Over one hundred and fifty years ago, on a snowy night off the coast of the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada, many of the people I now love most came close to extinction. When I make that dramatic claim, I’m thinking of my father and my sons, of my brother and my eight sisters, along with all my siblings’ children and their children’s children. That number itself runs to the dozens. These are the people I have in mind, but in truth the loss would’ve be far greater, extending through multitudes of cousins, second cousins. And really, “extinction” is probably not the most accurate term. To capture the real threat, I’d need to stretch for a term like “non-existence,” for that is what we truly faced. On that singular night, the actions of my great great grandfather, Cornelius O’Boyle, were responsible for the lives of hundreds of people in his bloodline. For any of us to ever be, he had to survive a disaster.
Like everyone else in my immediate family, I had no idea of Cornelius O’Boyle’s brush with death until a yellowed slip of newspaper (no date, no page number, no title) was discovered in our attic back in the 90’s. It read:
A monument has been erected for the Irish immigrants that were shipwrecked at Cape Rosiers, Gasp’e, Quebec, Canada, 1847.
The Brig “Carricks” of White Haven, England, with R. Thompson as its Master, was 87 ft. long, had beams of 26 ft., and was 16 ft. deep. The Carricks was built in 1812 and its burden was 244 tons.
While on a voyage from Sligo, Ireland with 167 Irish immigrants bound for Quebec, Canada, she was caught in a northeast snowstorm while entering the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The Carricks was driven ashore and wrecked about a mile east of the present Cape Rosiers lighthouse and became a total loss on May 19, 1847.
Out of 167 passengers only 48 reached shore alive; all the crew were saved except one boy.
The Carricks was seven weeks and four days at sea when wrecked.
Cornelius O’Boyle and his brother Owen from Bangor Erris, County Mayo, Ireland were among those who were saved.
My father, named Neil O’Boyle Connelly just like me, knew of Cornelius, could tell us that he was the father of his own dear grandmother, Rose O’Boyle, who ran a boarding home during the Depression where my father spent most of his youth. But he’d never heard about the passage over or the wreck. This didn’t strike my father as unusual. I recall him shrugging and saying, “We didn’t talk about things like that.”
This past spring, slipped in between our sons’ dinner table discussion of their exploits at school, or perhaps offered during the evening retreat to the couch, my wife Beth said, “We should go to Gaspe.”
It’s a good bet I stared incredulously, and she pointed out that we were already planning to visit my sister Mary up in Boston. “I checked Google maps,” Beth explained. “It’s only another 12 hours.”
As we began to plan the summer trip, I did some research on the famine in general and the Carricks in particular. I learned how phytophthora infestans, the potato-killing disease that had plagued Europe, made the leap to Ireland in 1845. The result was a tragedy on a scale difficult for my modern mind to comprehend. With Irish adults often eating over five pounds of potato a day, their reliance on this crop for sustenance was all but absolute. Add to this a belief held by some British that the famine was sent by God to teach the lazy Irish a lesson, a political system not eager to act, and a host of shoddy scientific solutions, and it’s not hard to see how things went from bad to catastrophic. When the blight began, Ireland’s population was about 8 million. Before it was finally over, this figure would be reduced by a quarter. A million died through sickness or starvation and a million fled. By the spring of 1847, the time my ancestors were on that boat, grown men were committing crimes to be thrown into jail for the feeble food, and soup kitchens were chaining spoons to the tables. The Irish were eating turnip heads rejected by livestock, digging in the snow for grass and weeds, climbing 400 foot cliffs along the shoreline with the hopes of stealing seagull eggs. “The dead were going unburied,” John Kelly writes in his excellent book, The Graves are Walking, which vividly recounts many of these horrors.
Lord Palmerston, who commissioned the Carricks, was Foreign Secretary of the British Empire. He owned a huge estate in Ireland with hundreds of farmers working the land in a kind of sharecropping system, and now they were starving to death. During the famine, many landlords evicted their tenants, destroying their homes and running them off their land. For Palmerston, it made economic sense to ship some of them overseas in a program called Assisted Emigration. One may be tempted to view this as a humanitarian act, but these boats were hellish, the passage the stuff of nightmare. These “coffin ships,” so called because of the high mortality rate caused by typhoid and cholera, were not passenger ships at all. Designed to carry lumber, the Carricks itself was refitted to provide space below decks to essentially store human cargo. The weakened emigrants were transported to the New World in cramped quarters with little air or light, surrounded by their dying countrymen. Another Palmerston ship, the Numa, set off with 256 passengers, losing 10 on the voyage across and another 25 at the quarantine station at Grosse Isle outside Quebec. Kelly reports of one Canadian inspector of Palmerston’s ships writing, “The Black Hole of Calcutta was a mercy compared to the hold of these vessels.”
Part of my research involved writing directly to others who had an interest in the Carricks. I corresponded with Rose Marie Stanley, a descendant of Pat and Sara Kavaney, who boarded the Carricks with their six children. Tragically, five daughters died in the disaster. The Kavaneys stayed in Gaspe and you can find some there to this day, though because of an error in spelling they have long gone by the name Kavanagh. When I mentioned our planned trip to Rose Marie, she told me that she and her husband were actually expecting to be back in Gaspe during that time. Perhaps we could meet.
I also made contact with an Irish scholar, John McKeon, author of Sligo’s Famine Diaspora: Emigrants from Palmerston’s Sligo Estate, 1847, an indispensible volume. A friendly fellow, he shipped a copy across the Atlantic, and asked me to mail him a twenty dollar bill in return.
McKeon’s book is especially detailed, with a wealth of information on the emigration from Palmerston’s Sligo estate. He tells the complete story of all nine of the ships, supported by many original documents. Among these, I was surprised and delighted to come across a copy of the Carricks passenger list. But my excitement faded quickly as I went through the roll. There was no one named O’Boyle. According to the official record, my ancestors were not on that fateful boat.
I wrote to McKeon and he pointed out that many facts from those times were in dispute. For example, the voyage across is either 4 weeks or 7, depending on your source. While McKeon also noted that records weren’t always well kept, he had high confidence in the passenger list and shared his reluctant skepticism about the O’Boyles. Did I know, he asked, that it was almost 60 miles from Bangor Erris to Sligo, a huge distance for that time and place? McKeon requested additional specifics about the newspaper clipping. Though all of my siblings had copied down the words, the original has gone missing. On some level, I couldn’t help but doubt the whole fabulous story.
Then one of the people I corresponded with, the journalist Peggy O’Sclater, sent me a strange note. This story of the O’Boyles struck a chord of something familiar. After scouring through her records, she found a letter from 2002, penned by a retired schoolteacher named Dorothy Philips. Dorothy had written to Peggy after reading one of her articles about the Carricks, and shared that not only had she lived in Gaspe but that as a child she was close friends with the Kavanaghs. She’d maintained a long interest in the shipwreck and over the years had collected materials about the boat. Dorothy had written to Peggy, “My father knew the Kavanagh family well and I have the account written by Mr. Arthur Kavanagh in which he told of the wreck [. . . .] Mr. Kavanagh told my father that the family of another survivor who ended up in New York had kept in touch with the Kavanaghs in Cap des Rosiers for at least a couple of generations [. . . . ] the name of the New York family was O’Boyle, the Carricks survivor having been Cornelius O’Boyle. He was single at the time and so was his brother who also survived and went to New York. I see by Mr. Kavanagh’s article that he implies that he himself made contact with this New York family.”
An 1851 census confirms that both Cornelius and Owen were in Summitville, New York, so Dorothy’s letter fit with other evidence. Writing directly to Dorothy, now advanced in age, I was upset to learn that not only was her file on the Carricks gone but she had no memory of even writing that letter to Peggy. I enlisted the aid of some others in the Gaspe region, notably Luc Chaput, and we ascertained that the article in question likely appeared in Le Voyager, a small bilingual weekly paper out of Murdochville that ran from 1959 to 1972. I caught a good break when I found record of a complete set in the holdings at the Musee de la Gaspesie. But after contacting the archivist there, Jeaneatte Bourdages, I learned that unfortunately, the volumes were neither indexed nor available in virtual format. Finding Kavanagh’s article would reinforce my claim on the Carricks. But my needle seemed lost in a very large haystack.
And so my family’s pilgrimage north took on the additional air of something like a quest. Ultimately, I wanted to confirm this story if I could, secure my personal link to history, and cement my family’s connection to the O’Boyles. I was determined to visit this museum and see the archives for myself.
My wife and I left on a Friday from Central Pennsylvania along with our boys, James (7) and Owen (10), who we named in part for Cornelius’s brother. During the trip up to Gaspe, the lives of my ancestors seemed a constant presence. We drove north in our red Sienna mini van stocked with provisions. We had a suitcase of books, bags of food, and stopped often at Subway’s or Wendy’s. Every few hours, we prowled the aisles at gas stations for treats. Mornings, how pleased I’d be to find the hazelnut creamer I preferred in my coffee offered hundreds of miles from home. On boats like the Carricks, the passengers were allotted weekly some wheat, a pound of beef and a pound of rice, all of which my family of four could likely consume in a single meal.
To guide us, we had many maps, a Trip Tik from AAA, and a Tom Tom computer that navigated by GPS. Every now and then, its cheery synthesized voice would chirp out directions. “In a half mile, make a right. Then take the highway.” With credit cards in our pockets, the protections of health insurance on each of us and insurance on the car, even AAA in case we blew a flat, what danger did we face? What inconveniences even? Our greatest uncertainty was which hotel we might stay at, which kind of grocery store we might find to restock our cooler. I wondered what those on the Carricks knew about the land to which they were heading, if they even understood the geography of the ocean trip.
When we spent one night at a chain hotel, we enjoyed the luxury of an indoor pool with heated water. Watching my sons splash and play, a stray thought occurred to me. Could the O’Boyles even swim? Some reports had the boat wrecked four miles off the coast, and the waters were surely bitter cold. At least one account credits fishermen from Douglassville with a rescue operation, but I wondered—when a ship sinks at 4 a.m. in a snowstorm, in a world without phones of any kind, how are those on land even aware it happens? What’s the quickest they could get their boats out to the survivors? And I tried to imagine the faceless passengers themselves, starved, sickly, sleeping perhaps with the slim dream of an imminent arrival. Did they awaken to the bell being clanged? Or did the ship suddenly keel to its side, tossing them into rude awakening before heaving them into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic?
My sons, of course, were oblivious to all this. Owen and James read books while we drove, listened to music or talked with us about the countryside. Sometimes they played games on their electronic devices. Side by side in the backseat, they discussed Pokemon and Minecraft in terms I didn’t even recognize. They quickly learned at front desks to ask for wifi passwords and became instant critics of hotel rooms, inspecting our new accommodations each night and offering their opinions before climbing onto a bed, side by side, and giggling to silly videos on You Tube.
To my American sensibilities, Canada was a strange and wondrous land. I hadn’t seen phone booths in two decades, and stoplights often had digital timers to let you know how long you had to wait. There was also an occasional language gap, and as I tried to buy fast food or gas I was often reduced to pantomime. Many friendly Canadians, bilingual, came quickly to my aid. But at times it’s true, I was well out of my comfort zone.
As much as I may have wanted to though, I knew my experience with the unfamiliar couldn’t be compared to the Irish immigrants’. Some had hopes of reaching relatives in the States. But many knew nothing of the New World, only that it wasn’t Ireland, that where they were going, people weren’t starving. They came with the prayer of good work, of food, things I took for granted. They left behind all that was known. When they said goodbye to their friends and parents, often times it was without the expectation of ever seeing them again.
While I was keenly aware of the distance that separated me from my ancestors, as we drove out of New Brunswick and into Quebec, I could feel the yearning for connection gathering inside me. With gorgeous green mountains to our left and a smooth ocean to our right, we hugged the coast on gently curving roads. I listened to my boys chattering together in the back seat, glanced out over the sea, and I tried to name just what it was I hoped to find in Gaspe. Did I come here to feel a kinship with Cornelius and Owen, to show them my sons and honor their sacrifices? Was I trying to connect to my father, dead just over a year, by focusing on our common origin? As a storyteller, was I simply pleased with the idea that I myself was somehow part of such a grand saga—and did I want to vainly insert myself in it a bit further?
I found myself wondering too about this evidence of the story, doubting. In a clan of Irish storytellers, how could such an epic not be passed down? The crazy notion that the whole thing was a hoax, that somewhere in decades past someone had told a tall tale and it became immortalized in a local paper, had occurred to me. After all, I was warned by many that family histories and oral reports aren’t always accurate. None of my siblings had seen the original clipping in over a decade. And while John McKeon had suggested maybe the O’Boyles were figured in with one of the larger families, perhaps a maternal grandmother, we’d discounted that possibility too.
Beth and I arrived early in the town of Gaspe, mid afternoon, and decided to drive north twenty minutes to Cape De Rosiers to the hotel near the lighthouse erected after the wreck. We planned to then return to the museum, where we were set to meet Rose Marie Stanley and her husband Terry at 3:30. The land north of Gaspe is dominated by the Forillon National Park, cited by National Geographic as one of the ten most beautiful places on earth. It’s easy to see why. The forested mountains along the coast rise and fall sharply, and the coastline is a series of stony cliffs, sloping coves, rocky beaches with bone white driftwood scattered on the sand. That day the ocean was oddly calm, a sheet of unperturbed glass. Perhaps it was just my personal associations with the place, but its beauty felt both forlorn and majestic.
At last our road broke from a wooded patch and the lighthouse appeared at the top of a small rise. Stark white with a red-roofed peak, it stands 112 feet tall. Here was this building I’d seen a hundred times on line, one I saw as a gravestone to those who died in the Carricks. I was eager to explore the lighthouse and locate the memorial marker close by, erected by St. Patrick’s in Montreal in 1909. But thanks to the language barrier, checking in took a bit longer than we’d expected, and we were forced to rush back to the museum. The monuments would have to wait a bit longer.
We met Rose Marie and Terry in the lobby of the Gaspe Museum. They are both bright and ebullient souls, white-haired and tanned, radiant in their retirement. After some days of anonymity, it was an odd comfort to be recognized and known. We were greeted with smiles and embraces, and we shared tales of our travels, the moose we’d seen, etc., The Stanleys divided the year between Florida and Ontario and had returned to town for a family wedding. Together we ventured into the archives, which looked to me like one found in a good university library. Jeannot the archivist was busy in the back, and while we waited, Beth entertained the boys. Meanwhile, Rose Marie, remarkably, found that one of the workers in the gift shop was also a descendant of a Carricks survivor, one she’d never met before. As they chatted, Terry and I talked.
He explained that for many years, he’d worked with The Gaspe SPEC, a newspaper published out of Quebec. He’d risen from a volunteer to a writer to an editor to a Member of the Board and had overseen both the movement from monthly to weekly publication as well as the modernization to computerized systems. In turn, I told Terry that I was eager to see Le Voyager because I’d come up with a scheme to locate the article in question. Once I knew the scope of the archives, I would post an ad on Craiglist or in the local Gaspe paper. Surely I could find a college student on summer break, or a museum employee in search of some extra pocket money, anyone who would flip through a few hundred pages, scanning for any article written by Arthur Kavanagh. At ten bucks an hour, it couldn’t take more than twenty hours, I reasoned, and a couple hundred dollars seemed a fair price to have the original document. Terry agreed it seemed like a good way forward.
Jeannot the archivist finished his task and appeared. He was a slender man with a tight beard and a bright blue checkered shirt. He spoke English with a gentle French accent and recalled me from our email correspondence and the one phone call we had shared. Once again, he told me he regretted that Le Voyager wasn’t digitally archived. The project had started the previous summer but funding was withdrawn. I thanked him for the help he had provided—notably scanning in and sending me some other articles written by Arthur Kavanagh. I asked if I could see the archives of Le Voyager.
“They are downstairs,” Jeannot said. “Not for the public.”
Terry and I exchanged a glance. I said, “I’ve come a very long way, and it would mean a great deal to me.”
Jeannot smiled but didn’t budge. Terry explained his journalism background and said he was curious to see Le Voyager as well. “If we’re not allowed downstairs, maybe you could bring one of the bound volumes up to us. Just so we could see it.”
Jeannot relented and excused himself. My anticipation intensified as we waited. I imagined him returning with a book tucked under his arm, something the size of a high school yearbook. A weekly publication from a place called Murchdochville? I pictured such a thing to be not much more than a church bulletin. Jeannot backed through the door and turned, now wearing white gloves, carrying with both hands what looked more like an oversized Bible. He set the weighty book down before us on a table. It was at least a thousand dusty pages, and its dimensions were similar to a supermarket tabloid. Jeannot shrugged and stated the obvious, “It is quite large.”
Terry said, “May I look?”
Again Jeannot asked why. After Terry again offered only his curiosity, the archivist shrugged and stepped back. Terry sat, pulled open the thick cover, and began to carefully peel back the pages. Over his shoulder I saw that each page was crammed with dozens of small ads and brief stories. The layout was noisy and crowded. One story he pointed to was about an upcoming wrestling match with dwarves. Terry said, “They’d pull these from anywhere, just to make content. Mostly it was about selling advertisements, you see.”
I turned to Jeannot. “This covers a year?”
“And how many years are there altogether?”
Now I understood his reticence. He saw me as an eccentric American, looking not for a needle in a haystack but a needle in thirteen of them. I thanked Jeannot again for his help, and he tried to offer some comfort, saying that perhaps the project to scan the archives would be re-funded. But I could tell by his voice that this was nothing like an expectation. The proof I sought was nearby, tantalizingly close, but unless I could devote weeks to the search, I had no practical way to find it.
I glanced up to my sons, sitting with my wife on a couch by a large window in the corner. Terry, who’d had the book open perhaps two minutes total, said, “Hey Neil, check this out.”
I looked down and followed his finger to a half page “Letters to the Editor” section. My eyes fell to a short one signed with a familiar name, Arthur Kavanagh. His letter referenced a previous mention of The Carricks and offered some basic information about the wreck, along with the family connection. The last paragraph read:
“The only other family, I know, whose ancestors were on ‘The Carricks’ is the family of Mr. James O’Boyle from New York City, whose grandfather Cornelius O’Boyle and his brother, both single at the time, managed to reach Quebec and then New York. We have maintained a correspondence for over 10 years.”
Terry beamed. I was silent. Jeannot said, “That is incredible.”
I recall feeling a bit dizzy, vaguely lightheaded. I’d never expected or even dared dream of actually finding the article on this visit. The sheer odds of it were overwhelming. In a couple minutes, Terry had stumbled across the one page in about ten thousand that we were in search of. He and I went to tell our wives. Jeannot, a bit bewildered, made copies. The letter appears in the edition dated April 7, 1960.
Later, Beth and I left the museum with new friends, a heady buzz, and a curled photocopied page that felt to me like a treasure. But oddly, something was incomplete. I was not satisfied. As my wife drove us back to the hotel, I wondered about James O’Boyle’s identity. (Some quick research later showed him to be my grandmother Rose’s brother. He died in 1976). My link to Cornelius and Owen had been authenticated. Not long after, when I sent John McKeon a PDF of the page, he concluded that the O’Boyles must have bribed the captain for secret passage, not unheard of. Perhaps they were even stowaways. But that day, on that drive, when I should have felt victorious and giddy, something gnawed at me still. I felt incomplete. Some distance still needed to be closed.
After we ate and settled into our hotel room, we walked across the quiet highway to the lighthouse. It was evening now, but since the sun doesn’t set till nine or ten that far north, there was still plenty of sunlight tinged with gold and amber. A half dozen other folks, some with ice cream from the store next door, wandered around, and we looked out from the observation platforms at the Atlantic. My son James and I saw the dorsal fin of a small whale, maybe a pilot. We watched gannets fold their wings and dive into the choppy waves. Beth began taking pictures, of a cannon and an anchor, of historical markers in French and English offering details of the lighthouse and its origins. Owen and James, cooped up in a car for dozens of hours the last days, began to run in the grass, clearly delighted at the chance to really stretch their legs. I stood at the wooden fence at the edge of the cliff, looked down at the water crashing into the rocks. I stared out into the ocean, strained to imagine a sailing ship tilted to its side, my ancestors thrashing in the water. There was a fine breeze and behind me, I could hear my sons laughing. I had the miraculous page from Le Voyageur. Everything was pleasant and good, but something essential was absent.
After a while, I wandered back to Beth, who was taking pictures of the boys against the lighthouse now. They were being goofy and I encouraged them to take one serious shot for every silly one, a worthwhile compromise to which they agreed. They were good sports and Beth backed up, moved in closer again, had them switch sides. With the setting sun behind her, the light on the boys was lovely.
Beth’s the one who saw the shadows.
She told the boys to stand still, then she moved to her right and shifted the camera’s aim. It didn’t point at Owen and James anymore, but at the white wall of the lighthouse, where their shadows were cast in crystalline silhouette. Owen had one arm slung over James’ shoulder, and the two shadows leaned into each other for support.
Seeing this, something swelled in my chest. All along, I’d been imagining Cornelius and Owen as old men, my ancestors. In my mind’s eye, they were bearded and wise figures, removed from me by time and impossible to know. Now here, this shadowy sight unlocked a truer and better understanding. Long before Cornelius was my great great grandfather, he was a brother. He and Owen surely ran in the grass back in County Mayo, surely laughed and played much as my boys laughed and played. The two of them had a relationship not unlike the ones my own sons had, or the one I had with my brother John, or the one John’s two sons had, who were not far from the age of the O’Boyle boys when they fled the famine.
Looking at those beautifully haunting shadows, so black and crisp and anonymous, I was convinced I was peering back through the centuries. At one point, it seemed certain to me, Cornelius must’ve turned to his little brother and said, “If we stay here, we’re going to die.” And they knew together they had to leave. How easy it was for me to picture my own brother looking out for me like this, or my elder son looking out for my younger, and how painful to imagine others on that hellish boat, in those horrible waters—not Cornelius and Owen, but me and John, Owen and James.
My wife snapped a few more shots. The boys were exhausted from frolicking and someone raised the idea of getting ice cream. I was quick to agree. I’d gotten all I came for.
By revering my ancestors, I had increased the distance between us, removed their essential humanity. I saw them as historic, even mythical figures, not people. Whatever our heritage, whatever paths our ancestors walked, we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Without their endurance, perseverance, toil, misery, and luck, none of us would’ve come into existence. So it’s right to be grateful and honor them. After my experience, I may argue though that a good way to honor them is to recognize that while we can’t ever know what life was like for them, it’s easier to try if we view them first as people like us. Like us, they had hopes, dreams, regrets, triumphs and failures. Like us, each of them was a single link in the chain stretching back into the distant past and forward, into a future as unknowable as the vast and open sea.