Grosse Ile – The Genesis of the AOH Celtic Cross

The Genesis of the Celtic Cross at Grosse Ile 

Speech given by Marianna O`Gallagher at the dinner offered by the AOH during the Centenary celebration of the unveiling of the Celtic Cross at Grosse Ile

 

There are many things to be said about monuments.  They help us remember important  things of the past.  They help us remember important people of the past.  They honour bravery, they commemorate tragedy, but they are an honour also to those who went to the trouble of putting them up.

 

My father used to recite a line or two: 

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime

And departing leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time.

 

If there are any footprints on the sands of time, certainly those of our Irish ancestors were planted on the sands of the St. Lawrence River.  In the case of the victims of the famine years of the 1840s in Ireland it was the little people, the peasants?  Men and women and children – The farmers, the strong farmers, the poor who leased their holdings from a landlord, the spalpeens, the itinerant day labourers,  the ordinary folk who suffered… and it is these that are honoured by all the monuments along Canada’s east coast.

 

I think  the idea of a monument to honour the past arises in the hearts of people when they fear that some event or people, particularly people are going to be forgotten.

 

The reason for my interest in the story of the Celtic Cross at Grosse Ile is the fact that my grandfather, Jeremiah Gallagher, born in Macroom, County Cork, Ireland, was the President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1909 when the cross was unveiled… and he was the designer as you shall see. I have his correspondence.

 

In the 1880s, the Quebec Daily Telegraph, a newspaper founded by James Carrel in 1875, proposed that a monument should be erected on the island of Grosse Ile  to remove the reproach that the Irish were forgetting the tragedy of 1847.  John Jordan a journalist of the day  tells this in his book “Grosse Ile and the Tragedy of 1847”, published by the Daily Telegraph in 1909.  Jordan adds that most of the readers of the Daily Telegraph are Irish   Stirred by this campaign of the paper, as well as by the everyday knowledge about Grosse Ile, a group of the Ancient Order of Hibernians made a pilgrimage to the island in 1897. It was after all the 50th anniversary of the worst year of the famine. The AOH first foundation in America was 1836 in New York City. The AOH  Montreal branch was founded in 1892, and the Quebec Branch Division No. 1 was founded in June 1893.  It was active as an emigrant help society – both cultural and economic.

The feelings of the people on their return from GI you can find in Jeremiah Gallagher’s letter, sent later to the Boston convention:

 

Quotation from Jeremiah’s letter.

20th April 1899

 

In 1897, mindful of the sad fate of so many of our kindred, and it being the 50th anniversary, our Division of the AOH organized a pilgrimage to the Island. Service for the dead was held and a sermon appropriate to the occasion was preached by the Rev Rector of St. Patrick`s Church Quebec, There was a large gathering of our people and the proceedings were most solemn and  impressive.

 

However, the desolate and neglected aspect of the particular portion  of the Island allotted for the resting place of so many of our blood and our faith seemed to strike us with reproach.

 

After careful consideration of the matter in division meetings we have concluded that it is our duty to see that this hallowed spot where so many thousands of our country people are buried should be reclaimed, be becomingly enclosed and have a befitting monument, with suitable inscriptions (in Gaelic, in Latin, French and English) not only “in memoriam” of the unhappy Irish exiles but also as protest against the misgovernment of which they were the victims.

 

The Daily Telegraph’s work was local, but there was interest shared by many like Sir Wilfrid Laurier Prime Minister of Canada and Sir Charles Fitzpatrick Chief Justice of Canada; Senator John Costigan, Sir Richard Scott former Secty State. 

 

 BUT IT WAS Quebec branch of the AOH that took up the challenge and laboured for the next few years to accomplish the work.  Among the members at the time were Alderman Edward Reynolds, Patrick Kirwin   George Mulroney, Treasurer; Dennis Coveney, John C. Kaine, Rev. Eustace Maguire, Thomas J. Murphy, and Jeremiah Gallagher, secretary.

 

The AOH went about the preparations in very practical fashion:

 

FIRST St. Patrick’s School Cadet Corps was called into action.  There were lessons given to the boys:    the Irish language and the history of Ireland were on the curriculum.

 

SECOND The Quebec City Branch of the AOH  in 1900 sent a delegation to the Boston National Convention. Father Eustace Maguire, the chaplain,  and other members of the Quebec City Branch of the  AOH attended.  The national AOH voted $5000 for the monument. The Quebecers must have been convincing – the tone of Jeremiah’s letter was certainly   letter above.

 

THIRD The AOH next applied to the Government of Canada for  the right to use the top of Telegraph Hill for the monument.  It was not difficult at the time to get things through government agencies either provincial or federal: for there were many Irishmen in government, either as elected members of Parliament, or in other roles: Charles Murphy was Secretary of State for the Dominion; Sir Charles Fitzpatrick was Chief Justice; John Costigan was a Dominion senator; PROV  Charles R. Devlin was Minister of colonization and Mines in the Provincial Cabinet; John C Kaine was Irish Catholic Representative in the Provincial Cabinet; in the days when our existence was recognized.

 

FOURTH  Through the AOH newspaper, international, a contest for the design of the monument was organized.  Then AOH  taxed every member of the order 10 cents – from the correspondence I cannot find whether it was a one shot tax, or an annual tax… be that as it may the money began to come in to the Quebec Division.

 

The results of the contest showed that  by far the Celtic Cross in some form was the most desirable way of honouring the Irish people of the past…   my grandfather Jeremiah Gallagher was given the task of transferring the idea into a practical monument.

 

As a civil engineer he knew all about the weights of stone and construction and all that. . . his father had been a stonemason in Ireland… and he himself had trained as an engineer at Ste. Anne de la Pocatiere –  1860s-– where, I might add, it is very likely that he heard stories of the heroic actions of the chaplains who served at Grosse Ile in 1847 – for many of those priests were graduates of the seminary of St. Anne including Father Bernard McGauran, himself from Sligo, head chaplain of GI in 1847 – Father McGauran later served as pastor of St. Patrick’s in Quebec, 1856-1874 – same time as Jeremiah lived here – Jeremiah taught English at the Seminaire in 1867 then later worked at City Hall in the Waterworks Department from about 1870 to 1914.  Much of the  correspondence I have is on stationery headed: Hotel de Ville – City Hall Bureau de l’Aqueduc Water Works Office Phone 400 .  (Jeremiah had a phone at home too – one of the first in a home in Quebec City..)

 

More than the above influences I think was the fact that he worked on the building of the Victoria Bridge in Montreal – his first job in Canada – and he must have been present when the famous Black Stone was unveiled in 1859 or so.

 

My father recounted that as more and more money came in for the proposed monument, the drawing that Jeremiah had sketched on the wall in the kitchen at 13 Conroy Street began to grow bigger and bigger.

 

NEXT Tenders were called for from quarries far and near – in order to get the right stone for the right price:  Bids came in from the following quarries

 Quarries that offered bids 

Utopia Granite Works, St. George N.B.

 

Maurice W. Flynn Westerly, Rhode Island

 

Eugene Sullivan and Sons, Barre Vermont – very persistent

 

Fallon Brothers of Cornwall, Ontario

 

D.J. McCue Monumental Work, Rutland, Vermont

 

T.C. Smith Marble Granite and Freestone, New Britain, Connecticut

 

The Stanstead Quarries in Beebe

 

CHOSEN:  BEEBE in the Eastern Townships – granite – near Stanstead

 

There had been discussion about the quality of stone from the various places and a geologist’s opinion was called for. The sparkling granite of Beebe, Stanstead was chosen. It would withstand the raging easterly winds of winter….the salty winds. And it stands there today. (Table. . . bless the stone. . .)  I will tell you more about that piece of stone at the end of my talk.

 

All this took nine years from the vote of the National Convention in 1900; and twelve years from the 50th anniversary of the worst year of the famine in Ireland. – 1897 – the year that a few men from the AOH had gone down to GI, and had seen the neglected burial grounds

 

During the summer of 1909, the granite was shipped from Stanstead to Cornwall Ontario to the Fallon Brothers factory where the stone was cut into the pieces dictated by Jeremiah.  The cut stones were then shipped down river to Quebec City, and then,  on a barge to the island,   moored below the high hill where the cross stands today.  I met a man in 1989 named Diogene Caron.  As a little boy he had worked with the crew on GI.  He told me that he drove the horse that towed the ropes of the derrick that lifted the stone from the barge to the top of the hill – and the horse’s name was Boswell.  The derrick was in place almost to the last moment – it was not dismantled, but simply dumped over the cliff as preparations were made for the solemn unveiling on the 15th.

But before this happened there was a flow of letters between Jeremiah and Major Edward McCrystal, of the Fighting 69th in New York City.  McCrystal a member of the AOH, was known as a Gaelic scholar, while Grandfather Jeremiah, though a speaker of Gaelic, (who for conversation with fellow Gaelic speakers often went out to Valcartier to keep in practice) he felt he should have the words of the Gaelic inscription verified by another scholar.  In his letters to McCrystal however  he insists on the words artificial famine.  From the letters one can gather that these men  were in touch with people in Dublin too, over the inscription.

 

 The words:

 Children of the Gael, in their thousands, fleeing unjust foreign tyrannical laws and a ferocious artificial famine came to this island in the years 1847- 1848.  The Gaels in America raise this monument  in their name and in their honour. God save Ireland.. 

The model for the Irish alphabet was sent to the sculptors by Major McCrystal – and that was only in the month of May – and plans were being made for the unveiling in August.

 

The four inscriptions on the monument are different: one states the day of dedication by the AOH; another lists the names of the Catholic priests who worked during the summer of 1847, noting those who fell sick , and those who died.  The western side panel states a grateful blessing on those priests who came to the island so gallantly to care for the sick and dying.

 

There is more to say, especially about the work of the priests, both on the island in 1847, and the care of the orphans in the years following, but that can go to another day.  Perhaps tomorrow

 The day of the unveiling itself was very hot  – photographs of the time show people holding umbrellas against the sun.… – five boats from Quebec City carried the people down to the island.  Mass was said in the cemetery – There were very long speeches by many of the invited dignitaries – the Apostolic Delegate; Charles Murphy, Sir Charles Fitzpatrick. There were no representatives of an Irish Government – there was no Irish Government at the time!  There were present some of the people who had been adopted as orphans in 1847, many speaking only French.  I hope that we can match the glory of 1909 tomorrow, except for the length of the speeches. 

Through the 1920s and 30s there was a pilgrimage  to Grosse Ile from Quebec City almost every summer.  The exceptions occurred when a ship came in with contagion on board… Grosse Ile remained an active quarantine station until 1935. If the island happened to be in full use for quarantine the Irish of Quebec were asked to cancel their pilgrimage – In 1935 the island fell into disuse as a quarantine station. Hospitals in the port of Quebec took up the work. In 1939 things changed again.  During WWII the island was used for military experimental purposes. That ended in 1957 when it was converted to animal quarantine. When the importation of animals on the hoof ceased, the island fell into a period of dis-use. Gradually people began to realize they could return in pilgrimage .The AOH in Montreal revived the tradition of the annual pilgrimage and this evening it is to their honour (Montreal’s) that such a fine gathering is here to prepare for tomorrow’s expedition to Grosse Ile. The story of how the island came under the tender care of Parks Canada is another chapter…perhaps too much for tonight.

 

 However…. Let this much be said  - that the Irish across Canada were called upon to make their voices heard and their thoughts known about  development of Grosse Ile in 1979 and years following in a series of public hearings.  The government listened and The National Historic Site is the place of dignity and respect that we know today – and that you will see tomorrow.

 

Our foot prints in the sands of time have disappeared.   They have been replaced by monuments like the one we venerate tomorrow, and by those that mark our place from coast to coast.

 

I’ll end with words from John Jordan’s book

 “The world thinks better of a people who can thus keep green the memory of their dead.” Marianna O’Gallagher

August 15, 2009