Ireland-Canada: Famine, Fenians, Friends!

I’m Irish but spent forty years in Canada and I am still learning about the many deep, and too often tragic, links between my two countries. Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers, (above) is coming to the West Cork History Festival in Skibbereen this week to talk about Irish-born Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. So in honour of that occasion I’ve been reviewing some of the connections between our nations.

‘Departure’ – the harrowing sculpture by Rowan Gillespie on the Dublin quays

Although my own experience as a Canadian immigrant was a happy one, not all emigration stories are founded in choice and success. There’s a park in Toronto called Ireland Park. Lovely, you say – how nice that we have a memorial in this wonderful city. But Ireland Park commemorates a dark past – the year of 1847 when almost 40,000 immigrants fleeing the Irish Famine arrived in the coffin ships, overwhelming the city.

John Behan’s Coffin Ship Famine memorial in Murrisk, Co Mayo

They brought typhus, chaos, starvation and death and were soon filling the fever sheds built by the heroic citizens of the fledgling city. Catholic and Protestant arrived, and Catholic and Protestant co-operated to help them survive. It’s a tale of heroism and suffering and it echoes strongly  to this day, when we think about the refugees pouring into Greece and Calais – those people were once us.

Take a look at snippets from the haunting documentary film ‘Death or Canada’ (one here and another here) – it will give you a sense of what was involved for the incoming famine victims and for those on the ground.

Rowan Gillespie’s ‘Arrival’ in Ireland Park, Toronto

On a more muscular note, I have written elsewhere about the Fenians in Canada. Taking the fight for Irish freedom to ‘British soil’ in North America, there were many raids and one pitched battle organised by the Fenians in Canada. Ironically, the Battle of Ridgeway helped pave the way for Canadian Confederation.

One of the Fathers of that Confederation was Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a complex character who started off in the Young Ireland Movement. In his early days he was a firebrand revolutionary and that’s how he is chiefly remembered here – as one of a group of poets and writers committed to the liberation of Ireland from British rule. In this he would have seen common cause with that old Unrepentant Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee: the young revolutionary and the elder statesman

However, life in the United States, to which he was eventually forced to flee, while it radicalised Rossa even further, made a conservative out of McGee. He settled in Canada and became an ardent advocate for Canadian nationhood; however, he turned against violent rebellion and espoused a form of Home Rule, thereby earning the enmity of the Fenians who eventually ordered him assassinated. His funeral, held on what would have been his 43rd birthday, saw 80,000 people line the streets of Montreal to mourn a man that had given so much to his adopted country.

Image © Library and Archives Canada

I have written extensively about the Air India Disaster of June 1985. The beautiful memorial in Ahakista has become a place of focus for the families of the victims, who still come every year to remember those who died so tragically on that day. As a Canadian and an Irish person it has become a special place for me – at once a reminder of the terrorist threats that touch on all our lives and the warm and human response that we in West Cork delivered when it all came close to home.

And now we discover that Justin Trudeau, through his mother, is descended from the Bernards of Bandon. This is quite a pedigree – according to The Irish Times In 1661, Francis Bernard married Mary Freake and had six daughters and two sons, the research shows. Mr Trudeau is descended from their younger son, Arthur Bernard, who was High Sheriff of Cork in 1697 and MP for Bandon from 1713-14. My own wanderings around churches have paid off here – take a look at this memorial in St Peter’s Church of Ireland in Bandon – it’s for Francis Bernard – Arthur’s older brother!

So there you are, Ambassador Vickers – one Canadian-Irish woman’s take on some of what binds us as nations. Oh – and for those of you who don’t know who Kevin Vickers is, this is no regular ambassador, no career diplomat. This is a genuine Canadian hero! We look forward to welcoming him back to West Cork and to hearing him speak on Irish-born Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. I wonder if he’ll arrive on his Harley?A famous Canadian painting depicts the Fathers of confederation – and there’s D’Arcy McGee in the front row, second from the right. Image © Canadian House of Commons.


Wayside Miracles

Ballinspittle Grotto

Ballinspittle, Co Cork: the Marian Grotto became a world news sensation

1954 was a great year for the construction of outdoor shrines and grottoes in Ireland. Pope Pius XII had designated it a special Marian Year to mark the centenary of the ‘dogma of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption’. The Marian Year was an international event, but apparently no other country embraced the idea with greater fervour than Ireland. The notion seemed to capture the imagination of a young republic suffering from serious recession, high unemployment and loss of population through emigration. Hundreds of projects were put in hand and today, on almost every road in the country – and in every community – you will see statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, usually in well tended settings. They add to the colour and character of this green land: like the ancient holy wells, they are venerated and not forgotten.

1954 tablet

Statue maker Maurice O’Donnell recalled that 1954 was a bonanza year for him: “…I was making so many at that time there was no time to dry them out before painting, so lots of statues in the shrines around the country are still unpainted. But that was in the Marian Year. The bottom has dropped out of the statues market since the Vatican Council…” Although many statues of the Virgin were painted later on, you will still see many unpainted (white) examples.

Marian Year shrine added on to the Holy Well at Keallkill, Co Cork

Exactly thirty years ago – on 26 July 1985 – the grotto at Ballinspittle jumped into the news headlines of the world because two local women witnessed the statue there moving while they were praying. The little Cork village suddenly found itself the centre of media attention and – during that summer – thousands of people came in bus loads from all over Ireland, either out of curiosity or anxiety to become part of a phenomenon. Many saw the statue move: a police sergeant (presumably a reliable observer) saw it rise into the air – while cures were claimed by sick people who visited the site.

Ballinspittle 1985

Crowds at Ballinspittle 1985  –

Strange events were not limited to Ballinspittle. Reports had already appeared elsewhere. Kerry got in first: in February of the same year 30 schoolchildren saw two statues moving in the church at Asdee, while in nearby Ballydesmond something similar happened soon after. Here’s a contemporary extract from RTE News – worth watching for the concise view of rural Ireland in the 1980s.

magill asdee

Over 10,000 people visited the Ballinspittle grotto every night throughout the summer. The Irish Times (6 August 1985) reported: ’…Ballinspittle’s claim to a moving statue was matched in no time at all by reports of similar occurrences in Dunmanway and Courtmacsherry. But too many people, including senior gardai, well-tried sceptics and some who registered what appeared to be genuine shock said they saw the statue move, so Ballinspittle has remained the premier place of pilgrimage…’

white marys

The Catholic Church distanced itself from these happenings. Bishop Michael Murphy of Cork warned that “…common sense would demand that we approach the claims made concerning the grotto in Ballinspittle with prudence and caution…” but he also relished the fact that “…crowds are gathering there in a great spirit of prayer…” A difficult stance, perhaps, as similar occurences from Lourdes and Knock in the 19th century led to the creation of huge religious centres and pilgrimage destinations.


The visions at Knock, witnessed in 1879

The moving statues was a story big enough to inspire Peter Mulholland of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, to pen a lengthy monograph in 2009, Moving Statues and Concrete Thinking, available in full on line – and a fascinating read. Mulholland makes the point that from the 1950s to the 1980s the western world, including Ireland, was perceived to be under threat from the Cold War, ‘Nuclear Nightmare’ (from weapons and waste), Communism, the ‘permissive society’ – and, more locally, ‘The Troubles’ and increasing unemployment and emigrations; while in 1970 the Bishop of Galway said he thought ‘organized atheism’ was the source of the ‘most serious injury’ being done to the young people of Ireland. All this, says Mullholland, contributed to an underlying feeling of insecurity which created an atmosphere ripe for ‘cults’ (such as observers of moving statues) because of a high level of anxiety in the community. The monograph goes pretty deeply into the realms of psychology, quoting one researcher who “…argued that a certain kind of family structure ‘intensifies Oedipal desires in both sons and daughters, and so promotes Marian devotion’. He held that Marian ‘hallucinations’ are shaped not simply by Oedipal desires but also by other infantile and adult desires…”

Mulholland concludes: “…The moving statues were a modern manifestation of the kind of ‘magical devotionalism’ that sections of the Irish Catholic population have long been prone to resort to during periods of personal or collective distress… They were products of the kind of literalistic, magical-devotionalism that Irish clerics condemned in the 1950s and ‘60s as being ‘anti-intellectual’ and a ‘peasant religion’…”

Knock Shrine

Knock Shrine, early 20th century

Perhaps it’s just coincidence (and I haven’t seen anyone else mention this), but it is worth noting that the Air India Disaster occurred at Ahakista, on the coast of West Cork, less than a month before the first apparitions were seen at Ballinspittle. This terrorist event which killed over 300 innocent souls must have had some effect on the local – if not the national – psyche, and could certainly have enhanced feelings of anxiety and insecurity in a rapidly changing world.


1985 Air Disaster Memorial, Ahakista

Looking back from the 21st century to these events I feel a sense of – well, disappointment – that what comes across now in reports on the phenomenon is mainly disparagement. This is a country which, quite rightly, hangs on to its history and mythologies: as with the wandering bards of older times stories are kept alive at the fireside, in the pubs – wherever people gather. Stories of The Other Crowd, of old battles, of heroes – and of neighbours – are listened to eagerly, and will be repeated just as eagerly. I don’t hear people dismissing them or expressing cynicism about them, as they seem ready to do about moving statues. Such scepticism is understandable in modern Ireland but I will continue to listen with an open mind to all the stories of miraculous happenings that are cherished and passed on, and which underscore the ancient faith of the countryside.

First day of issue

It would be wrong not to finish the story of Ballinspittle. On 31st October (Samhain) 1985, when a group was gathered in prayer at the grotto a car pulled up and three men got out carrying hammers and axes. In front of the dismayed onlookers they smashed the statue of the Virgin and shouted abuse at the worshippers for “…adoring false Gods…” The men, who claimed to belong to an extremist fundamental Christian sect based in California, were later arrested and charged with ‘causing malicious damage in a place of divine worship’. Amazingly, at the trial the Judge stated that he had to be “…particularly zealous in guarding the rights of the three defendants…” and dismissed the case on the grounds that the Ballinspittle grotto is not, in fact, a place of divine worship. In March 1986 the perpetrators appeared on the popular Late Late Show, hosted by Gay Byrne on RTE Television. They cited the fourth and fifth commandments of the Old Testament as giving them divine sanction to smash all religious statues in Ireland, regardless of the rights and views of other people. Reporter Eoghan Corry stated in an article in the Sunday Press, “…there isn’t a safe statue in the country.” Fortunately, following further acts of vandalism they were duly convicted.

Links worth following for more on the Moving Statues:

Finola’s blog post Mary Mary

Radio Documentary from RTE in 1992

RTE TV documentary on Ballinspittle

marian shrine

Amid Unbearable Tragedy – a Model for the World

Laying the wreath

Some posts are hard to write. In the case of this one, there are such complex emotions – sadness and anger being the dominant two, but overlaid with pride and gratitude. I will explain.


In June 23rd, 1985 – 30 years ago this week – a bomb on board Air India Flight 182, exploded when the plane was just off the coast of West Cork. Everyone on board,  329 people, were killed. One in every 4 victims was a child. Eighty percent were Canadians.


The bomb was the work of Sikh extremists, operating out of Vancouver. A botched investigation, jurisdictional disputes, and massive incompetence at many levels has meant that no perpetrator of this heinous crime has ever been convicted for it – a travesty of justice that is a dark stain on Canada’s judicial system and that has left the families of the victims with no sense of justice to this day.

Moment of Silence 2

Members of the victims’ families began arriving immediately after the bombing and, deeply affected by their plight and by their own traumatic involvement in the the recovery operation, the people of West Cork opened their hearts and homes to them. Ahakista residents took on the task of petitioning governments for a memorial garden and of arranging a yearly commemoration service. The memorial is beautiful and perfectly maintained year round. Beginning in 1986 the service has been held every year without fail and family members who come are welcomed, supported and fed, in the Irish way. Many friendship have been forged over the years.

Family Friends

In contrast, it took the Canadian Government a long time to acknowledge that this terrorist attack, in the words of Prime Minister Harper’s official apology ‘…was not an act of foreign violence. This atrocity was conceived in Canada, executed in Canada, by Canadian citizens, and its victims were themselves mostly citizens of Canada.’ This speech was made in 2010. The first Canadian memorial to the victims was erected in 2006 and there are now four. There are no memorials in India.

Renée Sarojini Saklikar

Renée Sarojini Saklikar

Because this was the 30th anniversary this year’s ceremony was a large one, with dignitaries from Canada, India and Ireland in attendance and about twenty family members. For us, it started the night before, with a poetry reading in the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen. Renée Sarojini Saklikar is a Canadian poet who lost an aunt and uncle in the disaster. She read from her book Children of Air India, and also some new pieces. Deeply influenced by the opacity of official documents, by memory and loss, her poems carried a quiet power that seeped into our souls almost without our noticing. She elicited our participation in one poem – a piece made up entirely of acronyms – and she spoke to us about the process of writing poetry from trauma and invited our stories and comments. It was a deeply emotive experience – a good preparation for the following day’s ceremony of remembrance.

The Irish Navy ship and Coast Guard Fly Past

The Irish Navy ship and Coast Guard Fly Past

The ceremony timing mirrors the events of the original June morning when the bomb exploded in the plane, with a minute’s silence at 8:12AM, broken by chanting by family members. The Irish Navy were on hand to signal the moment with a siren blast, and a Coast Guard helicopter performed a formal fly past. A choir of children of the local National School sang and there were speeches and wreath-layings. I was pleased to see Canada’s Minister for Justice, Peter McKay, in attendance as well as the Canadian Ambassador to Ireland.


Speaking to the family members brought home to me as nothing else could do the enormity of the tragedy and the still-raw emotions at the core of this event. Saroj lost her father, a teacher. “He was  a proud Canadian,” she said. “He loved Canada and taught Canadian children in Newfoundland. He cared so much for his new country, but when he died, suddenly in the eyes of Canada he was no longer a Canadian but an Indian.” Saroj had sat through many days of the Vancouver trial of the accused bombers (who were eventually acquitted) and still could not get her head around the outcome when the evidence was so clear.

Dr. Padmini Turlapati was the spokesperson for the families. She lost her two sons. They had just finished school and were going to India for the summer to see their grandparents. She showed me their photograph – two merry kids, laughing and carefree. Because they were visiting their grandparents they had taken with them their albums of mementoes and photographs – Padmini had to piece together a few photos from their school and friends. Sanjay’s body was recovered, but Deepak is still out there, and so she comes back every year to the place which has become a focus for her grief. In her speech she encompassed all the emotions that the families still feel – unspeakable sadness, anger and – gratitude.

Over and over speakers spoke about the warmth, the generosity and the support of the West Cork people who had been there for them in their despair when it seemed that their governments had abandoned them. Several used the same phrase.  Addressing themselves to the people of Ahakista, to the fisherman and coast guard volunteers, to those who built and maintain the memorial and who organise each year’s ceremony. “You”, they said, “are a model for the world.”

As a Canadian who listened nightly to the reports of the Vancouver trials I can have an inkling of the unfathomable well of loss and anger that these families feel. As an Irish person who is now living in West Cork I am proud of how our neighbours and friends stepped in to support and comfort these devastated families.
Children Sing

Perhaps the best way to end is with one of Renée’s poems. I will try to reproduce it faithfully on the page.

In the home-house, in the basement, there is the mother — she is singing a sweet song.

It is before —

June                       1984

                                Of her name, there are redactions.

                                Of her mother tongue, there is no record —

                                                       this is the life of a woman, made in India,

                                                                                living in Canada.

In the home-house, in the basement, there is the mother

                   And she is absent, sister

Memorial in Winter


Air India Disaster Memorial site, Ahakista, Sheep's Head, West Cork

Air India Disaster Memorial site, Ahakista, Sheep’s Head, West Cork

On the 23rd of June, 1985, Air India flight 182, en route from Montreal to New Delhi, exploded in mid-air off the coast of West Cork. All souls on board were lost – 329 children, women and men, of whom 268 were Canadians. The bomb originated in Vancouver and was the work of Sikh extremists. The perpetrators have never been convicted, leaving the families of the victims, almost 30 years later, with no sense of justice and closure.

L1080257The Air India bombing is very much a living story still in Canada and especially in Vancouver, where the chief suspects live and where the trials of those suspects were held – trials that went horribly awry and which resulted in acquittals. I have seen heartbreaking interviews with family members – people who lost parents, brothers, sisters, children – speaking of their long search for the truth and their despair at the incompetence of the prosecution process. In one moving piece, a son said (I paraphrase from memory), “We have been let down by the government of Canada. We have been let down by the government of India. The only people who have never let us down are the people of West Cork in Ireland.”

Many West Cork people were involved in recovering the bodies and collecting what washed up on shore. They were intensely affected by the plight of the families and by their wish for a memorial – a place of focus where they could gather to remember their dear ones. The people of Cork purchased a site at Ahakista, on the rugged and remote Sheep’s Head Peninsula, and built that memorial. Every year on June 23rd they host a remembrance ceremony. It is a place of unearthly beauty and the memorial is heart-rending in its design. Oriented towards the wild coast, a large sundial marks the moment when the plane went down. Around the dial are these words:

L1080258Time flies

Suns rise

And shadows fall

Let it pass by

Love reigns forever

Over all.

Today, on a grey and mizzling day, Robert and I travelled here to remember those we have loved and lost, ensuring that Ahakista will remain for us an enduring place of peace and memory.

2013-01-06 15.15.13