Bishop Michael Power

Virtual exhibit explores experiences of historic Irish famine migrants

  • March 13, 2021

A virtual exhibition is telling the story of Ontario’s Irish migrants of 1847 and the caregivers who put their lives on the line during one of the worst health-care crises in Canadian history.

Funded by Digital Museums Canada, a branch of the Canadian Museum of History, the project has been in the works for roughly four years and will go live online on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17.

“Irish Famine Migrant Stories in Ontario” uncovers many of the untold stories of the typhus epidemic during the massive Irish famine immigration. Of the 100,000 Irish who embarked across the Atlantic, about 20,000 perished during the journey in what became known as “coffin ships.”

The gravity of their sacrifice is understood perhaps more than ever by many in the world today. 

“The kind of pressures on caregivers now are in some ways comparable to what happened in 1847,” said Dr. Jason King, head of the Irish Famine Archive. “Dealing with an infectious disease that is little understood requires a great deal of courage. That courage was exhibited in 1847 and that courage is exhibited again today. I guess this sort of unintended consequence of this exhibit is where we hope it will also pay tribute to caregivers now.”

Created by the Ireland Park Foundation (IPF) in collaboration with King, “Irish Famine Migrant Stories” will showcase several never-before-seen eyewitness accounts, interviews and personal histories of these migrants and their descendants.

One of the gems of the exhibit is the unpublished famine diary of Stephen De Vere, the son of an Irish landlord who accompanied some of his father’s former tenants across the Atlantic to bear witness to what conditions were like during the voyage. He stayed in Canada through to 1848 and wrote an obituary for Toronto’s first Bishop, Michael Power, which prior to this exhibition had never been published. Power died tending to the sick in Toronto’s “fever sheds.”

With approximately 16 per cent of the population in Ontario today claiming Irish decent, William Peat, executive director of the IPF, says the exhibit represents an important piece of the city’s history. As the first minority group to come to Canada, being that Toronto was a largely Presbyterian Protestant city up until that point and 80 per cent of the Irish migrants were Catholic, the immigrants laid the seeds for the diverse Canada we know today.

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