Tuesday 25 November 2008, 10.15pm.
Episode One follows the story of the doomed Willis family, who in early 1847 were forced to depart their home in the southwest of Ireland and undertake a nightmare journey to Canada. Tragedy and disaster stalked them every step of the way. This is one of the untold stories of the Famine, as the Willis family was Protestant. Despite traditional perceptions, the Catholic population of Ireland were not the sole victims of the catastrophe. According to one of the expert contributors to the series, Professor Peter Gray of Queen’s University Belfast, “People think that Irish Catholics have the monopoly on famine suffering, when in fact it crossed the religious divide. 30 per cent of those who went to Canada were Protestant.”
Strikingly, the programme also investigates the impact of the Famine on North America, something which has not been explored in other documentaries on the subject. In the summer of 1847, the then small city of Toronto in the British colony of Canada was overwhelmed by an influx of 20,000 Irish famine refugees. The programme follows the archaeological excavations that were recently undertaken to find the remains of the fever sheds that housed the starving and diseased immigrants. This site will soon be built over with the construction of the new headquarters of the Toronto Film Festival. The programme also features Robert Kearns, an Irish-Canadian philanthropist who has dedicated himself to ensuring that the Irish who suffered and died in Canada during the Famine years are remembered and commemorated.
The Great Famine was the worst catastrophe of its kind in modern world history. One of the leading authorities on the disaster, Professor Christine Kinealy of Drew University, puts it in perspective: “Even to this day, the Irish Famine remains the most lethal famine in modern history. Within the space of six years, over 1 million people died and 2 million people emigrated, which represented a population loss of almost 33%. No other country has suffered that. And so it’s no wonder that the memory of the Famine and the impact has been so long enduring.”