Ir­ish famine me­mo­rial park of­fers di­rec­tion for wa­ter­front

Toronto Star - - Greater Toronto -

It’s called Ire­land Park but don’t ex­pect shil­le­laghs or green beer. Hid­den on the shore of Lake On­tario in the shadow of the Canada Malt­ing Si­los, this tiny but monumental space was con­ceived as a me­mo­rial to the thou­sands of Ir­ish im­mi­grants who came to — and died in — this city.

De­spite its rather odd lo­ca­tion just east of Bathurst St., the pocket park packs a preter­nat­u­ral punch. The de­signer, ar­chi­tect Jonathan Kearns, has used a min­i­mum of el­e­ments but to max­i­mum ef­fect.

The main fea­ture is Kilkenny lime­stone, a dark and rugged stone quar­ried in Ire­land. Kearns has in­cor­po­rated it in slabs, blocks and as large chunks seem­ingly ripped out of the ground and trans­planted here. The re­sult is a re­mark­able land­scape-within-a-land­scape.

Sur­rounded by the ru­ins of Toronto’s in­dus­trial past and the hopes of its wa­ter­front fu­ture, Ire­land Park strad­dles a num­ber of worlds. Amid the ear-pierc­ing din of the Is­land Air­port — no quiet jets here — and the traf­fic of the har­bour, the sud­den ad­vent of sa­cred space is even more sur­pris­ing.

The city has done lit­tle more than pro­vide the prop­erty. The con­crete edge along the wa­ter re­mains a mess; the si­los have been empty for years. Then, there’s the nag­ging ques­tion about the air­port across the chan­nel, which Mayor David Miller has failed to close de­spite years of try­ing. If any­thing, with the an­nounce­ment that Porter Air­lines has gained per­mis­sion to fly to New York, the air­port might be en­larged, against the wishes of most Toron­to­ni­ans.

But at Ire­land Park, all this fades into the noisy back­ground of our ur­ban chaos. In the de­lib­er­ately rugged set­ting of Kearns’ space, what mat­ters are is­sues of life, death and me­mory.

Per­haps the most en­gag­ing as­pect of the new fa­cil­ity is the in­scribed names of Ir­ish im­mi­grants who died af­ter flee­ing the famine of 1847. Th­ese names are carved in stone, but on sur­faces of rocks placed so close to­gether they can barely be read. In this way, they re­main al­most out of reach and just be­yond easy com­pre­hen­sion.

“We could only find 675 of 1,100 names of those who died,” Kearns ex­plains. “The rest may be buried in a mass grave at St. Paul’s Church.”

For many vis­i­tors, the high­light of Ire­land Park will be five bronze fig­ures sculpted by Rowan Gillespie, an Ir­ish artist who pro­duced a sim­i­lar se­ries for a com­pan­ion park in Ire­land. It has seven pieces, two more than Toronto — a ref­er­ence to those who died af­ter leav­ing their home­land.

Though they verge on melo­drama, Gillespie’s fig­ures speak of the ap­pre­hen­sion, fear, lone­li­ness and hope ex­pe­ri­enced by im­mi­grants.

Fi­nally, there’s a glass-block tower rem­i­nis­cent of the nearby si­los. As well as con­nect­ing the park to its neigh­bours, the light­house-like struc­ture will serve as a bea­con, es­pe­cially at night when lit from within.

“My brother (Robert) and I in­vented the project about 10 or 11 years ago,” says Kearns, a prac­tis­ing ar­chi­tect who ar­rived here in 1975. “The Ir­ish com­mu­nity in Toronto came up with most of the money, $2.5 mil­lion. We’re try­ing to raise an­other mil­lion so we can cre­ate an en­dow­ment.”

The park has clearly gal­va­nized the com­mu­nity; the pres­i­dent of Ire­land, Mary McAleese, Pre­mier Dal­ton McGuinty and sev­eral thou­sand oth­ers at­tended the of­fi­cial un­veil­ing yes­ter­day.

Now let’s hope the park will have the same ef­fect on the city, that it will gal­va­nize our no-can-do bu­reau­crats and dim-bulb coun­cil­lors into grasp­ing the po­ten­tial of a re­vi­tal­ized wa­ter­front.

Th­ese kinds of projects are ex­cep­tions that prove the rule; but in a city be­set by its in­abil­ity to rise above its en­trenched habits of medi­ocrity, only the ex­cep­tional will do. Christo­pher Hume can be reached at

RON BULL/TORONTO STAR

Ir­ish Pres­i­dent Mary McAleese and her hus­band Martin stroll by one of five bronze fig­ures at yes­ter­day’s of­fi­cial open­ing of Ire­land Park. There are seven sim­i­lar sculp­tures at a com­pan­ion park in Ire­land, a ref­er­ence to emi­grants who died, many of...

Toronto city Air­port FRONT ST. GAR­DINER EXWY. QUEENS QUAY W.

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