Ireland Park will bring immigrant experience to life

  • April 20, 2007
TORONTO - When Ireland Park opens at the foot of Bathurst Street June 21, the 25-metre-long wall commemorating those who died on Toronto’s waterfront in 1847 will display 663 names. Blank spaces have been left for the 461 whose names have disappeared from the historical record.
The Arrival,” a cluster of five statues by Rowan Gillespie commemorate the Irish refugees to Toronto who died in the summer of 1847. (photo courtesy Ireland Park Foundation)
Recovering names of 1,124 people who fled Ireland’s potato famine only to die in 16 fever sheds at King and John Streets has been a herculean challenge for the park’s founders and historian Mark McGowan. More than 2,000 names have been entered into a computer and cross-referenced by historians at St. Michael’s College searching for the forgotten dead. Even as a crew of Irish stone masons is hard at work on the waterfront constructing the wall of remembrance, research continues.

Recovering names lost to memory is more than an exercise in academic history, said McGowan.

“Not only has it given us the opportunity to remember a rather tragic time in our history, but it also has restored the identity of at least 663 of these people who were lost to history,” McGowan said.

As long as the list may be, the real story of what happened in Toronto in 1847 is more about the survivors than the dead.

Pre-Confederation Toronto was little more than a garrison town in Britain’s global empire. In three months in the summer of 1847 the town of 20,000 took in 38,000 refugees — people who had been starved out of their own country and who arrived in the new world with nothing. Some 100,000 Irish came to North America that year, taking on the North Atlantic in overcrowded wooden boats for 45 to 60 days, and they forever changed the cultural landscape of Canada and the United States.

Though tiny Toronto was one of the main points of entry, most went on to New York, Boston and elsewhere. The fact that the majority left Toronto within weeks is part of the reason the city came to forget its role in the potato famine immigration.

Toronto’s Catholic community was also poor in those days. Record keeping wasn’t its strong suit. Records for St. Paul’s Cemetery, which occupied land behind the sanctuary of the modern-day St. Paul’s Basilica, have been lost. The grave markers were removed in the 1870s and most of the graves moved, but there are still bodies under the playground behind St. Paul’s Catholic School.

Bringing the summer of 1847 back to life for Toronto isn’t about glorifying Irish suffering, according to Robert Kearns, the driving force behind Ireland Park.

“To be able to bring this story back to life for the city of Toronto, it adds depth and richness to our city, which has really been lost,” Kearns told The Catholic Register.

Kearns has spent the last 11 years working to raise the money and political support necessary to have Ireland Park built. He believes the story of the Irish refugees of 1847 can be shared by generations of refugees from every part of the world who have since come to Toronto and built the world’s most diverse city.

“The figures, the five bronze sculptures that will stand in the park, they’re not distinctly Irish in appearance,” said Kearns. “They really speak to all immigrants.”

That’s a message governments only recently began hearing, and in March the federal government contributed $500,000 to ensure the park would be built and endowed into the future. That was matched with $500,000 from the Irish government and topped up with $200,000 from the province. But the bulk of funding has come from private sources. It took more than a decade to scrape together $1.7 million, and Kearns is hopeful that by June 21 he will have the last $450,000 needed to ensure the park is not just built but maintained in perpetuity.

Ireland Park will be more than a 25-by-45 metre sculpture garden fronting the Canada Malting grain silos across from the City Centre Airport on Toronto Island. It will be the setting for five Rowan Gillespie sculptures depicting bedraggled, sick, exhausted refugees greeting the sunrise on Toronto’s waterfront. Those sculptures match a group Gillespie created a decade ago which stand at the docks in Dublin depicting their departure. The three-storey-tall wall of remembrance in slabs of grey stone will give the site a kind of prehistoric, Stonehenge setting. But between the sculptures and the wall will be a futuristic glass column lit from its interior and surrounded by computer touch screens. A web site will make Ireland Park both a physical park in Toronto and a virtual presence on the Internet.

Irish President Mary McAleese will be on hand for the unveiling of Ireland Park’s wall of remembrance on the summer solstice.

The story of the park and of the three months in 1847 can be seen .

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