The Story of the 1,490

Remember your soul and your liberty

“Remember your soul and your liberty”, declared James Quinn, a forty-five year old Irish emigrant from Lissonuffy on the Denis Mahon estate in Co. Roscommon, to his two young sons Patrick (12) and Thomas (6), as he lay dying in the quarantine station on Grosse Isle, Quebec, in late August, 1847.

The Quinn family had been forced to emigrate along with 1,490 tenants from Strokestown Park estate in May 1847. They were escorted on foot by Bailiff Robison along the length of the Royal Canal to Dublin, from where they travelled on the open deck of a packet steamer to Liverpool. Once in Liverpool they would have been provided with passenger tickets similar to the ones discovered by Professor Cian McMahon (University of Las Vegas) used by Irish emigrants in 1846 and from Sir Robert Gore Booth’s estate at Lissadell in County Sligo who sailed to Saint John, New Brunswick in 1847.

From Liverpool, they crossed the Atlantic on some of the worst of the “coffin ships” such as the Erin’s Queen, Naomi, The Virginius and The John Munn. During the Naomi’s voyage from Liverpool to Quebec, 196 out of 421 passengers perished; a further 267 of 467 passengers died on the Virginius. Denis Mahon was assassinated in November 1847 after their horrific fate became widely known. His assassination was widely reported and accounts of it can be read in the Westmeath Independent and Northern Standard of November 13, 1847.

The Quinn brothers like many of the children from Strokestown, such as Daniel and Catherine Tighe were orphaned and adopted by a French-Canadian family in rural Quebec. They were well educated, entered the seminary, and became priests who ministered to joint French-Canadian and Irish Catholic congregations. Their story is one of social acceptance and the upwards mobility of model immigrants who became thoroughly integrated into their host society.

Sixty-four years after he was adopted from Grosse Isle, the Abbé Thomas Quinn stood before the First Congress of the French Language in North America, on June 25th, 1912, to express his gratitude to the people of French Canada for their “untiring charity”, which enabled “my unfortunate parents…to sleep in peace with God, pardoning their enemies, and carrying with them the ineffable consolation of leaving their children in the care of French-Canadian priests”.

The adoption of Irish orphans like Patrick and Thomas Quinn and Catherine and Daniel Tighe into French-Canadian families and communities in 1847 has long been remembered in Ireland and Quebec as a tragic historical event that nevertheless brought the French and Irish closer together.

At the 2014 National Famine Commemoration in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny echoed Thomas Quinn when he unveiled a glass wall memorial to the 1,490 people who were forced to emigrate from the Mahon estate in 1847. The estate of Strokestown Park House from which they fled is now the site of the Irish National Famine Museum.

Like Quinn, Kenny paid tribute to Quebec’s “priests and nuns… and especially… the French-Canadian Sisters of Charity… the Grey Nuns… and the quality of their mercy” for looking “after 800 children whose parents had died on board the emigrant ship”. The return of the descendants of emigrant orphan Daniel Tighe from Quebec to Strokestown in July 2013, provided another occasion for the commemoration of the Famine exodus, as a flagship event of ‘The Gathering’. This was recorded by RTÉ’s Nationwide:

Like Catherine and Daniel Tighe, the Quinn brothers were forced to emigrate from the Mahon Estate in Roscommon to Liverpool and then Quebec in late June of 1847 on board the Naomi, which was one of the worst of the ‘coffin ships’. According to A.C. Buchanan’s ‘Return of Passenger Ships arrived at the Port of Quebec’ recorded in the British Parliamentary Papers, the Naomi arrived in Quebec on August 10th 1847 after carrying 421 steerage passengers from Liverpool on a journey to Grosse Isle that lasted forty five days, of whom 196 or slightly under fifty percent perished, including 78 at sea, 31 at quarantine, and a further 87 in the quarantine hospital on the island. [Emigration vessels to Quebec, 1847, No. 8, ‘Return of passenger ships arrived at the Port of Quebec in the season of 1847’, British Parliamentary Papers, Vol. 17, Sessions 1847-1848, pp 471-477].
Two days later the Virginius, which also carried assisted emigrants from the Mahon Estate, arrived at Grosse Isle with an even higher mortality rate of over fifty percent or 267 of the 467 steerage passengers on board. Even by the standards of 1847, the conditions on board the Naomi and Virginius were horrific and only obliquely recalled by the Quinn and Tighe children and their descendants in their subsequent recollections. In the words of Daniel’s grandson Léo Tye, who was interviewed by Marianna O’Gallagher and met with Jim Callery, founder of the Irish National Famine Museum at Strokestown:

In 1847, Mary, widow of Bernard Tighe, left Ireland with her five children and her younger brother… The voyage was a long nightmare of eight weeks. Drinking water ran low and food was reduced to one meal a day. Comfort and hygiene were non-existent. Typhus broke out on board, and the ship was ordered to stop at Grosse Île. Of Mary Tighe’s family, only two children survived: Daniel (12), and Catherine (9). When the children left the ship, they never saw the other family members again, nor did they have any word about them.

[Marianna O’Gallagher, ‘The Orphans of Grosse Île: Canada and the adoption of Irish Famine Orphans, 1847-48’, in Patrick O’Sullivan (ed), The Irish World Wide: The Meaning of the Famine, (5 vols, London and Washington, 1997) iv, 90].

When Jim Callery visited Léo Tye at his home in Lotbinière, Quebec, in 2000, he heard the story that first inspired the search for the 1,490. His interview with Léo Tye was translated by Marianne O’Gallaher. The day after he met with Léo Tye, Jim Callery visited Artillery Park in Quebec City for the unveiling of its Celtic Cross Famine Memorial that he had donated on behalf of the Irish National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park House. See clips from this interview and Léo’s description of the Famine migration that was passed down to him from his father Daniel Tighe. He also reveals that Daniel Tighe “spoke a bit of French in old age”. Look out for a portrait of Daniel Tighe in adult life.

Like Léo and Catherine Tye , Thomas Quinn also recalled his family’s harrowing voyage to Quebec in 1847: ‘In the designs of Providence, we were cast upon the shores of Grosse-Ile after a stormy passage of two months at sea. A malady,… – the famine fever – came to add its untold terrors to so much other suffering and misery’, he declared at the French Language Congress in 1912.

In fact, both the Quinn and Tighe children were evacuated from the quarantine station at Grosse Isle in August and September of 1847 into the care of the Catholic Orphanage run by the ‘Charitable Ladies of Quebec’ and, after 1849, the Grey Nuns, who presided over their adoptions into French-Canadian and Irish Catholic families. As grandson Léo Tye recounts:

On 8 August 1847, Daniel and Catherine along with several other immigrants left Grosse Île on a sail boat which brought them to… the General Hospital [in Quebec] where they were very well treated. Then one morning, the pastor of Lotbinière, Father Edouard Faucher, came to get Daniel and Catherine and eleven other Irish children. He loaded them into his horse drawn ‘express wagon’ [and] during the long trek, held one of the smaller children on his knees. [Marianna O’Gallagher, ‘The Orphans of Grosse Île’, p. 91]

Léo Tye also recalls how his grandfather Daniel and his sister Catherine were adopted by the French-Canadian Coulomb family who decided to keep the children together after they ‘cried so hard at the idea of being separated that they were inconsolable…. The Coulombs proved to be good parents to these two orphans’, Léo Tye added. ‘Upon the parents’ death, Daniel inherited their good farm, which since then, has been handed on from father to son’.

Like the Tighe orphans, Patrick and Thomas Quinn were also escorted by clergy from Grosse Isle to Quebec and then adopted into a French-Canadian family. According to the Annals of Richmond County in Quebec’s Eastern Townships:

Previous to his appointment at Richmond Fr. [Luc] Trahan had worked at Grosse Isle Quarantine Station in 1847… [He] took under his protection two orphaned boys, Patrick and Thomas Quinn whose father James Quinn and mother, Margaret Lyons, of Strakestown, [sic] Co. Roscommon, Ireland, had died of the fever. Through his efforts, the two boys were adopted by a French-Canadian family named Bourque, at Nicolet. They completed their education at the Seminary at Nicolet and both entered the priesthood.
Father Patrick Quinn [the elder brother] succeeded his benefactor Fr. Trahan as Pastor at… Richmond [where he remained parish priest for 50 years until his retirement in 1914]. [Richmond County Historical Society, The Tread of Pioneers: Annals of Richmond County and Vicinity (2 vols, Richmond, Quebec, 1968), ii, 39]

The adoptions of the Quinn and Tighe famine orphan siblings into French-Canadian families thus symbolizes a wider story of social acceptance and the upward mobility of model immigrants who became thoroughly integrated into the agrarian and ecclesiastical institutions of Quebec’s host society. As parish priests and proprietors of the family farm, they left behind the famine afflicted Mahon Estate and typhus infested Naomi’s steerage and Grosse Isle fever sheds to start new lives ascending social ladders they could never have gained a foothold on in Ireland.

Perhaps the most poignant expression of Irish gratitude for French-Canadian hospitality came from the Famine orphan Thomas Quinn himself. On June 25, 1912, he delivered a speech entitled “Une Voix d’Irlande” – “A Voice of Ireland” in Quebec City at the First Congress of the French Language in Canada. Speaking in French, he recalled:

It was in 1847. A famine, even worse than the one which had preceded it, threatened the Irish people with total extinction. The most astonishing part of the awful spectacle was, not to see the people die, but to see them live through such great distress. Like walking skeletons they went, in tears, seeking hospitality from more favoured lands. Stirred with compassion, French-Canadian priests, braving the epidemic, contended for the glory of rushing to their relief. I still remember one of these admirable clergymen who led us to the bedside of my dying father. As he saw us, my father with his failing voice repeated the old Irish adage, “Remember your soul and your liberty”.

Thomas Quinn’s full speech translated into English can be found here. It was originally published in French under the title “Une Voix d’Irlande’”, in Premier Congrès de La Langue Français au Canada. Québec 24-30 Juin 1912 (Québec, 1913), pp. 227-232. This publication can be found here.

In his remembrance of his father’s dying utterance, Father Quinn identified his French parishioners’ vulnerability with his own. Just as he was taken in as a helpless orphan by the French-Canadian people, he would now champion their linguistic and religious freedom in turn. He implored his audience to “struggle without fear, like O’Connell and Redmond, because your cause is right and just”. Father Quinn equated Ireland’s demand for Home Rule with the French-Canadian struggle for cultural survival, “la survivance”. In traveling from Famine Ireland to Quebec, he found his voice in French Canada.

The story of Irish Famine orphans like the Quinns and Tighes is now commemorated in the Irish National Famine Museum in Strokestown Park House on the site of the very estate from which Denis Mahon’s 1,490 tenants were forced to flee. The glass wall memorial unveiled by Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the Irish National Famine Museum not only commemorates the 1,490 but also marks a campaign to trace them and their descendants, such as Richard Tye, grandson of Famine orphan Daniel Tighe, who made an emotional return journey to his ancestral home in Strokestown during ‘the Gathering’ festivities in 2013.

Richard Tye, however, was not the first descendant of the 1,490 famine to make a return journey to his homeland. Indeed, in 1887, Father Patrick Quinn himself “was able to realize the cherished dream of his life and to see once again his native land of Ireland, whence he had gone many years before under such trying conditions”. According to the Hayes papers, “in Ireland it was his good fortune to find members of his family still living, in the persons of several nieces and nephews. One of them, Miss Mary Quinn accompanied him on his return to Canada and remained with him until his death”. [‘Second Parish Priest of Richmond 1864-1914’, n.d., Richmond County Historical Society, Melbourne, Quebec, Hayes Papers, 03-G-F- 26.62.]. Read about this visit in a contemporary report in the Roscommon Herald of May 23rd 1931.

No doubt there are still descendants of the Quinns and other families from the 1,490 Stroketown Famine emigrants on both sides of the Atlantic who remain to be reunited like the Tyes. Indeed, one of the most poignant cultural artifacts from the 1,490 exodus is the little, light brown jacket worn by six year-old famine orphan Thomas Quinn when he arrived in Nicolet from Grosse Isle, which is now housed in the town’s Archives du Séminaire.

The recovery of their legacy can take many forms. In walking in the footsteps of Strokestown’s missing 1,490, the Famine walkers seek to find traces of their journey and new chapters for their story.