A group of Irish Montrealers gathered at the Black Rock monument on Sunday to observe a moment of silence for the souls of those whose remains were unearthed by archeologists near the Victoria Bridge last month.
Archeologists found bone and wood fragments believed to be from coffins stacked and buried at the spot more than 170 years ago. Thousands of Irish immigrants fled the famine in their homeland in 1847 and 1848 and headed for Canada, only to die from typhus on ships or in fever shacks on Montreal’s shores.
The Black Rock monument was erected in 1859 by workers building the Victoria Bridge to mark the area where 6,000 Irish immigrants are believed to be buried. The rock now stands on a median in the middle of Bridge St., in an industrial area of Montreal’s Sud-Ouest borough. Members of Montreal’s Irish community have been lobbying for more than a decade to get the city of Montreal to establish a more respectful commemorative site.
The bone fragments were found in a cylindrical hole excavated to eventually hold one of the pillars required to support the Réseau Express Métropolitain light rail network.
“We have all heard the very sad news that our ancestors’ remains — about 15 of them as far as we are aware — have been removed from the cemetery,” said Donovan King, a history teacher who conducts Irish-themed walking tours of Montreal.
“It has been done very respectfully by the REM archeologists, but we do want to mourn for their souls; we do want to take this opportunity to pray for them,” King added, before asking for a moment of silence from the dozen people who answered the call to mourning on a windy and cold December afternoon.
The letter describes Landry as a “controversial and divisive politician” who made “anti-immigrant rants, despite being descended from French colonial immigrants himself.”
On Sunday, King referred to the idea as an “indecent proposal”.
“There are many other places where Bernard Landry can be respectfully commemorated, so we are asking (Plante) on this very important day of mourning to please withdraw the proposal,” King said.
Fergus Keyes, a director of the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation, said his group is very pleased the REM is cooperating with the Irish community in Montreal by, among other things, notifying them when human remains are discovered at the site. The remains will be studied and preserved and eventually reburied in another part of the cemetery.
Hydro-Québec is building a new power sub-station for the REM nearby and has agreed to cede part of its land to create a commemorative park at the site of the cemetery. The plan is to relocate part of Bridge St. so that the Black Rock monument can stay put and be a centrepiece of that park.
Keyes echoed King’s concerns about naming the Griffintown REM station after Landry.
“He had nothing to do with Griffintown and we really don’t want it rebranded,” Keyes said. “Griffintown has a history of 150 years that the Irish people lived there. Many people in Griffintown opened their doors to these famine Irish. Some of them caught typhus and whole families died because of it.”
He spoke of the “magnificent humanitarian effort” by Indigenous peoples, who fed the Irish immigrants, as well as francophone Montreal families, who adopted the thousands of Irish children who were orphaned when their parents died of typhus. He stressed the number of Irish famine victims who arrived in Montreal in 1847-1848 — an estimated 70,000 — at a time when the population of Montreal island was only about 50,000.
“This isn’t only Irish history,” Keyes said. “It’s the history of all people of Montreal. It’s big Quebec history, big Canadian history, and could be considered big North American history because so many Americans have Irish heritage and many of them came through this area.”
Miles Murphy, a student in Irish studies at Concordia University, noted the Black Rock is the oldest Irish famine memorial in the world and marks the largest famine cemetery outside of Ireland.
“It really deserves to be commemorated in a better setting than it is today,” Murphy said.