Emigration can play havoc with a person’s sense of belonging and people respond in various ways to the discombobulation this can entail. Some remain resolutely Irish no matter how long they are away. Others embrace the new place whole-heartedly and easily cast off the psychological and emotional trappings of their Irishness. And others reach a stage in their cultural osmosis in which their sense of identity shifts and becomes enmeshed in the phenomenon of separation.
I belong to the third category and I remember to the day the moment in which the shift became evident to me.
It was a blustery, rainy day in 1994 when Ireland’s then President Mary Robinson visited Grosse Ile, a small island on the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, where thousands of victims of the Irish Famine are buried. I traveled with a busload of pilgrims from Toronto where I’d been living for 10 years. We spent the night in a hotel in the town of Trois Rivieres and rose at dawn to travel by ferry to the island.
We were joined by representatives of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Gaelic Athletic Association, Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, Concern and a myriad of Irish-American and Irish-Canadian associations. People came from places as far-flung as Montreal, Chicago, New York, Boston, New Orleans, Belfast, Dublin and the Kanesataki First Nations’ reserve in Quebec.
On approaching the island, the first thing we saw was a Celtic Cross, 46 feet tall, overlooking the St. Lawrence from the top of Telegraph Hill, the highest point on the island. It was erected by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1909, back when the famine was more immediate in the memory of Irish émigrés.
The island is a sacred place and we could feel it in our bones. We walked and talked softly on it. Our ancestors came there in droves to escape from the ravages of the famine and in hope for a better life. For many of them Gross Ile became their graveyard. Some Quebecois call the place the Isle of Irish Sorrows. Others call it simply the Irish Island.
There are broad meadows at both ends of the island where the migrants are buried, “stacked like cordwood” in the words of one contemporary observer. Before the end of May 1847, Dr Douglas, the medical superintendent of Grosse Ile, was reporting between 50 and 60 deaths per day. By June 5 the death toll had tripled. At the end of that year Dr Douglas erected a monument on the island to commemorate the four doctors and two lay people who had died caring for the sick. The monument bears this inscription:
In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5424 persons who fleeing from Pestilence and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 found in America but a grave.
The earth atop the mass graves was of a spongy, ductile texture. As my foot sank into it I felt like jerking back. I wished I could glide over the graveyard and not disturb it. But at the same time there was a magnetic aura to it that made me want to touch it or a part of it. I wanted to feel the grass, put my hand on one of the army of white wooden crosses, pluck a flower, say a prayer. I wanted to do something – anything – to respond to the message of kinship I was receiving from this haunted place.
The final ceremony of the day was a laying of wreaths at the Celtic Cross on the top of Telegraph Hill. Back down on the docks it was raining and the pilgrims gathered for departure, soaked to the skin but spiritually edified. A man with an accordion played the Fury Brothers song Steal Away.
Early the next morning I boarded the bus for the long trip back to Toronto. I sat alone, as did many others. The island had impressed us profoundly and we were not yet ready to let go of the intensity of the experience.
About halfway back to Toronto I realized that my visit to Grosse Ile had triggered, or at least hurried along, a shift in my sense of self. I was like Dorothy in Oz with the reality dawning on her that she was not in Kansas anymore. I was no longer just Irish. Somehow, over the course of my decade-long odyssey in Canada, like many another expatriate, my perception of my Irishness had shifted and my visit to Grosse Ile had clarified my new sense of self.
We who have shifted see ourselves and our Irishness through a prism that has been embellished by an awareness of alternative realities and possibilities. We embody a sense of separateness that contains togetherness. We belong to Ireland and beyond. We are of the diaspora.