Bone analysis opens window into life of Irish Potato Famine migrants in Montreal

After analyzing bones found during work at a light rail station in Montreal, an archaeological laboratory reveals new details about the lives of Irish migrants who died there in 1847.

The 2019 archaeological dig at Pointe-Saint-Charles – where Irish people fleeing the potato famine were quarantined and, if they did not survive, buried – revealed 14 bodies including seven adults, three teenagers and four children.

After two years of analysis, preliminary results were presented to the Irish community, who found them moving and « incredible », according to Victor Boyle, president of the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation.

Broken bones, bacterial infections, chronic illnesses and signs of malnutrition offer a window into the lives of Irish migrants in the mid-1800s, said bio-archaeologist Marine Puech of the Ethnoscop laboratory in Boucherville, Quebec.

Puech says most came from rural south-west Ireland, and the lab was able to determine their time of death between August and September 1847.

Ethnoscop has had the bones for two years now. After cleaning them and collecting soil samples, they were able to estimate the sex and age of individuals and identify pathologies.

The results showed unspecified stress and dietary deficiencies like iron as well as noticeable lead levels.

Some diseases, such as typhus, do not leave marks on the bones. But traces of malnutrition were found, which probably weakened people and made them more vulnerable to disease.

Victor Boyle, president of Montreal’s Irish Monument Park Foundation, said the lab results made the remains look more like people, not just bones. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

Irish migrants fleeing the famine faced poor conditions at home, Puech said, and once on the ships things did not improve. Ships were often so full that it was not uncommon for more than 200 migrants to gather nearby during wet summers – conditions that could have easily spread typhus. Many died at sea or shortly after arrival.

« It’s amazing. First they found coffin remains, artifacts, then bones. But even as bones, they were just bones, » Boyle said.

« But to be shown in the lab, these bones being assembled into a complete skeleton, hearing what their diet was, what part of Ireland they were probably from, now there’s a person lying on this table. »

With the site well known, just steps from the Black Rock monument marking a burial site for around 6,000 people, workers from the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) knew they would find remains.

The bodies were found in coffins arranged to save space, often stacked on top of each other.

The railway workers made sure to remain engaged in a dialogue with the Irish community while carrying out their excavations, said the REM’s deputy director of the environment, Elizabeth Boivin.

« We have to be especially careful, » she said. « It’s a very sensitive subject. »

Montreal’s Irish community has insisted for years that bodies be buried in the area, but REM excavations led to the first exhumations, Boivin said.

« I’ve never worked like this, so close to the community, » said Puech, who is happy to « give people a voice. »

The laboratories were surprised by a discovery: two of the individuals were probably not from Ireland. The remains will soon be sent to a laboratory in Trois-Rivières where the DNA will be sequenced in the hope of finding living descendants.


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