Update: Commemorating the Victims of the Irish Famine in Montreal.

May 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

Last week, the news out of Montreal was that the piece of land the Irish Memorial Foundation sought to create a proper memorial of the mass grave of Irish Famine victims had been sold to Hydro-Québec, which sought to build a power sub-station there, ironically to serve the burgeoning redevelopment of Griffintown.

But all is well that ends well, apparently.  On Friday, Hydro-Québec and the Ville de Montréal issued a joint press release saying that they, along with Montreal’s Irish community, had come to an arrangement to see the redevelopment of a memorial to the 6,000 victims in that grave under what is now Bridge St.

And, frankly, it is about time that this project got underway.

 

(Not) Commemorating the Irish Famine in Montreal

May 25, 2017 § 6 Comments

The Irish Famine was one of the great humanitarian disasters of the 19th century. A blight upon the potato crop, combined with British malfeasance, brought about a crisis that saw Ireland lose around 25% of its population between 1845 and 1852.  One million people died.  Another million emigrated.  This was the birth of the Irish diaspora as we know it today.

 

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Famine refugees in Ireland (woodcut)

Montreal is one of the great cities of the diaspora, even if most of the Irish world doesn’t know this.  Something like 40% of Quebecers have Irish heritage.  And the Irish have long been recognized as one of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city.  The flag of the Ville de Montréal features the flowers of each of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city: the French, English, Scots, and Irish, and a cross of St. George.  The landscape of the city is littered with remembrances of the Irish, from rue Shamrock by Marché Jean-Talon in the North End (where the old Shamrocks Lacrosse Club stadium was) to Loyola College (now part of Concordia University) and rue Dublin in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

 

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The flag of the Ville de Montréal

During the Famine, the city was inundated with refugees.  Even with a quarantine station on Grosse-Île, up the St. Lawrence River near Quebec, the sick and the dying still made it downriver to Montreal. They ended up in fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles, just across the Lachine Canal from Griffintown.  Upwards of 6,000 of them were dumped in a mass grave that went largely unmarked and forgotten until 1859, when a bunch of Irish construction workers, building the Victoria Bridge, unearthed them.  The workers erected a huge black rock to mark the grave.

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The Black Rock

Don Pidgeon was the long-time historian of the United Irish Societies of Montreal, until he died last year.  He liked to argue that the rock was the birth place of Irish Montreal.  It was largely due to him that the Black Rock has been preserved and cared for.  For as long as I can remember, the Irish community of Montreal sought to create a proper memorial park to commemorate the Famine dead.  The Black Rock currently sits on an island in the middle of Bridge St., the Montreal approach to the Victoria Bridge, near where Goose Village once stood.  During rush hour, Bridge St. is congested and car-heavy.  It is no way to commemorate the dead.

Montreal is the only major diaspora city that lacks a Famine Memorial.  This is shocking and so very typically Montreal in many ways.  Montreal exists as it does today in large part due to the inundation of the Irish in the early 19th century.  This is true both demographically, but also infrastructurally.   The Irish built the bulk of the city’s 19th century infrastructure: the Lachine Canal, the railways, Victoria Bridge, the buildings and factories, and their muscle dredged the Montreal harbour, expanding it for bigger and bigger cargo ships.  They were also a key constituency of the industrial working classes in the 19th century.  They were present at the beginnings of the Canadian industrial revolution in Griffintown, and they helped power the city into the industrial centre of Canada. The influx of Irish also meant that for a brief period in the second half of the 19th century, English-speaking people were the majority of the population in the city.  And while the Famine is not the means by which all the Montreal Irish got there, it is a central story to the Irish in Montreal.

This is true of both the Famine refugees, but also the Irish community that was already there.  St. Patrick’s Basilica opened its doors on 17 March 1847, at the very start of the worst year of the Famine, Black ’47.  But that the Irish could construct a big, handsome church on the side of Beaver Hall Hill in 1847 also signifies the depth of the roots of the Irish in Montreal.  Even as early as the 1820s, there was a firmly ensconced Irish population in the city.  But when the flood gates opened and the refugees began streaming in later that spring of 1847, the Montreal Irish got to work.  They donated large sums of money to the care of their brethren, they volunteered to work in the fever sheds, they helped the survivors set up in Montreal (it is worth noting that the same was true of the rest of the city’s population, whatever its ethnic background).

In short, the years of the Irish Famine were central to the development of Irish Montreal.  And perhaps more to the point, following the Famine, Irish emigration to Montreal (and Canada as a whole), dried up.  Thus, in many ways, the Irish of Montreal were able to integrate and assimilate into the wider city.  They shared a language with the economically dominant group, a religion with the numerically dominant.  And the growing stability of the population aided in this process.  In short, in some ways, the Irish experience was not as fraught in Montreal as it was in other diasporic locations, where nativism and anti-Irish sentiment held sway.

 

The Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation kicked into gear last year, with its plan  to build a proper memorial.  The goal, according to the Foundation’s website, is to create a memorial park that would include playing fields for Irish sports, a theatre, and a museum on the site.  This park would be strategically located, and presumably would be connected to the Lachine Canal National Historic Site nearby, which is itself a heavily-used park.

The Foundation appears to have had all of its ducks lined up, with support from the Irish community, corporate Montreal, and the Mayor’s office.  The Irish Embassy in Ottawa was also supportive, willing to kick in some money (as it had with the Toronto Famine Memorial).

And then, a few weeks ago, the land that it proposed to acquire for the park was sold by the Canada Lands Company (a Crown corporation that deals with public land) to Hydro-Québec, which wants to build a sub-station there, ironically due to the massive redevelopment of Griffintown.  And while there is allegedly a clause in the sale requiring Hydro-Québec to build a monument to the Famine dead, that’s cold comfort.  Who is going to go look at a monument along a busy road next to an sub-station?

And so, at least for now, the dream of a proper memorial to the Famine refugees in Montreal is dead.  This year marks the 375th anniversary of the founding of Montreal, but it is also the 160th anniversary of Black ’47.

I have a hard time believing that something like this would happen in any other city.  A project with community, corporate and political support got derailed by two Crown corporations.  I don’t quite understand how this could have come as a surprise, as in, how did the Foundation not know that Canada Lands was negotiation with Hydro-Québec?  Then again, this is Montreal, so that is also entirely within the realm of possibility.  And this entire affair is so typically Montreal.

Griffintown

October 31, 2016 § 2 Comments

I just recently received the cover art for my forthcoming book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood.  It will be published in May 2017 by the University of British Columbia Press.  To say I’m stoked is a minor understatement.  The art work is by my good friend and co-conspirator on many things Griff, G. Scott MacLeod.

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UPDATE: The Griffintown Horse Palace

September 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

The Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation has met and exceeded its goal, and with three days to spare!  As of right now, the Indiegogo page has raised $49,335!  The goal was $45,000.

The Foundation is also hosting a fundraising soirée at the Horse Palace, 1226, rue Ottawa, in Griffintown, on Thursday night, 2 October, from 5pm.  Tickets are $75, and can be purchased here.  More details on the soirée can be found on the Foundation’s Facebook page here.

A huge thank you to all who have contributed.  Even though I am no longer involved with the Foundation, I strongly believe in its mission and want to see Leo’s Horse Palace saved!

Immigration in the United States, plus ça change

August 7, 2014 § 8 Comments

I am doing a bit of research into the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 50s in the United States.  The Know Nothings were a secret society that eventually evolved into a political party, based on the premise that immigration was bad for the United States.  In short, the Know Nothings, who also formed one of the bases of the nascent Republican Party in the late 1850s, were nativists.  They believed in a United States for Americans only.  We could, of course, note the irony of that statement, given every person not of Native American heritage in this country is of immigrant stock.  But, we’ll leave that alone.  They were called Know Nothings not because they were ignorant (as my students always suppose), but because, as a secret society and asked about the society replied that they “knew nothing.”

I came across this list of things that Roman Catholics hate about the United States from the Boston Know-Nothing and American Crusader in July 1854.  The Know-Nothing and American Crusader was one of the main newspapers of the Know Nothings, and Boston was a major centre of the nativists.  Boston was ground zero, in many ways, in the ‘invasion’ of Irish immigrants and refugees in the years of the Famine and afterwards.  Here’s the list:

  1. They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
  2. They HATE the American Eagle, and it offends them beyond endurance to see it worn as an ornament by Americans.
  3. They HATE our Flag, as it manifest by their grossly insulting it.
  4. They HATE the liberty of conscience.
  5. They HATE the liberty of the Press.
  6. They HATE the liberty of speech.
  7. They HATE our Common School system.
  8. They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
  9. The Priests HATE married life, and yet by them is fulfilled the Scripture, to wit: ‘more are the children or the desolate, than the children of the married wife.’
  10. They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
  11. They HATE the name of Washington, because he was a Republican and Protestant.
  12. They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
  13. They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say “WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!”
  14. They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
  15. They HATE, above all, the ‘Know Nothings,’ who are determined to rid this country of their accursed power.

The author of this wonderful list signed his name as “Uncle Sam.”  Newspapers in general allowed correspondents to use anonymous pseudonyms in the 19th century, so this isn’t surprising.  But the nom de plume of our correspondent is telling of the cause of the Know Nothings.

As I am doing this research, I’m thinking back to my experiences in June, when I was told by a table mate that the AP Reading I was at that I don’t belong in the United States because I “don’t love America” (I don’t “love” Canada, either, for the record).  And, thenthen, on the way home, at a layover in Dallas, another traveller, watching the news, told me that all immigrants should be rounded up and deported (this one didn’t know I was an immigrant).  And as I watch the drama unfold about the refugee children from Central America in this country, and see the horrible rhetoric coming from the right wing, I can’t help but think that, even if 170 years have passed since “Uncle Sam” published his list of things Catholics hate in The Know-Nothing and American Crusader, in some ways, nothing has changed.  The rhetoric of “Uncle Sam” echoes that of some far right politicians, commentators, and regular citizens I’ve seen on Twitter in the past month.

Of course, the Know Nothings were never a majority of Americans, any more than those so violently opposed and hard-hearted to the plight of children today are even close to a majority.  The overwhelming majority of Americans then and now do not have a problem with immigration and immigrants.  But, then as now, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day: “Race” and the “True Celt”

March 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

I’m currently finishing off my Griffintown manuscript, and continuing the endless revisions of the PhD dissertation it was based on.  By this point, “based on” is loose, like when movies claim to be based on a book, but you can’t really see the book in the movie.  Anyway, right now I’m revising the sections on Irish nationalist sentiment amongst the Irish-Catholics of Griff in the early 20th century.  And so, I’m reading Robert McLaughlin’s Irish Canadian Conflict and the Struggle for Irish Independence, 1912-1925. McLaughlin’s work, like mine, is part of a growing movement amongst historians to challenge a decades-old belief amongst Canadian historians that Irish Catholics in Canada couldn’t care less about what happened in Ireland.  This is a refreshing change.

McLaughlin, unlike most of us who study the Irish in Canada, focuses on both sides of the divide, looking at both Catholics and Protestants.  This is what makes his book so valuable.  Off the top of my head, McLaughlin’s is the only book-length study to look at the Protestant Irish response to agitations for Home Rule and outright independence for Ireland in Canada.

As such, McLaughlin spends a fair amount of time discussing Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionists in Ireland.  I talked about Carson in class the other week in discussing Home Rule and Unionism.  I had a picture of him up on the screen, blown up behind me.  When I turned around, I kind of jumped, not really expecting Sir Edward to be so big and glaring at me.  The picture, however, is beautiful.  Sir Edward looks out contemptuously at his audience, his lips pursed into a sour look, as if he had just smelled some Catholics.  His jawbone is fierce, and his hair slicked back.  He looks for all the world like a hard man. But, of course, he wasn’t.  He was a knighted politician.  But he was also the perfect avenue into discussing the “manliness problem” of the late Victorian/Edwardian British Empire, and the response, created by Lord Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts, “muscular Christianity.”  Sir Edward looks like he could tear you a new one as easily as argue the merits of Unionism versus Home Rule.  And, in turn, this allowed me a direct entré into the Gaelic Athletic Association’s concept of “muscular Catholicism,” which turned muscular Christianity on its ear for Catholic Irish purposes.

At any rate, back to McLaughlin and his quoting of Sir Edward.  Sir Edward wrote to his former Conservative Party colleague, Sir John Marriott in 1933, long after Irish independence and the partitioning of Ireland:

The Celts have done nothing in Ireland but create trouble and disorder.  Irishmen who have turned out successful are not in any case that I know of true Celtic origin.

I find this humourous.  See, by Sir Edward’s day, there was no such thing as a “true Celt” (not that Irish nationalists didn’t speak this same language).  By the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant, were a wonderful mixture of Celtic Irish, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Spanish, English, Welsh, Scots, and so on that no one was a “pure Celt” or pure anything.  But, of course, that myth persisted and still persists today.

I still have people come up to me today, in the early years of the 21st century, and want to discuss the “real Irish” or the “pure Irish” or the “real Celts” in Ireland.  After disabusing them of the notion that there is such a thing (anywhere in the world, quite frankly, we’re all mutts, no matter our various ethnic heritages), I am left to just shake my head.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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