MONTREAL – Many of the people taking the Victoria bridge in or out of Montreal may not realize they’re driving over a mass graveyard.
A 10-foot tall engraved stone, placed on a median between the lanes of traffic, announces that the site is the resting place of some 6,000 Irish immigrants who died of typhus in “fever sheds” along the riverbank in 1847-48 after fleeing famine in overcrowded ships.
The stone, stained black from exhaust fumes, sits in a little-visited industrial zone near the foot of the bridge, and some members of the Montreal’s Irish community say the city needs to do a better job of honouring the chapter of Canadian history it represents.
“This is the largest single burial site of the Great Hunger in the world outside of Ireland itself,” said Victor Boyle, one of the directors of the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation.
“It’s also the first memorial to that event outside of Ireland.”
But he says that while cities such as Toronto have prominent memorials to their Irish ship fever victims, Montreal’s much-larger number of dead are going unrecognized.
On Sunday, about 100 members of the Irish community took part in an annual walk to the site.
The ceremony, led by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, has taken place in some form or other since 1865 — six years after the stone was erected by mostly-Irish Victoria bridge construction workers who stumbled across the graves.
Now, Boyle’s foundation is trying to get permission to transform a parking lot adjacent to the site into a memorial park in time for Montreal’s 375th anniversary in 2017.
Boyle says the park would honour not only the Irish victims but also the Montrealers who risked their health and safety to help them, ranging from clergy members to British soldiers to Montreal’s mayor, John Easton Mills, who contracted typhus and died in 1847 after visiting the fever sheds.
He also wants to salute the many Quebecois families who adopted Irish orphans into their families.
He says Montreal’s mayor, Denis Coderre, has met with the park foundation on two occasions and expressed support for the project.
The group will also meet in the coming days with the federal Crown corporation that oversees the vacant lot they’re hoping to transform.
Boyle said the group won’t rest until there’s a “meaningful” homage in place.
“All these decades later, and we’re still having ceremonies here,” he said. “That shows we’re never going to forget.”