Toronto, ON, is a city of secrets and, like the landscape, they do not reveal themselves easily. Look around street corners, and you’ll find surprises and places of meaning, such as the great Roman arches of the Prince Edward Viaduct (commonly known as the Bloor St. Viaduct) that span the Don Valley River, and which the Toronto poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje commemorated,along with the splendid architecture of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, in his novel, In the Skin of a Lion. The Crawford Street Bridge that Harris also built, buried now under pretty Trinity Bellwoods Park in the western part of a city often described as only “pretending to be flat.”
It’s as if the primordial topography of the land upon which the city was built has determined forever that meaningful parts of Toronto’s history would always be hidden. The ravines here—with their steep slopes cut by millennia of water travelling towards the Don Valley and Humber River, then on to Lake Ontario—fall away suddenly below street level. Their mysterious natural world of deer, coyotes and birdlife, even salmon in the rivers, can be entirely missed—and the man-made city has followed the landscape’s cue. The secrets that abound in the city, the gems not immediately apparent to the visitor’s eye, are in its very nature.
One of the most remarkable of these, Ireland Park, sits less than 100 m (328 ft) from the Porter Airlines terminal at the foot of Bathurst St. and across from Toronto City Centre Airport)
Conceived and enabled by the architect brothers Jonathan and Robert Kearns, this small corner of land at the foot of the disused Canada Malting silos has was renamed, in 2007, as Eireann Quay* as a part of this stirring memorial remembering the “coffin ships” that landed, in 1847, in Toronto bringing the last of the Irish Potato Famine emigrants, their numbers decimated during the frightful passage across the Atlantic past Grosse-Île and Montréal, QC, along the St. Lawrence and into the city of Toronto.
Ridden with typhoid, broken by the journey, some 1,100 people died, many in the quarantine sheds—another Toronto secret—that once stood at the corner of King and John streets beneath what is soon to be the Bell Light Box, headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival, and where a commemorative exhibit is planned.
The memorial is simple and poignant—a set of five life-size bronze figures by the Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie, who discovered during the project that some of his own family had made the journey.
A pregnant woman, a collapsed figure on a round plinth and an orphan boy are among the five “Migrants”; another is a man with arms extended in hope and lament at the point where ships landed. A corresponding set of similar sculptures by Rowan Gillespie called “Famine” stand in Dublin. They stand before a wall made from imported Kilkenny limestone, its shape suggesting the prow of a ship, the known names of the Irish dead inscribed on cuts within the five-m (16-ft) high wall.
The water over which these early Canadians travelled laps at the quay as it used to, further North, and adds a timeless element. Ireland Park, says architect Jonathan Kearns, was intended as a place of tranquility to “remember the past and save the future”—and, in discreet Torontonian fashion, it works.
The sculpted figures commemorate, on the one hand, this Toronto portion of the estimated one million Irish who died of the famine between 1845 and 1851 (about a third of them on ships). But they also symbolize the waves of emigrants of all sorts of modern calamity—famine, flood, war—that continue to wash up on Canadian shores in modern times. Of such experience is the country made.
Gillespie’s migrants gaze towards Ireland and a companion set of statues there, but also raise their hands towards the booming city, fully in view from Ireland Park, as if in sorrow, relief and wonder. The skyscrapers of the city that welcomed them vault towards the sky as if there was only ever a tomorrow, but the secrets of the city’s past that are whispered at their bases will not be forgotten.
*formerly Bathurst Quay