Ireland has always held a special place in my heart. My first novel, In Sunshine or in Shadow, is set in Ireland. I’m married to a man who is half-Irish. And there’s a very special connection between Ireland and my hometown of Montreal, Canada.
During the Great Famine of 1845-1850, thousands of starving Irish refugees fled to Canada. Conditions on the “coffin ships” were brutal. Typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases ran rampant, and many died on the voyage that was supposed to take these people to a new and better life. Hundreds of children were orphaned, either on the ship, or later, at the quarantine station called Grosse Ile, not far from Quebec City.
As lost and bewildered as these children must have felt, they weren’t entirely alone. Quebec families, mostly French Catholic, were eager to take in these children of their own faith. Not only were they welcomed with open arms, but most kept their Irish surnames. So a little bit of Ireland survives in Montreal.
It’s still seen today in the “Irish Stone,” a momument which stands at the approach to Montreal’s Victoria Bridge. During the construction of the bridge, workmen discovered human remains of Irish immigrants to Canada. They decided to erect a large stone that bears this inscription:
To preserve from desecration the remains of 6000 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 A.D. 1859