Creating Ireland Park

The making of Ireland Park dates back 19 years to when Robert G. Kearns first viewed Rowan Gillespie’s ‘Departure’ series of famine sculptures in Dublin. These sculptures were donated by Norma Smurfit of the Smurfit Foundation to the people of Ireland and the citizens of Dublin in 1997 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the famine. These seven sculptures Customs House Quay on the north side of the River Liffey and depict Irish Famine migrants making their way to embark upon their journey to a new land. Deeply moved by the sculptures in Dublin, Robert Kearns invited Rowan Gillespie to create a new group of sculptures for the Toronto waterfront, depicting their arrival in Canada. An historic and artistic link was thereby created between the waterfront of Toronto and the waterfront of Dublin.

The seven sculptures that stand on the dockside in Dublin are reduced to five on the Toronto waterfront. This speaks to the tragic loss of life on the north Atlantic, as well as upon arrival in Grosse Isle, Montreal and Toronto.

In July 2000, with the help of then-Councilor Olivia Chow, Toronto City Council ratified a proposal to make the southeast corner of Bathurst Quay available for a memorial park to honour the Irish famine migrants of 1847. This was an ideal site due to its historical significance to the famine—just west of Dr. Reese’s Wharf, where the migrants had landed, and just south of the intersection of Bathurst and Front Streets, where the convalescent hospital was located.

Since that time, Kearns assembled a board of directors from across the city of both Canadian and Irish backgrounds. The park, designed by Jonathan M. Kearns, has been planned and built, and funds of $3.5 million raised to cover the costs and endow the park. This park has been built with Irish and Canadian minds and hands, and a determination to complete the vision and mandate created by the directors of Ireland Park Foundation.

Today, we are thrilled to present to you Ireland Park and the “Arrival” sculptures.

Toronto Location

While it is centrally located on the Toronto Waterfront, Eireann Quay (formally Bathurst Quay) is also a place somewhat removed. The busy summer traffic of ferries, sailboats and other pleasure craft are visible a short distance to the east, yet it is a place where a visitor can embrace the solemnity of the Irish Famine Memorial without interruption and distraction. The newly developed Dock Wall adjacent to the Park, allows for an unparalleled vista of both the ever developing skyline and the tranquil lakeshore beyond. In the course of the next few years the new Waterfront Trail will wind past the site and continue along the soon to be built North Facing Dock Wall.

Lake Ontario forms the southern and eastern boundary while the adjacent Canada Malting Company grain elevators tower over the site to the north. These old repositories of abundant grain harvests stand in stark contrast to the plight of the emigrants and the land they left behind in Ireland.

Architecture & Design

LOCATION

The southeast corner of Bathurst Quay (Now Eireann Quay) was identified as the most appropriate waterfront location for Ireland Park. Both Kearns and Gillespie were determined to secure a waters edge setting for the ‘Arrival’ group of sculptures, as water offered the physical connecting medium between Ireland and Canada. However, of upmost importance, this location for Ireland Park offered the prospect of unobstructed views of Toronto’s majestic city skyline and the morning sunrise to the east, with the tranquil waters of the harbor in the foreground.

CONCEPT

This is not a typical Toronto park – it is an emotional and evocative place that might call up long lost memories of destitute ancestors arriving from blight ravaged Ireland on our Canadian shore with hopes for a new life in a new land.

The park design consciously looks to create a feeling for the kind of landscape that was left behind in Ireland – a bare and craggy western landscape comprising poor agricultural land on which the Irish tenant farmers could only subsist by growing potatoes in the smallest of fields. It deals with the contrasting human experiences of devastation and hopefulness.

CONTEXT

The 45m by 25m park landscape is defined on the south and east sides by Lake Ontario, on the north side by the Canada Malting grain silos and between these edges by six new oak trees, located immediately south of the silos.

The grain silos are by far the most dominating feature of the park. Due to their size and height, they cut off the park from the sounds of the city beyond and help create the tranquility of the park

DESIGN

A starkly minimal landscape is being created through the predominant use of a single material: stone.

Stone paving, stone seating and a five-meter high limestone sculptural installation of rough stone all contribute to the character of the landscape. The 25m long installation closes the Park on the west side from the world outside.

Below the oak trees and facing the City of Toronto stand Rowan Gillespie’s powerfully gaunt figures of famine migrants making their final landing in Canada.

The existing concrete silo structure is treated as an element that is in and of the Park and not outside it, for this reason the northern boundary of the Park extends to the centerline of the southernmost silo cylinders.

Contrasting with the rough, craggy stone landscape is a tall illuminated cylinder of stacked glass approximately six meters in height. Symbolic as a beacon both of the ‘new world’ and the hopefulness for the future of the arriving migrants, the glass tower contextually relates to the adjacent concrete silos and forms an icy material counterpoint to the rough stone landscape of the park.

The glass tower, similar in proportions to the concrete silos, stands alongside three interactive computer screens that give visitors access, at a touch, to the story of the park, the famine tragedy that it commemorates and an acknowledgement of those who made the park possible. The tower is constructed of stacked cast glass forming a circular wall.

Internal illumination produces a greenish watery light as it passes through the thick cast glass. The glass ‘silo’ houses all of the Park’s controls and utilities, power, data and communication line.

Jonathan M. Kearns
B.ARCH, OAA, MRAIC, MRIAI, RIBA