History

Grosse Île: Canada's quarantine island

During the mass Irish migration to Canada 175 years ago, some 100,000 people passed through the quarantine island — and more than 5,000 died there
  • Mar 30, 2022
  • 783 words
  • 4 minutes
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This year marks the 175th anniversary of Irish mass immigration to Canada during the Great Famine in Ireland. In 1847, over 100,000 Irish sailed to Canada, although an estimated one in five did not survive due to harsh conditions on the ships. Canadian Geographic explores the event geographically — with a visit to Grosse Île, Canada’s quarantine island. This story forms part of Commemorate Canada, a Canadian Heritage program to highlight significant Canadian anniversaries. It gives Canadian Geographic a chance to look at these points of history with a sometimes celebratory, sometimes critical, eye.


Grosse Île lies in the Isle-aux-Grues Archipelago in the St. Lawrence River, 48 kilometres downstream from Quebec City. A compact gem of an island — just five kilometres long and 1.6 km wide — it’s a botanist’s paradise. Clumps of rare plants, such as the oddly named male fern and colourful Victorin’s gentian, grow round the shores of small rocky bays, and fields of American bulrush dance in the breeze under the groves of smooth-barked speckled alder that populate hectares of wetland. Balsam fir and red maple abound. And yet, beneath the natural beauty, there is an aura of sadness here. 

In 1832, a cholera epidemic in Europe led to the uninhabited island being turned into a quarantine station for immigrant ships on their way to Quebec City. The original low white hospital buildings and, behind them, a small church, still stand, hiding among the trees at what is now the Irish Memorial National Historic Site.

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Grosse Île lies in the Isle-aux-Grues Archipelago in the St. Lawrence River, 48 kilometres downstream from Quebec City. (Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo)

Why Irish, you may ask? With the catastrophic failure of the Irish potato crop in 1845 (An Gorta Mór, the great hunger, an indelible event in Irish history), tens of thousands of starving Irish fled their homeland, desperate to reach the New World. Life aboard these ships was grim, conditions unfit for humans. Passengers depended on a weekly allowance of seven pounds (about three kilograms) of food and barely enough water to both drink and use for cooking. Sickness and death stalked those fleeing the Emerald Isle, now blackened by fields of rotting potatoes. 

May 17, 2022, marks the 175th anniversary of the beginning of one of the saddest episodes in the recorded history of the American continent. The arrival of the “coffin ship” Syria at Grosse Île in 1847 was the harbinger of a massive epidemic of typhus fever-ridden men, women and children. Of the ship’s 241 passengers, there were initially 84 cases on board. Soon more than 100 people had to be admitted to a hospital with capacity for only 150.

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The Celtic Cross erected on Telegraph Hill in 1909 to commemorate those who died at Grosse Île in 1847-48. (Photo: Parks Canada)

Within a week, 30 more vessels were waiting offshore to land their sick. By May 31, 1,100 people with fever were crammed onto Grosse Île, with 45,000 more immigrants expected to arrive soon. The squalor and suffering defy description, and providing medical attention proved nearly impossible. 

Clearly the facilities could not cope, and by the end of the summer of 1847, the practice of using Grosse Île as a quarantine site was discontinued (although it was subsequently reopened as a quarantine station and continued to function until the 1930s). The sick and apparently healthy were isolated on ships instead. In one early horrible example, the Agnes arrived from Ireland on May 27, 1847, with 427 aboard. Passengers were made to quarantine on board and, by the end of their 15-day stint, just 150 people were still alive. Grosse Île’s use as a quarantine station was taken over by an existing hospital and new specially built open sheds at Pointe-Saint-Charles, in southwest Montreal. 

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A restored dormitory room in the Lazaretto, a hospital built in 1847 on Grosse Île. (Photo: Parks Canada)

Today, the Celtic Cross stands on Telegraph Hill, the highest point on the island. Erected on the Feast of the Assumption in 1909 by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, one of its inscriptions in French, English and Irish reads, “Sacred to the memory of Irish immigrants who, to preserve the faith, suffered hunger and exile in 1847-48, and stricken with fever ended here their sorrowful pilgrimage.”

The cross marks one end of a long meadow, which is bounded at the other by Cholera Bay. It is there the 5,294 victims lie. If you visit Grosse Île, stand quietly and listen, for in the keening of the gulls and the pattering of the sky’s pitying raindrops, the aura of sadness remains.

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