‘The Great Hunger’ changed Toronto

By  Maura Hanrahan, Catholic Register Special
  • June 5, 2009
{mosimage}Death or Canada: The Irish Famine Migration to Toronto, 1847 by Mark G. McGowan (Novalis, hardcover, 170 pages, $24.95)

Few experiences can be more painful than having to tell your hungry child there is no food. Today mothers and fathers in Sudan, North Korea and other troubled countries have to do just that. In the mid-1800s, it was Irish parents who witnessed their children starve, as they did so themselves.

The crushing nature of famine is captured most poignantly in J.P.L. Walton’s lament, first published in The Limerick Reporter in 1846 and reprinted in this beautifully produced book. As he and his neighbours suffered, Walton’s “Irish Labourers’ Pater Noster” reads, in part:
Our little ones scream out with pain
And clamour to be fed.
Further, they cry out to us in vain —
Give us our daily bread. . .
 Famine had laid her withering hand
Upon each little head.
Oh Christ! Is this a Christian land?
Give us our daily bread.
Thy will be done — Father receive
Our souls when we are dead.
In heaven we shall not pine and grieve
Or want our daily bread.
Walton’s despair is palpable in this last verse, which hints at a longing for the relief of death and end to hunger. It is difficult to underestimate the cruelty of the Irish famine and the wreckage it wrought. Between 1845 and 1851, no less than two million Irish people disappeared from their homeland through death or migration. In spite of conquests, conversions and the Troubles, the famine, “the Great Hunger,” may be Ireland’s most seminal story.

It is less well-known as a Canadian story but it is just that, as McGowan sets out, mainly successfully, to show us. The year 1847 was the most significant year for famine migration to Canada and the book focuses on this year. The book is also firmly centred on Toronto, then a town of about 20,000. Because of sad events on ocean and half-a-continent away, this would change. In 1847, 38,560 refugees appeared on the shores of Lake Ontario. This was an astronomical number for the day and people in Toronto knew how difficult accommodation of these migrants had already been for eastern cities such as Montreal.

McGowan tells a striking story as he discusses the roots of the famine. He writes of a farmer salting down his donkey for his family to eat, of priests submitting lists of the dead to newspapers by diseases “brought on from want of sufficient food.” He notes that emigration wasn’t that simple. Few could afford it.

In May, 1847 a columnist in The Limerick Reporter gave voice to what must have been on many minds regarding migration: “The grand inducement held out is that death awaits the people in their own country, and they ought, therefore, to leave it as quickly as possible, without knowing whether as speedy a death does not await them in the wilds of Canada.” Despite fears and misgivings, in 1847 nearly 100,000 would go to British North America, with 80,000 of them landing in Quebec.

And almost 40,000 came to Toronto that one year. The landings of “indigents” were chaotic and public health officials scrambled to cope with so many sick and dying. One day a coffin fell open on the street and out tumbled four nearly naked bodies instead of the one body the coffin was meant to carry.

Disasters put everything, including human behaviour, in sharp relief, as did this one. There were heroes but there were also uglier aspects to the story: suspicion, indifference and corruption among them.

Toronto was young and McGown concludes that its government passed the horrendous test set before it. He is not concerned with apportioning blame, reminding us that there was plenty to go around, from uncaring capitalists in England and Ireland to nasty ships’ captains to those on both sides of the Atlantic who could have helped but chose to walk away.

McGowan is more interested in the significance of the “famine moment” to Canadian history, especially in light of recent revisionist debate. The famine moment changed the very face of Toronto, he says, making the emerging city much more Irish and more Catholic than ever before. More importantly, the sight and the relative numbers of the gaunt wasted Irish set in Canadian memory images that would last and affect Irish status and Irish/non-Irish relations for decades. (This is true not just of Canada, of course, and in American cities such as New York such images predate the famine.) McGowan claims, but doesn’t entirely prove, that the famine memory, mainly Black ’47, “became the defining moment of the Irish experience in Canada — by what was said and, perhaps, by what went unsaid.” He is surely right as it pertains to Upper Canada. But, as he himself says, the Irish in Canada’s most eastern provinces were established long before the famine (Irish migration to Newfoundland, for instance, was virtually over half a century before the Great Hunger.)

This book is a welcome addition to Canadian history. An attractive book with a nice complement of photographs, it has a particularly poignant appendix listing the famine dead in Toronto from June 1847 to the next January. What they and their brethren must have suffered — in Ireland, on the rough Atlantic waves, and in Canada, only to die in a foreign land.

(Hanrahan is an author from St. John’s, Nfld.)

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