In 2011, a grim discovery was made on a beach in Cap-des-Rosiers, Quebec: the bones of three children, which appeared to have been dredged up by a storm. Then, in 2016, remains from another 18 people were found. After years of investigation, reports Morgan Lowrie of the Canadian Press, Canada’s national parks agency has confirmed what locals have long suspected—that these bones belonged to immigrants who met a terrible fate while trying to escape Ireland’s 19th-century potato famine.
More than a million people died during the devastating crop failure that spanned from 1845 to 1849, and hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens fled to North America in search of relief. Because passage to Canada was cheaper than the voyage to the United States, the country received “some of the most destitute and bereft Irish,” according to Library and Archives Canada. Most of the ships carrying immigrants headed to the port of Quebec—but one, known as the Carricks ship, never made it.
In 1847, the vessel set off from Sligo in northwest Ireland, packed with 180 people. Michael E. Miller of the Washington Post reports that they were farmers, who had worked in the fields of Henry John Temple—the future prime minister of Britain—until the famine had destroyed their livelihood. After a month-long journey, just as the ship was approaching Cap-des-Rosiers, a storm hit and all but 48 passengers drowned.
“The dead—weakened by cold, hunger and exhaustion—were said to be strewn along the beach the following day, then buried, anonymously, in a common grave nearby,” wrote Ingrid Peritz of the Globe and Mail in 2011.
But confirming that the remains in fact belonged to the Carricks dead was no simple task. Buried in a stony beach for more than 160 years, the bones that surfaced in 2011 were highly fragile—“melted, nearly,” Isabelle Ribot, a bio-archaeologist at the University of Montreal, tells Miller. Extracting DNA proved impossible, but there were signs that the remains had come from children suffering from malnutrition; a curve in one bone, for instance, showed indications of rickets, which is caused by prolonged vitamin D deficiency.
The discovery of 18 more sets of remains in 2016 offered further evidence that matched oral accounts of the shipwreck. For one, the dead had not been buried in coffins, but in a mass grave. The bones belonged to people of varying ages—there were nine adults, three adolescents and six children—suggesting that a cataclysmic event had caused their demise. And once again, there were signs of malnutrition in the skeletons.
Some of the sets of remains uncovered in 2016 were sufficiently well preserved to undergo chemical testing, which helped scientists determine that the individuals had been eating diets that were low in protein and high in potatoes, pointing to a rural population that would have been typical of Ireland at the time, according to Spencer Van Dyk of the CBC.
Now that scientists are confident in the identification of the remains, the bones will be buried near a memorial to the shipwreck on the Cap-des-Rosiers beach, erected in 1990 in honor of the victims.
“Knowing the context and knowing there are descendants of the people who survived, it is very emotional and very sensitive,” Ribot tells Van Dyk. “We are very blessed to have been able to analyze [the remains] and extract as much information as we can.”