In the summer of 1847 Toronto’s waterfront saw scores of starving immigrants from Ireland walking off boats and doubling the young city’s population.
At the time the population of Toronto was just 20,000. By the end of October the wave of immigrants Toronto would swell to over 58,000 people and be on the midst of a civic crisis.
In Ireland a potato famine that started in 1845 that killed over a million people by its end in 1852. Many hoped to start over in Canada and set sail for Toronto, refugees with nothing often but the patched clothes that covered their backs. By the time the ships arrived along Toronto’s waterfront in 1847 the refugees looked like walking skeletons. But they were survivors and in Toronto they would thrive, helping to build parts of the city’s infrastructure that still stand today.
In 1997 Robert G. Kearns, Chairman, Ireland Park Foundation, viewed the haunting Rowan Gillespie’s “Departure” series of famine figures in Dublin commemorating the 150th anniversary of the famine. Today another set of Gillespie’s sculptures look over Lake Ontario just like the Irish ghosts of the past who first took refuge in the city when they arrived from starvation hell.
The park features five bronze sculptures, created by renowned Irish artist Rowan Gillespie, which depict the immigrants’ arrival in Toronto, in addition to large-scale limestone and glass sculptures created to reflect the landscape and environmental elements of Ireland.
The park first opened in 2007 but was closed in March 2010 when part of the Canada Malting Silos were demolished and construction on the tunnel to Billy Bishop airport begun. Finally after four years Ireland Park was reopened today.
Toronto’s Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly and Robert G. Kearns proudly reopened the park this morning. For Kelly the event was moving. As he looked inside the five-meter-high wall of rough stone where the names of surviving refugees are carved Kelly said that the park should be visited by all, especially new Canadians to have a grasp of immigration to Canada in the past. Looking over towards the sculptures of starving immigrants Kelly shook his head saying that their plight was heartbreaking.
Kearns looked around the park this morning with pride as visitors peered into the stones looking for the names of their ancestors. His dream of the memorial and remembering his own heritage again realized.
Ireland Park, Eireann Quay at the base of Bathurst Street adjacent the Canada Malting Silos. Access on east side of park at the base of Portland slip.
Toronto Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly and Robert G. Kearns, Chairman, Ireland Park Foundation