Bones of Children Found on Canadian Beach Reveal Tragedy of Irish Famine

Irish potato famine

Bones belonging to children have been discovered on a beach in Canada, their condition underscoring the desperate circumstances many Irish people fled during the Irish Hunger of the 1840s.

The bones found on a rocky beach on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula were analyzed by archaeologists from Parks Canada, and the jawbone and vertebrae belonged to Irish emigrants fleeing the Great Potato Famine, reports IrishCentral.

According to The Washington Post, the bones were discovered in 2011 along the Canadian coast. They were children, one around 12 years of age, and two others between 7 and 9 years.  The children were malnourished, showing signs of rickets, a vitamin-D deficiency. They ate a plant-based diet, as revealed by tooth analysis.

The famine is memorialized throughout Ireland. Above is the Famine Memorial in Dublin.

The famine is memorialized throughout Ireland. Above is the Famine Memorial in Dublin.

More than 150 years ago a great famine gripped Ireland, and men, women and children starved. Ultimately, scholars would estimate the death toll at one million. The cause of the famine is commonly attributed to widespread potato blight – crop damage – although historians can show that during the 1840s starvation, the country was still producing and exporting goods like butter, peas, salmon, rabbit, lard, honey, soap, onions, seed and more. These precious commodities were shipped in great quantities, sometimes under armed guard, out of Ireland and into Britain, demonstrating that governmental policy failure was instrumental in the disaster. Compounding the tragedy was the prevalence of “fever”, or sweeping illnesses due to malnutrition and poor living conditions. A million Irish people emigrated, and this, combined with illness and starvation, reduced Ireland’s population by 20 – 25% in total.

Illustration of scrounging for food during the famine. (1810–1879)

Illustration of scrounging for food during the famine. (1810–1879) Public Domain

Many refugees sought escape via “coffin ships”, so-called due to the risk of death while aboard. These ships were bound for the New World across the Atlantic Ocean, but packed with people, sickness flourished, and it is thought that 100,000 succumbed before they reached their destination.

Replica of the Jeanie Johnston.

Replica of the Jeanie Johnston. The original cargo vessel was of a type which traded between North American and Europe, and did ‘Famine Voyages’ bringing emigrants from Ireland.  Public Domain

The Washington Post writes that one such coffin ship in 1847, named The Carricks, made it from Ireland to Quebec City. But a storm wrecked the ship just off shore, and many passengers washed up on the beach, both dead and alive. Canadian researchers cannot confirm the childrens’ remains were from that specific wreck or another, but the bones were found very close to The Carricks memorial site.

Researcher Rémi Toupin told The Globe and Mail “In archeology, we are there to protect memory … and give people an identity and say who they were. We can’t always reach absolute conclusions, but it’s always our goal to go as far as possible in identifying people.”

Archaeologist Pierre Cloutier says of the bones, “They are witnesses to a tragic event. You can’t have a more tangible witness to tragedy than human remains,” notes Irish publication TheJournal.

Featured Image: A painting depicting the Irish potato famine. (Image source)

By Liz Leafloor

Originally published at Ancient Origins
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