About RTÉ Television


John Waters, Writer / Journalist

John Waters was born in Castlerea, Co Roscommon, in 1955.  He held a range of jobs after leaving school, including railway clerk, showband roadie, pirate radio manager, petrol pump attendant and mailcar driver.  He began part-time work as a journalist in 1981 with Hot Press, Ireland’s leading rock ‘n’ roll magazine, and went full-time in 1984, when he moved to Dublin. As a journalist, magazine editor and columnist, he has specialised in raising unpopular issues of public importance, including the repression of Famine memories and the denial of rights to fathers. In Death or Canada John talks about the extreme horror of the famine, the reports of cannibalism and the terror it instilled a nation and the impact it still has on the Irish psyche today.

Says John Waters in Death or Canada;
“I think we’re haunted by the famine.  We have unearthed certain factual details but nothing of the emotional human tragedy that it was.  We don’t remember anything at a conscious level.  There was no hope of help, nobody cared.  Imagine leaving your house, your home the place that you have grown up in, your family have lived there for generations.  Imagine leaving it behind as a pile of stones.  Closing the door and saying never again will we see this place, our life here is over.  When the human psyche is brought to certain stages we know that it loses all sense of civilisation and rules.  I think we have to entertain the possibility that all kinds of things happened.  In fact it’s somewhat absurd to rule out the possibility (of cannibalism) given the scale of the horror that was happening, because in actual fact, compared to that horror, cannibalism is a fairly minor misdeed.”

Christine Kinealy, Historian

Professor Christine Kinealy lectures at Drew University in New Jersey, where she has been a member of Faculty since September 2007. She is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, where she completed a Ph.D. on the introduction of the Poor Law to Ireland. She has published extensively on the impact of the Great Famine in Ireland and is the author of one of the definitive works on the subject, This Great Calamity. In 1997, she was also invited to speak on the Irish Famine in both the American House of Congress and the British House of Commons. In Death or Canada Christine describes in graphic detail how horrid the conditions were on board some of the ships.

Says Christine Kinealy in Death or Canada;
“In stormy weather, the hatches were battened and steerage became a dungeon, lit only with smoky kerosene lamps and filled with the fog of sweat, spilled chamber pots, rotting food and the vomit of seasick passengers.  Any doubt that the English were not fully aware of the extent of the problem in Ireland has been banished by recent research which clearly shows that over half of all food produced in Ireland during the famine years was exported.  This was the first and largest mass migration in European history - there was no precedent for it - it was no ordinary short-term subsistence crisis - nothing like this had been seen before and nothing since until the forced movement of Jews during WW2. It was really a choice between Death or Canada. Everything they owned and whatever meager savings they have are spent on what they hope will be a better life. The only alternative is death.

Mark Mc Gowan, Historian

Professor and Principal of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto BA (Ottawa, History/Religion), PhD (Toronto, History). Mark McGowan is the first Canadian-born, first non-Philosopher, and youngest Principal in St. Michael’s history. He is a specialist in the religious, social, migration, and educational history of Canada and has received two University teaching awards. His most recent book is The Waning of the Green: Catholic the Irish and Identity in Toronto, 1887-1922 (McGill-Queen’s 1999) which has won both the Brant Prize (OHS) and the Clio Award (CHA). Mark has just completed the first full-length biography of Michael Power (1804-1847), the first bishop of Toronto. He lives in Whitby, Ontario, with his wife Eileen and their five children.  In Death or Canada Mark talks about Bishop Michael Power who following a visit to Ireland in 1847, endeavored to warn Toronto City Council of the human tsunami of Irish that were to arrive on it’s shores.  Bishop Michael Power is the unsung hero of Toronto’s summer of sorrow in 1847 – responsible for building the fever sheds and hospital that saved thousands of Irish refugees – and finally dying himself from Typhus - contracted from an Irish refugee.

Robert Kearns, Philanthropist

Robert Kearns is Chairman of the Ireland Park Fund. He is an Irish-Canadian insurance broker, philanthropist and dreamer who has dedicated his efforts to ensuring that this period in Irish Canadian history is properly documented and remembered by a permanent memorial. Death or Canada is partly his story – without his passion, commitment and dedication in ensuring this phenomenal piece of Canada’s history be told – the story could sill buried beneath the streets of Toronto.

Says Robert Kearns in Death or Canada;
“It’s an extraordinary event in the history of this country (Canada) because to this day it is the largest single loss of life to any on e cause in the history of the city (Toronto).  This is the amazing story of a nation of people recovering from the worst possible calamity.  One in three dying or emigrating and yet wherever they went the Irish succeeded.  It’s a story of immense courage.”

Dr Peter Grey, Professor

Peter Gray took his undergraduate and doctoral degrees at the University of Cambridge before holding research fellowships at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s, and at Downing College, Cambridge. He taught Irish and British history at the University of Southampton 1996-2005, before returning to Belfast to take up the positions of Professor of Modern Irish History and Director of Research in Irish and British History. In 2004 Professor Gray was the Burns Library Visiting Professor in Irish Studies at Boston College, Massachusetts. He is Chair of the Royal Irish Academy's National Committee

for Historical Sciences.Professor Gray's research specializes in the history of British-Irish relations c.1800–70, especially the political history of the Great Famine of 1845–50 and the politics of poverty and land in the nineteenth century. 

Says Peter Grey in Death or Canada;
“People think that Irish Catholics have the monopoly on famine sufferingWhen in fact it crossed religious divide. 30 per cent of those who went to Canada were protestant. Ireland’s problem suited England - it allowed them to modernize and regenerate the countryside. The British referred to their economic strategy as Laissez Faire. In hindsight it was one of the most brutal economic strategies ever conducted”.

Dr Ronald Williamson, Archaelogist

Dr. Ronald Williamson, an archaeologist with more than 30 years experience, is founder and a partner with Archaeological Services Inc where he has led more than a thousand archaeological assessments, excavations and planning projects throughout the Northeast. He holds an Honours BA from the University of Western Ontario and an MA and PhD from McGill University, all in Anthropology.  In 1987, he directed an international team of scholars in the exhumation and analysis of twenty-eight American soldiers who died near Old Fort Erie during the War of 1812. These remains were eventually repatriated to the United States. He is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and is an Associate Member of the Graduate Faculty. He is also a former President of the Canadian Association of Professional Heritage Consultants, a national organization dedicated to furthering the cause of heritage resources conservation and excellence in heritage consultation.  He is an author with several books to his credit including as editor and co-writer of the recently released Toronto: An Illustrated History of its First 12,000 years, which was released in November 2008.

Says Ron Williamson in Death or Canada;

“You have to imagine what it was like for Torontonians when hundreds of people were dying in their midst. It must have been horrifying for them.”