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Session II: Famine and Commemoration
Summary: The two buildings that comprise the St. John's Civic Centre each boast a sculpted representation of maritime womanhood. At the entrance to the stadium, a colourful, fiberglass mermaid poses provocatively for passers-by. Across the street, two Newfoundland women, cast in aluminum in front of the conference centre, lift a barra laden with salted fish. The mermaid is an anachronistic image that emerged as a fund-raising gimmick and tourist attraction in the "City of Legends." The aluminum sculpture represents the more iconic status of women who worked in household production of the Newfoundland fishery. This paper explores the latter understanding of maritime womanhood by examining women in Irish-Newfoundland fishing families along the Southern Avalon Peninsula.
The paper does not talk about fishwives in any popular sense of the word. These women did not market fish; rather, they produced salt fish for market. And while middle-class observers may have perceived them as coarse and bold, within their own families and fishing communities, they were seen as essential partners who contributed equally to family economies. Within a sexual division of labour that assigned vital and complementary tasks to both men and women, Irish-Newfoundland fish(-producing) wives carried out hard physical labour at public sites of production. This contributed significantly to the construction of womanhood as "essential worker," which, in turn, had broader repercussions for their status and authority within the social and economic life of their communities.
Summary: Next year marks the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the inauguration of Quebec's two most significant Great Famine memorials: Grosse Île's Celtic Cross (1909) and Montreal's Ship Fever Monument (1859). These monuments mark sites that share striking historical similarities. During the summer of 1847 at least 5,424 Irish migrants died of typhus while in quarantine on Grosse Île and were buried in mass graves. This tragedy was repeated in Montreal, after 75,000 Irish newcomers, who were processed quickly through quarantine on Grosse Île, were deposited on the city's waterfront by steamers sent up the St. Lawrence. Typhus spread rapidly in the city's fever sheds, claiming the lives of 6,000 Irish who were then buried en masse in Pointe Saint-Charles.
While both sites subsequently became focal points for Famine commemoration, and central to the construction of Irish Catholic identities, Grosse Île's Celtic Cross has – since its erection a century ago – eclipsed Montreal's Ship Fever Monument as Quebec's representative Famine memorial. The 2009 rededication of the Celtic Cross promises to reaffirm the quarantine island's iconic status.
I examine why Montreal's Famine memorial has languished in the shadow of its Grosse Île counterpart, considering what the stone's subordinate place in public memory reveals about the dynamics of Famine remembrance in Quebec. This presentation shows how ethnic groups connect identity to place through commemoration and the construction of monumental meaning.
Summary: The publication of Gerald Keegan's Famine Diary in Ireland in 1991 quickly became a national bestseller and was widely believed to be the journal of a genuine famine migrant. Soon after its publication, however, the text was proven to be derived from Robert Sellar's The Summer of Sorrow, a work of historical fiction written in 1895 by a Scottish emigrant to rural Quebec, rather than an authentic famine diary.
My paper examines Robert Sellar's manuscript sources for The Summer of Sorrow in Library and Archives Canada, and determines that Sellar's narrative is, in fact, based on the journals of Stephen De Vere, a benevolent Irish landlord who accompanied his former tenants to Grosse Île in 1847, after travelling steerage in an emigrant vessel to report upon the hardships of the trans-Atlantic voyage to the colonial office. My paper argues that historians who dismissed both the Famine Diary and Summer of Sorrow as works of historical fiction that epitomized the nationalist biases of Irish popular memory missed the point that they are actually derived from genuine and hitherto unexamined archival sources.
Secondly, it contends that the famine migrants with whom Stephen De Vere travelled were more socially disruptive, politically rebellious, and inclined to espouse sentiments of republican nationalism than has been accounted for in Irish-Canadian historiography. Ultimately the lesson of Famine Diary, I suggest, is that only rigorous analysis of archival sources from an interdisciplinary perspective can distinguish fact from fiction in the creation of famine memory.
National Archives of Ireland [www.nationalarchives.ie]