An Gorta Mór
The Great Famine
A pivotal moment
If we look back in history and try to comprehend why so many Irish residents emigrated
in Canada in the second half of nineteen century, we have to understand the
devastating consequences of the “Gorta Mór”, the Great Famine. It started in 1845 and
lasted up to 1849. During these unquestionably trying times, everyone affected by the
famine was forced to make decisions which would appear unrealistic and ill-advised
just a few years before. We can look back nowadays at one of those dramatic “breaking
points” in the history of societies when everything changed from then on.
The Late blight
For many practical reasons, in 1845, most of the rural population of Ireland depended
on the potatoes for its survival. This is why an abundant potato harvest was crucial year
after year. Essentially, the cause of the disease
was related to a water mold called Phytophthira Infestans. It resulted in the “late blight”,
a critical disease destroying leaves and edible roots.
Desperate times call for desperate measures
The late blight had a major impact on the demographic history of Ireland. One million
Irish perished due to starvation or other famine-related diseases, and another one
million emigrated. In 1844, Ireland’s population was estimated to 8.4 million In 1851, the
population had declined to 6.6 million. Coping with extreme hardship, diseases and
death, individuals had no other choice and left the island for a better life. Overseas
emigration and lower birth rates due to the famine resulted in an important population
decline for many decades after the Great Famine. In 1921, Ireland had lost almost half
of its population compared to 1840.
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A gift from Choctaw nation
In 1847, during the third year of the Great Famine, the Irish received a donation of 170 $
from the Choctaw nation who lived in nowadays Oklahoma, US. The donation was sent
to the town of Midleton in County Cork, south of Dublin. The relationship is still well alive
today between the two groups. In 2017, a sculpture, Kindred Spirits, commemorating
the friendship between the Choctaw and the Irish was inaugurated in Midleton.
Destination : la Grosse-Île
La crise de la pomme de terre entraîna ainsi un exode historique de la population
irlandaise. Un des endroits au pays ayant été témoins de ce mouvement massif de
population est la Grosse-île, située à l’est de Québec. Au cours de l’année 1847, près
de 90000 individus y transitent. Le voyage par bateau en provenance de l’Irlande dure
de 6 à 9 semaines. Forcés à l’exil par un intense désespoir, les voyageurs y subissent
des conditions de vie effarantes. Au cours de cette même année tragique, près de 5000
passagers périrent. Affaiblis par la malnutrition et la fatigue, les émigrants sont victimes
de ce que l’on nomme alors la “fièvre des navires”, le typhus.
Près de 4 millions de personnes ont séjourné dans l’île pendant ses 100 années
d’activités. Le site est aujourd’hui un lieu historique national de Parcs Canada.
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(In a second article, we will have a more in-depth look at how people were personally affected
by these disturbing events.)