Scholar of the Forgotten

By Louisa Blair, Quebec City, Quebec

Credit: Courtesy of the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph

Teacher, historian, community organizer, writer, publisher and raconteur extraordinaire, the much-mourned Marianna O’Gallagher was largely responsible for bringing to light a neglected aspect of Quebec’s history. Long before Anglophones began to be thought of as one community (“that was thanks to the Parti Québécois!” Marianna said), she started delving into the three centuries of Irish history in Quebec. Thanks to her efforts, Grosse Île Quarantine Station, where thousands of immigrants died of typhus in 1847, is now a National Historic Site. We now know how many priests and ministers died trying to help the immigrants and how many orphans were adopted by Quebec families, assimilating seamlessly into Francophone culture such that today, there are Kellys, O’Neils and O’Sullivans in Quebec City who haven’t spoken English for generations. She knew what the Irish suffered, both in Ireland and in Quebec, and she helped both Ireland and Canada better understand this chapter in history.

Marianna was a consummate storyteller: stories of her home life with her large family, stories from her years as a Sister of Charity, stories from her years teaching history at St. Patrick’s High School, stories of her travels in Ireland, and stories from her years of research and life as a writer and publisher (Carraig Books). She had the raconteur’s love for la petite histoire, the history that can only be revealed through anecdote, lively storytelling and colourful detail. Many of her stories were told to her by her father, whom she adored—I don’t think I ever had a conversation with her in which she didn’t mention him. But she also believed in academic rigour; her ground-breaking research on the Irish in Quebec laid solid foundations for the burgeoning university research on the topic, which continues today at institutions like the School of Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia University.

One of the founders of the community group Irish Heritage Quebec in 1973, Marianna has actively supported anyone, academic or otherwise, interested in Irish or Anglophone history. “She took me under her wing as a historian and welcomed me into the Irish community,” said Lorraine O’Donnell, who curated a recent exhibition on Quebec’s Irish history at the McCord Museum in Montréal. O’Donnell calls Marianna a true public historian, unconstrained by her academic discipline and deeply involved in and responsive to her constituency. “We talk about community vitality,” she said. “Quebec’s Irish community is more vital because of her.”

In 1985, Marianna left her religious community to devote herself to writing down the story of Quebec’s Irish community. But she never lost her faith. In the last days of her life, the Catholic lectionary was always on her bed, bringing her solace in amongst the books of jokes, history and fiction piled on her bedside table. At the end, though, she found the pain hard to bear. “I’ve said to the Lord, ‘Into thy hands I deliver my soul,’” she said to me. “But I guess He’s busy. I wish He’d hurry up.”

Credit: Courtesy of the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph

To her great joy, Marianna lived to see the reinstatement of the St. Patrick's Day parade in 2010, the first major one in Quebec City since 1926. In this city of parades and festivals, most of which are funded by beer or biscuit companies, the St. Patrick's Day parade was refreshingly non-commercial. The streets were crowded, not only with people of Irish heritage—40 per cent of the city’s population, according to Marianna––but also with people interested in everything Celtic, who are even more numerous. The queen of the parade was Marianna, on a tatty-looking sofa in the back of an old pickup truck. It was down-to-earth, funny and dignified all at once: the best of Quebec’s Irish community. Marianna sat there in her trenchcoat, looking absolutely delighted, and waved us all goodbye.

Marianna O’Gallagher died on May 23, 2010. She had been awarded the Ordre national du Québec in 1998 and, in 2002, the Order of Canada and the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal. One of her most cherished possessions, however, was a mahogany cross carved by the inmates of Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison in 1999, after they performed a play inspired by her book Grosse Île: Gateway to Canada, 1832-1937.

Related articles published earlier in Beyond Words

Published on Monday, March 14, 2011

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