New film traces family's story of survival on an Irish coffin ship that crashed off Gaspé coast

A new documentary by Concordia professor Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin traces descendants of Irish immigrants who survived the Carricks of Whitehaven shipwreck in 1847.

Documentary by Concordia professor tells story of exodus and reunion

Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin plays a lament for shipwreck survivor Sarah MacDonald, who crossed the Atlantic from Ireland to Quebec in 1847. (Lost Children of the Carricks/Youtube)

Of the 173 people who boarded the vessel Carricks of Whitehaven bound from Ireland to Canada in 1847, 48 made it to shore alive.

"It must have been a horrific scene. Bodies were scattered along the beach for about a mile and a half according to the first eyewitnesses," said ​Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, a professor at Concordia University's School of Irish Studies.

Just off the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula, the ship was caught up in a nor'easter which froze the sails and sent the mast cracking down through the ship.

Among the survivors were married couple Patrick Kaveney and Sarah MacDonald, as well as their teenage son Martin.

Their five daughters, all between the age of two and 10, were lost.

Georges Kavanagh, a francophone historian, travelled to Ireland to visit his family's ancestral village. (Lost Children of the Carricks/Youtube)

This family and their descendants are the subject of a new documentary, called Lost Children of the Carricks: Defying the Great Irish Famine to Create a Canadian Legacy.

Filmmaker Ó hAllmhuráin first heard the story from Georges Kavanagh, a francophone historian and descendant of Kaveney and MacDonald.

"I was tru​ly astonished when I heard him describe their leaving Ireland, their crossing the Atlantic, the experience of being trapped in this ship which, at the time, wasn't too different from a slave ship, and then arriving on the edge of the New World," Ó hAllmhuráin told CBC Montreal's All in a Weekend.

Over the course of five generations, the story of Kavanagh's ancestors and their was preserved through the family's oral tradition.

"This is oral storytelling at its richest, at its very best," said ​Ó hAllmhuráin. 

Thousands of Irish people fled to North America during the potato famine, in ships that weren't built to house human cargo.

Canada alone received about 300,000 Irish immigrants, but an estimated 20,000 others died at sea or on shore from disease.

​Ó hAllmhuráin's film is described as a "70-minute documentary of exodus and reunion," beginning with Kavanagh (whose name was changed slightly from the original Kaveney over the years) in the Gaspésie and following his journey back to Ireland. 

"We were able to bring the Kaveney — the Kavanagh family — back into their ancestral village," he said.

The film crew worked with local historians in County Sligo, Ireland to track down the original walls of the Kaveney home and even some living cousins.

​Ó hAllmhuráin said it was an emotional experience for Kavanagh, now in his 80s, and his daughter.

"He had been waiting his whole life. He told me on the way across the Atlantic that ever since he was a teenager, he dreamed of going to Ireland. And he described it as 'Mon Irlande,' My Ireland. Which was so touching to hear."

The film, Lost Children of the Carricks: Defying the Great Irish Famine to Create a Canadian Legacy, screens Friday Jan. 24 at the J.A. DeSève Cinema as part of the 28th edition of the Ciné Gael Montréal Irish Film Series. The festival runs Fridays from Jan. 24 to May 1. 


Marilla Steuter-Martin

Former CBC journalist

Marilla Steuter-Martin was a journalist with CBC Montreal from 2015 to 2021.

With files from CBC Montreal's All in a Weekend


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