The Irish who Died on the Rideau Canal in Canada

The banks of the Rideau Canal in Canada are strewn with the unmarked graves of workers – most of them Irish labourers – who died building the 200 kilometre waterway between Ottawa and Kingston.

Most of the estimated 500 workers who died wee quickly buried without a religious service in a scramble to complete the canal for military purposes between 1827 and 1832.

Their memory and sacrifice were remembered on June 27, 2004, at a ceremony at the foot of the canal featuring the unveiling of a Celtic cross in their honour.

Prayers were led by Ottawa church leaders, including Archbishop Marcel Gervais. ’’May the souls of all those who lie buried in unmarked graves along this van rest in peace’’ prayed the archbishop.

Among those attending the ceremony were Ireland’s Ambassador to Canada, Martin Burke, Ottawa Mayor Bob Chjiarelli and officials from the Irish Society of Ottawa, the Rideau Canal Celtic Cross Committee, and the Ottawa and District Labour Council.

’’When work began on the Rideau Canal in 1826 it provided employment for thousands of Irish for the next six years,’’ said Ambassador Burke. ’’The death rate was high as those workers succumbed to illnesses such as malaria and cholera whilst exhaustion and hunger claimed the lives of many others.’’ The Celtic Cross ’’serves as a reminder to all of us of the sacrifice these people made,’’he said.

The Celtic Cross is an ancient symbol of Ireland.

Looking back 175 years, the Mayor said to those gathered: ’’appalling working conditions’’ imposed upon the workers – also known as navvies, resulted in serious illness, injuries and widespread death, predominantly among the Irish immigrant workers.’’

The canal was built to provide a safe transportation route between Lake Ontario and Montreal that would by‒pass the United States border along the St Lawrence River in case of an attack from the Americans.

Tony O’Loughlin,. President of he Kingston Irish Folk Club, said the canal workers were ’’despised in life and forgotten in death’’ and that many were buried ’’without benefit of religious clergy.’’

He said work would continue to identify the graves of the navvies buried along the canal.

In 2002 the Kingston group unveiled a Celtic Cross near the beginning if the canal. A memorial drinking fountain to honour the Rideau Canal workers was constructed near Kinston City Hall in 2000.

By Art Babych, Ottawa.

Eileen Hennessy, a parishioner of St Teilo’s, Whitchurch, Cardiff, brought this interesting cutting back from Canada after visiting her daughter there.

It was sent on to us on October 17, 2004 by:
John O’Sullivan, Press Officer,
The Wales Famine Forum, Cardiff.

Photo of the Rideau Canal where it joins Lake Ontario.
Kingston, in the province of Ontario, is about a two and a half hours drive from Montreal in the province of Quebec.

The fate of the Irish who perished along the route of the canal to Ottawa does not greatly differ from that of the later arrivals in the St. Lawrence who came as refugees from the Great Famine:

President Mary Robinson at Grosse Île, Quebec, Canada, August 1994.

What happened at Grosse Île in 1847.

Following the Famine
A Canadian site, intended for schools but of interest to all, covering the story of the Irish famine emigrants to that great country.

Émile Nelligan (1879 – 1941).
One of the best‒known writers of Quebec. His father was from Dublin.

Cardiff’s Famine Memorial Ceremony on Saint Patrick’s Day: Links