Grosse Isle – Canada’s Ellis island
I’ve always said that if every able-bodied Muslim must make the Hajj to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, every Irish person must make the journey to New York on st. Patrick’s day once in theirs… I’ll now add to Grosse-Isle to that advice
“That’s how I’ll explain it back home when they ask about my trip to Quebec” I thought, beaming with pride, in the shade of the huge Celtic-cross that dominates this deserted craggy island in the middle of the mighty St. Lawrence.
The early-summer sun in Canada is blissful – my forehead and arms were beginning to look like the Pink Panther and occasionally my mind drifted to thoughts of the great holiday I was presently enjoying in a place no friend of mine would ever contemplate visiting despite the fact I knew they’d love it. Mostly though, I was reflecting on an emotional day-trip to ‘Les Memorials Irlandais’. Only hours earlier I savoured one of the profound travel experiences of my life, one where I sensed the spirits of my ancestors: men and women from my tribe who had passed this way before long before I finally did.
We were one of the first groups of the year to go out. Thick ice joins the island to both banks of the river for the winter. As one of his sons steered us safely across the awesome river and another politely sold us affordable snacks, the affable Captain of the Island-ferry, kitted out in full nautical regalia, sat on deck, microphone in hand and eloquently delivered a welcoming monologue and impromptu one-man comedy to his captive audience. Despite feigning laughter at the jokes, as I didn’t understand his heavily accented French, the whole episode just smacked of great customer service – for the life of me I simply cannot imagine the staff on any ferry to the Aran Islands being bothered to provide visitors with such a travel ‘wow-moment’ as they bounce merrily across Galway Bay!
The Quebecois Captain Birdseye enquired as to our origins. Most tourists today were Francophones from all over Quebec. I noticed subtle gasps of appreciation when the Nova Scotian visitor raised her hand and murmured: ‘Je viens de Novelle Ecosse’. But it was the group’s reaction when he sheepishly asked was anyone on board from abroad that re-affirmed my belief I was on a voyage to somewhere special. “Je suis Irlandais” I blurted out self-consciously. I can’t recall his response because the other passengers instantly erupted into a sincere and prolonged standing-ovation; I was mortified with embarrassment but moreso I felt intense pride, relieved the other passengers couldn’t see the hair on my neck stand to attention: here I was getting clapped, hugged and patted by strangers on a ferry-boat across one of the great rivers of the world, 48 Kilometres downstream of Quebec City .
Quebecers are a gregarious lot and slogan on the province’s car registration plates sums up nicely their collective memory as a people: ‘Je me souviens’… I will remember. They had no idea who I was but they were honoured an Irish person was among them and had made the journey to this evocative and spiritual place; for me it was a true hair-standing experience. Grosse Isle may well be Canada’s Ellis Island and the main immigration entry-point for numerous peoples into this vast country until World War 1, but among French-Canadians – who’s ancestors selflessly adopted Irish orphans fresh off the boats during The Great Famine – there is no confusion; the painful story behind this beautiful Island is an Irish one.
I was an adolescent history-nerd when I first vowed to make the trip to Grosse Isle. I serendipitously came upon old poster dated June 1847, advertising passage to Quebec from Derry Quay aboard a ship named the ‘Superior’. I was mesmerised. I discovered that large numbers of my ancestors had gone through Canada as a way of seeking entry to the United States due to an increase in passenger-taxes on emigrant ships docking in the land of the free after 1847.
In the 19th Century Grosse Isle was the major quarantine station for boats from Ireland, a place where would-be emigrants were stripped, scrubbed clean, inspected and eventually passed fit to enter Canada or buried, if Cholera or worse still, Thyphus had their way. I read of the mass grave containing 5000 bodies from my Island, Doctors and Priests included, who quickly perished due to the Typhus epidemic on the Island in 1847. I vowed to go and find it one day. Fascinated, an intrigue took root and I vowed to one day see this once inward-looking and mysterious part of North America.
It often amazes me that Canada’s French speaking province is not on the ‘must-see’ list of most Irish people’s North American Travel itinerary. History buffs, culture vultures, political junkies, people watchers, fashionistas, festival-lovers, outdoors types, Celine Dion fans and those of you who simply just adore fine food, great wine and a certain ‘joie de vivre’ among friendly, party-loving people are all in for a huge treat.
‘La Belle Province’, or ‘The Beautiful Province’ as even those with merely a vague recollection of their Leaving-cert French will doubtless be able to translate, has a double seasonal hook to hang your holidays on. In Winter Mt. Tremblant, the Whistler of the East, offers a ski resort that combines old-world European ambience with no-nonsense top-class North American standards of service. In summer it’s a sizzling 35 degrees as Tommy Tiernan et al take the stage during Montreal’s ‘Just for Laughs Festival’, can Kilkenny say the same?
Quebec was once the major destination for ships from Derry Quay
poster advertising the pending departure of the ‘superior’ June 28, 1847
Today that mystery has lessened; the ‘quiet revolution’ of the 1960’s has seen the Catholic Church lose its once all-encompassing influence on society and a no-longer inward-looking ‘La belle province’ or ‘the beautiful province’ – which even those of you without so much as a smattering of French will surely have been able to translate – is quite simply an essential stop on any avid travellers North American itinerary; or indeed on its own as a week- long getaway destination. Quebec’s 7 million francophone population boasts up to 40% with Irish Ancestry, they are as friendly a people as anywhere back home in Ireland.
Up close and personal with the locals in Quebec
because an electrifying, heavily accented form of French is the mother tongue of over 70% of its proud ‘habitants’, in fact it’s the perfect place to practise your Leaving-cert French and not be afraid of sounding daft, as the local accent is far from Parisian, though you can dispel any language barrier concerns immediately, remarkably almost everyone has a refreshing and inspiring grasp of both French and English, a wonderful lesson in bilingualism, among regular everyday people, that surely we Irish could learn from?
As one might expect, the cuisine in the restaurants is simply fantastic; and long, relaxed meals of many courses in good company with copious amounts of imported French red wine and the sweet local ice-wine, are the norm here; that being said this is still North America and the most popular local dish is ‘poutine’, a generous helping of greasy fries, lavished with thick gravy and topped off with a sprinkling of yummy cheese curds. And for those of you with a sweet tooth, many Quebecers live for their sugar shacks and maple syrup, one of their biggest exports, which they tap from the Maple trees every spring just as the First Nation tribes taught their French-colonist ancestors five centuries before.
This may well have been the last time everything was rosy between the two however, tension is sometimes tangible between the Mowhawk (who were historical allies of the British red-coats and are today Anglophone) and the French-Canadian and as with everywhere else on the continent, the native population in Quebec have been reduced to a shadow of its former self, however there are some very interesting Mohawk and other Iroquois First Nation reserves, cultural centres and archaeological sites within close proximity that are well worth the visit for any discerning traveller.
Accommodation-wise there’s a massive selection of fine Hostels and hotels to chose from in both of Quebec’s big cities, everything from the homely ‘Hostelling International’ to the sleek ‘Jazz in Montreal’. For those wishing to splurge a little, the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ Hotel downtown is worth checking out, you might be lucky enough to get suite 1738, scene of John Lennon and Yoko’s ‘bed-in for peace’ in 1969 and where ‘Give peace a chance’ was performed for the first time. Should you wish to break from the urban, Mt. Tremblant resort is 1.5 hours away by car. Tremblant is quintessential ski playground of the stars – albeit in a very non-pretentious manner – perhaps best exemplified by the tragic fatal accident of our own Liam Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson. Mt. Tremblant is Canada’s mirror image of the more famous Whistler resort, way out west; and its fine winter ski slopes become excellent hiking and biking trails come summer.
Names of Irish cholera victims buried at Grosse Isle
Personally, the immediate striking feature of Quebec – aside from the refreshing and inspiring high-levels of bilingualism among regular everyday people – was that despite being quintessentially Canadian in some ways, my eyes were opened by just how unlike the rest of Canada it is, in fact literally so, for as recently as 1995, 49.4% of the population voted ‘Yes’ (or rather ‘Oui’) in a referendum, to break-away from Canada altogether and to form their own completely independent country! This writer – a former political science student -recently enjoyed quite the buzz as I roamed on foot through the lively and hip St. Denis area of downtown Montreal; passing architecturally unique urban town-houses, most of which have their sun-drenched balconies identically adorned with the blue and white Fleur de Lys ‘National’ Flag of Quebec and the wistful banner proclaiming ‘Quebec, un nouveau payee pour le monde’ – Quebec, a new country for the world! Nationalist politics is never far from the surface; however if truth be told, most street conversations I encountered were focused more on the most prevalent burning issue – Ice Hockey – and the performance, or lack thereof, of their adored Montreal Canadiens, the most successful franchise ever in the NHL and founded by an Irishman John Ambrose O’Brien!
The friendly Quebecers live for Ice-Hockey and their beloved Montreal Canadiens
Another excellent day tour you should consider, though fully deserving of an overnight stay, is the historic and smaller capital – Quebec City. Drive North for 2 hours along the awesome St. Lawrence river and you’ll find that this little gem has it all, it’s summer festivals are bettered only by its world famous Winter Carnival which really is evocative of a fairytale. Quebec City is super romantic, hyper-historic and celebrated its 400th birthday to much patriotic fanfare in 2008. It was here on the Plains of Abraham that the colony of ‘New France’ fell into British hands in 1759, the same year that Arthur Guinness opened his brewery at St. James Gate. Unusually for the perennial conquerors, the British, they allowed their new subjects to keep their language and religion (to prevent them from siding with the 13 other British colonies just down the road who were giving birth to the American Revolution) and thus French-Canadian culture continues to thrive, particularly in its heartland of Quebec City. It’s a great base to plan whale-watching trips and its’ historic city fortifications are – as hopefully the Walls of Derry will one day be – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a joy to behold; though the much more recent Chateau Frontenac, a luxury hotel that has gloriously dominated the skyline for just over a century, is the hands down winner of the ‘most photographed by awe-struck tourists’ award .
Hotel Chateau Frontenac, Qubec City
Spend an afternoon blissfully meandering through the evocative cobble-stoned streets of ‘Old Quebec’ passing by mouth-watering boulangeries, patisseries, creperies and savour the scent of history. A short drive away are the colossal Montmorency Falls, a true ‘must-see’, standing at a whopping 90 metres taller than that other little Canadian pretender – Niagra! Nearby is the famous Grosse Isle – Canada’s equivalent of Ellis Island, and a pleasant ferry ride away in the middle of the St. Lawrence – containing a not-so pleasant mass grave from the Irish Famine with the bodies of 5000 cholera victims interred. It is said every able-bodied Muslim must make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in his lifetime, likewise every Irish person passing this way on holiday should spare half a day’s ‘Hajj’ at the sobering beauty of Grosse Isle. As you read down through the family names inscribed into the impressive glass monument , you would be forgiven for mistaking it for any telephone book or school register in any town in the Ireland – O’Neill, O’Reilly, Murtagh, Murray… I chanced to wonder did many of those from the poster I saw in Clarendon Street end up on this sepulchral tally. Grosse Isle is now a protected Canadian National Park officially named ‘Les Memorial Irlandais’ – due in no small part to its championing by a Quebec born historian, Sr. Marianna O’Gallagher – and pays homage to one chapter in the story of this immigrant Nation.
Grosse Isle – Stephen at the 1847 mass grave containing 5000 Irish famine victims
There has never been a better time for a trip to French-Canada with Air Transat flying direct from Dublin during the summer season. The province of Quebec is a land of big beauty, deep culture and a proud history, it’s outdoor action will have you enthralled, its cuisine is quite possibly the best on an entire continent and it’s people are welcoming and experts when it comes to celebrating, partying and enjoying their unique interpretation of the good life – la belle vie! You should consider experiencing some of it for yourself. It is quite literally, like nowhere else in North America!
- The Quebecois celebrate their National day annually on June 25th – Le Fete de St. Jean Baptiste – There are colourful parades, street parties and humongous concerts by French-Canadian trad-rock bands. A day of unbridled and joyous cultural nationalism; If you like, a St. Patricks day without the rain and the binge drinking
From May-September Air Transat fly non-stop direct from Dublin to Montreal, check www.airtransat.com. There are direct flights from London with www. BA.com
For more info
www.bonjourquebec.com – official site of the Quebec Tourist Board