Death or Canada

2 x 52 Minute HD Docu-drama Series

Death or Canada, narrated by Brian Dennehy tells the true life tragic story of John and Mary Willis and their five children who left their home in the west of Ireland at the height of the Great Famine in 1847 in search of a new and better life in North America. This dramatic story is interspersed with commentary from historians and other experts.


  • Executive Producer – Stephen Rooke , Craig Thompson
  • Producer – Stephen Rooke , Craig Thompson, Dave Farrell
  • Creative Producer – Patricia Philips
  • Director – Ruán Magan
  • Narrator – Ruán Magan , Brian Dennehy
  • Writer – Ruán Magan, Craig Thompson
  • Director Of Photography – Colm Whelen
GENRES: Docu-drama / History
SERIES FORMAT: 2 x 52 Minute HD


  • CANWEST , History Channel Hd Uk , History Television Canada , RTÉ , Smithsonian Networks

DEATH OR CANADA is an epic, tragic tale of extreme heroism and courage. Set in 1847, the darkest year of the Irish Famine, it follows the true life story of John and Mary Willis who, with their five children, abandoned their home in the west of Ireland gambling everything on finding new lives in North America.

But terror followed in their wake and the couple lost 4 of their 5 children to typhus.  Only Mary, her husband and one son survived the Atlantic crossing and arrived in the young city of Toronto in the spring of 1847.  Their journey was part of the worst humanitarian disaster of the 19th century – over 20,000 people died en route that summer while around 1 million people died during the famine years in Ireland. 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.

Black ‘47 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. 

The hero’s of the young city of Toronto are central to the story as they attempt to deal with and absorb the famine refugee’s. Portrayed in the film are Dr. George Grassett, who was the Chief Medical Officer at Toronto’s Fever Sheds, Toronto’s Emigrant Agent, Edward McElderry, Nurse Susan Bailey, who also worked in the Fever Sheds and Bishop Michael Power who is the chief hero of Toronto’s summer of sorrow in 1847 – responsible for building the fever sheds and hospital that saved thousands of the refugees – and finally dying himself from Typhus – contracted from his time in the fever sheds.

The title of the film comes from the research of one of the main contributor’s, Mark McGowan, Principal of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. He says that “The title, Death or Canada, was something that I discovered in archives in Limerick, Ireland, in a newspaper where the locals were writing about the choices that had to be made in 1847. They said: ‘During the Cromwellian period, it was to hell or Connaught, and now that’s being writ large in our own time as death or Canada.’ “

The programmes included the fascinating archaeological digs. Toronto-based Archaeological Services Inc. were undertaking at the sites of the fever sheds, famine hospitals and burial grounds where these immigrants died and were buried. Under the expert guidance of Canadian historian Mark McGowan and chief archaeologist Ron Williamson, the excavation was filmed. Using clues from recovered artifacts, ships manifests, newspaper clippings, diaries, and burial records, Mark endeavored to determine what happened to the people who perished and those who survived.

Death or Canada is an Ireland-Canada Co-Production by Tile Films (Ireland) and Ballinran Productions/Summer of Sorrow Productions (Canada) for RTE, Canwest Broadcastings, History Channel UK with the participation of the Sound and Vision Broadcasting Funding Scheme, The Canadian Television Fund, the Canadian Film or Television Production Tax Credit and the Ontario Media Development Corporation Film and Television Tax Credit.

Dramatic reenactments were filmed in Ireland and Canada. Locations in Ireland included Achill Island in Mayo and Cobh in Cork. When the production shifted to Canada filming took place at Discovery Harbour, Black Creek Pioneer Village and in downtown Toronto and St Michael’s Cathedral.

Death or Canada was nominated for an Irish Film and Television Award in 2009 in the Best Documentary Series category. The film was also nominated for four Gemini Awards in Canada. In 2010 it was selected as the closing film of The Archaeology Channel’s International Film and Video Festival in Eugene, Oregon. The film won two awards at the festival: Honorable mention for Special Effects by jury; Honorable mention in Audience Favorite competition. In September 2010 Death or Canada was nominated for a 2010  Heritage Toronto Award in the Media category.

Director Ruan Magan says:

There is an inherent danger in making a project about the Irish Famine. That the fact that a million people died in such tragic circumstances forces the storyteller into being po-faced, delicately tip toeing around the issues or into being too historical creating something that is dry and lacking humanity. In Death or Canada my hope is that I have done neither and that instead, together with a team of over 200 people, cast, technicians and production staff, we have achieved drama documentary films that grab the audience’s attention from the start and sustain them for two hours after which they will have stepped closer to the reality of this incredible story. Ireland has changed. The Irish have moved on. Maybe now we can remember that the famine was about real people who died and many others who survived going on to create new and better worlds both at home and across the Atlantic in Canada and the United States of America. That was my hope. My greatest hope now is that we have achieved it.

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