Learning about Canada’s Irish settlers 0
Dressed in a periodic costume, Ellie MacNeil enetertained close to 60 guests for the Friends of the Haliburton County's Lunch and Learn event on April 17, at the Community Room in Haliburton Village. MacNeill spoke on the history of Irish settlers emigrating to Canada's Grosse Ile in the 1800s. ANGELICA BLENICH/HALIBURTON COUNTY ECHO/QMI AGENCY
It’s a part of Canadian history that Ellie MacNeil believes is not known well enough.
Located off the shores of Quebec in the St. Lawrence River, Grosse Isle was home to thousands of Irish immigrants during the 1800s.
The historic island was the topic of discussion during the Friends of the Haliburton County Public Library’s Lunch and Learn event on April 17.
Held in the Community Room, close to 60 people gathered to hear MacNeil share stories and photos of Grosse Isle, a quarantine depot that housed Irish settlers leaving their country of origin due to the great potato famine.
Dressed in a periodic costume reminiscent of a nurse, MacNeil began by sharing historical facts of what life was like for Irish folk between 1832 and 1937.
Holding up a 300-gram potato, the starch was a mainstay of the Irish diet, MacNeil said. When the famine hit in the 1840s, thousands of Irish settlers emigrated to Canada, first inhabiting Grosse Isle.
Measuring seven miles long and one mile in width, the island is surrounded by salt water, said MacNeil.
“There were no wells on the island, they brought in water from the mainland,” she said.
Having travelled to Grosse Isle herself, MacNeil was overtaken by the island’s beauty and awe.
“It’s an incredible place, a part of Canada that should be promoted more,” she said.
Ships carrying immigrants would dock on the west side of the island, said MacNeil.
A book of advice was handed out to the settlers once they arrived on the island in the 1830s.
“I’m not too sure what this advice was,” joked MacNeil, adding she has never seen the inside of said book, only the cover.
Grosse Isle is home to a cemetery where over 5,000 Irish immigrants are buried, according to MacNeil.
“The cemetery is very peaceful, a beautiful place to be,” she said.
The island acted as a quarantine depot for immigrants that had contracted various diseases, such as typhoid and cholera.
During the quarantine period the island was home to many medical centres, a fumigation building and other buildings such as churches and homes.
Despite its history, Grosse Isle holds many special memories for those who stayed there.
“It wasn’t all doom and gloom, there were good times to be had on the island as well,” said MacNeil.
Many of the immigrants survived their medical conditions, going on to live long lives, said MacNeil.
“I was struck by the sadness but beauty of the place,” said FHCPL director Elly Malcolmson.
The island is now home to the Irish Memorial National Historic Site and under the jurisdiction of Parks Canada.
Guided tours are available during the summer months.