A group of Irish Montrealers was bestowed a prestigious honour Friday.
For over a decade, a dedicated team of volunteers has fought tirelessly to preserve the burial ground of 6,000 Irish migrants who perished after their arrival in the 1800s.
That hard work was recognized with the Richard Evans Award from the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network.
The Black Rock is on a median in the middle of a busy stretch of Bridge Street near the Victoria Bridge. To Irish Montrealers, the sight of the massive boulder is charged with history and emotion.
“My great, great, great, great grandfather died on the boat on the way over and was buried when he got here,” said Matthew Farfan, the executive director of the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network.
His ancestor was one of the 6,000 Irish people whose remains were buried in the area in the mid-1800s.
At the time, 70,000 Irish refugees arrived in Montreal after leaving their homeland during the potato famine. Many died of typhus either on the boats or once they arrived.
The Black Rock honours them.
“We also are hoping to honour the many Montrealers of every language, every religion, every culture that came to help and many of these people gave up their lives,” said Fergus Keyes, director of the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation.
For 12 years, his group has been fighting to get a legitimate park built around the rock. They hope to create a space where people can actually come and soak in the history without risking getting run over to get there. It finally seems set to happen, and for that work, they were honoured with the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network’s annual Richard Evans award.
“It goes to a volunteer group working to preserve and promote the heritage of the English-speaking communities of the province of Quebec,” Farfan said.
Keyes said “it’s nice to get this recognition, and the project is coming along nicely.”
Keyes said Hydro Quebec, which owns the land adjacent to the rock, has promised to hand over a few acres for a park. He said the City of Montreal is currently studying the possibility of moving Bridge Street.
“It’s still three, four years down the road, but it is moving along,” he said.
Keyes added that this September a DNA analysis of 14 sets of remains unearthed during REM construction should be complete. He says information about their genders, causes of death and more could be revealed.
“It’s possible that we’ll be able to identify where the individuals came from, maybe even the town, maybe even a street and really off chance, maybe who they were,” he said.