The year 1847 was a year of deep tragedy for the nation of Ireland. The first half of the century had seen unprecedented demographic growth, with the population doubling from four to eight million by 1845. Naturally, the structures were not in place for such rapid growth. Agrarian land holdings became smaller as the population expanded. The remaining farms had to maximize their food production to keep up with the demand. Farms that were already in a precarious state financially due to heavy farm tariffs were put completely out of commission when a series of crop failures occurred in the late 1830s.
In 1845, problems were compounded further when Europe’s crops were ravaged by a potato blight. Ireland was the hardest hit, and its potato crops were decimated. The resultant famine combined with the precarious economic conditions triggered a huge wave of immigration and subsequent Irish diaspora.
Nearly 100,000 boarded ships bound for Canada and the United States. These ships soon became floating coffins as immigrants – already weakened by lack of sustenance – succumbed to disease.
On May 17, 1847, the Syria floated into Grosse Isle in Quebec. Sickness had wracked the passengers and 430 were down with fever. In the days that followed, eight more ships pulled into the harbor, each carrying even more typhus victims. A week later, 17 more vessels had arrived, each carrying passengers infected with the fever. At this point, 695 people were already in hospitals and the doctors hardly knew where to put the new arrivals.
The number of ships soon reached 30, and over 10,000 immigrants were aboard waiting to be processed through immigration. By the end of May, 40 ships were lined up along the St. Lawrence River, stretching along the banks for two miles. Each ship held passengers affected by typhus and dysentery. Soon 1100 infected passengers were laid out in tents and fever sheds.
The island was rapidly overwhelmed, and some immigrants were transferred to Montreal where three long fever sheds had been constructed. Thousands more continued to arrive, and soon there were 22 sheds full of invalids. Troops guarded the area so no one could escape; still, typhus quickly reached epidemic proportions in Montreal. Between 3,500 and 6,000 Irish immigrants died in Montreal’s fever sheds.
Other Canadian cities were affected as well. During the summer of 1847, 863 Irish immigrants died in the fever sheds of Toronto, and 2115 more died in New Brunswick. When over 3,000 Irish arrived in Bytown, fever broke out there as well. Fever sheds were erected and the Rideau Canal was shut down to prevent the spread of disease; still, approximately 200 died in quarantine. Kingston also was affected when fever-stricken immigrants passed through and took shelter in immigrant sheds. Some 1,400 immigrants died of fever there.
The consequences of the typhus epidemic hit Canada hard. Death and disease took their toll, but the country was also put under serious financial stress as much trade came to a standstill. In time, however, the country began to recover. Today there are 1,230,000 Irish descendants in Canada, many of whom can trace their lineage to the Immigrants of ’47.