Back in 1847, Toronto witnessed one of the greatest human tragedies in the city’s history. Between May and October of that year, 38,560 Irish famine emigrants landed on the city’s shores, many of them sick with typhus. The population of Toronto at the time: a mere 20,000.
The city did not close its borders and turn away the migrants, even those with incurable diseases, said Robert Kearns, chair and founder of Ireland Park Foundation, an arts, culture and heritage organization dedicated to commemorating the Irish in Canada. The story of Toronto’s “generous and courageous response,” resonates more than a century later and will be told at a new exhibition and event space on the city’s waterfront, he said.
The event space will be housed in Canada Malting Company’s former executive office adjacent to Ireland Park on the city’s waterfront and host public art and cultural events. On Sunday, Mr. Kearns signed a five-year lease on the building, which is owned by the City of Toronto and comprises 8,000 square feet spread over three floors.
“We are intent upon turning this building into a jewel box on the waterfront and making it a place of destination for all citizens of Toronto and all visitors to Toronto,” he said at a signing ceremony at Toronto City Hall.
Mr. Kearns, who was born in Ireland and immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, has spent the past two decades creating awareness of the Great Famine, which was caused by a potato blight that infected potato crops throughout Europe. The famine would become the principal touchstone for Canada’s Irish settlers.
While growing up in Dublin, Mr. Kearns had heard only whispers of the disaster that killed more than one million and caused two million more to flee Ireland. During a trip home to Ireland in 1997, he came up with the idea for a memorial in Toronto after seeing a series of bronze sculptures that had just been installed along the River Liffey in Dublin. The Famine Series, by Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie, comprised figures of emaciated Irish as they made their escape.
Ireland Park opened a decade later in June, 2007. The park includes bronze statues, also by Mr. Gillespie, of typhus-ravaged immigrants and a limestone wall engraved with the names of hundreds who died in ship holds while crossing the Atlantic. The park not only honours Toronto’s past, but serves as a poignant reminder of the plight of migrants everywhere, Mr. Kearns said.
Most of the migrants who arrived in Toronto headed on to Buffalo or Detroit as side doors into the United States, which had by then closed its ports to Ireland’s disease-ridden “coffin ships.” More than 1,100 others died in Toronto, succumbing to typhus or cholera in one of the city’s “fever sheds.” They were buried in a mass grave outside St. Paul’s, a Roman Catholic church in downtown Toronto.
Another 2,000 famine survivors lived on within the community, but also apart from it because of their own shame and other people’s scorn.
“This is the largest single loss of life to any one cause in the history of Toronto right up to this very day,” Mr. Kearns said.