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Now you don't see it, now you do: situating the Irish in the material culture of Grosse Ile.

Material culture is culture made material; it is the inner wit at work in the world. Beginning necessarily with things, but not ending with them, the study of material culture uses objects to approach human thought and action.

(Glassie, Material Culture 41)

THE following exploration of a historic landscape began with a souvenir greeting card in a gift shop (see cover)) The site of the landscape, the subject of the card, and the location of the gift shop is Grosse Ile, Quebec, an island in the St. Lawrence River, situated east of Quebec City. Grosse Ile served as a quarantine station for ships crossing the Atlantic between 1832 and 1937, a period that includes the mass emigration of Irish men and women seeking refuge from the Great Famine.

In recent years, cultural critics have been exploring Irish ephemera, such as postcards and souvenirs, as vehicles created and used by manufacturers of these products, by tourism promoters, and by tourists themselves in the construction, mediation, and appropriation of sites of Irish identity. (2) Designed to provide information about or to serve as mementos of a destination, such artifacts are being analyzed as cultural markers that frame and fix the visitor's perception of a landscape. The Grosse Ile greeting card articulates a distinct reading of a site profoundly overwritten with Irish cultural affiliation and significance. But Grosse Ile itself--its material culture, which includes elements of its physical landscape as well as its text-based resources--challenges visitors seeking an environment that foregrounds a uniquely Irish context. As a tourist destination or as a site of commemoration, Grosse Ile offers no simple reading of its central and tragic role in the mass emigration of Irish Famine victims. Instead, presenting itself for interpretation, the site exists as an amalgam of simultaneous historic and cultural identities, not all of them immediately relevant to an Irish narrative. Thus a careful study of the material culture of Grosse Ile as market-repositories of history and memory is crucial as a means of interpreting how existing readings of Irish identity have been formulated by its visitors, and how additional readings might arise through a process of accessing, evaluating, and interpreting the island's landscape and artifacts.

Material culture studies offer a critical means of apprehending cultural traits, aspirations and ideologies. Jules Prown defines the field's jurisdiction as embracing "objects made or modified by humans" that "consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, reflect the belief patterns of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them, and, by extension, the belief patterns of the larger society to which they belonged" (1-2). Researchers in this growing area turn to such artifacts because they have been generated not only by and for elite groups with a level of education and affluence presumably sufficient to appreciate them--as in the case of objects associated with the fine arts--but also by and for members of a wider social constituency. Objects scrutinized by material culture theorists include not only landscapes and buildings, but also clothing and household goods, tools, leisure products, and promotional materials. Focusing on such seemingly mundane articles provides access into the lives of those who did not achieve individual prominence--those who did not write diaries, appear in news media, or have their personal effects deposited in museums or archives.

The multidisciplinary strategies for analyzing material culture borrow from fields such as folklore studies, anthropology, architecture, literary criticism, archaeology, and cultural geography. As Henry Glassie, one of the foremost practitioners in the field, insists, the interpretation of artifacts should be complemented by other materials, including text-based sources: "after all, documents are artifacts, and any serious historian will use all sources--oral testimony as well as artifacts with and without words--to get the tale told" ("Studying Material Culture Today" 254).

Material culture related to tourism has an added dimension, namely to communicate knowledge about a travel destination that both prefigures and molds the visitor's actual experience of a site. Termed "markers" by travel theorists who examine them, these artifacts include guidebooks, signs and plaques, maps, posters, photographs, kitsch souvenirs, postcards, and other objects that convey information about what previously occurred at the site--and hence communicate particular ways of interpreting it. A range of individuals or institutions claiming knowledge about the site--for example, scholars conducting analyses and laypersons with hearsay knowledge or memories of visits--create or designate such markers.

Markers function by privileging certain components of the site over others and thus shape the traveler's response (MacCannell 110-158). (3) (For example, a plaque identifying one unit in a row of houses might single it out as the home of a famous individual.) Indeed, theorist Dean MacCannell reduces the experience of travel to a relationship between "a tourist, a sight, and a marker," and argues that "it would be impossible for a layman to recognize, on the basis of appearance alone" some attractions that might otherwise be indistinguishable within the overall context (41). Although the visitor may choose to accept such proffered interpretative directives without question or to accept them only partially or not at all, even a rejection implies some acknowledgment of the marker's inherent messages. (4)

Markers also retain residual importance after the visit, since those taken from the site serve as a reminder of the visitor's experience. The tangible physicality of photographs, sketches, journal entries, souvenirs, and pamphlets can anchor a particular reading of a place, even as the actual experience dissolves into memory. In the case of Grosse Ile, markers currently exist both on the island itself and as transportable mementos. A detailed analysis of these objects reveals how powerfully they convey the Irish associations of the island.

The first of the following sections of this essay focuses on and contextualizes the Grosse Ile souvenir card as one articulated reading of the site. The second explores how the island's landscape itself offers visitors multiple narratives of Grosse Ile, many, but not all of them, engaged with Irish Famine emigration. The third seeks to offer means of understanding the wider significance of the site--including its referencing markers--as a travel destination, as well as a site of commemoration and validation of the tragic mid-nineteenth-century Irish-Canadian diaspora. My claim is that the multiplicity of historic and cultural resonances encountered at Grosse Ile enhances the experience of Irishness in two ways: first by encouraging an interactive approach to exploring its artifacts, and second by discouraging an artificial narrowing of the visitor's field of perception so that the tourist's gaze on the island can readily accommodate and activate more than one single sanctioned view. This multifaceted engagement with the artifacts of Grosse Ile rests on the visitor's ability to arrive at a personal assemblage of cultural markers: physical, symbolic, even virtual. Through such markers, the island reveals itself as a famine-related landscape of commemoration, as a sacred burial place for thousands of mid-nineteenth-century Irish Famine victims, or as physical manifestations of the major role the Irish played in the cultural evolution of Canada. But other narratives about other emigrant groups also play their role in the markers Grosse Ile invites visitors to read and interpret.


In both English and in French, the caption on the back of James Dinan's souvenir card states the image's referent: "Our scene depicts the arrival at Grosse Ile of one of the thousands of ships that transported the victims of the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-47)." The card illustrates this event through the form of a stylized ship, docked by the shore. Passengers descend a gangplank to access two rowboats, and many more appear already to have disembarked. The word "London" on the stern of the ship suggests that it was registered in Britain, hence identifying the vessel as one of many conveying the Irish to Canada. As a consequence of artistic license, on the other hand, many characteristics of this card depart from a conventional time-space narrative continuum. For example, a caption identifies a memorial in the center of the scene: "Crowning the island of Grosse Ile, the Celtic cross was erected by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1909. This monument commemorates the sacrifice of all those who helped to care for the sick and dying in 1847 when thousands of Irish immigrants perished and were buried on the island." What we see, then, is a collapse in time between the moment of physical contact of the famine survivors and the chronological present-tense of the tribute that honors those that aided them.

Three aspects of the architecture that appears on the card further complicate the visual representation of Grosse Ile. The first is a church, whose name--St. Patrick's--supports the hypothesis that the card is designed to draw attention to the Irish characteristics of the site. But those familiar with the island know that neither of the two chapels situated on it is so named. The text on the back of the card explains the anomaly: "St Patrick's Church, on McMahon Street in Old Quebec [City], still stands proudly as testimony to a period in time when the Irish community was an important segment of Quebec City's population." St. Patrick's, then, has only symbolic ties to Grosse Ile. The church and the Quebec City-style houses alongside--the second architectural anomaly--amplify the Irish-Catholic immigrant experience beyond this quarantine island. Thus the tourist card deploys a sort of virtual reality with synthetic connections to the roots laid down by the Irish emigrant community, one that contributed substantially to the cultural, political, and social environment of the Province of Quebec and of Canada as a whole. As presented by this card, Grosse Ile is identified with Irish reference points, with Irish iconography, with Irish heritage.

Given the card's operative theme of Irish heritage, the two buildings on the left side, although actually existing on the island, are also incongruous. In the background stands the First-Class Hotel, built in 1912 to accommodate wealthier travelers forced to disembark from their ships and undergo medical observation when communicable disease was suspected onboard. Between 1916 and 1917, a dance pavilion was located adjacent to the hotel, an addition that surely further distanced the building's occupants from the tragedies associated with the famine ships (Grosse Ile at a Glance, "The First-Class Hotel"). In the foreground of the image stands another post-1847 building, a washhouse dating from 1855-56. Research has yet to determine what, if any, Irish associations these edifices--both unconnected to the Great Famine--might embody.

A second card from Grosse Ile's gift store similarly encodes the site by blending directly relevant artifacts with ones whose links are more tenuous. The cover of this anonymously designed marker consists of an aerial photograph of the Western Sector of the island. The caption--"Les irlandais a Grosse Ile" ("The Irish at Grosse Ile")--wraps around the First-Class Hotel as if determined to incorporate the building into its agenda of commemorating Irishness. The washhouse again appears in the foreground, and other buildings, including the Third-Class Hotel (1914), the Upper Block or sailors' quarters (1905), and the Assistant Physician's House (1892-93), are visible. The back of the card reproduces a photo of the island's Anglican and Catholic chapels--both built after the famine and hence outside its direct frame of reference--as well as a group of visitors to Grosse Ile, seemingly on a pilgrimage, walking toward the Cekic cross. (5) Only one undifferentiated building in the photograph on the cover, now called the Electrician's House, but built for the quarantine station's medical assistant perhaps as early as 1847, might possibly date from the famine period (Parks Canada, Management Plan 49).

On the cover of this second card, the void between the architecture--the landscape around it (to some extent hidden under the caption)--asserts the strongest immediate link with Irish emigration. Behind the First-Class Hotel lies Cholera Bay, named to commemorate an 1832 epidemic when Irish victims were reportedly buried "in the sands on the shoreline at low tide" (O Laighin 76). (6) Inside the card, in both English and French, Edouard Kelly's poem "Grosse Ile" imagines the emotions of Irish passengers approaching their destination. Hence, in this second card as well, markers directly associated with Ireland and the famine (Cholera Bay, the Celtic cross) are linked with ones whose Irish connections are more ambiguous (the hotels, the chapels) as a means of encompassing the latter group within the cumulative Irish narrative. The effect is as asserted in Kelly's poem: the wider environment of Grosse Ile "and Ireland, / Like mother and daughter, / Are forever reconciled."

Are such juxtapositions coincidental? Why did both card designers tag the architecture in this landscape with encryptions of Irishness that are not, strictly speaking, accurate? Arguments that the designers of the card may have been ignorant of or simply uninterested in the chronology of these buildings--that they may have failed to understand that their inclusion of the hotels, for example, skewed the reading of the site--can be refuted in at least one of these cases. James Dinah, who created the first souvenir card, has a clear understanding of the provenance of these structures (Dinan, interview). I suggest instead that both cards exist as personal activations of an Irish identity upon Crosse Ile, achieved through a mediated emphasis of selected features in that landscape, as well as other components of the island's material culture. Attempting to establish a particular narrative, Dinah foregrounds some information and suppresses other data. In excluding the graveyards on the island in his composite image and choosing instead to project forward to the achievements of the Irish community of Quebec City, he intentionally avoids what he terms the "gory" or "maudlin" representations of human suffering that he believes the Irish Cemetery would evoke (Dinan, interview). The anonymous souvenir card, with its touched-up green tones, accentuates "Emeraid Isle" colors for their Irish associations. These cards, then, demonstrate how the visitor is empowered to compose a personalized reading of Grosse Ile's signs and artifacts.


Grosse Ile, the largest single famine burial site outside Ireland, undoubtedly warrants attention as a major Irish heritage site. Because historians estimate that anywhere from 5,500 to 30,000 Irish men and women are buried on the island (Charbonneau and Drolet-Dub6 3-10; Quigley 39; O Laighin 89), former Irish President Mary Robinson, visiting in 1994, referred to it as a "a hallowed place" (qtd. in Quigley 40). But visitors to Grosse Ile encounter an experience akin to watching several films concurrently: no sooner do they enter into one narrative, than another vies for attention. Because the island's rich material culture can be organized through several overarching themes, viewing Grosse Ile as a predominantly Hiberno-centric environment represents only one among various possibilities.

The island's landscape and material culture have undergone controversial renovation since it was declared a National Historic Site in 1974 by Parks Canada, a subset of Heritage Ireland, in whose jurisdiction Grosse Ile resides. In key ways, the operative strategies of Parks Canada conflicted with the opinion of certain Irish groups about the nature of the site and its presentation. Originally, the federal government agency considered suppressing more disturbing characteristics of the island, including its identity as a Famine site: "there should not be too much emphasis on the tragic aspects of the history of Grosse Ile" (Environment Canada 62). Lobby groups such as Action Grosse Ile strove, on the other hand, to claim the dominant identity for the island as a landscape of commemoration both to the dead and to survivors--as striking evidence of Irish suffering and deprivation. Moreover, implicit to the strategy of some lobbyists was a perspective that implicated British colonial policy in the Great Famine. (7)

Eventually, however, Grosse Ile was developed as a site seeking to attract as diverse an audience as other national parks. Visitors could combine a day's excursion to a predominantly pastoral setting in the middle of the St. Lawrence River with a pilgrimage cure history lesson on emigration to Canada--including Irish emigration under deplorable famine conditions. Contrasting visions for the island surfaced in the differences about the renaming of the site when it was being developed: Irish lobbyists opted for "Grosse Ile, the Irish Island," whereas Parks Canada preferred, and finally decided upon, "Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site." The government's choice reflects its decision to emphasize the multifaceted aspects of the landscape and represents a deliberate gesture toward Canadian multiculturalism.

Both through the Parks Canada's published documents and website, and the presentations of tour guides, today's visitors discover monumental as well as subtle representations of an Irish presence on the island. The most direct evidence, the Old or Irish Cemetery, was first laid out in 1832, and still reveals contours of mass trench graves of 1847 typhus victims. Planted in a grid, white wooden crosses comprise the current reconfiguration of the site. Recently one family erected a small but distinctive cross in honor of James Lee, born in 1829 in County Monaghan and buried on the island (figure 1). (8) Such gestures illustrate how physical markers of Grosse Ile serve as connections between the landscape of this place and the personal histories of descendants of those buried there.


Three principal monuments on the site pay homage to those who suffered and died at Grosse Ile. In 1852 or 1853, Doctor George M. Douglas, witness to the 1832 cholera epidemic and medical superintendent during the later famine tragedy, unveiled the Monument to Physicians (O'Gallagher 41, 50, 81). That tribute commemorates the medical staff on the island and "mortal remains of 5424 persons who fleeing from pestilence and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 found in America but a grave" (qtd. in O'Brien 277).

The Parks Canada tour and literature also highlight the Celtic cross erected by members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1909 (figure 2). Visitors to this monument, however, must themselves distinguish between the messages appearing in English, French, and Irish on its plaques: only the Irish-language text blames the British for famine atrocities. As a marker, this cross and the messages inscribed on it incorporate a specifically Catholic framing of the history of Irish emigration--one that marginalizes the Protestant and the non-Christian experience, as well as the history of those other national groups who passed through the quarantine facilities (O'Brien, 280-83). (9)


The new Irish Memorial, dating from 1998 and unveiled by Irish President Mary McAleese, approaches an overlapping theme, but eschews religious references. Its emotional power arises, rather, from the names of men, women, and children who died and were buried on the island, names that are engraved into a long, curved transparent wall (figure 3). This monument, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D C, encourages personal responses by visitors, who search for familiar names, sometimes identical to their own. Images of personal effects such as a lit candle and items of clothing in the sculptures, embedded into small alcoves that the visitor must crouch to see, also elicit an intimate engagement. The memorial juxtaposes Irish names--the predictable Murphys and Kellys--with a smaller number of surnames not typically associated with Ireland. 10 Thus, despite its own name, the "Irish Memorial" is not exclusively Irish; for viewers, this broadening of ethnic references appears little to affect its sanctity as an Irish commemorative site.


Engagement with the new Irish Memorial also functions at the larger scale of the landscape: its large built-up earthwork components are encased by stone walls, one portion covered with crushed rock and another, facing the first, with its upper surface planted with moss. Does the crushed rock symbolize the unproductive soil that drove Irish citizens to a newer and greener world? Or does the moss allude to the homeland, and the rock surface to that bare land in Canada that the toil of newly arrived settlers was to transform into a cultivated landscape? Monumental shards of metal (a ship's sails?) divide the two regions (figure 4). Narrow passages on each side of these shards shear into the land, evoking the oppressive conditions of the coffin ships, in which passengers were more densely packed even than those in slave ships from Africa.


Constructed in 1847, the Lazaretto stands as Grosse Ile's oldest extant building and its most direct physical link to the Great Famine, other than the still visible trenches in the Irish Cemetery. According to tourism information generated by Parks Canada, this "last witness" to famine-related events on the island originally housed those immigrants from the quarantined ships who presented themselves without visible symptoms of disease (A Short History 7; Visitor's Guide 13; Grosse Ile at a Glance, "The Lazaretto'). (11) Altered into a hospital a year later, the Lazaretto was architecturally transformed over the years. The building was recently restored to reflect its final iteration, namely its 1921 conversion into an accommodation for smallpox victims (Parks Canada, Management Plan 54). This restoration placed the Lazaretto at a far remove from its origins, a disappointing decision in view of the small number of famine artifacts on the island. Yet restoring the building to its 1847 condition would have involved demolishing years of authentic transformations, a problematic architectural decision according to current heritage design methodology; Today, therefore, the Lazaretto contributes to the paradoxes of Grosse Ile's Irish identity: both physically anchored and tangibly perceptible-but ambiguous, in need of explanation, and requiring significant historical imagination on the part of the visitor.

In addition to these large-scale physical presences, other prescriptive markers suggest the Irish perspective of Grosse Ile. Signage deploying images as well as text refers directly to the Irish catastrophe. Operating at a more subliminal level, directional signs to different buildings and monuments are colored green, white, and orange--the traditional colors of the Irish Republic. Pamphlets and tour guide scripts alert visitors to famine-related evidence on the site, and headings such as "1847, Year of Tragedy," "The Great Famine," and "A Terrible Toll" transmit unmistakably sympathetic interpretations of that history (Parks Canada, A Short History 6-9). Thus, despite the decision not to restore the Lazaretto to its 1847 configuration, the presentation of Grosse Ile's material culture offers multiple points of access--small and large scale, document- and image-based, literal and symbolic--to the narrative of Irish Famine emigration.

In addition to promoting a specifically Irish-based heritage tour of the site, Parks Canada has made conscious efforts to broaden the visitor's experience of Grosse Ile's material culture through alternative, non-Irish documentation, signage, and tour scripts. For example, all tours pass a panel containing text and image that calls attention to over two thousand Doukhobors--emigrants from Russia forced to land at Grosse Ile in 1899, when smallpox broke out on their ship. By 1912 over 7,500 arrived in Canada to escape persecution. Like descendants of Irish emigrants, Doukhobor families make pilgrimages to the island, which they, too, celebrate as part of their heritage.

Parks Canada deploys other areas of Grosse Ile, particularly those buildings concentrated in the southeastern end of the Western Sector of the island and distant from the Irish Cemetery and New Memorial, for more varied purposes. This part of the island acknowledges the diversity of those who arrived--Irish and non-Irish, destitute and more prosperous, short-time visitors and permanent emigrants. (12) The First- Second- and Third-Class Hotels in this area, erected between 1892 and 1914, lie outside the period of intense Irish emigration (Parks Canada, Visitor's Guide 6). Because the Third-Class Hotel has been converted to a modest cafeteria with public washrooms, most visitors to the island, not just those interested in its Irish associations, make direct contact with this structure.

The Disinfection Building near the hotels, now used as an exhibition and orientation space introducing visitors to the island (and also the location of the gift shop), presents a narrative of emigration that is not specifically Irish. Erected in 1892 and restored to its 1927 appearance, it housed and now displays a once innovative technology used to decontaminate baggage and humans to prevent the spread of communicable disease (Parks Canada, Visitor's Guide 5). Emigrants were led to individual cubicles, made to undress, and given a shower spray (figure 5). Leaving the building after they view these facilities and perhaps enter some of the cubicles, visitors receive a postcard-sized souvenir printed to look as if the word "Disinfected" had been rubber-stamped on one side--a confirmation of the pseudo-purification process. Thus Parks Canada presents the Disinfection Building as a tribute not only to immigration, but also to the emergence of medical technology on the island designed to protect Canadians from imported disease. (13)


This building also includes a display of ethnically diverse posters in various languages, artifacts that were used to attract prospective settlers and travelers to Canada (figure 6). Those aimed at potential immigrants encouraged able-bodied boys, men, and women to dream of a new life on a farm their own. A poster created in 1905 for a Glasgow audience, for example, promised a healthy climate and free schools in western Canada. Interested parties were encouraged to attend a lecture at City Hall arranged by Thomas Cook and Son, the firm associated, since the mid-nineteenth century, with organized vacation travel. Other more tourism-oriented posters advertise Canadian Pacific Ocean Services luxury liners that plied the Atlantic. These travel artifacts avoid any allusion to hardship or coffin ships; in fact, for today's visitor to Grosse Ile, they are more likely to invoke James Cameron's romanticized, fictionalized account of the Titanic.


Grosse Ile's material culture encourages a range of readings of the island specific to the visitor's particular knowledge and experience. For example, Parks Canada and Canadian Heritage also promote the island as an ecological sanctuary; the booklet Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site: Particular Habitats informs visitors that some twenty-one rare plants grow on the island and argues that Grosse Ile has more than one "story to tell." Such information directs the visitor's attention toward the island's natural environment and away from its quarantine history, demonstrating how the site "can play an important role in the protection of habitats of the St. Lawrence Estuary, which constitutes an internationally unique ecosystem" (11). (14)

Additionally, the professional or amateur historian of Canadian architecture, familiar with the colonial influence of both France and England, can focus on the island's religious buildings. These, especially the 1848 Catholic presbytery, represent extant symbolic tributes to the clergy who ministered to the dying and to the priests who found homes for Irish orphans among Quebec's Catholic families, many of them French-speaking. From another perspective, however, this architecture demonstrates how a European-derived aesthetic came to be superimposed on functional local design. The 1874 Catholic Chapel, for example, reflects French Baroque design typified by the Palace of Versailles, whereas the Catholic presbytery displays modest neoclassical elements (figure 7). The Anglican Chapel (1877-88), on the other hand, reflects the Gothic Revival in Victorian Britain, whereby medieval English architectural traditions were deployed as an expression of cultural nationalism. (15) Thus, the religious architecture of Grosse Ile illustrates the transmission of dominant colonial ideology through design.



The material culture of Grosse Ile, then, does not favor one straightforward narration of its centrality in Ireland's mid-nineteenth-century catastrophe. Whereas the artifacts and the landscape that situates them do serve as the physical grounding, on the actual site, of a key Canadian dimension of the Irish diaspora, as the previous sections of this essay demonstrate, visitors to Grosse Ile particularly interested in the island's Irish associations must navigate between and through multiple narratives. In so doing, the tourist becomes an active interpreter of a range of messages transmitted by the artifact-markers on the island. The monuments, the cemeteries, much of the signage, the script of the tour guides, even the new name of the island--"Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial"--appropriately (given the scale of suffering) devote substantial attention to Irish Famine victims and survivors. But other cultures, equally appropriately, assert their affiliations with the island's landscape and history.

In examining the artifacts of Grosse Ile, we note how readily an informed visitor can incorporate those not exclusively related to Ireland (as Dinan's two cards already reveal) into an Irish narrative. For example, the experience of entering the disinfection cubicles--which were, in actuality, developed fully a half-century after the Great Famine--powerfully invokes the ordeal of those Nazi victims forced to strip and supposedly enter a disinfecting shower as they were sent to their death in the gas chambers of concentration camps. Indeed, the association was made by Dr. Edward J. Brennan, the Irish ambassador to Canada, when he called the famine "The Irish Holocaust" at a commemorative ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the unveiling of the island's Celtic cross (qtd. in Gauthier 297). The glamorous posters of luxury liners plying the Atlantic in the same building provide an ironic foil to our knowledge of the coffin ships. Even a nature-based ecology tour that draws the tourist gaze away from the existing built environment returns the visitor to a landscape observed by shiploads of Irish emigrants arriving at Grosse Ile.

Parks Canada's presentation of the Irish experience at Grosse Ile supports scholarship that undermines any single-minded focus on the hardships of famine emigration. Historians such as Cecil Houston and William Smyth demonstrate that most of Canada's Irish citizens did not arrive as famine exiles, but in safe, voluntary mass emigrations beginning in the mid-eighteenth century (4). (16) By offering visitors opportunities for engagement beyond a single historical moment, Grosse Ile encourages an extended exploration of Irish emigration during the second half of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth. Conceivably, middle-class, wealthy, Protestant, Catholic, or non-Christian Irish men and women might have stayed at the First-Class Hotel; descendants of eighteenth-century Irish immigrants may have worked as caregivers, carpenters, or cooks on the island. (17) Future research exploiting untapped textual and material resources relating to Grosse Ile and Ireland during the whole period of its quarantine role, not just during the famine, might offer new sources to chart Irish-Canadian history.

Grosse Ile's presentation of multiple narratives avoids the historical dangers inherent in promoting a single reading of a commemorative site. Recent cultural theorists, investigating the relationship between heritage, museology, and tourism, emphasize the key role of complex multivalenced rather than monolithic paths to any engagement with historical landscapes (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Hetherington). Studies of sites such as Ellis Island or Stonehenge suggest that when visitors are guided rather than overwhelmed by curatorial intentionality, they seek resolution as process, rather than in the form of an inert synthesis simplistically offered for consumption. In light of such theoretical work, Grosse Ile is all the more promising as a historic landscape for tourism. Its messages are not entirely pre-digested, and whereas its wealth of historical value has, as yet, been only partially revealed, its potential richness invites further investigation. (18)

As this essay demonstrates, the artifacts associated with Ireland at Grosse Ile present a diverse and inclusive cultural identity, incorporating not just famine victimhood, but freely chosen emigration, and contributions to Canada since the mid-eighteenth century--as well as juxtapositions with other national histories. Significantly, this more expansive view of the historical record beyond that of an exclusive famine narrative coincides with another recent example of commemoration, the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York City. There, characteristics of Ireland's geology and iconography--large rock samples from each county, a stone cottage imported from Mayo--referencing the Irish Famine are accompanied by textual allusions to other international episodes of hunger, homelessness and poverty inserted into the walls of the structure. (19) Like Grosse Ile, New York's Irish Hunger Memorial communicates hardships shared across communities, experiences that may previously have appeared disconnected and unrelated to the Great Famine.

Encouraging visitors to consider the multifaceted qualities of artifacts associated with Irish history and culture, to move beyond a narrowly inward-looking national agenda reflects a growing acknowledgment of the diversity of Ireland's own cultural identity. As Marjorie Howes and Kevin O'Neill assert in their introduction to a recent art exhibition addressing the Irish landscape, "new forces" have displaced the centrality of an older nationalist paradigm. Contemporary changes--such as membership in the European Union since 1973 and Mary Robinson's strengthening of the Republic's bonds with the Irish diaspora in the mid 1990S--are being projected on the nation's geography, "marked by Ireland's integration into international circuits of travel, trade, and cultural exchange" (22-22). As Irish markers, the artifacts viewed at Grosse Ile, pointing as they do both to themselves and to more abstract associations, palpable and yet elusive, disclosing yet implying fractal complexity, reflect both the microcosm of the local and the immediate and the macrocosm of wider Diaspora Studies.

(1) Souvenir card by James Dinah reproduced by permission of the artist.

(2) See, for example, Gibbons; Lloyd; Graham 166-75; Negra; and Lyndenberg.

(3) See also Culler 155, and Rojek and Urry 4.

(4) Prescriptive information about Grosse Ile is arguably all the more relevant because of the unlikely situation of stumbling into this environment as a travel destination without prior knowledge of what it has to offer. This is a remote island that can only be reached by boat, the arrival to which must be prearranged.

(5) The Catholic chapel would have catered to a French-Canadian as well as an Irish congregation and thus has an inherent multicultural--that is, not exclusively Irish--identity.

(6) See also Quigley 22-23.

(7) For published articles that explore this theme, see O Laighin and Quigley.

(8) Photographed by and used with the permission of Rhona Richman-Kenneally.

(9) The names of victims who died in 1847 in the Register of Deceased Persons include several that may not be Catholic. Certainly, more research is required on the subject.

(10) The names inscribed on the wall panels apparently come from Charbonneau and Drolet-Dube. Anonymous dead are also represented on the monument by rows of little ship icons.

(11) Those who were ill were restricted to the Western Sector.

(12) Parks Canada's Grosse Ile website explains that "The [first, second and third-class] hotels were built to respond to the pressure placed by shipping companies on the government to set up detention rooms for immigrants at the quarantine station that were in keeping with the immigrants' travel classes" (Grosse Ile at a Glance, "The Second-Class Hotel").

(13) Lorrie Blair notes how such a presentation tacitly equates newcomers with disease and contamination. She observes that in the context of prejudices against the Irish in nineteenth-century North America and the highlighting of Grosse Ile's Irishness, this presentation is all the more disturbing (321).

(14) Visitors also learn that certain contemporary practices including "recreational activities" are destructive in such habitats, a position that might encourage biologists to oppose a large-scale promotion of the island as a tourist destination (10). Such information perhaps also explains why visitors, rather than being encouraged to roam freely, are siphoned into formal tours and conveyed from the Western to the Central and Eastern Sectors of Grosse Ile in an open tourbus.

(15) The Catholic presbytery invokes contemporary exploration of that style stimulated by such French architectural theorists as Abbe Laugier, whose 1753 work, Essay on Architecture, was still influential a century afterward. An example of the nationalist agenda associated with the British Gothic Revival was the rebuilding of the parliament buildings, the New Palace of Westminster, between 1835 and 1868.

(16) Studies of Irish non-famine related emigrants to Canada include those by Mannion, Akenson, Elliott, and Wilson.

(17) See footnote 6.

(18) In the fields of curatorship and museology, some would see the viewers of heritage-related materials, who respond through their own cultural values and expectations, as the primary agents in the process of interpreting artifacts. Kevin Walsh, for example, argues that museums must undertake to develop visitors' abilities to read "place," in order that "[p]eople ... be encouraged to take 'positions' vis-a-vis the past. This engagement with the construction of places demands that people be allowed to assess what they consider to be 'right' or 'wrong' about the processes which have affected their place" (153, 157-58). See also Nuryanti 253.

(19) See Lydenberg (131), where she, too, makes reference to this "discontinuous narrative" of text.


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RHONA RICHMAN-KENNEALLY is Professor of History and Theory of Design and Architecture in the Department of Design Art at Concordia University, Montreal. She has published in The Material History Review and the Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada. Her essay, "Landscape to Inscape: Topography as Ecclesiological Vision," appeared in Landscape/Architecture: Between Vision and Memory, edited by Jan Birkstead (2000). She has received grants from the McConnell Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and is presently completing a book on the relationship between popular culture and the British Gothic Revival.
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Author:Richman-Kenneally, Rhona
Publication:Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies
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Date:Sep 22, 2003
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