Ireland Park Toronto is a public place commemorating both a tragedy and a victory: the Irish potato famine and its victims, and the thousands of survivors who managed to make a new life for themselves in a new land far from home. The haunting statues reveal a once-forgotten chapter of the history of Toronto.
The park opened on June 21, 2007, 160 years after the arrival of 38,560 refugees in Toronto harbour in that dark year of 1847. After surviving a six-week voyage, over 1,100 of these refugees from starvation died in Toronto. Of the dead, 675 names are known and are inscribed in the massive slab of Kilkenny limestone in the park. The slab is reminiscent of a ship, referring to the so-called "coffin ships" that carried the Irish from the starving wasteland to the New World.
What else will you find in Ireland Park Toronto? Well, besides the memorial slab, the main feature of the park is an art installation called Arrival. This is a collection of chilling, bronze, life-size statues by Irish artist Rowan Gillespie. There are five in total: skeletal human beings reaching for the sky, pleading with a God who seems to have abandoned them. One man –or woman—it's hard to tell – has collapsed, and lies in a heap on the ground.
On the day I was there (St. Patrick's Day), I noticed that someone had placed a few coins in the outstretched palm, and laid a bouquet of flowers at the feet of anther statue, this one depicting a pregnant woman cradling her swollen belly. The five statues mirror a set of statues that stand on the harbour in Dublin: seven statues called "Departure". The difference in the number is meant to symbolize the proportion of victims who died en route.
The park, unfortunately, isn't easy to find, tucked away as it is on a quiet quay behind a hulking, abandoned malting silo. You'd almost think that the city was ashamed of this place, and deliberately hid it from the tourists who flock to the fun-filled Harbourfront east of this barren little place. There is no clear signage from any main road, and when you finally wander down to the foot of Bathurst Street, through the island ferry parking lot, turn left and walk past a warning to Keep Off (Danger), the diminutive size of the park is quite disappointing. I've seen suburban backyards bigger than this.
As a Canadian of Irish descent, I'm glad to see that this park at least exists – that this part of our history is honoured in some (small) way. On the other hand, the fact that the park occupies such a paltry piece of land – wasteland really – feels like an insult. It's almost as if someone said: here's a piece of scrap that no one is using! Surely that's good enough for the Irish.
There has been talk that the city might turn the abandoned silo behind the park into a museum devoted to the history of Toronto, and if that happens, Ireland Park Toronto will become much more visible and accessible. Until then, it will remain a hidden part of the city's past.
Those black slabs in the picture below contain the names of famine victims.
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