With the Gulf of St. Lawrence as a backdrop, Beverly Jacques said she was “delighted” to be present for the proper burial of the victims of the Carricks, a ship that sank off the Gaspé Peninsula in 1847.
“It feels like we know the end of their story,” said Jacques, who spoke Thursday at the ceremony organized by Parks Canada at Forillon National Park.
Jacques’ great-great-great-grandparents, Patrick Kavanagh and Sarah McDonald, left Ireland in 1847 with their family, fleeing an oppressive landlord at the height of the Great Potato Famine.
After several weeks on the Carricks, a ship designed to transport lumber from Canada to Europe, the 180 passengers finally got a glimpse of Canada’s east coast.
But before the ship could reach safe haven, a powerful storm hit the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The crew were unable to lower the sails and the Carrick sank in the cold waters of the St. Lawrence, taking with it up to 150 crew and passengers, including the Kavanaghs’ five daughters.
The couple and their son Martin survived.
Nearly two centuries later, the official ceremony brought a sense of closure to families who grew up hearing about the tragedy, said Jacques, who stood among Kavanagh’s descendants at the ceremony.
“All the people were very happy and proud to be there. They were touched,” she said.
Survey work ‘Columbo’
Over the decades, a makeshift mass grave hastily dug in 1847 by the local priest was exposed, along with coastal erosion.
In 2011, “people were walking on the beach, they found bones, and they asked us to investigate — which we did,” says Forillon National Park director Stéphane Marchand.
Archaeological research eventually led to the discovery of the mass grave in 2016.
Despite the damage caused by nearly two centuries of storms and salt water, experts from Parks Canada and the University of Montreal were able to determine that the remains belonged to passengers of the Carricks.
“Kind of like a good episode of Columbo,” Marchand said.
“We could finally link the human remains to the event that took place 172 years ago.”
The analysis also provided more insight into the lives of 19th-century Irish immigrants, who experienced “chronic poverty and malnutrition even before setting sail on the Carricks”, said Jason King, academic coordinator of the ‘Irish Heritage Trust in Dublin.
But more importantly, King said, it allowed people to learn more about the individual stories of immigrants and recognize the struggles they endured to settle in Canada.
“It’s hard to get to any of the stories – as individuals – who had their hopes and dreams,” said King, an Irish Montrealer.
Being able to give that context and provide those who perished at sea with a proper burial place “gave them back their dignity a bit,” he said.
While the past decade has provided some insight into their history, the Kavanagh family is always on the lookout for more clues to learn more about their ancestry.
Across the country in Alberta, Beverly Jacques’ distant cousin, Rose Marie Stanley, did extensive research into her family history, even visiting Sligo, Ireland, the port of call from where the Carricks sailed in 1847.
Inspired by their journey, Stanley wrote a piece titled Sarah.
“I can’t tell you how much I admire the tenacity, the courage of this woman,” Stanley said.
Jacques’ grandfather, Joseph Bilodeau, was the son of Maggie Kavanagh, the daughter Sarah gave birth to after the sinking.
While Bilodeau often spoke of his mother, he never shared many details about the disaster itself, Jacques said.
Perhaps it was too moving to talk about such a tragedy, at a time when life was not easy, she surmised.
“I think they focused on that – they had a lot of courage and they kept going.”