The story behind the Irish invasion of 1847

By 
  • March 9, 2009
{mosimage}It was either death or a long voyage to Canada for the Willis family and more than 38,000 Irish immigrants who landed in Toronto in the summer of 1847.

But the story of how that impacted the city of 20,000 and its wave of new citizens who fled from a deadly typhus outbreak and the potato famine of 1845 to 1851 in their Irish homeland has gone untold for more than a century, now to be uncovered in a docudrama called Death or Canada: Fleeing the Famine . It will air on History Television March 16.

The film, produced by Ballinran Productions, uses interviews and historical information gleaned in part from the manuscript of an accompanying book also called Death or Canada, written by Mark McGowan, principal of the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. McGowan is a leading historian and expert on Catholics in Canada.

It also focuses on the efforts of Toronto’s first bishop, Michael Power.

“Here we have the first bishop, who died at a very young age, who saved the day. He laid the foundation not only for the Catholic Church but for the whole community,” said the movie’s producer, Craig Thompson.

Power contracted and died of typhus while he ministered to the sick and dying and advocated for support from the rest of the community.

“I think the personality of the Toronto we know today and is known around the world — that personality was stamped into the DNA of the city in 1847 by those events of that summer,” Robert Kearns, the director of Ireland Park on the Toronto waterfront, which was erected in 2007 as a monument to the Irish immigrants who died as a result of the typhus epidemic, said in a statement.

Kearns had asked McGowan, who was the historical consultant to the Ireland Park Foundation, to write a historical text as an accompaniment to the opening of the park. But McGowan said it very quickly turned into the 170-page book that is soon to be published by Novalis.

“If you went through standard Canadian history texts you would find barely anything” on the events surrounding the deaths in Toronto of those fleeing the Irish potato famine, McGowan told The Catholic Register. “We thought there should be a book available not just to a scholarly audience.”

The Canada-Ireland docudrama sends the viewer on a journey with the Willis family, which is mentioned briefly in McGowan’s book. Through the family’s experiences — the unsanitary conditions aboard the ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the exposure to disease and death — Death or Canada reveals much more than has previously been discussed, including misappropriation of hospital funds in Toronto and the disrespect shown to the living and to the corpses.  It also highlights the efforts of Toronto’s first bishop.

“In many ways this was our Hurricane Katrina, our great San Francisco earthquake,” said producer Craig Thompson. “It was a horrible event that nearly wiped out the city, but out of tragedy came renewal.”

While giving a historical representation, the docudrama also uses recent interviews and footage from archeological digs at the corner of King and John Streets, the future site of the Toronto International Film Festival headquarters. Archeological teams were searching for evidence of the fever sheds for those suffering from typhus built on the grounds of the 50-bed hospital reported in historical documents.

The research for the accompanying book took McGowan and his research assistants to various places, including Ireland and unmarked burial sites in Toronto.

But a lot of his research for the project unknowingly began when he was asked by Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic to write the biography of Bishop Michael Power, Toronto’s first bishop, in 1998. 

Bishop Power, who visited Ireland in January of 1847, played a huge role in convincing parishioners across Toronto to reach out to the Irish, as he was able to describe what dire conditions the immigrants were leaving behind. He was also the highest profile person in Toronto to contract typhus and die.

“He was often called a martyr of charity,” McGowan said. “In more than one way I’m really glad the movie focuses on him.”

The second half of the docudrama focuses prominently on both the bishop and a head doctor who worked tirelessly to help the sick.

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