The Tragedy of the Hannah
By John Kernaghan, Contributor
August / September 2008
In April 1849, a ship carrying Irish immigrants hit an iceberg in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. John Kernaghan writes on the incident, and of plans for a documentary as Quebec celebrates its 400th anniversary.
The crew of the Nicaragua could scarcely credit their eyes when they closed on the iceberg in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Some 120 Irish immigrants clung to a bit of frozen salvation, desperately cold in their nightclothes after almost 18 hours on the ice that April night in 1849.
The boat bringing them to the promise of a new life had sailed from Newry, County Down on April 2 and until April 17, according to newspaper accounts of the day, the passage had been fine.
The 200 passengers were mostly from the Forkhill area of Co. Armagh.
But the brig Hannah failed to skirt the pack ice on the harsh gulf. Its hull was crushed by an iceberg. Passengers, jolted from their sleep, were bruised and cut in the scramble off the ship. Others perished in the chilling waters, unable to gain the ice, or were lost in rescue attempts.
Almost 160 years later, the Montreal documentary maker Gala Films is hoping to include this remarkable incident in its survey of the Irish famine migration to Canada. It is seeking descendants of those who survived the sinking of the Hannah.
One of those descendants, Paddy Murphy, says the incident is laced with both cowardice and courage. He notes accounts of the day which reported that the Hannah crew and captain had departed in a lifeboat, leaving the boat’s passengers exposed to the elements. All would have died had Captain Marshall of the Nicarague not made his ship fast to the iceberg at great risk to himself and his crew.
“‘No pen can describe the pitiable situation of the poor creatures,” Marshall reported to the Armagh Guardian on June 4, 1849. “They were all but naked, cut and bruised and frost-bitten. There were parents who had lost their children, children with loss of parents. Many, in fact, were perfectly insensible.”
Three other ships also pitched in to bring survivors through the ice floes to Grosse Ile, the immigrant quarantine station in the St. Lawrence River.
Paddy Murphy’s great-great-grandparents John Murphy and his wife Bridget (McParland) had already endured tragedy before setting out for Quebec in April, 1849. In January of that year, their house had burned down and one of their children had died in the blaze.
On the Hannah they had four of their children, and the two eldest were lost.
“The children went into the water and John went in after them. The story in our family is that his hands were so badly frozen he couldn’t handle the rope he’d taken to try to pull them to safety. He held the rope in his mouth in the hope he’d find them and they could grab on. But he couldn’t save them. He lost all his teeth as a result,” Paddy recounts.
“Rose, who was approximately three years old, fell in the water and was rescued but did not speak for years because of the shock. Bernard, ‘Barney,’ aged two, also fell in the water but was pulled to safety by the wife of Henry Grant who thought he was one of her own children.”
It was Barney’s son, Mike, who recounted the incident to Paddy on the occasion of Paddy’s marriage to his wife Jane, in the summer of 1962.
“Grandfather Mike was delighted at the marriage because Jane’s maternal great-great-grandfather Michael Coburn came from the same area in Forkhill, County Armagh as the Murphys. He said we were two old Irish families uniting. Michael Coburn had left Ireland in 1848, a year before the Hannah disaster, and Grandfather Mike, whose mother, Ellen Bennett, was also from Forkhill, told us about John Murphy coming over on a ship that hit an iceberg, the many lives lost, and his father who was saved from the water.”
Paddy, who grew up in the township of North Crosby, south of Ottawa, where many of the Hannah survivors settled to farm, went on to conduct his own research into the shipwreck, and his findings later became the basis of a book called A Famine Link: The Hannah, South Armagh to Ontario. The authors, Kevin Murphy and Una Walsh, are members of the Mullaghbawn Community Centre in Forkhill, South Armagh.
Clearly the story of the Hannah is a stirring tale that speaks to the times and to the Irish in Quebec. It is estimated up to 40 percent of the province’s citizens have Irish blood.
Gala Films is seeking descendants of the survivors who settled in Quebec, Ontario and the United States, but particularly those who now live in Quebec. (See sidebar for family names).
The story has a greater chance of coming to video life with a direct Quebec link, says Gala Films’ Hugh John Murray.
“In order to get public funding from the Quebec government to make the documentary, we need to find Quebec-based descendants,” he explained.
The documentary would explain the tragedy in the context of the famine-years migration to Canada through Quebec City.
And with Quebec City celebrating its 400th birthday this year, its deep Irish roots in the city and province are part of that observance.
Almost 100,000 Irish came to Canada in 1847 during the famine. And about 475,000 preceded them and spread across the province and through intermarriage produced that aforementioned 40 percent estimate.
Even if, as some suspect, that estimate is high, most historians agree about a third of the people in the province have Irish blood.
That is still remarkably high when measured against the 15 percent of people who claim Irish heritage in the rest of Canada.
And there’s a simple answer for it. The Irish who survived harsh voyages across the Atlantic – the voyage often took up to six weeks and longer, depending on weather conditions – and landed on Quebec’s shores found it much easier to marry into an existing society that was mostly Roman Catholic. And families in Quebec were traditionally large.
While there were Irish Protestant pockets in Quebec City and Montreal, the Catholics tended to quickly meld into Quebec life and families. And in the most unique aspect of the haunting Irish diaspora – the dispersal of millions from their homeland – some of these new Quebecers became trilingual, mastering French on top of English and Gaelic.
Even in cases where Irish orphans were taken in by French-Canadian families, the Irish names were often preserved either as surnames or Christian names. That’s why you’ll see names like O’Neill Marois. Or Emile Nelligan, famous as the ‘national’ poet of Quebec.
Quebec Irish historian Marianna O’Gallagher notes, moreover, that Irish names might have been made French over time. For instance, singer Celine Dion might be the descendant of a Dillon.
There are also romantic and possibly solid theories about the earliest Irish presence in Quebec, notions that Irish monks visited islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence around the time in the mid-1500s when Irish fishermen were apparently working seas off Newfoundland.
The explosion of immigration to Canada from 1825 to 1850 shows 60 percent were Irish. There was more misery than glory in the passage and in the early years in Quebec. That misery strained the ability of immigration and medical authorities when the potato famine hit Ireland in the mid-1840s and desperate farmers scratched together passage for families on overcrowded boats to North America.
They lived in wretched conditions and rode rocking seas. Diseases like cholera and typhus flourished. So Grosse Ile, a rocky outcrop downstream from Quebec City, became the first Canadian shoreline for four decades of Irish immigration. The quarantine station is now a Parks Canada national historic site, a bucolic spot with the haunting counterpart of a Celtic cross commanding a cliff overlooking the river and a moving memorial naming the poor newcomers who never made it off the island alive.
Tour boats from Quebec City offer daily outings to Grosse Ile in spring and summer, a combination of bracing river voyage and sobering tour through reenactments of how authorities processed the masses.
The numbers wrought by Ireland’s famine, often called The Great Hunger, were staggering. The famine hit its depths in 1847 when 100,000 people, six out of seven of them Irish, headed for Quebec. Some 5,000 died at sea or while waiting offshore of Grosse Ile as the overmatched facility verged on anarchy due to some 12,000 inhabitants, many badly ill.
When the count was taken later, 5,424 died on the island and thousands more died in Quebec City, Montreal and Kingston. For those who survived, tragedy or travail often caught up with them later.
It was mainly Irish who dug the Lachine Canal at Montreal and the Rideau Canal to Ottawa. And it was mostly Irish who died due to typhus and malaria. Even so, as you follow the often-tragic trail of Irishmen and Irishwomen down the St. Lawrence, you see the roots of Celtic culture setting down in a new land. The Irish reel fused into the work of Quebec musicians and dancers and lives on still in the work of groups like Les Cowboys Fringants.
Also, there is a line of thinking in political science circles that it was Irishmen who provided an important bridge between the French and English on the way to Canada’s Confederation in 1867.
Concordia University’s Irish Studies program in Montreal examines this and other contributions to Canada. Robert Baldwin, son of an Ulsterman, was able to forge a Liberal alliance with Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine to get French-Canadian support for responsible government. And a native of Cork, Francis Hinks, nurtured the partnership to take the national railway sea to sea.
But the most colorful Irish-Canadian was Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a brilliant orator and the only federal Canadian politician ever assassinated. He had escaped Ireland with a price on his head for fomenting rebellion and landed in Boston to establish a newspaper pandering to Irish sentiments.
But he grew impatient with lack of movement in government circles to improve the lot of his countrymen and moved to Canada, where he believed Irishmen would get a better deal. McGee was soon elected to Parliament but his political career was marked by differing results: success in fathering Confederation but vicious opposition to his distaste for secret societies like the Fenians.
McGee believed that Canada represented the best chance for Irish people of both religions to coexist peacefully and argued that the improving condition of his countrymen would be lost if they backed an American-led radical movement. He was thrown out of the St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal as a result and his life was threatened.
Still, he prevailed, winning re-election in 1867, Canada’s Confederation year. But the founding father was dogged by extremists and near midnight April 7, 1868, just shy of his 43rd birthday, he was gunned down as he turned the key to his apartment.
Historian Bill Davis wrote “he made precious contributions to his adopted country,” easing “the religious and racial strife that had threatened to tear the country apart.”
You can raise a glass to his memory in the building where he died, D’Arcy McGee’s Irish Pub on Sparks Street in Ottawa, as well as retrace his killer’s steps to the gallows. Patrick James Whelan, a rabid critic of McGee, was hanged in the last public display of its kind in Ottawa, Feb. 11, 1869.
The old Ottawa jail is now a hostel and some inhabitants have claimed to see his ghost over time.
McGee’s dream, offered in a stirring speech seven years before Canada’s Confederation, was prescient.“I see in the not remote distance one great nationality, bound like the shield of Achilles by the blue rim of ocean. I see it quartered into many communities, each disposing of its internal affairs, but all bound together by free institutions, free intercourse, free commerce.”