|The Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation
— Fergus Keyes
For more than a decade, the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation has been working to build a beautiful, world-class, memorial space around the Black Rock in Montreal. The Black Rock can be found on Bridge Street, just at the Montreal side of the Victoria Bridge.
The objective of the space will be to remember the 6000+ Irish immigrants that died generally from Typhus combined with malnutrition, and were buried in the area during the Great Hunger Famine in Ireland in 1847. It will also honour the many Montrealers of every language, religion, and culture in Montreal that went to the area to provide care and comfort to the sick and dying Irish. Many of these caregivers caught the dreaded Typhus disease themselves and gave their own lives in the greatest humanitarian effort ever seen in Montreal, Quebec, or Canada. For example, John Mills, the Mayor of Montreal, provided nursing care to the Irish, caught the disease, and died in October of 1847 along with seven Grey Nuns, a couple of British soldiers, many Catholic Priests, as well as Anglican clergy and others.
The first mention of building a proper memorial space in the area can be found in the records as far back as 1909, but then around 2007, Victor Boyle, the Canadian director of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), decided to make another effort.
The Black Rock was installed in 1859, about 12 years after the actual event by workers building the Victoria Bridge. Most of these workers were Irish, and after finding some of the remains of the 6000+ Irish, demanded that some type of memorial be installed. A large rock was pulled from the St. Lawrence River, and inscribed to the memory of the victims with a note that the Rock should remain there as long as “the grass grows and the water flows”. There were a couple of efforts over the years to relocate the Rock elsewhere, but in each case, the Montreal Irish Community fought against this effort, and the Rock remains there to this day.
Across from the Rock to the East, is a large parking lot and it is here that the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation is working to expand the memorial space beyond just the Black Rock. This current parking area has its own history. First it was the location of the Fever Sheds that housed the dying Irish in 1847. Then the space became the site of a community called Victoriatown, better known to Montrealers as Goose Village. In the 1960s, in preparation for Expo 67, this entire community was bulldozed to make room for a sports venue called the Autostade. This stadium was then also removed in the 1970s leaving the parking lot that serves as overflow parking for the Montreal Casino.
The Foundation spent many years in an effort to make the story, and particularly the magnificent humanitarian effort, better known to the general public. At the same time, efforts were made to gain support from both Irish and non-Irish communities, as well as ivestigating the ownership of the property.
Eventually it was discovered that the land was owned by the Canada Lands Company, an arms-length Federal corporation that manages most Federal Government property across Canada. And then around 2017-8, it was discovered that the property had been sold to Hydro-Quebec.
Hydro is planning to build a new plant on the site, and the Foundation was very concerned that the effort for a proper memorial space would be lost forever. However, in actual fact, the Hydro organization reached out to the community to offer support for the effort. A terrific partner with the Foundation, it appears that approximately 4 acres of land will be offered by Hydro for the space. In addition, the City of Montreal joined in and have also been extremely co-operative in the effort. Although there is still much planning involved, it appears that a proper memorial space will be in operation around 2024-5.
The last part of the story to note is that about a year ago, the REM group building the new light transit system, and again working in close co-operation with the Montreal Irish Community, discovered another 14 remains of victims from 1847. These remains are currently being analyzed and the hope is that, with recent DNA advances, might discover more details about the victims.
So, in the end, after a great many years of volunteer effort, we can see “the light at the end of the tunnel” and after about 175 years, the Irish victims, the selfless caregivers, and this important Montreal history will finally be given the recognition that is deserved.