Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
It’s not a park you’re likely to happen across by accident, but if you have some time this St. Patrick’s Day, wander over to Ireland Park by the Lakeshore and learn about Irish history. But, the story at Ireland Park isn’t a cheerful one.
In the mid-1840s, during the Potato Famine (an Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger), around one million people left Ireland. Around one million others died in the country. Even those that did leave for other countries, including Canada, didn’t always survive the journey.
Ireland Park, nestled in a strip of grass next to the abandoned Canada Malting Company silo buildings at Éireann Quay,commemorates both the people who made it to Canada and those who didn’t. Five bronze figures face the Toronto skyline, with one man raising his arms towards the buildings. One woman has collapsed to the ground and appears appears to be suffering. According to the Ireland Park Foundation she is “in the last moments of life.”
The sculptures were commissioned by Dublin-born Robert Kearns, now chair of the Ireland Park Foundation, after he saw the famine memorial in Dublin.
In 1997, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the famine, Norma Smurfit commissioned sculptor Rowan Gillespie to create a memorial, which she then gifted to the City of Dublin. The figures are at the Customs House Quay at along the Liffey River and they face east, towards the Irish Sea. The sculpture is called Famine or The Departure and shows figures clutching belongings and, in one case, carrying a small child as they shuffle east.
Kearns asked Gillespie to create a similar memorial for Toronto, and his brother, architect Jonathan Kearns, designed the park. Ireland Park was officially opened in a ceremony with Irish President Mary McAleese, Premier Dalton McGuinty, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Mayor David Miller, and Kearns. The park commemorates the arrival of around 38,000 Irish immigrants between Mary and October 1847, with the bronze sculptures titled Migrants or The Arrival.
The pregnant woman is meant to symbolize hope and new life in a new country, while the young boy is meant to seems apprehensive, and unsure if he should move forward. The figure closest to the grain silos was inspired by Pius Mulvey from Joseph O’Connor’s book Star of the Sea, set in 1847 during the famine. In the book, the Star of the Sea is a ship carrying migrants, including Mulvey, from Ireland to New York.
Behind the figures looking at the skyline is a large block of black limestone from Ireland. The shape resembles a ship, but the limestone has been sliced into several pieces. In the small gaps, names of those who died making the voyage are engraved into the stone.
According to the Ireland Park Foundation, they only knew 32 names of the 1,186 who died on the ship or shortly after arriving in Toronto. Many immigrants died of typhus during an 1847 epidemic, and the boats that carried them were often called “coffin ships” for this reason. Sick people would be quarantined in fever sheds, including at Grosse Île, Quebec, where thousands of Irish immigrants were kept after arriving. Over 800 Irish immigrants died in Toronto fever sheds, built by the Toronto Board of Health at King and John Streets.
According to the foundation website, “Thanks to the great work of Prof. Mark McGowan, his son Patrick and research assistants Michael Chard and Neil Sands, we are proud to have recovered a total to date of 675. Their names will be forever engraved in the limestone sculpture at Ireland Park and have been returned to the citizens of Ireland in a commemorative book.”
The park also has some screens around a glass tower—symbolizing a hopeful beacon—although they were not switched on as of mid-March.
Ireland park took over a decade to create and the foundation gathered $3.5 million to build the memorial and park. The money came from both private and public sources, including the provincial and federal governments and the Government of Ireland. The foundation is working to commemorate Dr. George Robert Grasset, who died in 1847 treating Irish typhus patients, with a memorial at a park named for him at Adelaid and Widmer. The park was dedicated to Grasset and two of his colleagues, Susan Bailey and Edward McElderry, in 2014 when it was just a small green space. Money for development and a memorial will come from the City and the Irish government.
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