Author: Professor Mark G. McGowan with Michael Chard, St. Michael's College, University of Toronto
As many as 450,000 Irish immigrants had already arrived in British North America (now Canada) before the first potato rotted in the soil of Ireland. Since the 1790s, Irish immigrants had settled in Upper Canada’s rich farmlands, built canals, established businesses in cities, and helped create the social and economic foundations of everyday life in this fledgling outpost of the British Empire.

However, the Great Famine, 1845-1851, was so traumatic in terms of the destruction of a way of life, the death of a million Irish and the emigration of two million more that the memory of the famine would become the principal touchstone of identity for Canada’s Irish, whether they had crossed the Atlantic in 1847 or not. Buckets of ink have been spilled in efforts to account for the causes of the famine (“the Great Hunger” or Gorta Mor to the Irish) and the diaspora it engendered, and to support the ensuing generations of finger-pointing as the Irish, their descendants and the British attempted to assign or deflect blame for this catastrophe or to attribute it to natural and historical forces.

For Torontonians, the influx of 38,560 refugees from the famine to their city in 1847 challenged public officials and strained local resources in what would amount to the greatest civic crisis in the young city’s history. The spring and summer of “Black ’47” would leave an indelible set of images regarding the nature and character of “the Irish.”

In the summer of 1847, the Toronto waterfront witnessed one of the greatest human tragedies in the history of the city. Between May and October of that year, more than 38,000 Irish Famine migrants arrived from Ireland at a time when the city’s population was just 20,000 people.

On July 9, 1847, the Toronto Mirror newspaper reported: “The state of the emigrants daily becomes worse and worse. On Wednesday, the Steamer Sovereign brought up 1,000 souls. This is a horrible traffic in human blood . . . what the ultimate results are to be, we shudder to contemplate: but if, in December such an extent of utter want of food prevails, whence is sustenance to come in May, June and July, and should the potato no longer be looked forward to, as a means of relief? This is a question that should come home to the heart of every man who has a heart.”

The sympathetic views of the Toronto Mirror towards the suffering of the Irish Famine migrants were widely shared by the inhabitants of the city. Bishop Michael Power, Toronto’s first Catholic bishop, had sent a pastoral letter to Toronto from London in advance of his return to the city from a tour of Rome, London and Dublin. His letter, read out on May 15 from the pulpits of all of the Catholic churches in and around Toronto, urged congregations to be prepared for the influx of Irish Famine refugees. Power had witnessed at first hand the plight of the emigrants on the quayside in Dublin during his visit to the city in January 1847. 

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