By Jimmy Woulfe
Irish Examiner
March 26, 2012

A unique archive on the Great Famine and what happened to coffin ship victims when they got to Canada opened over the weekend at the University of Limerick.

The archive tells of the heroic work by the French-Canadian Sisters of Charity, or Grey Nuns, who cared for the emigrants in the fever sheds of Montreal during the summer of 1847 and provided homes for Irish widows and orphans.

The annals, translated from French, contain extensive, evocative eyewitness accounts of the suffering of Famine migrants in 1847.

Unpublished until now, they were unknown up to recent times to both scholars and the general public.

The archive consists of numerous eyewitness accounts and first-hand testimonials about the suffering of Irish emigrants in the fever sheds of Montreal, and the harrowing experiences of the priests and nuns who went to their aid and sought to provide homes for stricken widows and orphans.

Jason King, who was head researcher on the project, said: “‘The Typhus of 1847/Le Typhus de 1847’ virtual archive makes accessible the stories of individuals and members of religious communities who risked their own lives to care for and provide comfort for Famine Irish emigrants in Montreal in 1847.

“It provides a record not just of the hardships and suffering experienced by the Famine emigrants, but also a moving tribute to those who sought to help them,” he added.

The Famine of 1845-1850 was the greatest social calamity in terms of mortality and suffering that Ireland ever experienced. Over one million people died.

When the floodgates of emigration opened over the following decade, more than 1.8m people left Irish shores, with more than half fleeing during the Famine years.

The main annal in the archive was that of the Grey Nuns of Montreal, which was published in French in La Revue Canadienne under the title, ‘Le Typhus de 1847’ in 1898. The UL virtual archive is making this material accessible as it is completely unknown in the English-speaking world.

The event was attended by Jimmy Deenihan, the arts and culture minister, representatives of the Quebec government office in London and the Canadian embassy in Ireland.

The project is funded by the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences faculty teaching and research boards at UL.

• The virtual archive can be accessed at: www.history.ul.ie/historyoffamily/faminearchive.

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