Irish famine memorial park offers direction for waterfront
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