Walk your city: Toronto Ireland Park

I discovered Ireland Park incidentally on one of my barefoot strolls along the lakeshore.

I will never forget that warm summer night I stumbled upon this location. To recreate the surreal experience I had, skip this post and just go there, preferably after dark.

A history of pain

In case you’ve forgotten your grade 7 history, here’s a little refresher: the Great Famine displaced almost 2 million people and killed another million.

Well, this is turning out to be a cheery post.

Toronto saw an influx of Irish immigrants in 1847 which constituted one of the young city’s first major civic crises. In the summer of that year almost 40,000 migrants landed on Toronto’s shores. To put that in perspective, the city’s population that year was about 20,000.

A massive effort was coordinated by mayor William H. Boulton and the city’s catholic bishop Michael Power – who had seen the ravages of the famine first hand just months prior.

The conditions aboard the ships were so dire that many were striken by illness; the city struggled to provide humanitarian aid while grappling with rising public anxiety and a hostility which lingered for decades after.

If you’re interested in this chapter of Toronto history, I strongly recommend watching the 2008 documentary Death or Canada. 

On the 150th anniversary of the Famine, the Toronto Ireland Park Foundation was instituted to commemorate the tragic events of that summer. With the help of Councillor Olivia Chow, the foundation secured the corner of Bathurst and Front Street to build a memorial.

Designed by Jonathan M. Kearns, it stands adjacent to Dr Reese’s Wharf where ships landed in 1847. For a park, its mandate is unusual. It is an emotional and perhaps disturbing sight very much in keeping with the tragic history behind it.

So here I am stumbling along Bathurst on one of my barefoot escapades. I got the idea to check out the Canada Malting Company silos – that whole section of the boardwalk has a distinct flavour of dystopian urban chaos that I love.

I followed Bathurst Street all the way to the edge of the lake. To the left of a long queue of taxis outside the Porter Airlines terminal, I found a small path circling the Malting Company building.

Emerging onto the boardwalk, I was suddenly faced with a surreal sight: about a dozen 10 foot tall slabs of limestone set a few inches apart and lit by ground embedded LEDs.

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Upon closer inspection I discovered each stone was engraved with names.

In the midst of the memorial plates stands a tall glass pillar lit from within. I camped out in the comforting neon glow for a few minutes while frantically searching for info on what this place was.

Eventually I wandered along the lakeshore away from the monument. I almost tripped over a strange metallic mound nested on the grass. It took my eyes a moment to get adjusted to the darkness, but when I could finally make out the outline, it gave me such a scare I almost bolted straight into the lake.

ft5s-memorial

I was standing over an emaciated human figure curled in the foetal position, his visage twisted in agony.

Then I saw the others: four gaunt shapes stand watch by the boardwalk, staring at the horizon beyond the lake with tarnished bronze eyes.

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These are the five Arrivals.

Seven departed from the shores of Ireland.

According to Jonathan Kearns, the park’s architect, the stones represent the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland; a melancholic final glimpse of Ireland for many of the blight stricken.

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The limestone tablets are engraved with the names of emigrants who survived the long journey but succumbed to sickness in the coming months. The list continues to grow as more historical archives are unearthed.

Amidst them, the pillar of light is a beacon that marks the hopeful shores of Toronto.

The five figures are a continuation of the famous Rowan Gillespie famine sculptures in Customs House Quays, Dublin.

The shock was visceral; their silent tortured poses speak such volumes to the tragic history that inspired them. They are testament to the hopeful and desperate alike who fled Ireland and never arrived at their destination.

So spring is almost here, who’s up for a light hearted afternoon stroll through the city?

Last year Ireland Park was closed while some of the silos were demolished. I had to hop a 10 foot fence the last time I visited. Pants were ripped. Luckily, the site should reopen in 2015 with a renovated boardwalk.

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Don’t let the sombre historical context of this place deter you from visiting, it is a sublime experience, especially when you have no idea what you’re stumbling into. The images here can’t really spoil the emotional impact of visiting Ireland Park. It is a surreal blend of beauty and tragedy that I revisit periodically, and I want to share it with everyone.

Love your city.

Walk your city 🙂

 

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