A key to a trunk, one of the many belongings left behind in the quarantine station.
PhD student Maeve Bancroft took the journey one of the characters in her novel did to the quarantine station on Grosse Ile, Canada, 169 years after the Great Famine.
I’m travelling to Québec to carry out research for the novel that will become my PhD thesis. I set out to write a historical novel about Grosse Île, a quarantine station, in Canada. I wanted to write about the Irish in 1847 when so many travelled across the Atlantic in search of a better life in. However, as I was doing my research of the terrible conditions, the mass migration of people, children orphaned, people drowned, I was also reading about a modern day exodus from Syria. I couldn’t write about one and not the other so my novel will have a parallel modern-day narrative.
As a novelist I aim to work my way into my characters’ heads, to describe their experiences, to walk in their shoes. However, it would be a lot easier to do that if my character was a well-fed woman living in west Cork in 2016 who enjoys entertaining family and friends rather than a woman (Ellen) living in west Cork in 1847, dying of starvation yet willing to risk walking to a ship to emigrate in search of a better life. It’s as difficult for me to imagine that, as it is for me to imagine a woman in 2017, leaving her home in Syria, possibly her parents, friends and job, to start the long trip west looking for much the same thing as Ellen.
Then there’s the travelling on foot and on un-seaworthy boats, losing loved ones along the way. Both witness children orphaned, left alone and at risk of being taken advantage of (just because it was the olden days doesn’t mean children were not taken advantage of). The similarities shock me. It’s inconceivable yet I want conceive it to write it.
I need to get a broad background to help with character development and my storyline. I do that initially by reading. I research and hope it’s lodged somewhere, snagged in a coil of grey matter in the back of my brain… then I let it dissipate. Most of my historical research will (I hope) remain unseen. It will inform the creative piece but shouldn’t be obvious. Sometimes, I panic at all the details and I need reminding (I talk to myself a lot) that I’m writing a novel, a fictional account, not a history book.
It’s important to me to get out and walk. I walk for two reasons. Firstly; I want to walk the routes that Ellen and my other characters walked. Secondly; I think when I walk, I daydream, I talk to myself – I sometimes even answer back. As a result, my storyline develops and my dialogue improves on the page.
I decided to go to Canada in May. Why May? Why Canada?
Because my character leaves Reen, a small townland in west Cork, to head to British North America (now Canada). Ships entering Canada had to stop at Grosse Île, a quarantine island, which is about thirty miles down river from Québec City. The little island is in the St. Lawrence River which freezes for the winter. The island therefore, was only open as a quarantine station from May to early November when the river was free of ice.
It takes about six hours to fly to Montréal on Air Canada. As I peeled the plastic off my white, rectangular, partitioned aeroplane meal-tray I thought of Ellen who could have spent up to 60 days crossing the ocean. . . that’s eight and a half weeks. . . with little, or perhaps towards the end, no food. And scant supplies of dirty water. Often it was brackish water- as the supply dwindled it was mixed with salt-water to eke it out.
I passed through immigration with a ‘Welcome to Canada Ma’am”. I collected a rental car in Montréal and drove through the rush-hour traffic towards the St. Lawrence to take the highway parallel to the river towards Québec. More specifically, to an area called Levis which is across the river from Québec City, but on the correct side for my trip to the ferry for Grosse Île the following morning.
Co-incidentally, this is the area where the residents in mid-June 1847 appealed to the Governor General not to permit hospitals or fever-sheds to be built in their parish while helpfully suggesting other parishes. Another co-incidence is that the name I chose for my first character, Ellen, is the name of the the first person to die in quarantine on Grosse Île in 1847 – little Ellen Keane was four years and three months old. She had survived the famine and exodus from Ireland, she had survived the horrendous ocean crossing, the long trip up the St Lawrence river and finally, having been rowed ashore to the quarantine station she died of fever within a day. The ship she had travelled in was the Syria, the first ship to arrive that summer. I imagine there will be other co-incidences prior to completion of the novel.
The following morning, I embarked the ferry with my packed lunch in my backpack. It is a historic site but, despite its name, it is not a big island. It’s about a mile and a half in length and half-a-mile in width. However, it is higher than the other islands in the Isle-aux-Grues archipelago, so bigger in that sense. A group of high school students arrive all chattering in French. It felt nice to be away alone after so many years, where no-one knew me and there were no connections what-so-ever.
I was sent with two others to the wheelhouse to hear the information about the river in English while another guide spoke to the French speaking visitors. Grosse Île is one island out of a series of small islands in the river. From the 1800s onwards, hundreds of thousands of people left Europe for North America with the attendant risk that epidemics (measles, smallpox, cholera) could be carried with them. Hence, the establishment of quarantine stations on the Atlantic coast and in the St Lawrence. Ships suspected of having sick on board were required to stop at these stations to be examined, have the sick removed and hospitalised, have the ship disinfected and obtain a certificate of clearance prior to proceeding to the port of landing.
The quarantine station was established on Grosse Île in 1832 to prevent the spread of cholera by people arriving to Canada via the St Lawrence river. It continued to operate as a quarantine station up to 1932. Between 1939-1945 the Department of Defence used it to carry out bacteriological warfare tests and it reverted to use as a quarantine station in 1956 when the Department of Agriculture used it to quarantine live animal imports from Europe.
Once the guide has finished I chatted to the other two – a father and daughter. She had been away at college in New Brunswick for three years and had just finished her finals. Her father drove the long trip to bring her, and all her belongings, home. They stopped off to investigate their ancestry on their way back home to the small town they live in in Ontario. They asked if it was my first time in Canada…the usual chit-chat. No, it wasn’t my first time in Canada and it turns out that no matter where you go there is a connection! The small town they are returning to in Ontario is the same small town my husband is from. And they know my father-in-law.
I had read so much about the island. About the thousands of people who died and were buried there in 1847. About ships lined up in the estuary, sometimes so many ships that the line stretched for a couple of kilometres. Ships that stood at anchor with the sick as well as the healthy kept on-board because there wasn’t enough room on the island. About children orphaned or families separated as the sick were kept in quarantine while those that appeared healthy were finally sent up river towards Québec and Montréal. Of those, thousands were incubating typhus so became sick and infected others upriver.
The shores of the majestic St Lawrence were scattered with the Irish: starved, sick, dying, dead. Many did survive (presumably some prospered and others didn’t) resulting in a huge Irish diaspora in Canada (seventy million worldwide).
But the word has a sadness. Diaspora: scattering /dispersion. A scattered population whose origin lies within a smaller geographical locale.
In May in 2016 the island was quiet and the sun shone upon us. On approach, the view is dominated by a huge cross on Telegraph Hill to the left of the landing dock, on the western end of the island. It is a fifteen-metre Celtic cross, erected by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1909 to commemorate the tragedy of 1847.
I wonder what someone like Ellen was thinking and feeling in 1847 as the boat bumped against the pier. As part of the tour, we were taken to the disinfection building which was constructed in 1893 during continuing improvements to the quarantine system. People and their belongings were disinfected on arrival at Grosse Île. We are shown huge metal furnaces, wire cages which held clothing and belongings for disinfection and tiny shower cubicles with multiple shower heads. It was extremely efficient but put me in mind of Dachau concentration camp in Germany which I visited years ago.
We visited the Anglican and Catholic chapels and the Lazaretto. Built in 1847, the Lazaretto is the only building from that time still standing. It was built to house the healthy at the east end of the island but quickly became an infirmary to deal with the numbers ill with typhus, dysentery, starvation. The building gives an idea of how closely together people were cared for on wide, wooden pallet bunks, and how easily disease could spread. Poignantly, there are belongings left by past inhabitants of the buildings. A rusty trunk-key, a blackened penny, broken china.
We hopped on a little tractor-train to go back towards the west end of the island. A short walk along a trail brings us to the cross at highest point on the island. The guide mentioned plants as we walked, plants I had never heard of: skunk cabbage, dwarf water smartweed, Tuckerman’s quillwort. The cross is impressive and has inscriptions in Irish, English and French. .
We continued our walk towards a bay, known as cholera bay, and came to a furrowed field; the Irish or western graveyard. It is corrugated like the lazy beds in Ireland (the earth is scooped and piled in regular ridges for potato planting). But here it was coffins rather than potato drills that caused the undulating green field.
White crosses mark the green too, but there are a lot more bodies than there are crosses. The coffins were stacked one on top of the other. We are silent as we walk. Then a phone starts: Leonard Cohen, poet and singer from Montréal. . . If it be your will / that I speak no more / and my voice be still / as it was before / I will speak no more / I shall abide until / I am spoken for / if it be your will.
One side of the graveyard is edged by poplars and another by a memorial. Stone walls enclose iron sail sculptures and a ten-foot high wall of glass faces the graves. Etched onto the glass are thousands of names of people buried on Grosse Île. The lower section has tiny ships – each to signify an unnamed person (upwards of 1500). The man from a small town in Ontario reads through the list of names until he finds his own name, which is also the name of his great-great-grandfather who made it to Grosse Île but no further.
The Irish Memorial commemorates all who died including Irish immigrants, medical staff, clergy and other workers on Grosse Île. There is also a monument, the Monument to Physicians, erected by the medical officer, Dr Douglas, to remember his colleagues who died serving duty in 1847.
We don’t have much time alone but when we do, I sit on the rocks and remember reading about people dying on the shore of Grosse Île in 1847, in some cases crawling up the beach having been dropped in from the ships in a punt. It seemed like something so awful could never again happen. . . and yet, I have seen pictures of dead children washed up on the shores of Greece in 2016.
However, today, this shore is peaceful. Seaweed sways in the current and points in the direction of Québec, my next stop.