From the turn of the 19th century until 1845, Ireland experienced an unprecedented demographic boom, its population doubling from four million to eight million during this period. Such phenomenal growth affected the agrarian structure: as land holdings became increasingly smaller, a sizeable portion of the population had to maximize its potato production in order to secure their sustenance. The lowering of farm tariffs in 1815 intensified the financial precariousness of Irish households. In addition, from the late 1830s, Ireland was hit with a series of poor crops that further fuelled its food supply problems.
Beginning in 1845, Europe - and Ireland in particular - was ravaged by late blight (also known as potato blight), a mould that infected potatoes and tomatoes alike. During the next several years, the blight devastated Ireland's potato crop, which in turn created a terrible famine, considering that the diet of a sizeable proportion of the population was based on this staple.
These events triggered a huge wave of emigration to North America and spawned an Irish diaspora. Close to 100,000 immigrants, 95% of whom hailed from Ireland, arrived at the port of Québec seeking to escape the Great Famine and to secure a better future for themselves.
In an attempt to meet the urgent need to offer lodging to the swelling numbers of immigrants, the quarantine station authorities sped up the construction of shelters and the installation of hundreds of tents on Grosse Île. The western sector, opened in 1832, was quickly overrun by people. To compensate for the lack of space, the station authorities thus decided to use the eastern sector to accommodate the steady stream of new arrivals.
In spite of the efforts and exceptional dedication of the staff, the station was witness to the greatest tragedy in its short history. No fewer than 5,424 people were buried on Grosse Île in 1847, with typhus and diphtheria being the primary causes of this unusually high mortality rate. That year, many island employees also fell victim to disease in their efforts to aid the new arrivals.
What is more, of the 100,000 immigrants who left Europe for Canada that year, 20% died before reaching their final destination - i.e., at sea, on Grosse Île, or at points further west. Many children lost their parents in that fateful year; most of that number were adopted by Québécois families in the area. These orphans nevertheless kept their Irish family name.
All in all, during the quarantine station's 105-year-long existence, 7,553 immigrants were buried in one of the three cemeteries located on Grosse Île. Thus the deaths recorded for 1847 represent 72% of Grosse Île's total mortality.
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Printed on : February 22, 2017