Montreal

'Dignity restored' for Irish immigrants who perished in 1847 shipwreck off Gaspé coast

The descendants of those who died in the 1847 Carricks shipwreck off the Gaspé coast attended a ceremony Thursday to bury the remains of 21 victims in a proper site.

Descendants focus on courage and strength of their ancestors

Beverly Jacques, left, spoke at Thursday's ceremony in honour of the victims of the 1847 Carricks shipwreck off the Gaspé coast, alongside her distant cousin Georges Kavanagh. (Submitted by Parks Canada/Éric Leblanc)

With the Gulf of St. Lawrence as a backdrop, Beverly Jacques said she felt "elated" to be present for the proper burial of victims of the Carricks, a ship that went down off the Gaspé coast in 1847.

"It feels like we know the end of their story," said Jacques, who spoke Thursday at the ceremony organized by Parks Canada in Forillon National Park.

Jacques' great-great-great-grandparents, Patrick Kavanagh and Sarah McDonald, left Ireland in 1847 with their family —escaping an oppressive landlord at the height of the Great Potato Famine.

After several weeks on the Carricks, a ship designed to carry lumber from Canada to Europe, the 180 passengers finally caught a glimpse of the eastern coast of Canada.

But before the ship could reach a safe haven, a powerful storm hit the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The crew was unable to take down the sails, and the Carricks sank in the cold waters of the St. Lawrence, carrying with it as many as 150 of its crew and passengers, including the Kavanaghs' five daughters.

The couple and their son Martin survived.

Nearly two centuries later, the official ceremony brought a sense of closure to families who grew up hearing about the tragedy, said Jacques, who stood among the Kavanagh descendants at the ceremony.

"All the people were very happy and proud to be there. They were touched," she said.

The memorial site for the passengers who died in the 1847 Carricks shipwreck is located at the easterly end of Forillon National Park on the Gaspé Peninsula. (Submitted by Parks Canada)

'Columbo' investigative work

Over the decades, a makeshift mass grave hastily dug in 1847 by the local priest was exposed, with coastal erosion.

In 2011, "people were walking on the beach, and they found bones, and they asked us to investigate — which we did," said the director of Forillon National Park, Stéphane Marchand.

Archeological research eventually led to the discovery of the mass grave in 2016.

Despite the damage caused by nearly two centuries of storms and salt water, experts from Parks Canada and Université de Montreal were able to determine the remains belonged to passengers of the Carricks.

"Kind of like a good episode of Columbo," said Marchand.

"We could finally link the human remains to the event that took place 172 years ago."

The analysis also provided more information on the lives of 19th-century Irish immigrants, who experienced "chronic poverty and malnutrition even before they set sail on the Carricks," said Jason King, the academic co-ordinator at the Irish Heritage Trust in Dublin.

But more importantly, said King, it allowed people to learn more about the individual stories of immigrants and recognize the struggles they endured in order to settle in Canada.

"It's difficult to get to any of the stories — as individuals — who had their hopes and dreams," said King, an Irish Montrealer.

Being able to give that context and offer those who perished at sea a proper burial site "restored a little bit of their dignity," he said.

Full circle

While the past decade has provided a glimpse at their history, the Kavanagh family is still searching for more clues to learn more about their ancestry.

At the other end of the country, in Alberta, Beverly Jacques's distant cousin Rose Marie Stanley has extensively researched her family history, even visiting Sligo, Ireland, the port of call where the Carricks sailed from in 1847.

Inspired by their journey, Stanley wrote a play, called Sarah.

"I can't tell you how much I admire the tenacity, the courage that woman had," said Stanley.

Jacques's grandfather, Joseph Bilodeau, was the son of Maggie Kavanagh — the daughter Sarah gave birth to after the shipwreck.

Patrick and Sarah Kavanagh's son Dominick is seated here, next to his son Arthur Kavanagh, his daughter-in-law Malvina Kavanagh Riffou and their daughter Rolande Riffou Ste. Croix, in Cap-des-Rosiers, Que., where the family settled. (Submitted by Rose Marie Stanley)

While Bilodeau often spoke of his mother, he never shared many details of the disaster itself, Jacques said.

It may have been too emotional to talk about such a tragedy, at a time when life was not easy, she surmised.

"I think they focused on that — they had great courage, and they kept going."

Laura Finlay from the Embassy of Ireland throws dirt on the coffin containing the remains of 21 people who died in the shipwreck. (Submitted by Parks Canada/Éric Leblanc)

With files from Glenn Wanamaker, Daybreak and Breakaway

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.