Michael Collins and his daughter runs into Ireland Park in Toronto, finishing the last lag of the Irish Diaspora Run. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Running pilgrimage commemorates Irish-Canadian diaspora

  • July 11, 2016

TORONTO – What started as a 30-day awareness campaign about Irish immigration to Canada in the 1840s became a pilgrimage into his people's past for veteran long-distance runner Michael Collins.

On June 10 Collins, former captain of the 100km Irish National Team and author of 10 books, began the Irish Diaspora Run which saw the 52-year-old travel from Grosse-Île, Que., to Toronto on foot, one marathon a day, one day at time, rain or shine.  

"This has been the greatest pilgrimage for me," said a sweating Collins who arrived at Toronto's Ireland Park just after noon on July 10. "There is a strange experience when you run. You begin to realize that in the old days when we walked everywhere monuments, churches are all within the proximation of how far you can walk or run in a day.

"I was very conscious of that as I ran along, that I was indeed in the spirit and walking in the paths of the people who came before us." 

Although the run evolved into something spiritual for Collins, a devout Catholic, it had been organized as a way to raise awareness about the Irish famine migrants to Canada and spark public support for the Ireland Parks Foundation. 

"The whole purpose of the Ireland Parks Foundation is creating awareness of the Irish migration story to Canada, not just during the famine but before, during and after right up to the present day," said Robert Kearns, chairman and founder of the foundation. "By recalling these events we give them dignity and restore them to memory. We look back to have a better understanding of where we are today and to derive inspiration for the future."

Following the St. Lawrence River, just as thousands of Irish migrants did after fleeing from famine in their homeland during the 1840s, Collins travelled almost 1,000 km passing through Quebec City, Montreal and Kingston on the way to Toronto. It is estimated that he passed the graves of about 12,000 Irish men, women and children who fled the famine. 

"The miles got tough," admitted Collins. "(But) the sense of history really propelled me forward." 

Although the migration claimed many souls already weakened by starvation, some 495,000 Irish migrants survived and settled in Canada between 1840 and 1855. In 1847, Toronto alone, which at the time had a population of about 20,000, took in about 38,550 Irish migrants between June and September.

A second source of inspiration for Collins came from the countless people he passed along the way and the more than 100,000 who visited the social media page which chronicled his journey. 

"There was a lot of people on the road every day and some through social media who supported me," he said. "That was a great sense of inspiration."The hope is that many of those who inspired Collins will in turn be inspired to financially support the Ireland Parks Foundation. 

"We believe that a lot of people will be motivated and inspired by what Michael has done ... and they may decide to support the work that we are doing," said Kearns.

He said the next big project for the foundation will be the opening of a new park in Toronto's entertainment district that will honour Dr. George Robert Grazzette, a physician who died 30 days after becoming the medical director for the famine migrants arriving in Toronto. The new park is expected to open on June 27, 2017. 

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