The Walk to the Stone, on May 27, will be attended by the Dublin Mayor. Soon the Canadian city could be celebrating a long fought for Great Hunger memorial.
South of the Old Port of Montreal, on a thin green strip of land perched incongruously on a traffic meridian separating the lanes of busy highway 12, at the edge of a bleak industrial wilderness rests an abandoned graveyard at the head of which is mounted a large boulder local Irish call the Black Rock. Underneath, and in the adjacent wasteland lies the hidden remains of 6,000 undocumented victims of the Irish famine.
Each year, on the last Sunday in May, for over 150 years, a small dedicated group of a hundred or so Montrealers have gathered in nearby Pointe-Saint-Charles, to celebrate mass and to make the one mile pilgrimage to the memorial stone.
Reminiscent of the unadorned granite boulder that serves as the gravestone of Ireland’s uncrowned king, Charles Stewart Parnell, in Glasnevin Cemetery, that for years, unknowingly, sat atop the mass grave of 13,000 Dublin fever victims of 1849, this plain monument Southwest of Montreal is hallowed ground.
The monument was erected in 1859, when construction of the nearby Victoria Bridge across the St. Lawrence River, accidentally uncovered the mass grave of approximately 6,000 victims of An Gorta Mor, the Great Irish Famine, most of whom had succumbed to typhus in the nearby hastily built fever sheds. The construction workers themselves, many of whom were Irish immigrants, were so disturbed at their discovery that they were moved to erect a monument to the memory of those lost souls.
The inscription on the monument reads:
"To Preserve from Desecration the Remains of 6000 Immigrants Who died of Ship Fever A.D. 1847-48 This Stone is erected by the Workmen of Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts Employed in the Construction of the Victoria Bridge A.D.1859"
For all these years the Ancient Order of Hibernians have lead the charge to preserve, protect and enhance the site, often amid calls for expropriation of the land, and once, in 1899 when the stone was actually removed only to be ordered returned after a 10-year absence. In 2014 they formed the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation and have called for a park to be built on the site to restore dignity to the ill-treated spirits that have been largely abandoned. One proposal included a famine museum and a GAA pitch.
A new threat emerged in 2017 when Hydro Quebec announced plans to buy the land and to build an electricity substation on the site. The good news is that the utility has agreed to name the facility “Des Irlandais Substation (The Irish Substation) and is now working closely with the Foundation, the City of Montreal and the community to ensure that some part of the new construction is dedicated to a respectful commemoration of the famine victims and to ensure that they will never be forgotten.
Fergus Keyes, director for the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation, who has been a leading light for the movement and who describes himself as a Montrealer of 100% Irish heritage, spoke of his struggle over the past decade to get official recognition for the site and what it means to him.
“With this space we hope to remember not only the 6,000 Irish immigrants that died and were buried there in 1847, but also the tremendous humanitarian effort of so many Montrealers at the time, who were not Irish, but went to help, and in many cases gave up their own lives in the effort to provide care and comfort to these poor and dying Irish.”
With the prospect of the memorial about to become a reality over the next few years, Keyes added, “…the day I can stand in this (reconsecrated) space, I will be proud of my contribution to a lasting important historical legacy for my city, province, and country and the land of my ancestors.”
This year’s memorial March will take place on Sunday, May 27 and will be attended by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Mícheál MacDonncha.
Read more: Great Irish Hunger memorials in America
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