It began with a ghoulish discovery on Quebec's Gaspé coast. A construction entrepreneur carrying out survey work came across some scattered bones near the wind-battered shoreline.
Authorities were alerted, then the intrigue began. The bones set off on a course that took them from the police to a coroner then finally to their current resting spot, a Montreal forensics lab. And that is where scientists are to undertake a tantalizing probe that could answer a historical mystery: Are the bones linked to a 19th-century maritime tragedy?
The remains were found in May on Cap-des-Rosiers, site of an 1847 wreck that took the lives of a shipload of men, women and children fleeing famine and destitution in Ireland.
Accounts have recorded the fate of the doomed ship, the Carricks, and its victims' burial in a grave close by. But archeologists say the location has never been pinpointed precisely.
The prospect of unlocking the secret of the bones' past has roiled emotions among descendants of the wreck's survivors, some of whom still live only a short drive from where their ancestors first came ashore.
The Carricks left Sligo, Ireland, with almost 200 passengers and crew, completing the transatlantic voyage before foundering off Cap-des-Rosiers. Accounts vary, but most report the deaths of as many as 120 passengers. 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.
"For a whole day two oxcarts carried the dead to deep trenches near the scene of the disaster," author Margaret Grant MacWhirter wrote in a book on the Gaspé published in 1919. "In fall, the heavy storms sweep within sound of the spot. Thus peacefully, with the requiem of the waves and winds they rest."
A half-century after the disaster, the parish of St. Patrick's in Montreal erected a stone marker at Cap-des-Rosiers to the victims whose bodies were recovered and interred. "Sacred to the memory of 187 Irish immigrants from Sligo … 87 are buried here," its inscription reads.
The bones that surfaced in May were found near the monument, said Michel Queenton, a manager with Parks Canada - Cap-des-Rosiers lies within Forillon National Park. The coastline has been affected by erosion and heavy tides, the forces that exposed the human remains.
However, a Parks Canada archeologist says the precise spot of the Carricks burial ground was never documented, and it's not known if it lies at the monument site. Some accounts say the bodies were interred further up the coast in a church cemetery.
Seeking answers, Parks Canada transferred the bones to the Sûreté du Québec, which concluded the discovery wasn't a criminal matter and the bones were likely from the common grave, according to a police spokesman. The case was referred to coroner Gabriel Jean, who found sufficient grounds to order an investigation and forwarded the bones for analysis to Quebec's Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale in Montreal.
The coroner believes the bones, while not making up complete skeletons, are those of four or five people in all, including at least two adults and one child.
"There is a strong probability the bones come from the communal grave," said Geneviève Guilbault, a spokeswoman for the coroner's office. "We want to be sure it's the case."
That prospect has stirred up the ghosts of history for those touched near and far by the tragedy. Georges Kavanagh grew up within walking distance of the monument to the Carricks, and for him it has always been hallowed ground. His ancestors, Patrick Kavanagh and Sarah McDonald, came to the same shores aboard the Carricks (also referred to sometimes as the Carrick, or Carricks of Whitehaven). They survived the harrowing transatlantic voyage with their 12-year-old son, but five daughters perished.
Georges Kavanagh, a unilingual francophone today, feels a strong pull to the story of his Irish forebears, and he travelled to Sligo last year to connect with his roots. He says local oral history always placed the Carricks grave next to the monument, and if the bones prove to be those of the wreck's victims, they deserve a proper burial.
"I consider that to be something of a sacred site," the 71-year-old said from his home in Gaspé, about 50 kilometres from the monument, which he visits regularly. "To think that so many perished in a shipwreck just a few steps from their promised land. I have great admiration for what they tried to do, leaving everything behind for the hope of better living conditions."
The Carricks was one of hundreds of migrant ships bound for the port of Quebec City in 1847, the darkest year of the famine in Ireland. The voyage required a stop at the quarantine station of Grosse-Île, where many refugees met their deaths from disease. Nearly 400 ships sailed that year toward Quebec, the main immigrant gateway into Canada, filled overwhelmingly with Irish passengers. One in five never made it.
The mystery at Cap-des-Rosiers seems to have the makings for an episode of the TV series Bones. And in fact the case could fall into the hands of Kathy Reichs, the author and real-life forensic anthropologist who inspired the Fox show. She works as a consultant at the Montreal forensics lab.
The lab declined a request for an interview about the Cap-des-Rosiers case. But Mark Skinner, a forensic anthropologist and forensic archeologist at Simon Fraser University, said scientists studying the remains could seek out their secrets through methods such as DNA testing or isotopic analysis that could yield clues about diet; that would help determine whether the dead were local residents or from another country such as Ireland.
"The bones should be allowed to speak, they should be allowed to tell us what they can," Prof. Skinner said.
"These people won't live again, but their story can be told. And this story is huge. It's very touching and tragic. It would be nice to at least honour them this way, so their obscure lives are not so obscure, and their lives matter. These people mattered then," he said, "and they have a story to tell now."
Thousands of Irish immigrants died on their way to Canada
While the provenance of the bones at Cap-des-Rosiers is still not yet proven, what is known is what brought the ship, the Carricks, to its shores.
The Irish began leaving their homeland in large numbers in the 1820s, driven by poverty and chronic food shortages. But it took the Great Famine of the 1840s, brought on by the failure of the staple potato crop, to spark the large-scale migrations of 1847.
The disaster drove 1.5 to two million Irish out of Ireland, hundreds of thousands of them to British North America. The years of famine were catastrophic. More than a million in Ireland died of starvation and disease. In less than a decade, the country's population of eight million shrank by a quarter.
In 1847 alone, about 100,000 migrants left Europe for Quebec City - the main port of entry into Canada - most of them of Irish origin. Already debilitated by hunger, the refugees were loaded into dank, unsanitary sailboats, often called coffin ships, where they were vulnerable to diseases such as typhus and dysentery. Of 100,000 people sailing to Quebec City, 5,000 died at sea. Another 5,400 were buried on Grosse-Île, the rocky island in the St. Lawrence River downstream from Quebec City that served as a quarantine station.
Those who didn't succumb to disease faced the terrifying perils of maritime travel. The wreck of the Carricks off the Gaspé coast in 1847 was summarily recorded in the British magazine John Bull at the time: "The vessel encountered a strong gale … and was driven, about two o'clock the next morning, on a dangerous shoal about sixty miles east of [Cap-des-Rosiers] and went to pieces in the course of two hours." The same article then went on to note the wrecks of two other Irish "emigrant ships," with their tragic loss of life - all of it breezily summed up in a single paragraph.