Irish Family Orphans in New Brunswick

Irish Potato Famine

Irish Family Orphans in New Brunswick

The late 1840s saw the last major wave of Irish migration to Canada, spurred by the potato famine. Approximately 110,000 migrants arrived in 1847, with almost 90,000 landing at the Grosse Île quarantine station before moving on to places like Québec City, Montréal, Canada West, and the United States. The Partridge Island quarantine station outside Saint John, processed almost 17,000 migrants, and a small number arrived in Halifax and other eastern ports.

Partridge Island
Partridge Island

Sadly, one out of every six migrants did not survive the year, dying from typhus in the filthy holds of “coffin ships,” crowded tents on the quarantine islands or in port cities.

Celtic Cross on Partridge Island
Celtic Cross on Partridge Island

The number of child migrants who became orphans was unprecedented. Grosse Île usually dealt with around 10 orphans per year, but there were over 100 less than a month into the 1847 navigation season. By year’s end, thousands of children had become orphans, with most being Catholic. 

Irish Family Famine

Public authorities, religious officials, and private charities all helped cope with the orphan crisis. Additional temporary “fever sheds” and orphanages were built to manage the emergency, and most orphans were quickly placed out, spending an average of one to two months under parish care or in institutions before being placed in homes. Many ended up with parents or relatives, while priests and ministers played a major role in placing out the orphans to families of their faith. 

Family leaving Ireland during potato Famine

During this time, the adoption procedure in British North America was informal and non-binding. Although orphans were placed in families, parents had no official rights over them, and children had no legal claims on their “families” in later years. Despite this, most orphans were properly treated by their host families, with older children being favoured for the extra help they could provide. 

The Irish began arriving in Miramichi in numbers after 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic War and with a few exceptions ceased coming to the area before the great Irish famine of 1847. They came to the area voluntarily to better their lives. Contrary to prevailing belief, not all of them were Catholic though very few Protestants among them identified openly as Irish and most of their descendants in Miramichi do not do so even to this day. Most arrived form the ports of Belfast and Cork each of which had strong commercial ties with Miramichi. Like the Scots they came on timber ships as individuals or in small family groups and the average age upon arrival was twenty-four. There was some chain emigration whereby additional family members joined the emigrant later but this was minimal. The Miramichi River valley was not settled by large transplantations of Scottish clans or large scale movements of starving and evicted Irish. Though there are one or two interesting exceptions.

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