The great hunger: Commemeration at Grosse Ile


2009 marks the 100th anniversary of the unveiling of the Celtic cross at the Grosse Ile Irish Memorial site run by Parks Canada. In a very moving ceremony attended by Marianna O’Gallagher, as well as members of the English-speaking community, and the Governments of Ireland and Canada, we were reminded of this tragic, yet triumphant story that was the Great Famine of 1845-47. The people of Ireland know it better as the Great Hunger, because, as Marianna and the Irish Ambassador explained to me, there was no real famine. A famine would have implied a lack of food. However, there was plenty of food, yet most of it was destined for export to Britain, to feed the hungry mouths of the people in the industrial cities of Britain. Diverting a lot of it to feed the Irish would have driven down the price of this food (grain), and therefore the merchants selling it would not have made as much money, which was seen as interference in the free market.

Therefore, when the Irish farmer’s potato crop failed, they were driven to starvation, and were forced into exile onto sailing ships which were not fit for human habitation, simply so that these ships would have ballast on their return trip back to Canada, after bringing Canadian wood to Britain!

This year’s ceremony also involved the unveiling of a plaque, which marks National Famine Commemoration Day. The Irish government wanted to honour those who had made the perilous journey, but had not survived. But also to honour those who made the journey and found a new life in their adopted land. The Irish government wanted to honour the very special relationship between our two countries, since so many Irish came to North America through Grosse Ile and Québec city, and therefore chose our part of the world as the first place outside of Ireland where one such of these commemorations should take place.

The government of Ireland also wanted to underline its role in famine relief as part of its role in world development, since, unfortunately, famine is still a problem in our world, and artificially-created famines still exist. Lastly, the Irish government came to announce that it was to give a grant of funds to restore one of the last surviving buildings from the famine era, known as the lazaretto, which used to be a hospital. It will be turned into an interpretative centre.

Jim Prentice, the federal minister of the Environment and minister responsible for Parks Canada gave an excellent speech. On hand was also the ambassador of Ireland to Canada, who also gave an eloquent and informative talk. Other dignitaries included the local mayor, MP, as well as Bishop Bruce Stavert and his wife Diana. A good time was had by all, and we all came away with a better understanding of the Great Hunger.

The luck of the Irish may have been quite hard those many long years ago, but, as Marianna said, ‘only fifty years after arriving in Canada, the Irish were able to get enough money together to pay for the erection of the Celtic cross, made out of granite.’ This was surely a testament to the great opportunities that coming to Canada offered them. Ireland’s loss became Canada’s gain. And that of the whole world!!! I hope the friendship between our two countries is an everlasting one. Amen.

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