‘Haunting’ sculptures mark passage of Irish newcomers

When Joseph Carrothers disembarked at Reese’s wharf in Toronto during the summer of 1847, he knew he was lucky to have made it that far.

“I am pleased to be able to write after such a perilous and tedious passage,” he said in a letter to his family back home in Ireland.

Carrothers was one of more than 38,000, who arrived in Toronto that year, seeking a better life than the one they had left behind in famine-stricken Ireland. At the time, The Toronto Mirror newspaper praised the city authorities for its welcome to the overwhelming number of immigrants.

“The sheds for the sick are progressing as fast as the strength of men can drive them up,” it said.

Now the site of the former wharf at the foot of Bathurst Street once again hosts city construction teams laying out the welcome mat to Irish Canadians; this time in happier circumstances. They are building a new footpath and entrance to Ireland Park, Toronto’s Irish Famine memorial. Jane Boyle, a visitor to the park says the project is timely.

“It was pretty hard to find (the park) for the first time, even though I thought I knew where it was,” she said.

Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese, opened the park in June 2007, before proper access was installed. The park is quite isolated, boxed into a plot of land right on Lake Ontario and hidden by the huge Canada Malting silos. Robert Kearns chairs the Ireland Park Foundation, the group that raised the money for the park and looks after its upkeep.

“Because it’s on city property, we weren’t allowed to erect our own signs,” he said. “But this will make it a lot easier to find when it’s ready in a couple of weeks.”

A series of five sculptures in the park depictisthe arrival of immigrants and the range of emotions new arrivals experienced, from ‘The Jubilant Man’ to ‘The Orphan Boy.’

“The statues are haunting,” Boyle said. “It makes you think about the suffering and sacrifice of the people who made the trip.”

Kearns says Ireland Park is more than a memorial to the 1,100 immigrants who died in 1847.

“There were lots of interesting people who came to this city,” he said. “Only about three per cent of the immigrants died. The Ireland Park Foundation is interested in what the other 97 per cent did after they landed.”

With a population of only about 20,000 in 1847, Toronto could not handle the strain of so many immigrants alone. Instead, it became a crossroads for immigrants with plans to meet up with family in other parts of Ontario.

“It is impossible to say how much the citizens of Toronto are indebted to (the emigrant agent’s) untiring vigilance and activity in the prompt forwarding and judicious distribution of the emigrants,” the Toronto Mirror reported.

One of those judiciously distributed was Jospeh Carrothers. A few months after his arrival, he had good news to report home to Ireland from Brantford, Ont.

“As far as I have seen of this country it is very fine,” he wrote. “I am a wagon-maker learning to make wagons at $20 per month.”

Kearns hopes the new additions to the park and greater waterfront access will open the site up to a wider audience as more people stumble across it by chance.

“In our thinking, this is a memorial for all immigrants. If you look at the statues, there’s nothing distinguishing them,” he said. “It belongs to the people of this city – a city of immigrants in a nation of immigrants.”