By Jim Dee (for Daily Ireland)
Wandering away from the glittering lights of downtown Montreal towards the expansive St Lawrence River, a visitor approaching Victoria Bridge will find a grim memorial to history’s often cruel hand.
On a traffic island on Bridge Street stands a three-metre-high black stone that marks the mass grave of 6,000 Irish immigrants to Canada -- men, women and children who braved the Atlantic passage in 1847, only to perish during a typhus epidemic that ravaged the survivors.
The inscription on what is known as the Irish Stone reads: “To preserve from desecration the remains of 6,000 immigrants who died of ship fever AD 1847-8. This stone is erected by the workmen of Messrs Peto, Brassey and Betts employed in the construction of the Victoria Bridge AD 1859.”
The story of how the Irish Stone memorial came to be is as impressive as the imposing black hulk itself.
Refugees arriving in Canada after fleeing the horrors of the Great Famine in 1847 were first sent to be quarantined on the island of Grosse-Ile, 50 kilometres east of Quebec city. Here, over 5,000 Irish died of cholera and typhus in squalid conditions.
Eventually, those deemed disease-free were allowed to move down the St Lawrence to Montreal, where most took up residence in Irish slums that sprang up alongside the city’s docks. Here, the incubating typhus bacteria went full-blown and claimed the lives of thousands more.
As the epidemic raged, John Easton Mills -- Montreal’s first mayor of Irish descent -- ordered the construction of huts along the river at Pointe St-Charles for the treatment and convalescence of the sick. Mills himself contracted typhus while he attended to the sick. He died on November 12, 1847.
In subsequent years, survivors of the epidemic moved across the Lachine Canal to settle in Griffintown, which soon became the city’s main Irish slum.
More than a decade after the epidemic, with Montreal expanding rapidly, work began on the construction of a new railway bridge at Pointe St-Charles. It was while excavating the site that workers began to unearth the bones of some 6,000 Irish typhus victims who had been buried in mass graves.
When locals recounted the victims’ horrific tale, the workers took it upon themselves to mark the spot with an enormous boulder that they had dredged up from the bottom of the river.
The Irish Stone stood untouched near the entrance to the Victoria Bridge until 1900. Then the railway company that had built the bridge decided, without consulting anyone, to move it. The stone was unceremoniously lifted onto a truck and later dropped on a corner in Griffintown’s St Patrick’s Square.
The local Irish community reacted furiously but the Grand Truck Railway resisted replacing the stone, until it was discovered that the Catholic Church owned the land that the company had claimed. It took ten years for a compromise to be hammered out. Eventually the Church ceded the land to Grand Truck in return for a commitment to safeguard the memorial in perpetuity.
One further round of urban renewal threatened the site in the 1960s. This too was seen off by Irish community activists, who then had a railing constructed around the site, and spotlights installed to illuminate it at night.
Cork native Michael Kenneally, who heads the Irish studies programme at Montreal’s Concordia University, said the Irish Stone remained a vivid reminder of a rich Irish history in Canada that is often eclipsed by the history of the Irish in the United States.
“It’s very powerful and is a counterpart to Gross Ile. They are the two obvious symbols of the famine,” Professor Kenneally told Daily Ireland. “The 150th commemoration of the famine in recent years has tended, in the popular imagination at least, create the impression that this was the total story or that this was the majority story of the Irish in Canada,” added Kenneally.
“But the Irish were coming to Newfoundland in the 17th and 18th centuries. They came to the Canadian Maritimes very much in the 18th century, and they began to come to Quebec in the 18th and particularly in the first decades of the 19th century.
“The Irish were the largest ethnic group after the French. They were larger than the English, Welsh and Scottish combined,” he said.
In fact, 1816 census figures show that 1,000 of the city’s 16,000-strong population were of Irish. By 1851, there were 11,736 Irish among the city’s total population of 57,715.
Professor Kenneally said there were also differences between many of the Irish who emigrated to French-speaking Quebec, as opposed to other parts of the then British-ruled country.
“For example, in Quebec the Irish started to come even with the armies of New France,” said Kenneally.
“They were the Wild Geese who had left Ireland, settled in France, went into the French army, and came here. Many of them had changed their names and settled here as French-speaking settlers but they were actually of Irish background.”
Professor Kenneally said that 20th-century Irish immigration to Canada also differed from that which occurred to the United States “because there’s been very little influx from Ireland in say the last 80 or 100 years.
“Also, because of the language situation here, people have tended to go to Toronto or Vancouver -- certainly in the last 50 years.
“So the community here in Montreal is very much a submerged community -- three, four, five generations old. But it’s very vital, and it’s very aware.
“We have a centre for Irish studies at the [Concordia] university, and we have about 20 Irish societies. We also have one of the biggest parades in North America on St Patrick’s Day, which bills itself as the longest continuously running parade in North America.”
Professor Kenneally said one major drawback to the Irish Stone was that its location on a busy bridge-access road in an industrial area meant it was often overlooked by passers-by.
“There’s a debate in the Irish community about whether it should be left in its kind of simplicity or whether it should be made more monumental and contextualised so that passers-by would have a sense of what it is.
“Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of cars that pass by either way each day and I bet, if you did a survey, most of them don’t even know that it’s there and don’t know much about it or wouldn’t know what it memorialises,” he said.