The minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, unveiled a new archive of famine documents at the University of Limerick recently.
The online archive contains stories collected by Canadian nuns in the 1840s. The French-Canadian Sisters of Charity, nicknamed the Grey Nuns, cared for hundreds of famine emigrants when they came to Montreal in 1847.
The archives tell of the harrowing scenes witnessed by priests and nuns in Canada when they tried to treat the emigrants who had managed to survive the journey across the Atlantic.
Many died before ever reaching Montreal but those who did were malnourished, exhausted from the sea voyage and in some cases, suffering from typhus and other diseases.
The Grey Nuns opened their doors to the emigrants and treated them wholeheartedly without fear for their own health. Typhus was a highly contagious disease and often fatal before the development of antibiotics.
Indeed, the disease did claim some of the nuns’ lives, and led to an epidemic in the General Hospital itself where the Grey Nuns treated the famine victims. “Alas, it is no longer sisters who go to the aid of their fellow nuns. Almost all are in need of other’s assistance. Only a few individuals have escaped the contagious fever,” the archive reads.
President Michael D. Higgins paid tribute to the Grey Nuns in his introduction to the archives. “As a country, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Grey Nuns who cared for so many Irish widows and orphans who were left destitute, impoverished and alone in a strange country,” he wrote.
The archives, which were originally published in French in 1898, have been translated into English for the purpose of the online archive. They will become a valuable resource for students of history at the University of Limerick.
This article appeared in Sin on April 1 2012.