What Lies Beneath an Irish Reel?
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What Lies Beneath an Irish Reel?

Still from Death or Canada courtesy of Ballinran Productions.

The recently aired docu-drama Death or Canada tells the tragic story of one family fleeing the Great Famine in Ireland by immigrating to Canada in the summer of 1847. En route, John and Mary Willis lost four of their five children to typhus before arriving in Toronto in mid-June. Shortly afterward, as the family moved inland, John and the last son died of the disease, and Mary Willis disappeared from the historical record. They were but one family in a flood of thirty-eight thousand Irish refugees who overwhelmed Toronto, at the time a town of only twenty thousand. But their story puts a human face on a period that, despite having become a common point of identity for Irish-Canadians, is rarely discussed in any detail in Canada or Ireland. And the film, which aired last month to critical acclaim and strong viewership, marks an effective convergence between the thorough research of academic history and the personal narrative details that help make history appealing to a broad public audience.
The people behind this collaborative effort—U of T historian Mark McGowan, Ron Williamson of Archaeological Services Inc., and Craig Thompson of Ballinran Productions—gathered at the City of Toronto Archives for a panel discussion. The first event in a series on An Infectious Idea: 125 Years of Public Health in Toronto, the discussion was ostensibly about the typhus epidemic of 1847. But it was equally insightful as a look into the historical process and how it can be translated into the popular imagination. The efforts of the two research specialists—with McGowan mining the archives and Williamson excavating the site of the 1847 hospital—were woven into Thompson’s dramatization to create a larger social history with more impact than what any of the three likely would’ve achieved on their own.

The discussion was moderated by Robert Kearns, Chairman of the Ireland Park Foundation, who played a largely unseen role in the confluence of events that originally brought the three panellists together. Upon a chance meeting with Thompson, Kearns suggested that the documentary filmmaker—who already held a personal passion for his own family’s Irish history—explore the Great Famine and Irish immigration to Canada, and hooked him up with McGowan, who’d already been researching the topic.
Last night, McGowan described his team’s tireless digging through the same archival sources genealogists use, including hospital ledgers, city directories, cemetery records, and even the diary of a Loreto Sister who witnessed the 1847 epidemic, to reclaim the experiences of the common, faceless Irish immigrants who arrived in Toronto. It was his serendipitous discovery of one small paragraph in The Globe describing the Willis family’s experience that provided Thompson the protagonists around which to build the narrative of his film. Thompson was so inspired by the research stage of the project that he incorporated footage of McGowan in the archives and Williamson on an archaeological dig as touching off points for the Willis family’s story.
McGowan, who authored a companion book, Death or Canada: The Irish Famine Migration to Toronto, 1847 (Novalis, 2009), also outlined a brief history of the typhus epidemic. The daily arrival of waves of Irish immigrants, who’d crossed the Atlantic to Quebec and travelled down the St. Lawrence, must have terrified the residents of Toronto. Many of the desperate refugees were stricken with typhus. Even those who seemed healthy might have already been infected and were encouraged to move inland from Toronto as soon as possible. In response, the city’s hospital, located at King and John, was converted to house the ailing refugees and sixteen “fever sheds” were constructed to house the overflow.

Image of Lady Harp Badge courtesy of Archaeological Services Inc.

With TIFF planning to build their new headquarters at King and John, as Williamson recounted, Kearns pressured for the hospital site to be excavated, and Williamson was enlisted for the task. In his comments last night, Williamson provided remarkable insight into the archaeological process from the initial research through archival maps to pinpoint within metres where to dig, to the actual excavation of trenches.
With Thompson’s crew filming, the Archaeological Services team uncovered thousands of artifacts, including a Lady Harp Badge that became an evocative symbol in the film’s narrative. Some of these artifacts, which represent a tangible, material connection to nineteenth century Irish immigrants, will be returned to the site and put on display in the new TIFF building.
While Death or Canada, which will be released on DVD this fall, represents an important collaboration crossing the boundaries between the academic and popular history, both McGowan and Williamson admitted that they’d been questioned by colleagues over their participation in a popular history or “myth-making,” as one of McGowan’s colleagues described it. Williamson provided the best rationale, arguing that if he produces a scholarly paper, he’ll likely reach hundreds of readers. For a book aimed at a popular audience, that number will jump into the thousands. But Death or Canada has already been seen by over a million people worldwide. With producers like Thompson, who thoughtfully integrate academic history into their projects without diluting it, there’s no reason why academics shouldn’t seek to stretch beyond strict disciplinary limits to find a broader audience for their work. And if the film’s viewership last month and the capacity crowd at last night’s lecture are any indication, Canadians care deeply about hearing our own historical stories.
Information on the remaining two instalments of the An Infectious Idea speaking series can be found on the City of Toronto Archives website.