An Understanding of Nationality through Catholicism: Reflections on the Grey Nuns’ 1847 Famine Annals about Caring for Irish Emigrants in Montreal’s Fever Sheds

Author: Michael Collins

Perhaps[1] it is an emigrant lament, but in the accumulation of years since I left Ireland, I’ve felt a growing obligation to better understand what it is to be Irish, given that we are remembered in the historical record as victims, as a people of terrible genocide or famine. So, in the summer of 2016, belatedly coming to the tumultuous history of our collective past, I began a month-long, marathon-a-day awareness run retracing the land passage of the roughly one-hundred-thousand immigrants who arrived in Canada during 1847’s sailing season and trekked more than five-hundred miles from Grosse Île to Toronto along the Saint Lawrence River.


As stated, I did so out of an obligation to my own sense of heritage, but also because, as an emigrant Irish writer, I’ve been obliged to address the fated historical reality that a disproportionate number of Irish writers have written in self-exile. I might describe myself as such, and, though I left for reasons more economic than philosophical, the leave-taking did instigate an intellectual reawakening. My first collection of stories, The Meat Eaters (1992), conceived without a political agenda, sought simply to recapture Irish life through a pastiche of autobiographical stories, and yet the dislocation of immigrant life configured a relational distancing between past and present, between here and there, so what emerged was a sociological evisceration of a de Valera theocracy, a gestapo Catholicism that had perverted much of Irish life after World War II.


It would be years before I understood that what I wrote early on had been informed by a heightened hysteria, a reactionary prose savaging what was then faltering, the controlling influence of the Church. I don’t discount what I wrote as untrue—it was, but it didn’t express the entirety of the cultural influence of the Church on our lives. It is difficult to maintain equanimity, especially in the crumbling days of a power structure, when any measure of nostalgia might be taken as an apologist’s defense of the indefensible.


There is, in retrospect, the disquieting awareness that my self-ascribed intellectual acuity was a juiced-up, indicting prose bound to a revisionism that had cast a myopic eye on all that was good, sanctifying, and life-sustaining, or that had been for a generation of pragmatic-minded Catholics who had let the sanctions of moral policing happen outside the domain of open discourse, not out of dumbstruck Catholic ignorance, but for the avowed belief that to give voice to perceived reprobate behaviors was to corrupt the general morality of all the people.


It was, of course, undemocratic and, arguably, a willful resistance to an emergent continental modernism best typified by England, that Sodom in Ireland’s backyard where the flotsam of Irish teddy boys, that rough consortium of hoodlums, were frog-marched to trains bound for Dublin and then onward on a boat passage to Liverpool and London. England was then exemplified by the “Starbird” and “Page Three” girl, the protectorate of Catholic influence sanctifying a way of Irish life, keeping in abeyance, for better or worse, the realities of modern times.


History is a complex intertwining of psychological forces, where the unmasking of apparent incongruities and outright criminal acts must be contextualized because most always the laws and mores of a society work for the greater majority of its citizens, up until a tipping point when suddenly they don’t. It is then easy to unmask what no longer holds true, to tease apart apparent contradictions within a system, to differentiate compassion from brutality, to alight on the innumerable religious scandals that have plagued Ireland, from sex-abuse cases to the incarceration of unwed mothers. To summarily say that the people didn’t know is too mendacious. The greater reality is that such institutions sanctioned a moral accountability that was ratified by the greater majority of a silent population that was too stiff with fear to interfere and most probably sided with the Church anyway.


It is what makes the study of Irish history, be it the Famine or the usurping power of the Church, such a confounding proposition. After a year’s worth of research, conducted in my early writing life, on the causes of the Famine, I found myself in an incongruous state of intellectual perplexity, where I knew more about our history and at the same time knew less.


It was this early failure that had made me loathe to re-engage with our collective history, and, though I embarked on my marathon-a-day run, the locus of my attention vacillated between a study of the Famine alongside a history closer to my own life—the intersecting influence of Catholicism on Irish identity—given that this was the fault-line that partially ruptured in the years preceding my departure and continued headlong into the innumerable scandals that eventually decoupled Catholicism from the nation’s sense of identity. This might be an emigrant preoccupation and what makes us emigrants such an oddment in the arrested way we latch on to a point of last departure. Yet somehow I saw the loss of our religion, our Catholicism, as a central impairment in understanding both the psyche of the Famine Irish and our history, post-independence, under de Valera.


By late 2015, having spent three months researching the story of the Famine Irish of 1847, I had begun to conceive of my run as an act of pilgrimage, less conjoined with scholarly research, and more an homage simply to step along the path of those long-suffering victims of our past. Against the loss of life on that interminable sea passage and amid calamitous death in the quarantine of Grosse Île and beyond, how had they endured? Somehow within that story was a religious undertow that underpinned their eventual survival. It was a matter of uncovering it, finding evidence of it in the historical record.


And yet for the sake of scholarship and point of historical reference, I dutifully returned to the historical records, to reams of statistical data and sociological analysis of the time, alighting on an insouciant defense of laissez-faire capitalism as argued by Charles Trevelyan, who, as government overseer of famine relief, echoed a dark nineteenth-century Malthusian politics in addressing the Irish case, declaring:


I think I see a bright light shining in the distance to the dark cloud which at present hangs over Ireland. A remedy has been already applied to that portion of the maladies of Ireland which was traceable to political causes, and the morbid habits which still to a certain extent survive are gradually giving way to a more healthy action. The deep and inveterate root of social evil remains, and I hope I am not guilty of irreverence in thinking that this being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence […]. God grant that we may rightly perform our part and not turn into a curse what was intended for a blessing.[2]


My sympathy has always lain with those who starved. And yet, in researching the historical record, I must concede that the fated providentialism the English Parliament applied to the Irish situation was also executed in the tightening of the English Poor Laws, which had condemned England’s impoverished to the miasma of the poor house. Undeniably, Ireland suffered the greater loss and was the more vulnerable race, and yet much of her subjugation emerged not so much from a pathological hatred toward her, but from the greater sway of historical forces tied to a century of doggedly pursued Enclosure Acts. The historians J. L. and Barbara Hammond, in describing the Enclosure Acts of the nineteenth century, state how they created “a new organisation of classes”:


The peasant with rights and a status, with a share in the fortunes and government of his village, standing in rags, but standing on his feet, makes way for the labourer with no corporate rights to defend, no corporate power to invoke, no property to cherish, no ambition to pursue, bent beneath the fear of his masters, and the weight of a future without hope. No class in the world has so beaten and crouching a history.[3]


In the waning days of my time in Quebec prior to my run, I did prophetically land on an alternate history, a more deeply personal and pious account not of the Irish themselves, but of the Grey Nuns, a religious order who had saved untold thousands of Irish immigrants along the docklands of Pointe-Saint-Charles in 1847.


In reading the diaries, I can describe it only as a rapture in finally accessing a psychological point of connectedness, linking the order’s indomitable faith with that of those Irish who had then arrived and were succumbing to fever by the tens of thousands. There was, within the diaries, the echo of a lived Catholicism that was eclipsed in the years of my youth, a faith I nevertheless recalled in a rearguard of religious figures who had hung on into the age of modernity.


Many of the Grey Nuns who sought the “fields of martyrdom”[4] were from wealthy families, especially as the crisis grew. Seemingly, within Montreal’s collective consciousness, there was a preternatural sectarianism that had historically pit French Catholicism against British Protestantism. By all accounts, 1847 was a proxy war for souls, specifically dispossessed Irish souls strung along the waters of the Saint Lawrence in a purgatory of suffering. As to the exact motivation behind the Grey Nuns’ call to martyrdom, and specifically that of those girls of means who offered up their lives amid the crisis, one could cynically contest—how else might these pinioned birds of paradise have distinguished themselves, wrapped in the silk and satin of a bourgeois Montreal society? Perversely, perhaps what befell the Irish was their liberation. It gave them purpose.


Throughout the diaries, one witnesses the order’s transformation from chaste cloister to an order of social action. In this, the Grey Nuns became Christlike in their succor and responsiveness, while from a secular stance, they circumscribed a sublimated proto-feminism that empowered each even as they collectively put themselves in the way of pestilence and death. How else can it be so rationalized? In witnessing “the moribund and cadavers” crowded along Montreal’s wharf quays, Mother Superior Forbes-McMullen is said to have “conceived a bright desire to rush to the relief of this misery with her girls” and, accordingly, “convince[d] them to combat in a new field of sacrifice.”[5]


The celestial pitch of her words is hymnal, religious, and combative, exemplifying a pent-up longing to find meaning in life. One feels the mother superior rousing an army of cloistered surrogates from vespers to the call of the outside world. And yet, even in their advancement on death, these sisters of mercy had to be vetted by a commissioner who vouched that it was “appropriate to give them this liberty,” and that “the sisters are intelligent enough to not do anything contrary to the general good of the hospital, and conscious enough to not cost the government useless expenditures.”[6]


Imagine the indignity of it—to have your venture into martyrdom first reviewed by a municipal lackey, not for the good you might accomplish, but for the harm you might cause!


Alas, such were the times. What the diaries convey, in their totality, is an entangled story of succor and subjugation. They reveal the awful fallout of imperial tyranny wrought on the suffering immigrant Irish while simultaneously unveiling the celestial martyrdom of a female religious cast who would work in the shadows of municipal authorities.


The horrors that befell the nuns are legion. One reads of their nightly retreats “back to the community” from the fever sheds, as those pariahs of martyrdom were forced to “venture to only the least inhabited areas,” where they would “hurry to rid themselves of their habits and of the vermin attached to them, and communicating only minimally with the other sisters, take their rest.” They would then arise the next morning “at the early hour of the Holy Sacrifice” and “hurry themselves to the altar to receive the Eucharist that gave them their strength and their consolation.”[7]


In capturing the fetid breath of pestilence, in alighting on both the quotidian and the extraordinary, in dwelling on the subtle interplay of all that life offers up, the diaries illustrate the darkness of that terrible year with a redemptive grace of hope and compassion. Perhaps this is what drew me to the diaries, the shuffling sequence of scenes that tell a greater truth and reveal a grander understanding than a litany of facts could ever convey. The diaries spoke to me in the way literature inspires a clairvoyant empathy and guides one toward a deeper psychological connectedness with a time and a people. Somehow, I felt the emotive power of a lived Catholicism, especially the indomitable feminine spirit of those orders of religious who worked in the shadow of a patriarchal Catholicism throughout 1847.


And so it was that the diaries connected me to my own youth again, to a time before the dissolution of our Catholic identity. I was made mindful of a freethinking great aunt of mine, a nun of the order of the Little Sisters of the Poor who met the political realities of her age head-on. Worldly and informed, an assiduous reader of the papers, she was a keeper of certain truths, enlivened by faith and politics, and committed to the way of the gun in what had defined her youth, the heady days of Ireland’s struggle for freedom. Allegedly, at the convent, she had harbored Michael Collins and his cohorts during their covert actions. I called her the “Walking Saint,” and still do.


There was a complexity to her spirituality and politics that was worldlier than one might assign to her station. In a reckoning of an economic stagnation that had then gripped Ireland, where religious favor defined much of Irish life, she had ceded to familial responsibility in an impoverished era when the metric of differentiation, the currency of life, was keyed to moral righteousness and to having a son or daughter bound to the Church.


What conjoined them across the span of nearly a century, these two religious orders, was a defiant militancy in guarding the Catholic soul. I saw it in the veneration my aunt had for the fighters of the Free State, and how integral the Catholic Church was to that vision of a free Éire. Likewise, the Grey Nuns’ diaries are direct in defining their ministry against disease and pestilence as a sectarian war, a battle against the influence of Protestant ministers who appeared en masse to proselytize and convert the dying. In so describing these accounts, there’s an atomization of temporality, an invocation of a soldier’s conscript. The diaries speak of the novice Jane Collins, who is listed as having served the Lord “for THREE months and EIGHTEEN (18) days” before she


succumbed to the pestiferous disease following the cruelest of sufferance, accompanied by a near-continuous delirium. This dear Sister had laboured tremendously while caring for the sick. Her main task was to exhort them and prepare for their imminent deaths. When she would see them with Protestant ministers that had entered our hospitals, she would not let them out of her sight even for an instant, for fear that they would attempt to pervert these poor unfortunate; and on more than one occasion, she had to fight off these ministers of error; but through the wisdom of her reasoning, would always manage to confound them. She was TWENTY (20) years, NINE (9) months and EIGHTEEN days old. She was buried the next day, at half past SEVEN (7) in the morning.[8]


The moribund roll call continued for the “good sister” Alodie Bruyiere, “a postulant for EIGHT months and EIGHT days” who “passed away at the age of TWENTY (20) years, ELEVEN months and FIVE days, after THREE weeks of sickness, Typhus contracted at the sheds, which presented all of the most serious symptoms. Before dying, her entire body was but a wound which produced an insufferable infection. She was a good person who would have made a saintly nun. She only appeared at the sheds, where she has been sent to care for the sick and subsequently contracted the disease.”[9]


The phantasm of holy war is evidenced everywhere in that inexorable struggle of 1847, in the waves of immigrant Catholic Irish who streamed down the Saint Lawrence with advancing plague and sickness. It must have seemed like end times. There are early descriptions of “cadavers exhaling an insufferable infection, lying in the same bed as those that still breathed; the number of sick was so considerable, that we at some point counted ELEVEN HUNDERD [sic] (1100) of them, some of whom had been dead for a few hours before we had noticed.”[10] Workers also “found more than one young child lying with mothers who no longer existed, suckling their breasts, to find some nourishment.”[11]


Amid the turmoil of death, the nuns being unable to attend Mass, the priests “used EULOGISTS for the Great Mass and the Vespers, and orphans sang the Salvation; which they continued doing so all the while that the sickness persisted.”[12] One hears that languorous liturgical dirge alongside death rattles in a rung of Dante’s Inferno, while the nuns in their servitude carried always the odor of death and did not fear it. Father Pierre Richard and Sister Ste. Croix, the diary notes, “greeted each other with these words: ‘Is today the day where we’ll meet the Eternal father?’”[13]


We see the “venerable” Father Jean Richards, who, “a few days before his death,” cautioned the nuns to take care of the “poor little children, for which he had taken great pains,” pleading with his dying breath, “Do not lose sight of them […] for Protestants will seize them,” while another priest forever “preoccupied with the elements of eternity” had it “pointed out to him that his cassock was filled with vermin,” to which he replied: “that is nothing, leave them, soon they will be jewels.”[14]


Death was a way of life, a conduit to heaven and not something shunned by the holy orders. In “contemplating a heap of COFFINS which were piled up in the yard,” a priest asked a sister, “Do you think our coffins are already made?” to which she “answered him with an air of certainty: ‘They are yet to be made, but it is certain that their planks have already been sawed.’”[15] One hears, in such evocations of faith, an enduring language thus spoken by all those who suffered, survived, or perished during the Famine.


The diaries reveal a compressed history of a single season, a hymnal of religious testimony from a pantheon of martyrs who collectively evoked a biblical lexicon that didn’t differentiate life from death, and that saw all existence as tending toward eternity. Moved by the example of the nuns, the diaries report, “a good deal of young people came to ask admittance in our novitiate. FOUR OF THEM were admitted and ENTERED DURING THE PINNACLE OF THE EPIDEMIC. The courage of these good POSTULANTS was heroic to us. One of them came to replace her sister, who at the moment, gave no hope of recovery.”[16]


And yet, amid that obdurate belief in the afterlife, these nuns attended to the extremity of earthly suffering to salvage life, to wrest life from the grip of death. We are told how one Sister Reid resolved to ameliorate what earthly suffering she could, and, taking it upon herself, went begging with a wheelbarrow for the orphan Irish: “the butchers and shopkeepers did not wait for her to ask, they presented themselves, and the cart was filled with provisions.”[17]


Indeed, the invocation for alms would define so much of these sisters’ lives during and after 1847. The diaries not only speak of that single year, but address the supplication of what will always be needed—charity. The latter entries in the diary affect a less-elevated tone and focus on an earthly realism. In the grim confines of an orphanage on a bleak Friday we are entreated to contemplate the destitution of circumstances. The entry is anecdotal and seeks to move the reader:


One Friday, the house was bare of provisions, which was perplexing to the Superior. “It is already nine (9) o’clock, she said, and the dinner is still not being cooked.” At which point, she began the task with the usual recital of evocations to the Divine Providence. The prayer was not finished when a car laden with vegetables and fish stopped outside the door. It was a generous farmer from the country who came to say to the superior. “Take these provisions, my Sister, I was inspired to bring them for your orphans.”[18]


What these venerable agents of Christ possessed was not simply a religious resolve, but, in a dispensation from their cloister, a political will to rouse public sentiment and charity by the grace of their own sacrifice, by the example of their own martyrdom, and through a literature that preserved and extended the passing tragedy of that season of death. What one suspects in the reach of their Catholic appeal is how much their faith was defined by the proximity of the predominantly Protestant province of Ontario, how so much of the succor afforded the unfortunate Irish played into the larger political and religious context of what was then a divided land of Canada West and Canada East. Factional resolve is often tested in the obvious presence of the other!


I think in so viewing the sectarian Montreal struggle, we should be mindful also in assessing the political insurrection of the Irish revolutionary movements. In the insurmountable struggle against an imperial power, there was, perhaps, a lapse in political confidence in the waning days of the gun, and too quick a psychological submission to the seduction of the hereafter, so Catholicism was both a source of spiritual sustenance and political bondage. I say this simply because, in the salvage of souls, in the interminable battle between sectarian forces, it seems those Protestant ministers in 1847 came with coffers filled by a congregate accustomed to paying tithes, so there was less need for Catholic beggary, whereas the marshaled resources of the Catholic Church fell back on a cloister of novitiates called into martyrdom in the great casualty of lives lost, Catholic succor most always a rearguard afterthought in a penury collection of pennies at the plate in time of crisis.


In a survey of the diaries, what is apparent, too, is a particularly Catholic hierarchy of orders, manifested in the obsequiousness of the Eves of the faith under the command of priests. It is deference preserved throughout the diaries, the fore-fronting of the priests’ ministry in a sort of non-compete clause in their compliant servility and attendant stand-in, as first and foremost nurses and second sisters of faith. We read of the godly Father Dowd “acquiesc[ing] happily to the desire of the brides of Christ and c[oming] to celebrate holy mass,” after which, the venerable Sister Marie recalls that “nothing was difficult” and that “a quarter of an hour of intimacy with our good Saviour quickly helps us forget the troubles of the day; and the next day, what a consolation to return on refreshed feet for more work, with provisions of energy.”[19]


The word “intimacy” suggests a sublimated sexuality, as does the self-referencing descriptor “brides of Christ.” Here, too, lies an eerie correspondence between the diaries and an Irish Catholicism that at times was ensnared in how to negotiate and position women in relation to God, especially the Irish Marian movement that vexed and divided the Church hierarchy in managing the legion of devotees who had sublimated the Catholic tradition with their own honorific veneration of Mary and associated handmaids, namely, a series of sainted nuns whose spirituality and writings very often veered into the realm of a religious eroticism. During the darkest days of the plague, when Mass was suspended for the sisters, the Grey Nuns’ mother superior suggested that the order give the Church a statue of the Virgin Mary, made by the sisters with the hope that a resolute novena might stop this scourge, while measures were taken to keep “candles lit in front of the Virgin Mary’s altar.”[20]


In viewing the diaries, it is perhaps disingenuous to perseverate on any sexual undercurrent, especially when most of the entries brim with “sacrifice and immolation”[21] as Sisters Olier, Blondin, Caron, Cinq-Mars, and others endure in perpetual delirium, longer than was ever thought humanly possible, ministering in soft-lit attic dormitories to row after row of cots of Irish orphans who were eventually adopted. It is how I see them yet, as spectral ghosts in their maternal solitude high above the city, sisters of mercy caught between heaven and earth, “novices who return in turns with the sword of sacrifice which will soon consume them in glorious martyrdom.”[22]


In so viewing them, in assessing their faith, they align with a tradition Irish Catholicism, under which they could do only so much and, in the end, exhorted in prayerful beseech toward the possibility of eternal reward in the hereafter.



Parts of this article have been republished in Michael Collins, "What a writer seeks in history: In search of a voice," Children and the Great Hunger in Ireland, ed. Christine Kinealy, Jason King, Gerard Moran (Hamden, Connecticut: Quinnipiac University Press, 2018), 263-284. 


[1] For the annals of the Grey Nuns discussed in this article, see “Grey Nuns,” Irish Famine Archive, ed. Jason King, accessed January 8, 2018,

[2] C. E. Trevelyan to Lord Monteagle, October 9, 1846, Monteagle Papers, MS 13,397/1, National Library of Ireland.

[3] J. L. and Barbara Hammond, The Village Labourer, 1760–1832: A Study of the Government of England before the Reform Bill (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1911), 81.

[4] “The Typhus of 1847,” in Ancien Journal, volume II, 1847, ed. Jason King, Irish Famine Archive, 14, accessed April 7, 2017.

[5] Ibid., 15–17.

[6] Ibid., 87.

[7] Ibid., 20.

[8] Ancien Journal, volume I, 1847, ed. Jason King, Irish Famine Archive, 16–17, accessed April 7, 2017,

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Ibid., 6.

[11] Ibid., 8.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 16.

[14] Ibid., 18, 15.

[15] Ibid., 16.

[16] Ibid., 11.

[17] “Foundation of St. Patrick’s Asylum,” ed. Jason King, Irish Famine Archive, 8, accessed April 7, 2017,

[18] Ibid., 16–17.

[19] Ibid., 13–14 (my emphasis).

[20] Ancien Journal, volume 1, 12.

[21] “The Typhus of 1847,” 24.

[22] Ibid., 34.