More than 150 years ago, the end of the world came to Ireland. The Great Famine wasn’t just another chapter in the history of the Emerald Isle; it threatened the nation’s survival before it even became a nation.
One million people died. Two million fled. Today, the population of Ireland and Northern Ireland combined is still lower than it was before Abraham Lincoln became president.
Now, the remains of some of those who tried to flee this cataclysm have been identified — on a beach in Canada.
The bones — vertebrae and pieces of a jawbone — washed up in 2011 on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, about 500 miles from Montreal. After three years of research, Parks Canada says they probably belonged to Irish children fleeing the Great Famine who died in a shipwreck.
“They are witnesses to a tragic event,” Pierre Cloutier, an archaeologist at Parks Canada, told the Globe and Mail. “You can’t have a more tangible witness to tragedy than human remains.”
When famine descended on Ireland in the 1840s, North America beckoned. Another continent — one not gripped by a potato blight — was just a shallow ocean away.
But Irish without means who wanted to fill their bellies in the New World faced one major problem: The only way to get there was on “coffin ships.” And though they carried refugees of the Great Famine, coffin ships, illustrations of which resemble the sleeping quarters of Nazi concentration camps, were themselves deadly, claiming the lives of up to 100,000 would-be immigrants.
“These ships were packed with people,” said Kathryn Miles, author of “All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship,” in an interview with NPR last year. “Most families of four would be given a platform that was about 6 feet square. So they were sleeping head-to-toe, and there was no sense of quarantine or hygiene.”
One coffin ship, the Carricks, set sail from Ireland for Quebec City in 1847. But there would be no salvation for many aboard: The ship went down in a storm off of the peninsula. Survivors — 100 of them, by some accounts — washed up onshore and were taken in, while 87 people perished. A monument was erected in 1900 to commemorate the disaster.
But more than a century after the memorial went up, skeletal remains of some what Parks Canada said were victims of the Carricks were found 40 yards away from the memorial. Without DNA testing and carbon dating, the agency can’t be sure the victims were aboard the doomed coffin ship.
There is quite a bit they do know, however. The bones belonged to children — two between 7 and 9, and another as old as 12. They show evidence of rickets, a vitamin-D deficiency found among the malnourished. Analysis of a tooth showed its former owner ate a plant-based diet. And a button found near the site was linked to a Europe that had not yet endured the Great War.
“In archeology, we are there to protect memory . . . and give people an identity and say who they were,” researcher Rémi Toupin told the Globe and Mail. “We can’t always reach absolute conclusions, but it’s always our goal to go as far as possible in identifying people.”
Parks Canada’s investigation has ended, as the agency isn’t planning further tests. But the remains found in Gaspé are a 21st-century reminder of a 19th-century coffin ship’s unfortunate cargo and watery destiny.
Georges Kavanagh, a Gaspé resident who told the Globe and Mail some of his ancestors were aboard the Carricks, said he hoped the remains would be buried respectfully.
“I have a link to these people; I almost consider them my family,” Kavanagh said. “Who wouldn’t want their ancestors to get a peaceful rest?”