FAMINE AND SHIPWRECK, an Irish Odyssey, a film by Brian McKenna. World Broadcast Premiere, CBC TV– Doc Zone, Thursday March 17, 2011, 9:00 PM ET/PT

Famine and Shipwreck, an Irish Odyssey, was produced by Natalie Dubois and Arnie Gelbart.

A Film by Brian McKenna
Produced by Natalie Dubois and Arnie Gelbart

World Broadcast Premiere
CBC TV– Doc Zone
Thursday March 17, 2011
9:00 PM ET/PT

Repeats: Friday March 18, 2011 at 10 pm (ET/PT) on CBC News Network

On March 17, Canadians celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with parades, whiskey and songs. But for millions of Irish-Canadians, there is a story of unspeakable sadness at the heart of Canada’s Irish experience.  It is a story seldom mentioned, even today. Some call it the Irish potato famine. Others call it the Great Starvation. And others do not shrink from calling it a great crime. The saga has a million stories and on March 17, CBC TV’s Doc Zone will let you discover Famine and Shipwreck, an Irish Odyssey, a film by Brian McKenna, a story that’s one in a million.

In the Spring of 1849, a coffin-ship called the Hannah, carrying 180 Irish emigrants fleeing Ireland’s potato famine, hit an ice reef in the strait near Cape Ray, off the coast of Newfoundland. The captain, a 23 year-old Englishman, fled in the only lifeboat, leaving his passengers to drown or freeze to death. Seventeen hours later, the survivors were rescued by another famine ship, the Nicaragua.

Famine and Shipwreck, an Irish Odyssey tells this extraordinary tale of horror and survival. The documentary combines drama – treated with visual effects, to recreate the shipwreck and heroic survival of some passengers – with powerful documentary elements, including: passengers’ descendants and historians’ testimonies, and impressive archives of letters, photographs, documents, newspaper articles, and art.

The film focuses on Canadian Tom Murphy and his mother Jane and their emotional quest to discover how their ancestors, Bridget and John Murphy, survived starvation and shipwreck to build a new life in the green fields of Canada. The two head to Ireland where they meet fourth-generation cousins, Sharon Donnelly and her husband Padraig. They retrace the story of the famine and the horrible conditions their Murphy ancestors endured before and after boarding the Hannah. They sail to the place where the ship sank, and feel the wintry conditions that stranded passengers faced.

At least one million famine victims are buried in mass graves all over Ireland. At least as many left the country forever.  Twenty-five per cent of Canadians and half of all Ontarians boast Irish blood. Most trace their history to the Great Starvation exodus.

Between 1845 and 1850, the potato blight struck Northwest Europe, hitting Ireland – where the poor depended on potato crops to survive – most profoundly. When other European governments took crisis measures, the British parliament left Ireland’s fate in the hands of her 10,000 landlords – who continued to ship food to England. Some call it an act of extermination. To survive, the poor were forced to abandon all property and take refuge in Dickensian workhouses or board coffin-ships bound for Canada and the U.S. – all-new nightmares which killed many more.

Famine and Shipwreck, an Irish Odyssey was shot in Ireland, Quebec, Ontario and off the coast of Prince Edward Island, in 2010.  It never would have been possible without the incredible efforts of Paddy Murphy from Ontario, who traced his genealogy back to his Irish roots in South Armagh, Ireland.

Famine and Shipwreck, an Irish Odyssey is a Galafilm production, produced in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Radio-Canada, with the financial participation of the Canadian Media Fund, the Quebec tax credit and the Federal tax credit, and developed with the financial participation of the SODEC.



ARNIE GELBART – Executive producer

Over the course of his prolific career, Arnie Gelbart, the president and founder of Agel Consultants and Galafilm, has won many awards, including a Genie award, many Prix Gémeaux and Gemini awards, a Prix Europa and a Primetime Emmy award. His company has a resounding catalogue of over 300 hours of award-winning and commercially successful entertainment.

Gelbart founded Galafilm in 1990. Since then, he has produced more than 200 hours of documentary programs, such as the television series Cirque du Soleil Fire Within, which won a 2003 Primetime Emmy award and two Gemini awards. His television documentary The Origins of AIDS, sold to a dozen countries, was seen in the U.S.A. on the Sundance Channel and received a 2004 Prix Europa for TV Current Affairs, as well as an Emmy nomination. Gelbart has also produced other award winning documentary series and documentary films directed by Brian McKenna : The Great War, Big Sugar and Battlefield Quebec : Wolfe and Montcalm.

Gelbart is a member of the APFTQ, and sits on the board of the CFTPA.

UQAM graduate and documentary producer, Natalie Dubois has been working in the film and TV industry for more than 20 years. Before producing Famine and Shipwreck, an Irish Odyssey, she co-produced with France : To Bee or not to Bee, a documentary on the mysterious disappearance of bees, Brian McKenna’s Battlefield Quebec : Wolfe and Montcalm, a historical documentary re-enacting the famed battle on the Plains of Abraham, and Anthrax War, which examines the secret world of bio-weapons research.

In recent years, she has produced Brian McKenna’s four-hour series The Great War and Robin McKenna’s documentary The Great War Experience, as well as line produced such award-winning documentaries as Sylvie Groulx’s La classe de Madame Lise winner of the Jutra award for best documentary, In the Crossfire : Louise Arbour’s Battle for Human Rights directed by Ole Gjerstad, winner of a Gémeaux for Best Documentary in 2006, the acclaimed Mon été au camping produced for Radio-Canada in 2004 and Brian McKenna’s six-hour series Chiefs for History.

BRIAN MCKENNA – Director | Writers
Filmmaker, historian, author and journalist Brian McKenna is best known for provocative, prize-winning films on Canada’s history: The Great War, Big Sugar, The Killing Ground, War at Sea, The Valour and the Horror, Web of War, War of 1812, Fire and Ice: The Rocket Richard Riot, Chiefs, Korea: The Unfinished War, Battlefield Quebec : Wolfe and Montcalm.  McKenna also directed the Gemini Award-winning television program Memoirs of Pierre Trudeau, a five-part series broadcast on both the French and English networks of the CBC. A companion volume to the series became a Canadian publishing bestseller.

In 2003, McKenna was honoured with the prestigious Gordon Sinclair Award for Broadcast Journalism at the 18th Annual Gemini Awards.

Brian McKenna is also a founding producer of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Oscar-winning current affairs show, The Fifth Estate, a former parliamentary correspondent for The Montreal Star and co-author of the Penguin Books history of Montreal’s legendary mayor, Jean Drapeau. He is the founding chairman of the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, prompted by his experience with war, torture and terrorism.

Brian McKenna is a graduate of the Loyola College (then part of University of Montreal) with degrees in English Literature (1967) and Communication Arts (1968).