At least 1,400 of the nearly 100,000 Irish who left Grosse Isle (Canada’s Quarantine Station) in 1847 died in Kingston, Ontario, and were buried in a mass grave on the grounds of Kingston General Hospital (KGH). This huge burial mound, consisting of several layers of Irish remains, each layer covered in lime, lay overgrown for nearly 50 years. An Angel of Mercy monument was placed at the mass grave site in 1894 by Archbishop Cleary and was inscribed with the following:
‘In memory of his afflicted Irish compatriots, nearly 1,400 in number, who, enfeebled by famine in 1847-48, ventured across the ocean in unequipped sailing vessels, in whose fetid holds they inhaled the germs of the pestilential ‘ship-fever’ and upon reaching Kingston, perished here, despite the assiduous attention and compassionate offices of the good citizens of Kingston. May the Heavenly Father give them eternal rest and happiness in reward of their patient suffering and Christian submission to His holy will, through the merits of His divine Son, Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen’
Several thousand Irish, sick with typhus, were crammed into hastily erected fever sheds on waterfront land at Emily St. (near Murney Tower in MacDonald Park) and at KGH. They had survived a perilous journey across the Atlantic in the holds of coffin ships, survived the horrors of Grosse Isle, and endured the slow trip on overcrowded barges, only to die painfully in a Kingston fever shed. Hundreds of Kingstonians from various religious denominations became sick and died of typhus, stricken while helping the Irish immigrants in their hour of need. This was in stark contrast to the behaviour of some influential government officials based in Kingston who were heartless in the pursuit of government policies and as indifferent to the extreme sufferings of the Irish immigrants in Kingston as they were to the needless deaths of the Irish in Ireland.
In 1966, KGH moved the Angel of Mercy monument and some of the remains of the Irish ‘famine’ victims to a corner of a cemetery in the north end of the city, approximately 2 miles from the original site (St. Mary’s Cemetery on Division and Kirkpatrick Streets). The mass grave was disturbed in order to accommodate expansion of KGH. The hospital is situated in a downtown built-up area on the shores of Lake Ontario (King St. E.)
On Friday, April 27, 1990, Kingston’s Whig Standard Newspaper (C1, P19) reported:
More Bones Discovered at KGH Site “Excavation workers found the remains of two more bodies yesterday. Workers had discovered a skull and other human bones while excavating on Wednesday. “There was a marsh area and that’s where a large number of typhus victims were buried. The immigrants were quite poor and in many cases, entire families were wiped out by the disease As a result, bodies were buried in common graves since no one was left to pay for the funeral.” said Susan Bazely, Staff Archaeologist with the Cataraqui Archaeological Research Foundation. The Foundation was called in during the police investigation into the discovery.
Nearly 50,000 Irish people fleeing An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) arrived at Kingston’s wharves. When they arrived in Kingston (population then approximately 10,000), the town already had very strong links to Ireland. Thomas Kirkpatrick, the first Mayor of the Town of Kingston (who was also Mayor in 1847) was a Southern Irish Protestant. 17 of his 22 Aldermen and Councillors were Irish.
Kingston’s response to the plight of the 1847-48 Irish immigrants was a shining example of interdenominational cooperation. The aim of the Kingston Irish Famine Commemoration Association (KIFCA), founded in 1996, is to increase awareness of the historic role many Kingstonians played while helping the Irish immigrants and to commemorate those who died on Kingston’s shores and were buried in the mass grave on the KGH grounds. Over 600 names of the nearly 1400 people buried at KGH are recorded in the archives of St Mary’s Cathedral. Research into the names of other Irish famine victims buried in 1847-48 in other gravesites in the city (e.g. Skeleton Park) is ongoing.
While research has answered some questions, it raises many others. Why is it that among those who were hospitalized, typhus deaths in the Emigrant Hospital in Toronto and New York Hospital were far lower at 19% and 11% respectively, than the death rate of 36 % recorded at KGH and the fever sheds in Kingston? (British Whig, November 17, 1847) and what are cities like Ottawa doing about unmarked Irish famine victim gravesites in their city?
Kingston is well known as a city which is proud of its history, however, prior to the formation of KIFCA, the city’s significant involvement with the Irish famine victims was noticeably absent on local historical plaques and low-key in the local history books.
Tony O’Loughlin and Elmer Strong successfully petitioned Kingston City Council in 1997 to set aside a small, well-traveled, downtown park on the lakeshore as a Memorial Park to the Kingston Irish Famine Victims (named An Gorta Mor Park-located at Ontario and West Sts). KIFCA erected a Celtic Cross Monument in An Gorta Mor Park in May 1998, and hosts an annual commemoration at the site. A general info
rmation plaque was erected on the grounds of Kingston General Hospital in May 2000. A plaque to mark the exact location of the mass gravesite, erected by Kingston Irish Folk Club, Kingston General Hospital & KIFCA, was unveiled on the 23rd of September, 2002.