Montreal archeologists find remains of 19th century Irish famine victims

MONTREAL — Archeologists digging at the site of a future light-rail station unearthed a piece of Montreal history last week when they uncovered what is believed to have been a cemetery for Irish immigrants who died after fleeing famine in 1847.

The bone fragments of between 12 and 15 people were discovered in a spot about 2.3 metres in diameter that will eventually hold one of the light-rail system's pillars, according to Elizabeth Boivin, a spokeswoman for the Reseau express metropolitain, or REM.

She said more remains could be discovered in the next few days, since archeologists don't yet know how deep the graves lie.

While the bones have been sent to a laboratory for analysis, she said archeologists believe they belong to some of the estimated 6,000 immigrants who came across the ocean on overcrowded ships only to die of typhus in fever sheds erected on the banks of the St. Lawrence.

"It was in the context of an epidemic, so there was a public health problem, and the bodies were stacked up, put into coffins, but it wasn't an organized cemetery as we know it," she said in a phone interview.

She said pieces of wood, presumably from coffins, have been found with the bones. The remains are in good condition, she said.

Boivin said the REM was aware of the possibility of a graveyard on the site and hosted a blessing in June prior to beginning the dig.

Because the area is bound by railway tracks, archeologists had to work in a confined, cylindrical hole in the ground, where they were lowered by crane. She said the remains will not affect the work on the train system.

The sombre discovery was nevertheless an exciting one for members of Montreal's Irish community, who have been lobbying for a decade for a memorial park to honour the 1847 famine victims.

Victor Boyle, the co-president of the Irish Memorial Park Foundation, said it lends credence to the historians who say the site could be the biggest Irish grave site outside Ireland.

"It's a vindication, and it brings back to life the story of 1847, when 6,000 people lost their lives," he said. 

He said other digs carried out in other locations near the site in recent years turned up artifacts but no remains.

The bodies were found near the Black Rock, a three-metre-tall boulder erected by railway workers in 1859 that is believed to be the first-ever memorial to victims of the potato famine.

Fergus Keyes, who co-leads the park effort with Boyle, says an estimated 100,000 people came to Canada in the summer of 1847 aboard overcrowded vessels known as "coffin ships."

Some 70,000 of them — many sick and dying — landed in Montreal, overwhelming a city whose population numbered only 50,000.

"By September and October of 1847, we know they were running out of coffins and started trenching people," Keyes said in a phone interview. "At the end of the day, they were digging a trench and throwing in 30 bodies here, there and elsewhere."

Keyes and Boyle say the project to create a memorial park at the site will be a tribute to both the Irish victims and all the Montrealers risked their lives to nurse and care for them. That includes French-Catholic priests and nuns, British military, Montrealers who adopted orphaned children, First Nations who contributed food and money and Montreal's mayor at the time, John Easton Mills, who died of typhus after volunteering to nurse the sick.

In a time of polarizing debates over immigration, Keyes says it's important to remember the response to a group he describes as "the worst immigrants you can imagine."

"They were poor, they were hungry, they didn't speak the language, for the most part they were illiterate and on top they brought disease," he said. "And a bunch of Montrealers of every language and culture went to help them, provide food, provide care, provide comfort."

Keyes and Boyle hope the bones at the site may provide clues such as the age, gender and cause of death of the victims — and maybe even DNA that could link them to descendants. Eventually, though, they believe it would be best that they be reburied at the site.

"It seems to me unseemly that you would take bones that have been there for more than 100 years and move them somewhere else," Boyle said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov 27, 2019

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press