Gerald Keegan's Summer of Sorrow, 1847 (Published 1895)

In 1847, Gerald Keegan crossed the Atlantic in from County Sligo, Ireland to Grosse Ile, Quebec, Canada, which at that time was still part of Great Britain. His diary of that journey, titled Summer of Sorrow, was published in Huntingdon, Quebec in 1895. In 1982, James J. Mangan wrote a fictionalized account based this diary called The Voyage of the Naparima, later republished in 1991 as Famine Diary: Journey to a New World.

Mangan's edition does not make the entire text of Keegan's diary available; however he does include a handful of excerpts from the original manuscript alongside his fictionalized version. A modern fictionalizes version of the ocean crossing is obviously of no use to us. On the other hand, the original 1895 edition, even if creatively embellished by the author, is still useful to scholars interested in eye witness accounts. The editorial choices Keegan makes in retelling his journey for a reading audience are perhaps as valuable as a historically accurate account.

More troublesome, however, is the fact that Wolfhound Press, which published Mangan's fictional account, notes that the authenticity of Keegan's diary has been called into question. Some scholarsbelieve the diary is the work of two or more writers, possibly Keegan and an editor.

Keegan's diary entries make for absorbing reading. The editor wishes to warn her readers, however, that their authenticity is still in dispute. With that caveat, I present these excerpts from the 1895 diary for whatever their worth.

(The diary begins in February, 1847, but no dates are given for these excerpts from the original text.)

With doubt thrown on the landlord's good faith, the poor people went on arguing among themselves until a majority decided to stand out and demand better terms. On hearing this, the agent sent word they must decide within a week. If they rejected the offer, it would be withdrawn and no new one would be submitted. My uncle had coem to get my advice, 'For sure,' he said, 'you are the only scholard in the family.' I comprehended the infamous nature of the offer. The people did not own the land, but they owned the improvements they had made on it, and had a right to be compensated for them. I knew my uncle when a boy had rented a piece of worthless bog and by the labor of himself, and afterward of his wife and children, had converted it into a profitable field. Should I advise him to give it up for a receipt for back rent a free passage to Canada? I tried to find out what he thought himself. Are you for accepting the offer, Uncle?

'That depends,' he answered. 'Give me a crop of spuds as we had in the ould times, an niver a step (Mangan, 23.)

One of our many tacks brought us close to me English coast. It was my first and likely to be my last view of that country. Aileen has made our cabin snug and convenient beyond belief. Her happy disposition causes her to make the best of everything.

19.-- The westerly breezes that kept us tacking in the channel gave place, during the night, to a strong east winds, before which the ship is bowling at a fine rate. Passing close to the shore we had a view of the coast from Ardmore to Cape Clear. Aileen sat with me all day, our eyes fixed on the land we loved. Knowing, as it swept past us, it was the last time we would ever gaze upon it, our hearts were too full for speech. Towards evening, the ship drew away from it, until the hills of Kerry became so faint that they could hardly be distinguished from the clouds that hovered over them. When I finally turned away from eyes from where I knew the dear old land was, my heart throbbed as it if would burst. Farewell, Erin.

22. -- Why do we exert ourselves so little to help one another, when it takes so little to please! Aileen coaxed the steward to let her have some discarded biscuit bags. These she is fashioning into a sort of gown to cover the nakedness of several girls who could not come on deck. The first she finished this afternoon, and no aristocratic miss could have been prouder of her first silk dress than was the poor child of the transformed canvas bag, which was her only garment.

23. -- This is Sunday. The only change in the routine of the ship that marks the day is that the sailors gave an extra wash down to the decks and after that they did not work except trim the sails. They spent the forenoon on the forecastle mending or washing their clothes. During the afternoon it grew cold with a strong wind from the north-east, accompanied by driving showers. Towards sunset the sea was a lather of foam, and the wind had increased to a gale. When the waves began to flood the deck, the order was given to put the hatches on. God help the poor souls shut in beneath my feet!

Another came, it caught in our cable, and before the swish of the current washed it clear, I caught a glimpse of a white face. I understood it all. The ship ahead of us had emigrants and they were throwing overboard their dead. Without telling Aileen, I grasped her arm, and drew her to our cabin.

Leaving the cemetery with the priest, I thanked him from my heart and ran to he quay. My heart was in my mouth when I saw on it Aileen, standing beside our boxes, and the ship, having tipped her anchor, bearing up the river. 'What makes you look so at me, Gerald? I have come as you asked.'

'I never sent for you.'

'The steward told me you had sent word by the sailors for me to come ashore, that you were going to stay here. They carried the luggage into a boat and I followed.'

I groaned in spirit. I saw it all. By a villainous trick, the captain had got rid of me. Instead of being in Quebec that day, here I was left at the quarantine station. 'My poor Aileen, I know not what to do; my trouble is for you.' I went to see the head of the establishment, Dr Douglas. He proved to be a fussy gentleman, worried over a number of details. Professing to be ready to oblige, he said there was no help for me until the next steamer came. 'When will that be?' Next Saturday. A week on an island full of people sick with fever! Aileen, brave heart, made the best of it. She was soaking wet, yet the only shelter, apart from the fever sheds, which were not to be thought of, was an outhouse with a leaky roof, with no possibility of a fire or change of clothing. How I cursed myself for making captain and mate my enemies, for the penalty had fallen not on me, but on Aileen. There was not an armful of straw to be had; not even boards to lie on.

I went to the cooking booth and found a Frenchman in charge. Bribing him with a shilling he gave me a loaf and a tin of hot tea. Aileen could not eat a bite, though she tried to do to please me, but drank the tea. The rain continued and the east wind penetrated between the boards of the wretched sheiling. What a night it was! I put my coat over Aileen, I pressed her to my bosom to impart some heat to her chilled frame, I endeavored to cheer her with prospects of the morrow. Alas, when morning came she was unable to move, and fever and chill alternated. I sought the doctor, he was not to be had. Other emigrant ships had arrived, and he was visiting them. Beyond giving her water to assuage her thirst when in the fever it was not in my power to do anything. It was evening when the doctor, yielding to my importunities, came to see her. He did not stay a minute and writing a few lines told me to go to the hospital steward, who would give me some medicine. Why recall the dreadful nights and days that followed? What profit to tell of the pain in the breast, the raging fever, the delirium, the agonizing gasping for breath -- the end? The fourth day, with bursting heart and throbbing head, I knelt by the corpse of my Aileen. There was not a soul to help; everybody was too full of their troubles to be able to heed me. The island was now filled with sick emigrants, and death was on every side. I dug her grave, the priest came, I laid her there, I filled it in, I staggered to the shed that had sheltered us, I fell from sheer exhaustion, and remember no more. When I woke, I heard the patter of rain, and felt so inexpressibly weary I could think of nothing, much less make any exertion. My eye fell on Aileen's shawl, and the past rushed on me. Oh, the agony of that hour; my remorse, my sorrow, my beseeching of the Unseen. Such a paroxysm could not last long, and when exhausted nature compelled me to lie down, I turned my face to the wall with the earnest prayer I might never awaken on this earth.

(Written by Father Tom O'Hare.)

I lifted him in my arms and carried him out of the shed. I was powerful strong when I was young, and tho' he was tall and broad-shouldered he was wasted to skin and bone. I laid him down in the shade of a tree, for the sun was hot. He didn't look at the river or the hills beyant, but fixed his eyes on a spot that I took to be a burying place. 'Go back,' he whispered, ' and bring the bag below my berth.' I went, and found a woman had already been put in the poor bed I had lifted him out of. I reached for the bag and took it to him. Pointing to a spot in the burying-place he ttold me to go there and I would see a grave with a cross at its head and the name Aileen cut on it. 'You can read?' 'Yes' says I. I did his bidding and coming back told him I had found the grave. 'Promise me, you'll bury me beside that grave.' I promised him. 'Open that bag and you'll find in it a little book.' I reach it to him. 'Take it,' says he, 'there are pages in it I would tear out were I able. Let it go. Save the book; ut will tell to those now unborn what Irish men and women have suffered in this summer of sorrow.'

In addition to the diary excerpts, the 1991 edition of Keegan's story contains two newspaper accounts of the quarantine station where many emigrants disembarked.

The Montreal Gazette, September 5, 1847:

In the hastily erected emergency sheds the people were dying by the score in the crowded sheds, in the stench and the heat, desperately neglected. When there were enough attendants they were hastily tossed into shallow pits nearby when they succumbed to the fever. In all the history of Montreal there is no story so poignant. There were hundreds of orphaned children. Many of the little ones had to pulled from the arms of a parent who had suddenly died. Older ones were wandering around frantically looking for parents who were already buried in the pits. The scene in the chidlren's shed was beyond description.

From the Montreal Immigrant Society Bulletin in 1848:

From Grosse Ile, the great charnel house of victimized humanity, up to Port Sarnia and all along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, wherever the tide of immigration extended, are to be found the final resting places of the sons and daughters of Erin -- one unbroken chain of graves where rest fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, without a stone to mark the spot. I do not know that the history of our times has a parallel for this Irish exodus. . . . It was the forced expulsion and panic rush of a stricken people and it was attended by frightful scenes of suffering and death.


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