The Black Rock, which will be the centrepiece of Montreal’s Monument Park, commemorates the Irish who perished on Canadian shores fleeing famine back home in the 1840s. Peter Stockland

Let the Montreal Irish story be told

  • November 9, 2023

An Irish lad in his mid-teens disembarked from a vessel at the teeming port of Montreal into the steaming heat of its “Calcutta summer” in 1847.

His name is unknown. His place of birth is unknown, as is his exact point of departure from Ireland. Unknown, as well, is whether he travelled with family, companions or alone.

What is known is that he was one of 70,000 Irish migrants fleeing famine who overwhelmed Montreal’s population of 50,000 that year. Known, too, is that he was disabled and walked with a crutch. There is certainty that in as little as 24 hours, he was dead of the typhus that raged among the starving, ragged, bewildered arrivals.

Because the city had run out of coffins, he was wrapped in a sheet, taken from the fever sheds in the neighbourhood called Victoria Village and dumped into what a director of the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation describes as the “largest mass grave in Canada.”

In the consecrated ground of that 3.6-acre Montreal cemetery, at least 6,000 Irish bodies from 1847 lie buried still. On Oct. 19, after 176 years of those dead being commemorated, forgotten and literally paved over in the name of progress, Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson, of the Anglican Diocese of Montreal, officially transferred to the Monument Park Foundation legal title for the land. Her announcement cleared a major hurdle for the foundation to create a fitting memorial to the Irish dead, and to the enduring and varied spirit of Irishness in Montreal, Quebec and Canada.

“It’s the last piece of the puzzle,” says foundation director and treasurer Scott Phelan. “It had really been a desecration. But the people we’ve been working with at the city of Montreal, at Hydro Quebec and the Anglican Church have said to us ‘we appreciate this is sacred ground to your community, that there’s a key heritage meaning not just to the Irish community but to Montreal.’ ”

The centre piece of the Monument Park will be a literal touchstone for Irish Montrealers. It’s known locally as the Black Rock, a 30-ton boulder dragged out of the St. Lawrence in 1859 by workers building the nearby Victoria Bridge and placed in the approximate centre of the cemetery. In the later 19th century, Irish Catholics particularly began an annual rite called the Walk to the Stone to keep alive community memory of the thousands who died fleeing the famine. The British government-approved An Gorta Mor, as it’s called in Ireland, starved an estimated one million Irish to death, and drove another million into diaspora hardship.

Phelan paints a word picture that makes the unknown lad with the crutch a metaphor for the fate of those 6,000 dead and, in a wider view, of all the Irish living and dead who battened against the monumental obstacles thrown up by forced emigration to North America.

The boy, estimated to be 14 or 15 years old, was discovered as a set of bones by archeologists called in during 2021 to undertake a dig before pylons to support Montreal’s new elevated rapid transit system were sunk into the cemetery. The lad was one of a dozen or so skeletons exhumed from the top three layers of the buried, and sent for analysis at a lab in Trois Rivières. It’s entirely possible, Phelan says, that DNA might eventually reveal names and origins. Until then, the boy, whose deformed arm and leg indicate he walked with a crutch, will remain an anonymous young Irishman who brings memory and history alive.

“He survived being disabled in Ireland,” Phelan says. “He survived the famine. He survived crossing the Atlantic in a coffin ship. Then he died here on the shores of Montreal (one of) 6,000 people. They all had names. They all had families. They all had stories.”

Their stories will be the heart of the monument park that will emerge on land adjacent to a Hydro Quebec power substation. The northern boundary of the park will be marked by a 30-foot berm that visitors can walk to get an overview of Montreal on one side, and the Black Rock and park on the other. The park will feature an interpretive centre and small amphitheatre underneath the berm.

The Monument Park Foundation anticipates a six- to eight-year period for full completion.

Realizing the dream of revitalizing memory involves the very practical challenge of relocating Bridge Street, a four-lane strip through industrial wasteland flanked by a Costco Warehouse and gas station to the west, and the Victoria Bridge entrance to the southeast. Phelan says the current civic administration under Mayor Valerie Plante is enthusiastic about the infrastructure shifting. He acknowledges, though, that some luck of the Irish will be needed to ensure commitments are kept by future city councils.

Yet he is almost feverishly optimistic about success given that the years since the Monument Park Foundation began pushing to reclaim the site in 2014 have been increasingly marked by exemplary levels of cooperation. In many ways, current mutual engagement mirrors the way Montrealers of 1847 came together in response to the Irish arrival tragedy.

“When you think about (coffin) ships coming in, disgorging hundreds of people every day, people who are malnourished, even starving from famine, they’ve got only the clothes on their backs, they’re unilingual Irish speakers, they don’t speak English or French for the most part, and to the eternal credit of Montrealers, the city comes together to help them, to care for them,” Phelan says.

“Nuns set up fever sheds. Doctors come. Nurses. Grey Nuns die from the fever sheds, other sisters get sick and yet when they recover, they go back to serve the sick and the dying. The mayor, John Easton Mills, he’s an American, but he goes to the fever sheds to help and gets typhus and dies in November. Montrealers give clothes, they provide food, they provide jobs, they take in over 1,000 orphans. It represents the largest humanitarian effort in Canadian history. And nobody knows the story,” he adds.

Key to the history, and also to the future that the Monument Park initiative looks toward, is that the embrace of the sick, the dying, the famished Irish, was a profoundly cross-cultural and ecumenical moment that has been replicated in the willingness of the Anglican Church to transfer ownership of the park site. The very building of the Victoria Bridge that produced the 30-ton monumental rock in 1858  led to the cemetery coming under the ownership of the Protestant company responsible for the construction. It explains why the Black Rock itself refers on its face only to “immigrants” and does not use the word Irish.

It’s a fitting summary of part of the history of the site, which became one of disregard and even destruction of Irishness and Irish memory for much of the 20th century. In the 1960s, the cemetery was paved over to provide access to an expressway. At one point, poobahs from Hydro Quebec even ordered the Black Rock itself relocated until an Irish outcry forced it to reconsider.

That’s a world removed from current civic thinking, Phelan says, which regards the park as a “gateway” into the city and the opportunity to revitalize history as a complement to reviving an industrial eyesore.

“In six to eight years, you won’t recognize this as an industrial wasteland anymore. There will be the park, housing, a bike route, walkways, a completely different place,” he says.

For Jane McGaughey, an associate professor of Irish diaspora studies in Concordia University’s School of Irish Studies, the donation of property from the Anglican Church and the clearing of hurdles to park construction has a concrete pedagogical benefit. One of the exercises McGaughey gives her students in a course on the history of the Irish in Montreal is to find emblematic evidence of the city’s Irish presence.

“Having that kind of space re-purposed as the Foundation plans is really vital to making sure it’s a history that’s known rather than a hidden history,” McGaughey says. “So, for my students, having a space I can point them to and say ‘this is the park around the Black Rock, go and tell me what you feel standing there’ as opposed to trying to find shamrocks on various buildings, allows things to have much more tangible focus. It (will be) a space for a lot of history to be walked through.”

McGaughey stresses, though, that the park will give concreteness to a cornerstone of the School of Irish Studies: teaching, learning and speaking of Irish identities, plural, rather than a singular, monolithic version of Irishness.

“In class, I use the line that the potato blight (prime cause of the 1847 famine) didn’t care what religion you were, nor did typhus. The disease didn’t care how you ended the Lord’s Prayer. It was a disease that hit everyone and the foundation’s vision of the park has been to make it a story of the whole city as opposed to the Irish and the city only.

“Once it becomes a literal, physical part of the city, that can’t be forgotten. Instead, it can strike something really deep, very human, to have somewhere you can go and be aware that more than what’s currently going on around you has happened here,” says McGaughey.

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