MONTREAL – Thousands of Irish came to Canada during the potato famine in search of a better life, but many died from disease epidemics that hit Kingston, Toronto and Montreal.
Community members are now trying to raise awareness about it.
On Sunday, Irish-Montrealers marched to a large black rock that sits just to the left of the Victoria Bridge.
“There’s 6,000 people buried here,” said Dian English of the Montreal Irish Monument Foundation.
“They deserve a more fitting end than this.”
The 6000 people are the victims of the Black ’47, a year in the 1800’s during the Irish potato famine where about 100,000 Irish immigrants passed through Montreal.
Suffering from typhus, many came to North America in search of a new home – but ended up finding an early grave instead.
GALLERY: Remembering Black ’47
Now, members of Montreal’s community want to make the black stone the centerpiece of a park and a monument.
“We want to see a major park done here that has a cultural centre, that has four season sports, a real Canadian park,” said English.
But, the proposed park would reroute traffic going to the bridge, which could be an issue.
Not only is the stone in the middle of a major roadway, it’s in the midst of an area primed for development.
“To know the history of the space the people who built it, the people who played a role in populating it and make sure that history isn’t forgotten and try to give it back,” said Sterling Downey, a Montreal City Councillor.
“It doesn’t mean that you can’t develop. But there are intelligent ways of developing.”
Every year Montreal’s Irish community gathers at Saint-Gabriel’s Church in Pointe-Saint-Charles to walk to the black stone.
In the future, they hope they can make it more of a destination.
“People would be able to not only dodge traffic to spend time with the stone, but be able to spend time with their families, having picnics,” said Victor Boyle of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Canada.
The thousands of people who died in the so-called coffin ships are believed to be buried under what is now a parking lot.
Incredibly, there’s no known record of who they were.
“The famine for us was like our holocaust,” said Ray Bassett, the Irish Ambassador to Canada.
Bassett admits he couldn’t find the black rock when he first came to Montreal.
“It’s important these people are remembered,” he said.
“They’re human beings, their individuals.”
Turning the median strip into something more substantial is still just an idea on paper, but the people who gathered there don’t want the memory of Black ’47 to sit in the middle of a highway forever.