A mo­ment of si­lence for Ir­ish re­mains


A group of Ir­ish Mon­treal­ers gath­ered at the Black Rock mon­u­ment on Sun­day to ob­serve a mo­ment of si­lence for the souls of those whose re­mains were un­earthed by arche­ol­o­gists near the Vic­to­ria Bridge last month.

Arche­ol­o­gists found bone and wood frag­ments be­lieved to be from coffins stacked and buried at the spot more than 170 years ago. Thou­sands of Ir­ish im­mi­grants fled the famine in their home­land in 1847 and 1848 and headed for Canada, only to die from ty­phus on ships or in fever shacks on Mon­treal’s shores.

The Black Rock mon­u­ment was erected in 1859 by work­ers build­ing the Vic­to­ria Bridge to mark the area where 6,000 Ir­ish im­mi­grants are be­lieved to be buried. The rock now stands on a me­dian in the mid­dle of Bridge St., in an in­dus­trial area of Mon­treal’s Sud- Ouest bor­ough. Mem­bers of Mon­treal’s Ir­ish com­mu­nity have been lob­by­ing for more than a decade to get the city of Mon­treal to es­tab­lish a more re­spect­ful com­mem­o­ra­tive site.

The bone frag­ments were found in a cylin­dri­cal hole ex­ca­vated to even­tu­ally hold one of the pil­lars re­quired to sup­port the Réseau Ex­press Métropoli­tain light rail net­work.

“We have all heard the very sad news that our an­ces­tors’ re­mains — about 15 of them as far as we are aware — have been re­moved from the ceme­tery,” said Dono­van King, a his­tory teacher who con­ducts Ir­ish-themed walk­ing tours of Mon­treal.

“It has been done very re­spect­fully by the REM arche­ol­o­gists, but we do want to mourn for their souls; we do want to take this op­por­tu­nity to pray for them,” King added, be­fore ask­ing for a mo­ment of si­lence from the dozen peo­ple who an­swered the call to mourn­ing on a windy and cold De­cem­ber af­ter­noon.

King re­cently penned an open let­ter to Mon­treal Mayor Valérie Plante ask­ing her to re­con­sider her pro­posal to name the planned REM sta­tion in Griffin­town af­ter for­mer Que­bec premier Bernard Landry.

The let­ter de­scribes Landry as a “con­tro­ver­sial and di­vi­sive politi­cian” who made “anti-im­mi­grant rants, de­spite be­ing de­scended from French colo­nial im­mi­grants him­self.”

On Sun­day, King re­ferred to the idea as an “in­de­cent pro­posal.”

“There are many other places where Bernard Landry can be re­spect­fully com­mem­o­rated, so we are ask­ing (Plante) on this very im­por­tant day of mourn­ing to please with­draw the pro­posal,” King said.

Fer­gus Keyes, a di­rec­tor of the Mon­treal Ir­ish Mon­u­ment Park Foun­da­tion, said his group is very pleased the REM is co-op­er­at­ing with the Ir­ish com­mu­nity in Mon­treal by, among other things, no­ti­fy­ing them when hu­man re­mains are dis­cov­ered at the site. The re­mains will be stud­ied and pre­served and even­tu­ally re­buried in an­other part of the ceme­tery.

Hy­dro- Québec is build­ing a new power sub­sta­tion for the REM nearby and has agreed to cede part of its land to cre­ate a com­mem­o­ra­tive park at the site of the ceme­tery. The plan is to re­lo­cate part of Bridge St. so that the Black Rock mon­u­ment can stay put and be a cen­tre­piece of that park.

Keyes echoed King’s con­cerns about nam­ing the Griffin­town REM sta­tion af­ter Landry.

“He had noth­ing to do with Griffin­town and we re­ally don’t want it re­branded,” Keyes said. “Griffin­town has a his­tory of 150 years that the Ir­ish peo­ple lived there. Many peo­ple in Griffin­town opened their doors to these famine Ir­ish. Some of them caught ty­phus and whole fam­i­lies died be­cause of it.”

He spoke of the “mag­nif­i­cent hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­fort” by In­dige­nous peo­ples, who fed the Ir­ish im­mi­grants, as well as fran­co­phone Mon­treal fam­i­lies, who adopted the thou­sands of Ir­ish chil­dren who were or­phaned when their par­ents died of ty­phus. He stressed the num­ber of Ir­ish famine vic­tims who ar­rived in Mon­treal in 184748 — an es­ti­mated 70,000 — at a time when the pop­u­la­tion of Mon­treal Is­land was only about 50,000.

“This isn’t only Ir­ish his­tory,” Keyes said. “It’s the his­tory of all peo­ple of Mon­treal. It’s big Que­bec his­tory, big Cana­dian his­tory, and could be con­sid­ered big North Amer­i­can his­tory be­cause so many Amer­i­cans have Ir­ish her­itage and many of them came through this area.”

Miles Mur­phy, a stu­dent in Ir­ish stud­ies at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity, noted the Black Rock is the old­est Ir­ish famine memo­rial in the world and marks the largest famine ceme­tery out­side of Ire­land.

“It re­ally de­serves to be com­mem­o­rated in a bet­ter set­ting than it is to­day,” Mur­phy said.

Fer­gus Keyes

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