability and their genius the intellectual prestige of their race. The well-authenticated stories told of the fathers of young men whom I saw dressed with all the elegance indicative of wealth and good position, and whose manners corresponded with their external appearance, sounded like a romance, they were so marvellous. How these Irish fathers crossed the Atlantic in a timber ship, and landed perhaps at Quebec or St. John, with scarcely enough to support them for a week; how they resolutely turned to the first work that offered, caring little for hardship or drudgery; how they never looked back, but ever onwards; how at length money seemed to grow under their touch, until they accumulated property, built mansions, possessed horses and carriages, lived in splendour, and carefully fitted their children, by education and training, for the position they were to occupy, as the gentry of the country! But in their histories we learn, that these self-made Irishmen, these successful founders of prosperous families, the creators of all this prosperity and splendour, never clouded their bright Celtic intellect, or brutalised their genial and kindly nature, with drink. Not that they totally abstained from the use of stimulants, perhaps few of them did; but they were 'sober, well-conducted men.'
'As a rule,' said a well-informed friend, 'till within the last ten or twelve years, few Irish Catholics of respectable position, or with even moderate means, immigrated to Canada. Under these circumstances it tells favourably for the country, for the government and the laws of Canada, and for the enterprise, industry, and perseverance of our people, that so many are independent, and that the vast majority enjoy all the comforts and many of the luxuries of life.'
The educational system of Upper Canada is in every way calculated to develop the intelligence and stimulate the energies of the rising youth of the country. The teaching is practical and comprehensive, and the administration appears to be, so far as I could ascertain, just and impartial. The superior colleges of Canada turn out as highly cultivated young men as are to be found in any part of America, or in the oldest universities of Europe. And in every educational institution--from the university of Toronto, in which, under the presidency of a distinguished Irishman, I witnessed Irish students bearing off several of the highest prizes of the year, to the humblest village school throughout British America and the United States--the brightness of the Irish intellect is remarkable; indeed, it is a subject of universal observation in all parts of America.
The facilities which the public school laws of Upper Canada offer to the Catholics for obtaining elementary education, strictly denominational, may be thus briefly stated:--
Two or more Catholic heads of families, by giving notice (with a view to exemption from the public rate) to certain local officers, may claim the right to establish a school of their own, and elect their own trustees for its management. The supporters of this school are not only exempt from the payment of all rates for the support of the public schools, but the law guarantees to them the right to share, half-yearly, in the legislative grant, in proportion to the number of children they may educate. They also receive an equal amount to whatever sum they send to the Government department of Education, for the purchase of maps, globes, school-prizes, and library books. These library books are selected by a Council, of which the Catholic Bishop of Toronto is a member. Many of the books are exclusively Catholic in their character, and the trustees have the right to select only such books as they may prefer. The schools are, of course, subject to official inspection, and are required to report to the department; which is only right and fair, considering they receive assistance from the State, through officials responsible for the proper administration of the public money. Every Catholic school may claim an area of country for its supporters of six miles in diameter, or eighteen miles in circumference--that is, three miles in all directions from its school-house, as a central point. All supporters of the school within that area are exempt from public school taxation. Here is the practical admission of a just principle--respect for conscientious convictions in a matter most vitally affecting the interests of mankind.
There is a shadow, a dark shadow, in this bright picture of prosperity and progress--the spirit of bigotry--the spirit of unnatural hate. It is expressed in one pregnant word--Orangeism. Pity indeed that it should exist in that land of free institutions and good laws. Pity that it should mar its peace, or retard its progress. Pity that, from any reason, motive, or object, it should be encouraged by any class. Pity that it is not trampled inexorably under foot, not by harsh enactment, but by the good sense and right feeling of the wise and the patriotic, acting on the public mind of the Protestant portion of the community. Its influence is felt in every department of public and private life, if not in all, at least in too many districts of Upper Canada. Its baneful presence is perceptible in the heart of the country as in the city and the town. I know that many good and enlightened Protestant Irishmen--men who are staunch to their faith, for which they would face any danger or endure any sacrifice--deplore the existence of this, one of the deadly curses of our Irish people, and do all they possibly can to neutralise its venom, and counteract its evil influence. I believe it to be a barrier to the progress --the more rapid progress--of Canada; it not only checks emigration, but it also induces migration; it prevents many from coming, and--often unconsciously--it impels many to leave. What Canada requires, in order to realise the hopes of her statesmen and her patriots, is more men and women, more millions--not of the kid-glove school, but of the strong, the vigorous, and the resolute--of the same class as those who have reclaimed her wastes, built up her cities, and constructed her highways--those sons and daughters of toil, without whose fructifying labour there can be no progress, no civilisation. Undoubtedly great and prosperous as is this sturdiest of the offspring of the mother country, she requires some additional millions of human beings ere she expands in reality to the full measure of her new-coined designation--the Dominion of Canada. And it is neither wise nor patriotic, in any class or section of the population, from any motive or object whatever, to foster or encourage, in the very heart of the body politic, a source of evil which bears sufficiently bitter fruit at the other side of the Atlantic and at both sides of the Boyne--but which, by the waters of the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa, should be doomed to wither beneath public contempt. Though the hearts of Irishmen in the New World instinctively turn to each other, this pestilent Orange virus keeps them apart. There is their old country, which they love in common, with which their fondest and dearest memories are associated; but this evil thing is so vicious, so full of rancour, that it poisons the very fountains of patriotic emotion, and stimulates to hatred rather than to love. Under ordinary circumstances, when there is nothing to give life to this Orange feeling, the Irish live in harmony together. They are friends and neighbours, and would willingly assist each other in adversity or distress. The families visit and blend together; the young people grow up in companionship, most likely in friendship; the old people gad and gossip together; births and marriages and deaths are matters of common interest--nay, not a sorrow or pain is felt in one home but excites compassion and sympathy in the other. But, lo! as the period of the Orange festival approaches--as one of those anniversaries of past strife, of battles fought nearly two hundred years ago in Ireland, comes round--then a cloud seems to grow and gather on the brow, and a strange transformation takes place: the open-hearted, kindly neighbour of yesterday is not to be recognised in that downcast, sullen fellow, who meets the Catholic with a scowl, if not a curse; and in his wife, or daughter, or sister, who hurries past the house of the Catholic as if there were contagion in its door-posts, one finds it hard to trace a likeness to the genial matron who so agreeably discussed the nameless trifles that constitute the theme of friendly gossip, or the pleasant damsel whose laughter made music in the family circle. When the day of celebration does come, the Catholic had better avoid his Orange neighbour--for quarrels, blows, bloodshed, may possibly come of their meeting; and if so, alas! deeper hate and greater scandal--sadder shame to those who bear an Irish name. Possibly the crisis passes without collision or disturbance. Happy for all if it be so; and in a few days after, not however without some preliminary shame-facedness, the former relations are re-established, and all goes on as before--until the accursed anniversary again darkens the brow and fills the heart with hate. Terrible, if not before man, certainly in the eyes of God, is the responsibility of those who keep alive the memories of strife and contention which should be left to slumber in the grave of the past.
Canada has a splendid future before her, whatever may be her form of government, or whatever the relations which, in the course of time, she may bear to the mother country, or to her neighbour the United States. She abounds in natural resources. Millions and millions of acres of good land are yet unoccupied, more are still unexplored; and such is her mineral wealth that a vast population should be employed in its development. Thus, with land almost unlimited in extent, mines of unquestionable productiveness, and capabilities within herself for almost every description of manufacturing industry, what does Canada require in order to be really great, but population--more millions of men and women? But she must rid herself of this Orange pestilence; for though she pays her workers liberally, and in hard silver, which knows no depreciation; and though they live well, taxation being small and prices of all necessaries being moderate, still their tendency is towards the other side of the Lakes and the St. Lawrence. I have met and spoken with too many of my Catholic countrymen in Canada not to know that this Orange feeling is a cause of more than dissatisfaction--even of lurking discontent: it is the one thing which, reviving the recollections of old persecution, makes the Catholic Irishman think less fondly of the home of his adoption; it is likewise, I believe, one of the causes which for many years past has diverted emigration into another and a broader channel. For Catholics, I can say their dearest wish is to live in amity with their Protestant neighbours. They admit and feel that the laws are just and good, that the Government is wise and paternal, that the institutions are favourable to the fullest liberty; therefore the more do they deplore the existence of an organisation which keeps alive an evil feeling that is neither suited to a Christian people nor favourable to the fuller development of a youthful State. I write this in the warmest interest in a country to which so many of my own people have directed their wandering footsteps, and where so many of them have won an honourable independence by the exercise of the noblest qualities.