Irish Canadian Famine Research

Irish Canadian Famine Research

Month: July, 2014

(Radio Interview) Local activists trying to create a memorial for famine Irish immigrants in Montreal

Le Typhus husband and dead wife

Local activists trying to create a memorial and park to remember thousands of Irish immigrants who died of fever after arriving in Montreal
GUESTS: Activists Donovan King + Fergus Keyes

Ireland Park, haunting memorial to Toronto’s Irish immigrants, set to reopen after four year wait

Jennifer Hough | June 18, 2014 8:46 PM ET

National Post:

Monuments that serve as a memorial to the Irish immigrants who fled during the Great Famine of 1847  are seen at Ireland Park in Toronto, Ontario on June 18, 2014.

To the gaggle of taxi drivers who frequent the foot of Bathurst Street on the doorstep of the island airport, what exists behind the construction barricades on Eireann Quay is a bit of a mystery.

One vaguely remembers there is something there, pointing to the top of a huge limestone wall visible behind the fence, but he can’t identify it as Ireland Park.

It’s no wonder, since the small green space — a memorial to the 38,000 Irish immigrants who came to Toronto during the famine of 1847 — has been shuttered by a series of construction projects and, most recently, paperwork, since 2010.

On July 10, the park will reopen, though perhaps only for a short time until more construction closes it again.

The park, funded by the Canadian and Irish governments and private donors, is nestled behind the Canada Malting Silos, between the Billy Bishop airport short-term car park and a new $5-million promenade to the east that extends the dock wall and features a two-toned red and grey maple leaf mosaic pattern.

The park opened in 2007, but closed in March 2010 to allow for demolition of a part of the Canada Malting Silos. That project was immediately followed by construction on the tunnel to the island airport and work on the promenade.

Laura Pedersen/National Post

All that remained was a “record of site condition,” required when a property’s land use changes from industrial to park space, a process that can take up to 18 months. That step is finally complete.

The park will remain closed on the west side for ongoing work on the tunnel. But once the tunnel is done, the park may need to close again for up to a year to repair the crumbling south dock wall.

Robert Kearns, chair of the Ireland Park Foundation, remains patient.

Laura Pedersen/National Post

“As soon as the tunnel is done either in the fall or early next spring, I am hoping the city will start on the south dock wall. But it might mean the park closing until spring 2016 as there will be a major construction site, but it will be up to the city to decide that.”

The city has already pledged $3-million in funding to fix the wall but needs about the same amount again to get that job done.

“I am confident it will happen and the final result will be a place for people to enjoy for hundreds of years.”

Laura Pedersen/National Post

When members of the public do get to visit the park, they will see five bronze sculptures by renowned artist Rowan Gillespie — wretched figures facing the city skyline, some displaying hope and others fear. One lies dying on the ground.

Similar statues stand on Dublin’s quay side as if walking towards the ships bringing them to a new life. In Toronto, the figures are a continuation of that, having just arrived.

There’s also a wall made of Irish limestone with the names of those who arrived in Toronto, but later died.

Laura Pedersen/National Post

“It’s a 14-column wall made of limestone shipped from Ireland,” said Mr. Kearns, originally from Dublin.

“It represents the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland, the last sight seen by emigrants leaving home. The names of the dead are engraved on the gaps in the wall. The park is really a cemetery without bodies, for the people who didn’t make it.”

Laura Pedersen/National Post

Laura Pedersen/National Post


John Easton Mills — The Martyr Mayor of Montreal (Bellelle Guerin, 1911 [full text])

Mayor John Easton Mills

From Donovan King:

John Easton Mills 1


John Easton Mills 2


John Easton Mills 3

John Easton Mills 4

John Easton Mills 5


John Easton Mills 6


John Easton Mills 7


John Easton Mills 8

Dr. Colin McMahon’s Research on the role of Irish Laborers in establishing the Black Stone Famine Monument in Montreal


The leading researcher on the history and cultural memory of the Black Stone famine monument in Montreal is Dr. Colin McMahon.  His doctoral thesis is entitled “Ports of Recall: Memory of the Great Irish Famine in Liverpool and Montreal” which he completed at York University in Toronto in 2010.  His MA thesis is entitled “Quarantining the past : commemorating the Great Irish Famine on Grosse-Île (2001) and it remains the best work on the subject.

Click to access MQ64009.pdf

Dr. McMahon is also the author of “Montreal’s Ship Fever Monument: An Irish Famine Memorial in the Making,” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, Ireland and Quebec / L’Irlande et le Québec (Spring, 2007), pp. 48-60; as well as a forthcoming article entitled “Recrimination and Reconciliation: Great Famine Memory in Liverpool and Montreal at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” (Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, special issue on “Irish Global Migration and Memory: Transnational Perspectives of Ireland’s Great Hunger and Exodus,” eds. Marguérite Corporaal and Jason King).

In his forthcoming article, Colin McMahon notes that “there is some evidence to suggest that Irish labourers” who were working on the construction of Montreal’s Victoria Bridge in 1859 and “living at the waterfront in the former fever sheds [of 1847] demanded that their employer, Petro, Brassey, and Betts, erect a monument at the site of the burial grounds, previously marked only by ‘small mound and a cross'”. 

He cites James Hodges, Construction of the Great Victoria Bridge in Canada. London: John Weale, 1860, p. 75.

James Hodge Construction of the Victoria Bridge

According to James Hodge (75-76):

Hodge Excerpt 1

Hodge Excerpt 2

A link to James Hodges, Construction of the Great Victoria Bridge in Canada can be found at:

Click to access cihm_45104.pdf



Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny pays tribute to the Grey Nuns of Montreal for the “quality of their mercy” at 2014 Irish National Famine Commemoration

At Ireland’s National Famine Commemoration held in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, at the National Famine Museum, the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny declared:

We are forever grateful to Canada and its citizens.

Canadians opened up their country and their hearts to the Irish
people…as they landed on their shores… an altered state…..
’the dead and the living huddled together….’

We remember today…. the families of Montreal… its priests and
nuns…. and especially…. the French-Canadian Sisters of
Charity…. The Grey Nuns….and the quality of their mercy.

Between them, they looked after 800 children whose parents had
died on board the emigrant ships.

To quote from the London Times: ‘the Black Hole of Calcutta
was mercy compared to the holds of these vessels’.’s%20Speech%20-%20NFC%202014.pdf

(pp. 11-12).

Theatrical Re-enactment about Famine Irish in Montreal


The Joe Beef Market Society
Join the Joe Beef Market Society 
About Joe Beef and the Market


This year…..


Each year, during the Market, the PSC Community Theatre presents a historical play related to the Point and this year the production will be about “The Black Rock”. This stone that sits on the Montreal side of the Victoria Bridge in honor of the 6000 Irish immigrants that died at this location in 1847.

(The play will also support the efforts of the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation to build a big beautiful park around the area of the Black Rock. You can find out more about the history of the Black Rock and this effort to build a cultural green space/park on the Foundation’s web site t )

So if you would like to be involved in the planning for this year’s Joe Beef Market, or have any questions about this event, please send an e-mail to:

Grey Nuns Famine Annal laments disappearance of 1847 Irish grave site

From Donovan King:

This powerful passage comes at the end of “The Typhus of 1847” digital archive: (pp. 112-113).

It describes those buried as “martyrs” while elaborating on the disappearance of the Famine grave site:

“Truly it is costly to distance oneself in the vast field which we have run through. This place of Point SAINT-CHARLES which we have stridden is a blessed place, it is home to six thousand (6000) martyrs. The railroad that crosses in all directions before us today in Pointe SAINT-CHARLES and the one thousand and one (1001) dwellings that stand in all directions before us, let us barely see the place that in other times was a valley of epidemic.

An enormous stone erected as the first monument to the workers who built VICTORIA BRIDGE, is our only indicator of this venerable place, by its humble inscription.

But if the cooled ashes of our Irish brothers have neither marble nor cypress to shade their graves, Heaven will immortalize their glory, and our Canadian annals will register, with respect, this place of their misfortune and the admirable devotion it produced.

Happy is the age that made saints and martyrs under acts of oppression. Happy were the years 1847 and 1848, which gave us heroes and heroines not combating with the sword, but dying for the relief of strangers.

Oh holy religion, yours is the glory of this heroic devotion! . . . Horrific episode, but so glorious, how will we forget you? . . .”

Click to access TheTyphusof1847.pdf


Letter: Sprucing up the Black Rock site would attract tourists

Black Stone Wreath

A wreath sits at the base of the black rock in Point-Saint-Charles, Montreal, Sunday, May 31, 2009, after a ceremony to commemorate the Irish immigrants who died of typhus in Montreal after fleeing the potato famine in 1847.

Photograph by: Graham Hughes , THE GAZETTE

Re: “An Irish memorial park at Black Rock” (Your Views, July 3)

Jason King of Dublin gives a welcoming support for a memorial park around the Black Rock. The memorial remembers famine victims, the Montrealers such as the then mayor who died caring for the sick and the several hundred thousand who passed through our city during the Famine years.

This is the oldest memorial to the Famine victims and is of great interest to the millions of Canadians and Americans descended from those who survived. In many ways it is an important historical site, which thousands would visit if it were accessible. We need to attract tourists, and since our biggest market is south of the border, it would be money well spent to spruce up that area in a respectful way.

Leo Delaney, Chairman,

Jeanie Johnston Educational Foundation



Digital Archive: Firsthand accounts of the events in Black 47 in Montreal and particular notes about the Grey Nuns and their efforts to provide help and comfort to the victims.


Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation needs support to right a historical wrong

Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation needs support to right a historical wrong

At the northern end of Montreal’s Victoria Bridge, criss-crossed by an urban blight of highways, railway tracks, parking lots, electricity pylons and industrial billboards, lies an old Irish Famine cemetery.


It is a hallowed place in Montreal’s dark history that witnessed tragedy unfold in 1847, as typhus-stricken Irish immigrants disembarked after harrowing conditions at sea in what were known as “coffin ships”. Crowded and disease-ridden, the creaky vessels offered poor access to food and water, resulting in the deaths of many people as they crossed the Atlantic.

The emigrants, many already weakened, were fleeing a devastating Famine in Ireland. While many were quarantined at Grosse Île, north of Quebec City, the medical station was unable to contain the spread of typhus, also known as Ship’s Fever. As the new arrivals continued onward towards Montreal, so did the deadly, infectious disease.

Montreal was unprepared for these desperate arrivals, and fever sheds were hastily constructed at Windmill Point. Religious orders stepped up to care for the sick and dying, despite the dangers of being infected themselves.


An estimated 6,000 people perished from typhus in Montreal, including Irish emigrants and their caregivers. The dead included Catholic nuns and priests, Anglican clergy, and even the heroic Mayor of Montreal. Mayor John Easton Mills, who volunteered to help nurse the sick emigrants in the sheds, contracted typhus himself and died on November 12, 1847.

Most of the victims were interred hastily in unmarked mass graves in a cemetery that was improvised by attendant nuns just to the west of the fever sheds. The Annals of the Grey Nuns (Ancien Journalvolume II1847) describes the grim situation:

“Since we had not yet constructed a mortuary for the dead, the corpses were exposed in the outdoors, and once there was a great enough number of them, we made a cemetery for the bodies in the neighbouring fields.”

Map with fever sheds and cemetery

Today, the only indication of this hallowed ground is a large black boulder squeezed onto a tiny traffic island, straddling two highways, in an unsightly industrial area. Gaudy advertisements on giant billboards glare down on the boulder, which is encircled by a wrought iron fence with a shamrock motif.

It’s known by the local Irish community as the “The Black Rock”, or more officially as the “Irish Commemorative Stone”. It holds a special place in the hearts of Montreal’s Irish community because they had to fight to erect it and protect it.


The Black Rock, made blacker by daily pollution from all the passing vehicles, has an inscription:

“To Preserve from Desecration the Remains of 6000 Immigrants Who died of Ship Fever A.D. 1847-48. This Stone is erected by the Workmen of Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts Employed in the Construction of the Victoria Bridge A.D. 1859″.

The idea for the monument came about after workers discovered Famine coffins during work on the Victoria Bridge. Not wanting the dead to be forgotten, mostly Irish workers dredged a massive boulder from the bottom of the St. Lawrence River and got to work inscribing it. This makeshift monument was intended to mark the final resting place of the thousands of famine victims in order to remember them and to protect their earthly remains from future desecration.

Intsalling stone

On December 1, 1859, the Black Rock was erected, becoming the first Canadian monument to mark the Irish Famine.

Historically, the Irish have never had it easy in Canada. After suffering unbearable colonization in Ireland, those who escaped to Canada faced the same colonial masters here – the British. The Irish, as such, were often seen as an underclass to be exploited by Anglo-Protestant industrialists. As the Industrial era set in, many of the survivors and descendants of Irish Famine victims were put to work digging canals, building bridges and working in factories and railyards. The working conditions were often unsafe or deplorable and discrimination and disrespect against the Irish were often rampant.

The site of the Famine cemetery, for example, was administered by the Protestant Anglican Diocese of Montreal, despite most of its victims being Irish Catholics. In 1859, Anglican Bishop Francis Fulford assured that “the bodies of the faithful rest undisturbed until the day of resurrection,” however in 1898 the Anglican Church began negotiations to sell the site to the Grand Trunk Railway, in order to increase the size of its rail yard in Point Saint Charles.

Despite the fact the Black Rock marked the remains of 6000 famine victims, the Grand Trunk Railway wanted it removed in order to expand its operations. To the shock and anger of the Irish community, in the early morning of December 21, 1900, company officials had the Black Rock removed and replaced in Saint Patrick Square to the north.

Montreal Daily Star, 22 December 1900, page 19

Angry Irish citizens protested and demanded its immediate return to the site of the Famine cemetery. Matthew Cummings, president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, expressed the community’s frustration and demanded action:

“A greedy corporation in the city of Montreal dared to lay tracks across the graves… Men of Canada, never rest until it is replaced on the pedestal where it was taken from.”

Despite numerous obstacles thrown up by both the Grand Trunk Railway and Anglican Diocese of Montreal, the Irish community won the battle 10 years later when, in January 1911, the Railway Board of Commissioners in Ottawa ruled that the stone must be returned to the burial site.

However, it also ruled that the Grand Trunk Railway could expropriate the entire site of the burial ground apart from a 30 foot plot of land, fifteen feet from where it originally stood, to facilitate the building of a road. In June, 1912, the cemetery was sold to the G.T.R. for $6,000 and in 1913 the corporation erected a wrought iron fence around the tiny memorial site to try and placate critics.

From that time, the industrial landscape surrounding the tiny plot has continued unabated to develop into an urban eyesore, with railway tracks, highways, electricity pylons, billboards, parking lots and other unsightly developments criss-crossing the cemetery. The postage stamp sized greenspace marking the cemetery was eventually to become a traffic island in Highway 112, as Bridge Street was expanded to allow easier access to and from the Victoria Bridge.

Google Map of Monument

To ensure the Irish dead are remembered, every year the Irish community organizes a “Commemorative March to the Stone Memorial”. Hundreds of citizens march annually to tiny traffic island on Bridge Street where the Black Stone is located. As they remember the Irish dead and pay their respects among industrial billboards, heavy traffic belches out fumes while whizzing over the cemetery, while in the nearby yard, rumbling trains roll on tracks built over the dead. Despite these adverse circumstances, Montreal’s Irish community refuses to forget the Famine victims of 1847 or the shabby treatment of their burial ground.

March 2014

After enduring these trying circumstances for over a century, in 2014, the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation was formed to right this historical wrong.

“We can’t sit in the middle of the road forever,” said Foundation director, Diana English.

“The time has come to create a commemorative park and pavilion to reintegrate the site into the life of Montreal and at the same time add an important missing link to the history of Montreal, Quebec and Canada.”

The Foundation proposes a cultural memorial-park “to honour these 6,000 immigrants who died; to honour the many French-speaking Quebec families who adopted, and gave homes to, the almost 1,000 children who were orphaned by this tragedy; and to honour the many Montrealers who went out and gave aid to these poor immigrants and caught the fever and died themselves, including John Mills, who was mayor of Montreal at the time.”

Fergus Keyes, a director at the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation, stated in The Gazette: “On a practical level, a properly designed cultural park, with sports facilities, would provide green space in the rapidly developing Griffintown area. It would make for a much nicer entry to the city of Montreal over the Victoria span. It could perhaps as well be a tourist attraction for the millions of Irish in North America whose ancestors arrived in that 1847 summer and survived.”

Keeping these ideas in mind, the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation released one proposal for the cultural park that would include a visitor center, meditation areas and a reflecting pool.

Black Rock Park

The idea of commemorating the Irish Famine victims of 1847 is not unique to Montreal. Indeed, over the past few decades there has been a general realization across the globe to mark the tragic history of Irish Famine.

There are now over 140 Irish Famine memorials in places as far afield as Ireland, the U.K., Australia, the U.S.A. and Canada.

Irish memorial

In Canada, there are elaborate monuments to the Irish in Toronto, Vancouver, Kingston, Quebec City, Saint John, and the largest Famine site outside of Ireland, former quarantine station Grosse-Île. Many of these are protected with historic designations and funding from various governmental bodies.

Ironically, while Montreal has more Irish dead buried than any other location, it is the Irish community, and not government officials, who have protected the historic site over the years as best as possible.

In Toronto, it’s a different story. In 2007, Ireland Park was created under the leadership of Robert Kearns, also a director with Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation. Kearns’ keen interest in commemorating the Irish Famine is also reflected in his other work. He is a featured contributor to a 2009 film entitled Death or Canada, which features Ireland Park and the dark story of 1847 and its impact on the young city of Toronto.

Toronto’s Ireland Park is a world-class Famine Memorial, complete with oak tress, a giant coffin ship made from limestone, a cylinder of stacked glass that serves as a beacon of hope and several bronze sculptures created by renowned Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie. Located on Éireann Quay at the foot of Bathurst Street, the Toronto sculptures mirror a similar Famine Memorial in Dublin, Ireland, located at the Custom House Quays. Deliberately twinned to create a kind of visual transatlantic narrative, the bronze figures in Dublin represent “The Departure”, while those in Toronto signify “The Arrival”.


It is a fitting and thoughtful Memorial to the Irish Famine, putting Toronto on the map of places around the world that have made efforts to respectfully mark the tragedy of 1847.

In Montreal, the challenges are much bigger, due to the industrial wasteland that has been superimposed upon the Famine cemetery.  Canadian National Railways, which absorbed the G.T.R., sold some of the land to the city in 1988, but there are nine other title-holders in the area, including the Anglican Diocese of Montreal. The first step in creating the Irish Memorial Park would be to acquire the property surrounding the stone.

Unfortunately, currently proposed urban plans for the area do not take into account the Irish Famine Cemetery. Opposition party Project Montreal recently released a platform called “Quartier Bonaventure” that would actually authorize the building of residential housing among the grave site.

Projet MTL Quartier Bonaventure

Once again, it is the Montreal Irish community and their supporters rallying to get the job done properly.

Victor Boyle, the National President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, announced a $25 million investment  towards the creation of the park during the 2014 Walk to the Stone on Bridge Street. Dr. Jason King, an authority on the Irish Famine, also lent his support from Dublin.

Dr. King recently led a project, under the patronage of Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins, to “digitize and translate the annals of the Grey Nuns who cared for Irish famine emigrants in the fever sheds of Montreal in 1847″. Dr. King ensured these harrowing eyewitness accounts would be available to the public and they are now accessible in a digital archive:

For those closer to home and other supporters, Fergus Keyes encourages people to send an email to Mayor Denis Coderre, “asking him not to approve any plan for light industry around the north side of the Victoria Bridge until this green-space possibility is studied properly.” There is also a facebook group you can join.

To write a letter to Mayor Denis Corderre, please use the City of Montreal’s official website and fill in the form.

Contact the Mayor

Alternately, you can write, fax, or phone him at City Hall:

Montreal City Hall
275 rue Notre-Dame Est
Montréal, QC H2Y 1C6
Telephone: 514-872-3101
Fax: 514-872-4059

A sample letter might look something like this:


Dear Mayor Corderre,

I am writing to you today to express my support for the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation in their plans to establish a world-class Memorial Park for Montreal’s 375th anniversary.

As you may know, there are an estimated 6000 Irish Famine victims buried at the foot of the Victoria Bridge. The Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation proposes that this land be reserved for a world-class Memorial Park, similar to those found in cities like Toronto, Boston, New York, and Dublin. Not only would this plan revitalize an important entrance to Montreal via the Victoria Bridge, but it would also create much-needed greenspace in Griffintown and attract millions of tourists from all over the world.

More importantly, however, it would demonstrate that Montreal is willing to pay respects to its Irish citizens, both historic and present-day. Approximately 40% of Quebeckers have Irish heritage today and the fact that the shamrock occupies a quarter of Montreal’s flag demonstrates our strong historic Irish connection.

In 1847, our heroic Mayor John Easton Mills nursed the contagious emigrants. In the course of his duties, he contracted typhus and perished. It would be a fitting tribute to erect a statue of him in the new park.

As such, I am asking that you set aside the land to ensure it is not encroached upon until a thorough study has been conducted into the feasibility of the project.


[Your name, address, etc.]