After 172 years, the Irish victims of a catastrophic shipwreck will finally get the proper burial they never had. In a windswept spot on Quebec’s Gaspé shore this week, in view of the surging waters that took their lives, the dead of the Carricks will be laid to rest.
A ceremony on Thursday marks a poignant milestone for Georges Kavanagh, a 79-year-old Quebecker whose ancestors were on board the doomed ship.
“This is part of my history,” he said. “I want to bid them a final adieu.”
The funeral for 21 victims of the Carricks is the capstone on a voyage for both Mr. Kavanagh and the remains themselves, which carry the stories of desperate migrants seeking the promise of a better life in Canada.
The bones first surfaced in 2011, when a winter storm exposed partial skeletons on a stony beach off Cap-des-Rosiers, 700 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. The discovery set in motion a complex investigation.
The remains were sent to police, then a Quebec coroner and finally a provincial forensics lab before ending up on an examination table at a University of Montreal bio-archeology lab. And last month, eight years after the bones appeared, Parks Canada confirmed they belonged to three children between the ages of 7 and 12 who drowned in the Carricks shipwreck nearly two centuries ago.
The finding supported the rich oral history that survived through the generations in the region, where Irish families were assimilated into Quebec’s French-speaking majority. People like Mr. Kavanagh grew up hearing the tragic tale of how the Carricks departed Sligo, Ireland, with 180 passengers on board, before foundering during a storm off Cap-des-Rosiers.
Only 48 passengers survived. Some bodies were never found. Those of 87 others were buried in a mass grave.
Mr. Kavanagh’s forebears were among both the victims and survivors. Patrick Kavanagh and Sarah McDonald endured the harrowing Atlantic crossing only to face heartbreak within sight of Canada’s shores. They lost five daughters in the shipwreck. Only their 12-year-old son, Martin, survived.
The Carricks was one of hundreds of migrant ships bound for the port of Quebec City in 1847, the darkest year of the famine in Ireland. Already weakened by hunger, the migrants were loaded into unsanitary sailboats, often called coffin ships, where they were vulnerable to diseases such as typhus and dysentery.
Of 100,000 people sailing to Quebec City, the main port of entry into Canada, about 5,000 died at sea.
The discovery of the remains has struck a chord for many Irish Canadians, even if most immigration from Ireland to Canada came before the famine, according to Jason King, academic co-ordinator at the Irish Heritage Trust and National Famine Museum in Ireland.
“The discovery of the famine remains is a subject close to the hearts of Irish Canadians,” Mr. King, a native of Montreal, said in an interview from Dublin. “For many, the famine emigration of 1847 really symbolizes their own ancestry, their own heritage, their own roots. Because of the hardship that was experienced, the suffering, many Irish Canadians regard it as part of their story and their legacy in Canada, even though they are not descendants of the famine immigrants themselves.”
He called this week’s ceremony a fitting tribute to the victims. In addition to the remains of the three children, the bones of another 18 Carricks passengers – mostly women and children – will be reburied as well. They were unearthed during an archaeological dig by Parks Canada in 2016.
“This is a gesture of respect for migrants who’ve passed away in a moment of extreme danger and peril,” said Mr. King, who is working on an Irish-Canadian research project to track famine emigrants. “It invites us to reflect on people’s experiences today when they embark on similar types of journeys.”
The burial takes place at Cap-des-Rosiers, next to an existing monument to Carricks victims. Musicians will play Irish tunes on the violin and dignitaries are scheduled speak, among them Laura Finlay, Second Secretary of the Embassy of Ireland in Ottawa, who will recall how Canada opened its borders to those seeking a new life.
“While this is very much an Irish tragedy it remains also part of Canada’s story, recalling the enormous humanitarian generosity of Canadians in keeping Canada’s ports open at the migrant’s time of need,” she plans to say in her speech.
Monseigneur Gérard Sainte-Croix, himself the great-grandson of Patrick Kavanagh, will say a prayer. In an interview, he said he feels pride in his ancestors and sadness at the victims’ fate. And then the sparse remains of 21 anonymous victims of the Carricks shipwreck will be lowered into the ground in a single casket.
Mr. Kavanagh said it will be an emotional moment for him. He has tracked the story of the bones since their discovery in 2011, and considers the victims of the Carricks like family.
“I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t forget them,” he said. “Now they will be able to rest in peace, once and for all.”