When Toronto’s Roman Catholic parishioners attended church services on May 15, 1847, they were read a letter from Bishop Michael Power that urged them to prepare for a sudden influx of refugees from one of the worst human disasters of the 19th century. Over the next six months, Toronto’s population of 20,000 temporarily swelled as more than 38,000 migrants escaping the Irish Potato Famine landed on the city’s waterfront.
The sheer number of poor and often ill immigrants strained local resources. Initially the refugees landed on a wharf near the present-day site of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. They were processed in makeshift sheds by emigration agents and health authorities to try to prevent the spread of the diseases they carried. As the numbers arriving grew, so did the number of sheds. While healthy migrants quickly moved on to other parts of Canada West or the United States, the large number of sick refugees, many of whom had been prevented from staying at Kingston or Montreal, overwhelmed local hospital facilities.
Of those who arrived in Toronto in 1847, some 1,100 died from typhus or other illnesses. The names of most of these victims are commemorated on a wall of limestone imported from Kilkenny and placed in Ireland Park, which officially opened in 2007. The adjacent heart-rending sculptures provide a North American book-end to those produced earlier by the same sculptor, Rowan Gillespie, and which stand on a wharf in Dublin, Ireland.
By Jamie Bradburn