After years of being closed off for surrounding construction projects, Canada’s Ireland Park on Eireann Quay reopened last Saturday with its haunting Rowan Gillespie sculpture series in memoriam of Ireland’s Great Famine.
The summer of 1847 brought thousands of starving Irish immigrants to Toronto; 20,000 people became 58,000 in a couple of months – the Irish more than doubled the young city’s population. The survivors were important additions to Toronto, helping to build much of the city’s infrastructure that still stands today.
Ireland Park commemorates their struggle and celebrates their contributions. In addition to Gillespie’s five bronze sculptures of famished immigrants arriving in Toronto stand large-scale limestone and glass sculptures that reflect the landscape and environmental elements of Ireland.
“The limestone in Ireland Park was brought from Ireland, and was lifted from quarries in Kilkenny and Carlow. It’s a very lovely soft limestone with oyster fossils and fern fossils,” said Robert Kearns, Chairman of the Ireland Park Foundation, who is originally from Dublin.
The park is hidden between the Canada Malting Silos, Billy Bishop airport car park, and a new promenade that extends the dock wall. After opening in 2007, Ireland Park closed in 2010 to allow for partial demolition of the Malting Silos, which was soon followed by the construction of the promenade and the tunnel to the airport. The reopening is a long time coming, though unfortunately it may have to close again temporarily for repairs scheduled for the dock wall.
675 names of those who arrived in Toronto but died soon after are sandblasted into a 14-column limestone wall that "represents the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland,” Kearns said, “the last sight seen by emigrants leaving home.”
There is empty space on the wall so that more names can be added as soon as they are identified and documented. Between June 8 and the end of December 1847, the worst year of Ireland’s Great Hunger, 38,000 Irish refugees arrived in Toronto. Out of this group of emigrants, 1,185 died shortly after reaching shore.
The bronze figures represent a continuation of Gillespie’s famous “Departure” series on Dublin’s Custom House Quay. The Dublin figures are walking toward the ships and a new life, and the Toronto figures have just arrived, with some faces hopeful, some fearful. One figure lies in agony on the ground.
Toronto’s Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly was absolutely moved by the memorial sculpture. The Digital Journal reports that as he peered into the 16-foot wall installation at the names of surviving refugees, he said the park must be visited by all, especially by new Canadians to grasp the reality of past immigration to Canada.
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