Thursday, 3 September 2015

Grosse Ile: lessons in migration

The view east from Grosse Ile out towards the gulf of St. Lawrence

Last weekend we went to Grosse Ile, an island in the beautiful Isle-aux-Grues archipeligo that lies east of Quebec City in the St. Lawrence river. The island was formerly used as a quarantine station for immigrants to Eastern Canada, and Grosse Ile is a name that still resonates for many Irish people.

Towards the western end of the island there is a small field marked with a few white crosses.

The Irish cemetery, Grosse Ile

Here lie the remains of more than 5000 Irish men, women and children who arrived at this island during the summer and autumn of 1847. They came in search of a new life in North America, fleeing the famine in Ireland, crossing the Atlantic in terrible conditions in a voyage that took seven weeks or more crowded in to the rough hold of a cargo ship. Many died during the sea crossing, others arrived suffering from diseases (typhus mainly) and died on Grosse Ile.

At the western tip of the island there is a memorial to these unfortunate people in the form of a celtic cross.

The inscription on the cross is in Irish and says that they died fleeing “foreign tyranny” and an “artificial famine”.

In the visitor centre we learn that there were many Irish children on the island who were orphaned and that they were adopted by French-Canadian families. Consequently many Quebecers have some Irish ancestry, and you will often meet Francophones with Irish surnames.

As we visit the island the news is filled with stories of other unfortunate migrants. So far this year almost 2000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean, on the treacherous voyage to Europe in search of a better life. Last week, more than 70 people were found dead in the back of truck in Austria, as they tried to reach Germany.

For me, this refugee crisis of 2015 resonates with the Irish tragedy of 1847. History has not been kind to the people and politicians of the 1840's who did little while the Irish starved, drowned and died of diseases. I suspect that history will not be kind to us in this generation either unless we respond to this crisis. People are dying in their thousands while we mess around with Eurozone immigration policies and Greek banking problems. This is the European disaster of our generation - it is the single most important thing for us to deal with now. Where is the leadership from Ireland and from Canada to resolve this crisis which we can understand only too well?

Sorrowful remembrance of the dead is worth little unless it makes us resolve to save those still living.