Grosse-Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site protects an important part of Canada’s history. Grosse Île is known for being an island in the St. Lawrence River where immigrants to Canada were held for quarantine. The island is also home to the Irish Memorial, which honours thousands of Irish immigrants who lost their lives fleeing the Great Famine in 1847. This is a somber and emotional yet deeply interesting place. It makes a fantastic Quebec City day trip.
Getting ready to visit Grosse-Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site
Reaching this national historic site requires a full day’s investment. The ferry to Grosse Île departs from the village of Berthier-sur-Mer, located roughly an hour’s drive east from Old Quebec City. Exact departure times and the style of your visit will vary by the season. Most days, you’ll need to be on board the ferry for a 9:30 AM departure.
Tickets for the cruise and visit are available on the Croisières AML website. As of summer 2023, pricing starts at $79.99 per adult, $59.99 for teens 13 to 17, and $39.99 for kids aged 5 to 12 (children up to age 4 are free). That price includes crossing in both directions, parking for the day, and admission to the national historic site managed by Parks Canada.
On most days, visits to the island last five hours, and there are no return ferries in the meantime. There is no restaurant or canteen on the island, and supplies are very limited. It’s therefore very important to pack a substantial lunch with snacks, plenty of water, and sunscreen. (Croisières AML offers boxed lunches as an add-on for cruise packages.)
Wear sturdy shoes as you’ll do plenty of walking, sometimes on hills and rough terrain. You may also want to bring a hat and any other layers of clothing appropriate for the weather. Plan to have weak mobile phone service or none at all, depending on your provider.
On the way to Grosse-Île
The ferry ride from Berthier-sur-Mer to Grosse-Île takes approximately 45 minutes. Along the way, you’ll experience a scenic cruise and a tour of the river and surrounding islands. During our crossing, we were among a very small group of English speakers on board. The tour guide’s announcements are made in French, but we were lucky that day. The crew invited English speakers to the bridge to receive a tour directly from the captain!
We learned that Grosse-Île is one of the 21 islands that make up the Isle-aux-Grues archipelago. The St. Lawrence River is 17 kilometres wide in this section, and the tides vary up to 21 feet. The water here is brackish, meaning the river is mostly composed of fresh water, but a very small percentage of it is salty sea water. Some of the nearby islands are privately owned by former and current CEOs of prominent Quebec businesses Gildan and Bombardier.
Arriving on Grosse-Île
As soon as you step off the ferry and onto Grosse-Île, you enter an immersive experience. You’re greeted by Parks Canada interpreters, some dressed in signature green and others in full character. The latter are the doctors, nurses, and immigrants under quarantine you’ll interact with as you make your way around the island. Many times, you’ll feel as though you’re experiencing the island as when it operated as a quarantine station from 1832 to 1937.
On the day of our visit, we were sorted into smaller groups shortly after we arrived. This allowed us to rotate through the island’s various sectors without any one space becoming overcrowded. If you don’t speak French, don’t worry: English visitors are put in a separate group and receive bilingual guides.
Our first stop was the disinfection building. We walked the same path as immigrants would have when arriving to Canada. Although we only stood in the cramped disinfecting showers for 30 seconds, new arrivals had to endure them for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, belongings would be disinfected in the massive steam chambers down below. Afterward, we stood in line for a medical inspection. Fortunately, we were cleared as we showed no signs of typhus, a disease many immigrants arrived with in the 1840s.
Nearby, we viewed the first-class, second-class, and third-class hotels for immigrants waiting out their quarantine. Those in first class enjoyed fine dining and relatively luxurious accommodations. For the rest, rooms were sparsely furnished, but they at least enjoyed fresh bread rations from the bakery.
Into the village
In the afternoon, we boarded a trolley to travel to the central and eastern sectors of the island. The central section is the village where the station’s workers and their families lived. We learned about how patients were carefully transported through to the hospital sector to the east while ensuring villagers weren’t exposed to disease. Two churches, a school, and residences for the chief physician, bacteriologist, nurses, and other staff give a glimpse into this isolated life.
The eastern sector of the island is where a series of hospital buildings were hastily constructed in 1847. Then, the island was filled to capacity with a massive influx of immigrants. Nearly 100,000 people set sail for Canada that year, many of them Irish citizens fleeing the Great Famine. Conditions were appalling on the ships that crossed the Atlantic, and thousands arrived infected with typhus and other diseases. Displays inside the hospital buildings explain what immigrants endured, how they were treated, and how many died. More than 5,000 Irish immigrants ended their journey to Canada buried on Grosse-Île.
The Celtic Cross
Before boarding the return ferry, we took the short hike to the western tip of the island to see the Celtic Cross. It was erected in 1909 and has inscriptions in English, French, and Irish Gaelic honouring the thousands of Irish immigrants laid to rest on the island.
A little further along the same trail, the cemetery lies in an open field with mounds in unidentified rows. Nearby, the names of the Irish immigrants who died on Grosse-Île or on the boats are inscribed on a large memorial. Some visitors spend the entire day here solely to find the names of their ancestors on this memorial. Parks Canada maintains an online list of the names on the Irish memorial, which you can find here.
Returning to the mainland
As we boarded our ferry to return to Berthier-sur-Mer, we couldn’t help but reflect on the thousands of Canadian immigrants who had the same experience. The interpreters and characters who guided us through the day all waved from the dock as the ferry turned back toward the St. Lawrence south shore. And since the island is managed by Parks Canada and takes part in the Xplorers program, my daughter completed a series of activities and left with a medallion to add to her collection.
A visit to Grosse-Île and the Irish Memorial takes you through a beautiful, educational, and thought-provoking experience. It’s well worth making the day trip when you’re visiting Quebec City or passing through the area to points East.