How This All Began, or “Thank you, Margaret Atwood”

"The imagination can run a bit riot when one has an actual abandoned lunatic asylum just down the shore that surprisingly few people know about..."
© Jane McGaughey

It was only a moment on the screen.  Just one tiny clip, maybe five or ten seconds at most.  Grace Marks, 19th century Canada’s most notorious murderess, was having a flashback to her time at the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto.  Sarah Polley, the director of the CBC/Netflix miniseries Alias Grace, had done a masterful job throughout the production, but it was those few flashes of memory where Grace remembered being held into something akin to an iron maiden that did it. 

Just one brief moment, but more than enough to lead things to where they are now, two years, many archives, and thousands of case studies later.

I have taught a course called, ‘The Irish in Canada’ for nearly a decade at Concordia University’s School of Irish Studies in Montreal, but the 2017/18 academic year was the first time I included Margaret Atwood’s award-winning novel, Alias Grace, as part of the syllabus.  I always like combining history with historical fiction when I know it will spark students’ imaginations, and I hoped that this – a double-murder in 1840s Upper Canada with two Irish immigrants accused of the crime, one of whom was a young woman nearly the same age as the majority of my undergraduate students – would be a solid addition to the curriculum. 

It was.

That brief scene from the tv adaptation of Atwood’s novel wasn’t expanded upon a great deal in the miniseries, but it kept playing around in my mind.  Alias Grace was also memorable for me, personally, because I grew up only a few streets over from Kingston Penitentiary, where much of the novel takes place.

And then there’s Rockwood.  The imagination can run a bit riot when one has an actual abandoned lunatic asylum just down the shore that surprisingly few people know about, even those who have lived in Kingston for decades.

This, roughly, is how the various ideas came together for me in the early months of 2019 while I was on sabbatical: reshaping a favourite course (which almost always leads to new research avenues), growing up in Kingston, binge-watching Netflix, and becoming fascinated with a story that has entranced many people before me: Susanna Moodie, the noted settler colonial author in mid-19th century Canada; academics like Lorna R. McLean, Marilyn Barber, and Barbara Braid, and, of course, a certain author from Toronto.  These elements led to a successful research grant application in the spring of 2019, with Grace Marks’ story used as an opening paragraph to highlight larger questions about how the Irish – both men and women – had been treated in the first official Canadian asylums.

Then came COVID-19 (more on that in a future post) and delays… until, now, in Summer 2021, this website has finally launched.  We have a lot of ideas for what we as a research team want to include here; no doubt, things will change as we go along.  However, for now, credit where credit is due: thank you, Margaret Atwood.  

~ JMcG

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