New play about Partridge Island looks at young doctor's heroism during typhus epidemic

·3 min read
The Partridge Island lighthouse was manned from 1791 until 1989 when the light was automated. The light is still fully operational and maintained by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (Julia Wright / CBC - image credit)
The Partridge Island lighthouse was manned from 1791 until 1989 when the light was automated. The light is still fully operational and maintained by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (Julia Wright / CBC - image credit)

A new play by a Moncton writer about Irish immigrants in quarantine in Partridge Island, and a young doctor's heroic attempts to help them, will be staged at the Saint John Theatre starting Tuesday.

No Man Is an Island writer Thomas Hodd says the play tells the story of a time in New Brunswick history when thousands of immigrants were coming to Saint John through Partridge Island, a tiny island 15 football fields in size. It was one of the main points of entry for emigrating British North Americans in the 19th century.

The play takes place in the middle of a typhus epidemic, around 1847.

"It's this strange congruence of tensions between Irish and Canadian-born doctors and immigration," said Hodd.

He said people who have lived through the COVID-19 pandemic will find it strangely empathetic.

Hamilton Arts and Letters
Hamilton Arts and Letters

The story

The story centres around James Collins, an Irish immigrant who came to Saint John as a young man in 1837 and started a small medical practice.

Not six months after getting married, and with a baby on the way, Collins was asked to go to Partridge Island to help the other doctors, said Hodd.

"These doctors had to check all the ships coming through with the mass immigration."

As Hodd describes it, the ships would pull up and anchor, and the doctors would have to row out to try to identify people who might be sick.

If some were, everyone on the ship would have to quarantine on the island.

"There was one small hospital on the island. And not the kind of hospital we think of," Hodd said.

Julia Wright/CBC
Julia Wright/CBC

The hospital lacked the capacity to meet the need.

"You have a small group of doctors just trying to manage and prevent this overwhelming epidemic from taking control of the city."

Hodd said Collins marked a before and after in the way Irish immigrants were treated in Saint John and the rest of the province.

"The Irish, and in particular, Irish Roman Catholics, like Collins, were basically considered third-class citizens at the time. But after this, the Irish became more involved in the city, taking over positions in politics and police."

Visit to the island

Those performing in the play kayaked to Partridge Island last week to see what remains.

Today, kayaking is the only legal way to get there.

Kenzie Delo, from Nova Scotia, will be playing the part of Collins. He said reaching the island was sobering.

Maxime Côté/National Theatre School of Canada
Maxime Côté/National Theatre School of Canada

"We got to see some of the foundations of the old houses of the people who lived there on the island," he said.

"There was a lot to see out there that connected us to the world of the play, which was what a lot of us were looking for."

Stephen Tobias of the Saint John Theatre Company didn't go himself, but waved from the shore.

He said part of the incentive for them to go was because Ron Jenkins, the director, wanted to capture some video and film of the island to use in the design of the production.

Julia Wright / CBC
Julia Wright / CBC

Life gets in the way

Hodd, who grew up in Saint John, wrote No Man Is An Island 25 years ago when he came across the story of Collins and the quarantine station.

"I talked to artistic director of the Saint John Theatre Company Stephen Tobias about this idea."

But he said life got away and "nothing came of it at the time."

But in 2015, Tobias called him.

"He said, 'I never forgot the story, would you be interested in trying to write something about it?' And I jumped at the chance."

No Man Is An Island runs Aug. 4-7 in person at the theatre. Tickets for a live stream are also available.

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