The Quarantine at Grosse Isle

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER VIII (2) start of chapter

On the 8th of May, 1847, the 'Urania,' from Cork, with several hundred immigrants on board, a large proportion of them sick and dying of the ship-fever, was put into quarantine at Grosse Isle.

This was the first of the plague-smitten ships from Ireland which that year sailed up the St. Lawrence.

But before the first week of June as many as eighty-four ships of various tonnage were driven in by an easterly wind; and of that enormous number of vessels there was not one free from the taint of malignant typhus, the offspring of famine and of the foul ship-hold. This fleet of vessels literally reeked with pestilence.

All sailing vessels,—the merciful speed of the well-appointed steamer being unknown to the emigrant of those days,—a tolerably quick passage occupied from six to eight weeks; while passages of ten or twelve weeks, and even a longer time, were not considered at all extraordinary at a period when craft of every kind, the most unsuited as well as the least seaworthy, were pressed into the service of human deportation.

Who can imagine the horrors of even the shortest passage in an emigrant ship crowded beyond its utmost capability of stowage with unhappy beings of all ages, with fever raging in their midst?

Under the most favourable circumstances it is impossible to maintain perfect purity of atmosphere between decks, even when ports are open, and every device is adopted to secure the greatest amount of ventilation.

But a crowded emigrant sailing ship of twenty years since, with fever on board!—the crew sullen or brutal from very desperation, or paralysed with terror of the plague—the miserable passengers unable to help themselves, or afford the least relief to each other; one-fourth, or one-third, or one-half of the entire number in different stages of the disease; many dying, some dead; the fatal poison intensified by the indescribable foulness of the air breathed and rebreathed by the gasping sufferers—the wails of children, the ravings of the delirious, the cries and groans of those in mortal agony!

Of the eighty-four emigrant ships that anchored at Grosse Isle in the summer of 1847, there was not a single one to which this description might not rightly apply.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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ebook: The Irish in America