Episode 1 follows the story of the doomed Willis family, who in early 1847 were forced to depart their home in the southwest of Ireland and undertake a nightmare journey from Limerick, Ireland to Canada on the cargo ship the Jesse. Tragedy and disaster stalked them every step of the way. Forced to leave a sick child on the quayside in Ireland, they lose two more of their children during the voyage.
This is one of the untold stories of the Famine, as the Willis family was Protestant. Despite traditional perceptions, the Catholic population of Ireland were not the sole victims of the catastrophe. According to one of the expert contributors to the series, Professor Peter Gray of Queen’s University Belfast, “People think that Irish Catholics have the monopoly on famine suffering, when in fact it crossed the religious divide. 30 per cent of those who went to Canada were Protestant.”
In this episode we also learn of the impending catastrophe that is about to hit Toronto as the ravaged survivors of the trip to Canada make their way from Grosse Ile and modern day historians set the scene in describing the Ireland of 1847 and the new frontier city of Toronto. Irish writer John Waters provides a graphic description of just how terrible the conditions in Ireland were to cause the Willis family to leave their home. Historian Peter Gray sums it up when he says:
“What really hits people—I suppose the start of the Great Famine proper—is the potato failure of 1846, … because of the exhaustion of the previous year, people have nothing left to sell.
They have nothing left to fall back on. Four million people are faced with absolute starvation as a consequence of this almost total potato failure …”
We also meet some of the heroes of the disaster including Bishop Michael Power of Toronto who had seen first hand what was happening in Ireland. Power is instrumental in warning the City Council of the approaching calamity and Dr. Douglas, who was the medical superintendent at Grosse Ile, also emerges as one of the unsung heroes of the great famine. Whilst Dr Douglas is treating the sick and dying in Grosse Ile 800 kilometres away Bishop Power is setting up the hospitals and fever sheds in what is now downtown Toronto.
In the summer of 1847, the then small city of Toronto in the British colony of Canada was overwhelmed by an influx of 20,000 Irish famine refugees. The programme also follows the archaeological excavations that were being undertaken to find the remains of the fever sheds that housed the starving and diseased immigrants. The site will soon be built over with the construction of the new headquarters of the Toronto Film Festival. The programme also features Robert Kearns, an Irish-Canadian philanthropist who has dedicated himself to ensuring that the Irish who suffered and died in Canada during the Famine years are remembered and commemorated.
The Great Famine was the worst catastrophe of its kind in modern world history. One of the leading authorities on the disaster, Professor Christine Kinealy of Drew University, puts it in perspective: “Even to this day, the Irish Famine remains the most lethal famine in modern history. Within the space of six years, over 1 million people died and 2 million people emigrated, which represented a population loss of almost 33%. No other country has suffered that. And so it’s no wonder that the memory of the Famine and the impact has been so long enduring.”
Episode 2 opens with the Willis family struggling to keep going. They have had to leave a doomed sick son on the Quayside in Limerick, Ireland,when the medical officer refused to allow him board the cargo ship the Jesse and two more of their children die of Typhus on the sea journey. As they wait to disembark at Grosse Ile on the St Lawrence River, Canada their eldest daughter Mary Ann is taken to the quarantine centre and a week later she dies.
In Toronto Bishop Power is acutely aware of the impact of the thousands of refugees making their way up river from Grosse Ile to Toronto. He pleads with the city fathers, often in vain to prepare for the coming sick and weak among them John and Mary Willis and their remaining child
Toronto is a city which was overwhelmed and threatened by the volume of disease ridden, impoverished and grief stricken refugees from the famine in Ireland. Punctuated by expert commentary from historians Professor Mark McGowan and Dr Peter Grey, and Chairman of the Ireland Park in Canada Robert Kearns, and reflections on the famine from John Waters, the programme looks at the experience of the famine from both an Irish and Canadian perspective.
The worst year of the famine, 1847, was not Ireland's tragedy alone. The fledgling colony of British North America couldn't deal with an influx of such epic proportions. Its eastern ports and cities were overwhelmed as they struggled to cope with the starving, Typhus-infested refugees. Their arrival threatened to decimate the fledgling British colony as in every city they arrived from Montreal to Toronto outbreaks of Typhus broke out.
Many Canadians ran scared but some like Bishop Power and Dr.George Grasset - whose brother is dean of the Anglican Church in Toronto. faced the challenge head on, catholic and protestant work side by side, to help the Irish and their courage and sacrifice helped the Famine refugees overcome the worst calamity they had ever endured and allowed many to travel on into the United States. Toronto alone took in 40,000 people, bringing chaos, fever and death to the city's streets. Hundreds of the dead were buried in unmarked graves.
Power and Grasset along with many others who rushed to help the disenfranchised famine refugees paid for their selfless work with their lives, dying alongside those they were trying to help. So to do John Willis and his son. Mary Willis’s story ends in the town of Brantford, just west of Toronto. having lost her entire family she is taken into the home of an Anglican Minster where she finds herself consumed by grief.
This is the story of two countries at the moment their destinies became intertwined. It is the story of how some of Toronto's most eminent citizens sacrificed their lives to help the Irish. And it is the story of how a brave woman, Mary Willis, watched helplessly as her home, her family were torn from her forever.