QUEBEC CITY – Little is known of Quebec’s Irish history, according to the playwrights of a new musical playing in the province’s capital.
In the 1800s, typhoid fever claimed thousands of lives of Irish immigrants.
Their orphans were taken in by French-Canadian families.
It was a tragic event that brought two cultures together.
“My ancestry is both French and English and that’s what it means to me. It brings the two people together,” said artistic director and co-author Hubert Radoux.
The bilingual production of Grosse Île: Une Histoire Chorale, which was shown last Saturday and Sunday at the Palais Montcalm, pulls at the heart strings.
“I hope that people feel the pain,” said co-author Margaret Forrest.
In 1847, immigrants traveled across the ocean from Ireland to get away from famine.
“They have to hope and come to Quebec, but then the landlords and the people on the boats are not necessarily nice to them and they get sick,” explained Marie-Maude Potvin, a singer and actress in the musical.
Suffering from cholera and typhoid fever, when the Irish finally arrived in Quebec, they were quarantined on Grosse Île.
“I was surprised that I didn’t know about the story,” said Katee Julien, another singer and actress.
“I think it’s important for us people from Quebec City to know about that because it’s about us. You don’t know why some streets have Irish names.”
This original play – and original score – commemorates the over 5,000 Irish immigrants buried on the island.
Greg Halpin plays two characters, both of whom die from disease.
“Throughout the play, there’s just constantly this chorus that keeps echoing back, of hope and how you get through these kinds of tragedies,” said Halpin.
The story takes place almost 170 years ago, but the imagery is all too reminiscent of Syrian refugees who have died in similar journeys by boat.
“People who were actually dying on the shoreline and they had no place for these people. They had no place to bury them,” said Radoux.
“It is so timely,” said Forrest.
“We’re so estranged to this notion of people having a right or a need to change the place they live. We tend to say ‘pull up your boot straps and change your own place’…but this is the time to open our arms.”
Forrest insisted Quebecers should welcome newcomers, who so quickly become part of our heritage.