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Bronze shoes brought to St. John’s to mark beginning of Irish famine heritage trail | CBC News

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What will become an international trail of Irish famine victims began in St. John’s this week, a reflection of what the country’s ambassador calls the strength of the Irish diaspora in Newfoundland and Labrador.

A trail of bronze shoes, cast from real antique shoes discovered bundled in the thatch of a 19th-century cottage in Ireland, will stretch from Canada to as far away as Australia. 

Ambassador Eamonn McKee says by the time it’s completed, it’ll be the longest heritage trail in the world, marking the journey of Irish famine victims as they dispersed around the globe.

“They were looking for new homes and new futures, essentially for survival,” McKee said. “It’s a really historic event.”

More than 100,000 Irish immigrants fled after a destructive mould ruined potato crops across the country. They crossed to St. John’s on ships over the Atlantic, often in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

About 15 per cent of passengers died on the journey, McKee says. But the heritage trail — markers of a set of bronze shoes on a granite plinth, scattered around Canada and the world — isn’t meant to portray tragedy.

“This is not about victimhood,” McKee said. “This is about people who are resilient, who are taking control of their own circumstance in desperate, desperate conditions.

“These are people that are heading into the unknown. They have decided there is no future in Ireland.… So it does display remarkable agency as well as resilience. They have no idea what they’re getting into.”

Ambassador Eamonn McKee holds up a pair of bronze shoes, part of an installation at the St. John’s Basilica to memorialize the Irish immigrants who fled the potato famine and landed in ports around the world. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

The Irish have immigrated to Newfoundland since the end of the 1600s, often as farmers and fishermen. When boats began arriving in the St. John’s harbour in the late 1840s, the fleeing Irish found a community that embraced them.

“They’re coming to find their own people here. The Irish have been coming here for 300 years, and they’re well established.”

That’s why the Irish Famine Way begins in St. John’s, marked by a ceremony Friday at the Basilica, McKee says.

“It’s dedicated to all those who offer hope through compassion and success through opportunity to the stranger on your shore.”

LISTEN | Ambassador Eamonn McKee details the launch of the Irish Famine Way in St. John’s, and the horrendous conditions refugees endured to get there:

Why the Irish ambassador to Canada is in St. John’s with a pair of bronze shoes

Eamonn McKee, the Irish ambassador to Canada, launched the Global Irish Famine Way on Thursday in St. John’s. The trail notes Irish emigration and will be marked with pairs of bronze shoes. The CBC’s Mike Simms and Danny Arsenault were at the event that started at the St. John’s harbour.

The bronze shoes were shipped, not flown, to St. John’s on an Irish marine research vessel to better replicate the journey of those who left Ireland in search of survival.

The shoes themselves were cast from a bundle found in an abandoned cottage in Ireland, once lived in by a family fleeing the famine.

“I think we can all imagine that if you’re an immigrant family leaving your home, if you bind shoes together and put them in the thatch, it’s almost like saying you’re always bound to your home,” McKee said. “And they became a perfect symbol for the journey of the Irish immigrants.”

Many of the immigrants went on to settle in other parts of Canada, travelling down the St. Lawrence to Montreal, Kingston, Ont., and Toronto. Other bronze shoes will mark mass graves where the sick died of typhus after their months-long journeys.

A man steps off a boat
The shoes were delivered to Canada aboard an Irish research vessel. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

But a significant number of them survived, thanks to help from the locals, some of whom gave their lives to care for the ill. Indigenous communities, including the Haudenosaunee, Wyandot and Anishinaabe, also raised funds for the poor newcomers, despite facing their own struggles.

“It’s a remarkable story of Canadian compassion when it was faced with what remains the largest humanitarian catastrophe to reach these shores,” McKee said.

“It’s to Canada’s eternal credit that they responded in that way.”

The bronze shoes will include a QR code describing the stories of the local populations and their impact on the Irish diaspora.

“There’s a lot of people in Canada who would trace their ancestry back to the famine,” McKee says. “It’s an important story for a lot of people.”

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