By Robert Kearns
In the Summer of 1847 the Toronto Waterfront witnessed one of the greatest human tragedies in the history of the city. Between May and October of that year, over 38,000 Irish Famine emigrants arrived in the city at a time when its population was a mere 20,000 people. Many were suffering from Typhus and Cholera, which they had contracted on board the coffin ships during the arduous six-week voyage from Ireland. By the end of October 1847, 1,100 of them had died and were buried in a mass grave at Queen and Power Street, adjacent to St. Paul’s Church. However, one certainty remains. The death toll would have been inordinately higher had it not been for the foresight and generosity of Torontonians, from all walks of life, who responded so quickly to the plight of the Irish.
In 1997, communities of Irish Diaspora all over the world gathered to mark the 150th anniversary of the Famine. Throughout Ireland itself there was a collective grieving for the massive loss of life from starvation, disease and emigration. Many significant memorials, parks and public sculptures were dedicated to this event. These included the donation of seven magnificent life-sized bronze sculptures to the people of Dublin by the Smurfit Foundation. These works, by renowned Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie, depict Irish famine victims leaving Ireland from the Dublin Quays of the River Liffey. The sculptures are powerfully evocative and depict the starvation and destitution with gritty clarity.
These sculptures were the direct inspiration for the Ireland Park Project in Toronto. The opportunity to create a point of ‘Arrival’ in the new world for Gillespie’s sculptures was profoundly engaging. The Famine was a specific historical event that originated in one country and city, and crossed an ocean to reach the shores of Canada, and ultimately the waterfront of Toronto. In 1998, following a visit to Toronto, Rowan Gillespie agreed to sculpt a group of four figures depicting the ‘Arrival’ here in Toronto of the Dublin Bronzes.
It was evident from the outset that a waterfront location was critical in linking the points of departure and arrival. An extensive search of the Toronto waterfront was initiated, which quickly identified Bathurst Quay as the ideal location. It is situated at the entrance to Toronto Harbour, and has an unobstructed view to the East of the sunrise and the city skyline. Moreover, Bathurst Street has historical significance, as the city authorities had erected fever sheds in 1847 on the northeast corner of Bathurst and Front Street. Owing to the tremendous support of Councilor Olivia Chow, in July 2000 Toronto City Council ratified a proposal to make the southeast corner of Bathurst Quay available for an Irish Famine Memorial and in March 2004 Ireland Park foundation formally signed a 20-year lease with the city for an area of land measuring 70 feet by 300 feet.
While it is centrally located on the Toronto waterfront, the site is also a place somewhat removed where a visitor can embrace the solemnity of the Irish Famine memorial without interruption and distraction. In the course of the next few years the new Waterfront Trail will wind alongside the Park. Lake Ontario forms the southern and eastern boundary while the adjacent Canada Malting Company grain elevators tower over the city to the north. The old repositories of abundant grain harvests stand in stark and symbolic contrast to the plight of the emigrants and the land they left behind.
The design for Ireland Park has been carried out by Jonathan M. Kearns, Architect and Partner with Kearns Mancini Architects. The design calls for the construction of a wall made of large irregular slabs of limestone on the western boundary of the Park. Additional slabs are laid horizontally on the ground and reach out from the wall like fingers to the east, towards a rolling grass surface under the existing trees. The effect is to create a landscape similar to that of the west of Ireland. A tall standing stone of pink granite, quarried from County Clare, in Ireland, will stand in the grass as a silent memorial to the 1,100 Famine victims buried without name in the mass grave at St. Paul’s Church. The Western New York Irish Famine Memorial Committee in Buffalo has made this stone available to Ireland Park Foundation. At the entrance to the Park along the northern boundary will stand a tower made of circular disks of edged glass, hollowed inside, which will be illuminated at night. Below and to the East will stand the four bronze sculptures of Gillespie. The principal figure of a tall man is depicted with his arms raised in exaltation at the prospect of Toronto before him. Standing beside and to the rear is an orphaned child. Towards the back, a man is collapsed on the ground. Completing the group stands a pregnant woman – a symbol of the hope and new life arrival in Toronto meant for the Irish.
On June 21, 2004 over a hundred and twenty-five people gathered at Bathurst Quay for the official launch of the Ireland Park project. Thus far, Ireland Park Foundation has raised $600,000 of the required $1.5M, assisted greatly by a seed grant of $100,000 from the Ireland Fund of Canada. The success of the fundraising campaign together with the support and cooperation of the City of Toronto will enable work on the Park to commence in 2005 with formal dedication of the Park taking place on June 21, 2007, the 160th anniversary of the Famine immigrants’ arrival in Toronto.
The creation of Ireland Park, which is being funded by gifts and built at no cost to the city, is an opportunity for all to preserve an essential element of the Waterfront’s history. It will stand not only as a memorial to those who died but also as a commemoration of the Irish experience in Canada and the long history shared between our two great nations. The Park will speak of the kindness and generosity of Toronto’s citizens, when out of the ashes of desperation and devastation blossomed the flower of help and humanity. It will serve as a landmark for the Irish Diaspora here in Canada, a place to commemorate the collective tribulations of our past and the triumph of our present. This quiet place of contemplation will express the gratitude owing to the citizens of Toronto for the manner in which they have welcomed all immigrants throughout the course of history. Ireland Park is our bridge from the past to the future – a living legacy for the 3.8 million Canadians who claim Irish ancestory and a reminder to any nation that the darkest hour may indeed be just before the dawn. We invite you to share in this great experience and request your assistance in our fundraising campaign.
For more information, or to donate to Ireland Park, please visit www.irelandparkfoundation.com or call Robert Kearns at (416) 363-6474 or email to Robert@irelandparkfoundation.com.