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Famine and Shipwreck, An Irish Odyssey
Saturday March 17 at 1 pm on CBC TV
Every March 17, Canadians celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with parades, whiskey and songs. But for the millions of Canadians of Irish descent, there is a story of unspeakable sadness lying at the heart of Canada’s Irish experience. It is a story seldom mentioned, even today.
Some call it the Irish potato famine. Others call it the Great Starvation. And others do not shrink from calling it a great crime. The saga has a million stories. In Famine and Shipwreck, an Irish Odyssey, we discover a story that’s one in a million.
In the Spring of 1849, a coffin-ship called the Hannah, carrying 180 Irish emigrants fleeing Ireland’s potato famine, hits an ice reef in the strait near Cape Ray, off the coast of Newfoundland. The captain, a 23 year-old Englishman, takes flight in the only lifeboat, leaving his passengers to either drown or freeze to death. Seventeen hours later, the survivors are rescued by another famine ship, the Nicaragua.Famine and Shipwreck, an Irish Odyssey tells this extraordinary tale of horror and survival. The documentary combines drama, treated with visual effects, to recreate the shipwreck and heroic survival of some of the passengers, with powerful documentary scenes, involving descendants of the passengers from both sides of the ocean, historians’ testimonies and impressive archives of letters, photographs, documents, newspaper articles and art.
Through the film, we follow Canadian descendant Tom Murphy and his mother Jane on their emotional quest to discover how their Irish ancestors, Bridget and John Murphy, managed to survive both starvation and shipwreck to finally build a new life in the green fields of Canada.
They head to Ireland where they meet fourth generation cousins, Sharon Donnelly and her husband Padraig. They retrace the story of the famine and the horrible conditions their Murphy ancestors endured before boarding the Hannah, and during the crossing. They set sail to the place where the ship sank, and briefly experience the wintry conditions in which the Hannah survivors waited for rescue.
At least one million famine victims are buried in mass graves all over Ireland. Another million, probably more, left the country forever. Twenty-five per cent of Canadians boast Irish blood, in Ontario, it’s 50%, in Quebec, it’s one out of three. Most came during "The Great Starvation", the Irish potato famine.
Between 1845 and 1850, the potato blight struck Northwest Europe. Ireland was hit worse than other countries. The poor depended on their potato crops to survive. When other European governments took measures to calm the crisis, the British parliament left the fate of Ireland in the hands of her 10,000 landlords. At the height of the catastrophe they did nothing to prevent starvation and continued to ship thousands of livestock and tons of grain to England. "No landlords starved during the Great Famine, it’s the poor who starved", says Irish historian Peter Gray in the film. Some call it an act of extermination.
In order to survive, the poor were forced to abandon all their property and take refuge in Dickensian workhouses or board coffin-ships bound for Canada and the United States. But that was another famine nightmare and many never made it alive.
The film was shot in Ireland, Quebec, Ontario and off the coast of Prince Edward Island, in 2010. It never would have been possible without the incredible efforts of Paddy Murphy from Ontario who traced his genealogy back to his Irish roots in South Armagh, Ireland.
As the descendants of those who survived the shipwreck and of those who stayed behind in Ireland discover their shared past, Canada and Ireland will discover through them how inextricably they are bound.
Famine and Shipwreck, an Irish Odyssey is a Galafilm production, produced in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Radio-Canada, with the financial participation of the Canadian Media Fund, the Quebec tax credit and the Federal tax credit, and developed with the financial participation of the SODEC.