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Toronto ‘Ultrarunner’ Michael Collins retraces Irish Diaspora’s past in 900-km run

Author and ultrarunner Michael Collins is no stranger to hardship. A former captain of the Irish National 100k Team and a runner at the University of Notre Dame, the Irish emigrant has run (and won) marathons in the Antarctic, the North Pole, the Sahara and even on Mount Everest. His latest endeavour is the Irish Diaspora Run, from Quebec's Grosse-Île to Toronto's Ireland Park and Kingston – a distance spanning about 900 kilometres along the historic Route 132 – retracing the arduous journey of Irish emigrants after the Great Famine of 1847.

What moved you most about the history of the Great Famine, especially in the context of Canada's role after the famine?

In the year of 1847, over 100,000 Irish people were evicted from their farms or their landlords' property. They were starving on the roads in Ireland and most of them were trying to seek passage to America, but given the state of the people, most of the ports were closed. The English parliament passed acts to allow retrofitted lumber-bearing ships to load human cargo on board and ship them to Canada. People just crammed into the hull of these ships with no sanitation, no provisions or food for 40 days of passage. They're called coffin ships because almost a fifth of the people died just on crossing between Ireland and St. Lawrence River, and when they arrived at the quarantine station, typhus was rampant aboard the ships. To put it in modern terms, it was all like a zombie apocalypse, boat after boat. People did what they could and were decimated in the service of caring for the sick. There's no real connection between the Irish and French Canadians other than religion, and these people ran into the arms of death for charity. Canada's acts of generosity are numerous , but they don't go out of their way to make it known.

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Why was raising awareness of this story important to you, especially now?

It's all the rage in Ireland this year to commemorate 100 years of the Easter Rising. We seem a little fixated on date; it becomes the sole talking point. I thought there's a greater story still untold that needs to be told. In 1997, which would've been the 150th anniversary of the famine, the Irish were sort of reticent to speak about the famine because there was war raging up in Northern Ireland. The famine itself spanned a couple of years so it was just a fluid date. It's only been in the last 20 years that people are now able to give a more accurate history of what happened, without the fear of inciting violence.

As an experienced runner, this is hardly the most challenging of routes for you. What's different this time?

On Route 132, it's so reminiscent of Ireland. There are all these iconic religious statues by the road, and they're all inspired by French Catholicism. That's helped to see. I'm a runner, but it's still difficult to run in a straight line from one place to another. There's a lot of doubling back to the nearest hotel, which adds on the miles. Because this is specifically for a cause, there are many obligations, even including maintaining a Facebook page. The physical aspect of this would be unmanageable on its own, but the psychological aspect of obligations and expectations has added another dimension to it.

What will the money raised go toward?

Six thousand of those killed in passage to Canada were put into a mass burial grave near Pointe-Saint-Charles. It's commemorated with the Black Rock, placed by construction workers who came across this mass grave and stubbornly refused to not honour the people. It's been a source of consternation for Montreal in terms of trying to manage traffic around this giant rock. So one of the projects is to get this stone moved to a famine memorial park. Toronto has Ireland Park, but in this particular instance you do have an actual mass grave of 6,000 people and it wasn't commemorated in the city. Of every penny that people donate, half will go to Montreal and half to Ireland Park in Toronto to endow historians to continue looking for burial sites and records, [and] other projects.

Mr. Collins arrives in Toronto around July 10, after a month of running. You can follow the journey through his own eyes on Facebook, and donate to the cause.

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