Remembering a Memory

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By Ronald Rudin

Remembering a Memory/Mémoire d’un souvenir directed by Robert McMahon (Royal Ontario Museum) and produced by Ronald Rudin (Concordia University), is a documentary film that tells the story of a monument whose own story has been transformed in the hundred years since its unveiling.

On 15 August 1909, a fourteen-metre tall Celtic Cross was unveiled on Grosse-Île, a tiny island in the St-Lawrence just east of Quebec City, which is the site of the largest cemetery outside Ireland for victims of the Potato Famine of the 1840s. Grosse-Île had been a quarantine station since the 1830s, and in 1847 alone over 5000 people died there.

Constructed by the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), the Cross told a number of stories in three languages on panels at its base, but the emotional punch came from the French inscription (which paid tribute to Catholic priests who had tended to the ill) and the Irish one (which declared the Famine an act of British genocide). The unveiling ceremony underscored this bicultural understanding, with speeches in both Irish and French, pointing to a shared Irish-French Canadian legacy borne out of the tragedy of the 1840s.

Exactly 100 years after the unveiling, however, little of that shared understanding remained as the centenary events, again sponsored by the AOH, were staged exclusively in English, with barely a word of recognition that French Canadians had been a part of the Grosse-Île experience. So what had happened to the story of a shared Irish-French Canadian moment?

Remembering a Memory explores this shifting memory, recreating the unveiling ceremony of 1909 by means of photographs and the transcript of the speeches delivered, and providing the viewer with both the words and images from the centenary of the unveiling in 2009. The film includes commentary from participants in the centenary as well as “ordinary” people on the street in Quebec City, in addition to explanations for this shift in historical understanding from experts in both Irish and French-Canadian history.

The film, along with supplementary material, is now available in both English and French.

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