Getting their Irish up

A colourfully dressed member of the Knights of Columbus stands beside a Canadian soldier next to the Black Stone on May 29, 2016
A scene from the Walk to the Stone 2016.   Photo by Stephanie O’Hanley

For years Montreal’s Irish community has fought for a better memorial for the estimated 6,000 or more Irish immigrants who died of a typhus epidemic in 1847 and 1848 not long after arriving in the city.

Thousands of Irish escaping the Great Famine made their way across the Atlantic on lumber ships called “coffin ships” because the journey passengers experienced, which could take three months, was dangerous and when people contracted typhus (known as ship fever) and died, their bodies were thrown overboard. The sparsely furnished ships were overcrowded and the people on them were given a bare minimum of water and food.  Some say the people served as human “ballast” for the ships.

In 1847 American port towns fearing an influx of Roman Catholic Irish either imposed heavy restrictions on ships or closed their ports to the Irish. Many Irish landed at the government quarantine station at Grosse Île (Grosse Isle), outside Quebec City, where they were examined. Doctors used tongue depressors to check the tongues of passengers and apparently would use the same tongue depressor for many passengers and so passed on the disease. The “seemingly well” were eventually cleared to continue their journey to Montreal.

But upon their arrival, many of the new Irish contracted typhus (not to be confused with typhoid fever) and became ill. Though the Grey Nuns, Montreal’s mayor John Easton Mills and many others cared for them at the fever sheds erected at Windmill Point in a part of Montreal known as Goose Village, between 1847 and 1848 an estimated 6,000 Irish men, women and children succumbed to typhus in Montreal. Mills died at home of the disease as did many Grey Nuns, clergy, soldiers and citizens who came into contact with it while tending to the sick. The disease was so contagious the triaging of the dying from the sick and the healthy didn’t work and as the disease spread people were hastily buried in mass graves and eventually forgotten.

Many of the workers who built the Victoria Bridge were Irish and it was they who discovered the mass graves. Moved by the story of the deaths of so many of their people, in 1859 they hauled a 10-foot granite boulder to the site to act as a grave marker monument.

The Irish community has honoured these dead ever since, holding a mass at St. Gabriel’s followed by a Walk to the Stone on the last Sunday in May.

In the 1960s Goose Village including the fever sheds was demolished as Montreal prepared for Expo ’67. The very site where the sheds were located became the Autostade and later served as a parking lot for the Montreal casino.

Today the giant Black Stone or Black Rock on Bridge Street (also called the Irish Commemorative Stone or the Immigrants Stone at Pointe St. Charles) sits on a grassy median that separates two lanes of traffic on the Victoria Bridge. Over the years, the Irish community (which is made up of at least 23 organizations) has made many efforts to get the history of these Irish dead and the story of the fever sheds acknowledged. The monument was surrounded by a beautiful iron fence adorned with shamrocks. At the edge of a parking lot facing the Black Stone, a plaque in Irish, English, and French explaining the monument’s significance.

Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation
Women hold up a banner for the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation as Victor Boyle, president of Ancient Order of Hibernians Canada, (left) chats with a little girl on May 29, 2016.  Photo by Stephanie O’Hanley

In recent years a group called the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation has campaigned to have a commemorative park and pavilion replace the abandoned parking lot and to move the Black Stone to a beautiful new park where people could easily visit it instead of risking their lives crossing traffic. A Celtic cross would replace the Black Stone on the median.  At this new and badly needed green space, the goal would be not only to honour the 6,000 Irish immigrants but also the French-speaking Quebec families who took in nearly 1,000 children who became orphaned and also pay homage to all those who contracted typhus and died after helping the Irish. The site’s history as a hunting and meeting place for indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans would be mentioned, as well as its location near Griffintown and on the site of Goose Village, which was destroyed for Expo 67. The plans too included a sports field for Irish sports such as hurling, “a museum, theatre, meeting place for various organizations, etc.”

But in spite of promises from politicians and efforts by the members of the Irish community to buy the land to create a commemorative park and pavilion, the community recently found out Canada Lands Corporation, a federal government Crown corporation and owner of the land containing the parking lot, sold it to Hydro-Québec. It’s apparently now designated as the site of a substation for the electric train project, the light rail project everyone is talking about. Hydro-Québec has apparently shown goodwill and reached out to the Irish community but it’s unclear how a hydro substation can co-exist with a memorial to Irish typhus victims and history.

You’d think with the Irish shamrock on Montreal’s flag and all the fanfare about Canada’s 150th anniversary and Montreal’s 375th, there would be more respect for the Irish community. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre is on record as supporting plans for an Irish memorial park but it’s getting harder to believe he’s going to keep his promises to the community. With a Hydro-Québec substation in the mix, it’s hard to tell how this is possible. My son Patrick Quinn is working in Winnipeg this summer but is so upset about this latest development he’s spent lunch hours calling politicians from all levels of government and urging them to get involved and attend tomorrow’s walk.

This week a group of people gathered at St. Gabriel’s Church in Point St. Charles and spent two evenings working on 6,000 tiny wooden crosses they plan to bring to the 153rd annual Walk to the Stone tomorrow (Sunday, May 28, 2017).

Several Canadian cities with similar horrible stories about Irish emigrants who died of typhus have worked with the Irish community to acknowledge this history and the important contributions the Irish have made to their cities. Along with Parks Canada’s Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site, there are memorials in Toronto,  Kingston and Quebec City, which has a giant Celtic cross acknowledging the famine Irish.

But Montreal? You could say Montreal doesn’t always seem to care about its past.  With the demolition of Goose Village and St. Ann’s Church and the ruin of Griffintown among other affronts, the Irish here certainly have grievances.

I wonder if Montreal will finally listen to its Irish community. Or will politicians pay the price for ruining this long-anticipated project? I don’t think any politician can afford to offend the Irish.

In 1996 I wrote a news story about the Black Stone for the Montreal Gazette. It’s hard to believe so little has changed.

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Members of Montreal’s Irish community gather in front of the Black Stone during the Walk to the Stone event, May 29, 2016. With road signs and power lines in the background, you can see the monument’s industrial setting.     Photo by Stephanie O’Hanley
Getting their Irish up

I write because…

owl_first-issue_jan-1976I remember being eight years old and excitedly entering one of my stories in a writing contest for OWL, my favourite magazine at the time.

While my story didn’t get published, I received a really nice handwritten postcard in the mail, encouraging me to keep writing.

I write because I feel compelled to write. It’s almost as though I didn’t choose to be a writer. Writing chose me.

I don’t see myself as a literary writer. In high school I did very well in a Grade 10 English literature class, finishing in the 93rd percentile, But in Grade 11, I didn’t get great marks on short story assignments and I wasn’t my teacher’s favourite student. I didn’t impress her. My stories weren’t considered as interesting as those of my classmates.’ At graduation she gave me an award for being “most improved in English” or something like that. She said she issued that award to help me because I was planning to be a writer but I felt pitied and I doubted my writing abilities.

I had originally planned to become an environmentalist. But I was terrible at math and didn’t do well in science classes. I figured since I failed Grade 11 math and I didn’t understand it at all, my chances of ever realizing that dream were low.

So writing seemed realistic. I figured journalism would work since I didn’t need to be literary, I could just present the facts and I could play with words without worry and be creative in a way that suited me. After reading about freelance writing I decided that when I had children I could work from home and have more chances to spend time with them. I had no idea what that would actually be like but when I was 16 that sounded great.

Over the years I’ve had  a few editors (five out of 20, something like that) who’ve hated my writing style. I’ve been told I lack a voice and personality and that I should join a writing group.

I’m not sure what to make of such criticism. I’m not a ‘hey look at me’ kind of person. Because of my news journalism background and leanings I’m not always comfortable putting myself in the articles I write. I was taught that stories weren’t about me but about the people I was covering or profiling.

I write because I enjoy sharing people’s stories, exposing injustice, informing people. I write because writing helps me get my thoughts and daydreams out of my head.

I write because…

Inherited kidney disease – carriers’ guilt?

kidneyimageMy 21-year-old nephew is ill, his kidneys failing. We’ve known for years this would happen eventually. Alport Syndrome, the kidney disease in our family, is relatively rare. But it progressively damages the tiny blood vessels in the glomeruli of the kidneys (the kidney’s filtering system in the basement membrane of the kidney) to the point that eventually they can no longer filter wastes and extra fluid from the body. It’s caused by a mutation in a gene for a protein in the connective tissue, called collagen that progressively affects the kidneys and may affect the eyes and ears. In my family, we don’t know of anyone whose hearing was directly affected by Alport Syndrome and while a number of us wear glasses, it’s unclear whether this is because of Alport’s.

My nephew’s situation hits close to home because my 19-year-old son has the same disease. Besides worrying about my nephew, his situation has me thinking that we could be in the same position in only a few years.

When our sons were born, neither my sister nor I knew we were “carriers” for Alport Syndrome, which in our family is the “X-linked” transmission type, passed down by mothers to sons. We discovered our connection to Alport’s when my nephew was three years old. He’d contracted an illness and doctors were checking his urine to see if the infection had cleared. They noticed hematuria, microscopic amounts of blood in his urine. A doctor asked, is there kidney disease in the family?

Of course there was. It wasn’t in my mother’s immediate family but two of my great aunt’s three sons died of the disease. Other relatives had it. We didn’t know much about it but what we’d heard was scary.

My sister and mother had their urine checked for hematuria. I was urged to do the same. It was shocking for my mother to discover her daughters are carriers. She feels terrible about it.

Over the years I’ve felt sad that I brought two sons into this world with this disease, not because of their existence but because chronic kidney disease is no fun. Yet I don’t think I should feel guilty about being a carrier or not knowing that one of my X chromosomes had a “defect.”

I hate the disease and what it does to the affected male members of our family but I don’t hate my genes if that makes any sense. The disease is just one small part of my DNA and my family’s DNA and it doesn’t define who we are.

The men in our family affected by Alport’s who died in their 40s didn’t have access to the incredible medical care available today. As I understand it, my relatives received kidneys from cadaver donors. I don’t know what kind of screening was done to make sure the transplanted kidneys were a match for their bodies but as I understand it, they underwent more than one kidney transplant throughout their lives. Undergoing dialysis, experiencing their bodies rejecting transplanted organs, taking powerful medication and having many kidney transplants was hard on their bodies.

Today a young person experiencing kidney failure may receive a kidney from a living donor. Doctors do blood tests to see if a donor’s blood type is compatible with the recipient’s and if it is, further blood tests (tissue typing and cross-matching) are done to ensure a match. A living donation means better donor organ survival rates, there’s less waiting and the recipient may even avoid dialysis.

Until now it’s been a waiting game for my son and nephew. We knew they had the disease but their kidneys were healthy enough. Besides visiting nephrologists and receiving prescriptions for blood pressure medication to take pressure off the kidneys, there’s been nothing to discuss.

Now my sister is caring for my nephew and it’s a crash course in hemoglobin, potassium, phosphate and creatinine levels. She knows all about the renal diet, different types of dialysis,  the location of the MUHC’s three dialysis centres and which one to take my nephew to and when, that blood transfusions are a bad idea for a person who needs a kidney transplant, the list goes on.

I’m sorry I don’t have any relatives to talk to about this disease. I’m sure the cousins who died would have wanted to live a lot longer than they did. I only met them briefly but from what I remember they were intelligent, interesting folks, hard workers who made the most of their lives.

Right now a kidney transplant from a living donor is my nephew’s best bet. Thankfully his odds are excellent. A number of people have offered to donate a kidney and when his body is stronger and a match is found, he’ll receive a transplant.

My sons and nephew are blessed with amazing medical care and there are all sorts of potential cures on the horizon for Alport Syndrome and other kidney diseases.

I don’t know what else to do but learn more about Alport Syndrome, talk to people living with it or whose loved ones have it and prepare for when my son’s kidneys fail.  I’ll raise funds and give to groups such as the Kidney Foundation of Canada, whose staff and volunteers have already helped me tremendously with information and support, and the Alport Syndrome Foundation, an incredible organization that not only helps people living with this devastating disease realize they’re not alone, it advocates for people and funds research to find a cure to end Alport Syndrome forever.

Inherited kidney disease – carriers’ guilt?

Aargh, some Montreal St. Patrick’s parade misconceptions

giant Saint Patrick at parade
Giant Saint Patrick figure at Montreal’s St Patrick’s Parade                            Rosana Prada/Flickr

Okay. It’s true that in spite of my last name I am only part Irish. If you look at my ancestry I’m probably more Scots and English than Irish. At this point, nine generations in Canada on my dad’s (O’Hanley) side and seven generations in Canada on my mom’s side, I am Canadian, not really Irish at all.

But having O’Hanley as a last name has meant for years I’ve had people in Quebec confuse my last name with that of the chocolate bar “O’Henry,” which isn’t even an Irish name, and I’ve often heard, “your last name is Irish, are you Irish?” So I’ve sort of embraced this Irish heritage and learned a bit about Irish culture and the community here.

Here are a few mistakes I see every year around parade time that for whatever reason drive me nuts:

Happy St. Patty’s Day!

I saw this written on the side of a float in yesterday’s Hudson’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The problem? It’s St. Paddy, not St. Patty! St. Paddy is a reference to Patrick, also spelled Pádraig. St. Patty would be St. Patricia. So the slogan on the side of the float should have said Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

The danger in getting it wrong? You could be mocked by the Irish in Ireland. There’s even a guy who’s been writing about this for years (check out Marcus Campbell’s “modest proposal” for Paddy, not Patty here). He even has a Twitter account where he posts such errors. Besides, mixing up Patty and Paddy makes people here look like ignorant Americans. 

St. Patrick’s Day Parade

While this is the correct name for Hudson’s annual parade, it’s not the correct name for Montreal’s parade. Technically Montreal’s parade is called the St. Patrick’s Parade, not the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It usually doesn’t take place on the day itself (March 17), so the official name of the parade does not reference it. But the United Irish Societies of Montreal aren’t helping the media get the name right when the site description for their own website mentions the St. Patrick’s Day Parade! If you read the text on the site carefully you’ll see the event is officially called the St. Patrick’s Parade. But how many media outlets get it right? At this point they should probably change the name to match what it’s almost always called, Montréal’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

United Irish Society or United Irish Society of Montreal

It’s been getting better over the years but you usually see at least one media outlet get the parade organizer’s name wrong. I suppose the reason the name of this community organization is plural is because there were several societies involved in putting the parade together in 1928 when they took over running the parade. So it’s United Irish Societies of Montreal, and not United Irish Society or United Irish Society of Montreal.

I suppose I’m being nitpicky. I make mistakes all the time. We joke in our family that whenever you feel stubborn or critical it’s the O’Hanley coming out. This is our Coat of Arms so what do you expect?

ohanleycoatofarms

 

Happy belated St. Paddy’s! I hope you’ve enjoyed at least one parade this weekend!

 

 

 

 

 

Aargh, some Montreal St. Patrick’s parade misconceptions

Highway 13 drivers weren’t the only ones stranded during Montreal’s record-setting blizzard

Gare Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue
Snowy Gare Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, as it looked when I finally arrived on March 15, 2017

What about STM and AMT commuters?

Yesterday there seemed to be a lot of finger pointing at the Quebec government for its abysmal emergency preparedness. I agree that there is no excuse for 300 drivers being stuck overnight on Highway 13  with no help because of the storm.

But I believe the City of Montreal failed many people affected by the storm, especially when it comes to public transportation.

On Tuesday night (March 14)  I attended a University of the Streets Café discussion and because I had no idea the STM buses were having such a hard time on the road, I thought I’d be able to get most of the way home to Vaudreuil-Dorion by bus. I stupidly stuck around after the discussion when it would have been better to take a commuter train. But because I missed the last train of the night, buses were my only affordable option.

When I got to the 211 stop, just down the road from the Lionel-Groulx metro, I joined a very long line of people who were waiting for the bus. It was around 9:30 p.m. and when I got there the folks I spoke with had been waiting for over an hour. There were two buses parked across the way from the stop and an STM inspector’s car was parked in the middle of the roadway but the bus drivers didn’t invite people aboard the buses so they could warm up, nor did the inspector tell people what was happening. I waited an hour with the people I’d met and during that time no one came by to let us know anything, for instance, would the buses eventually be on the road? There were no city councillors or city officials or anyone really bringing people hot beverages or something to keep them warm while they waited outside. The woman I spoke with is a student who had parked her car in Dorval and was worried about receiving a ticket if she didn’t get her car (I hope they didn’t ticket her. She had a very good excuse for not getting to Dorval). The information was murky in terms of the reasons (work on Highway 20? Highway 13 mess? accidents?) but it seemed no one could get anywhere via Highway 20. The man I met lives in Île-Perrot and couldn’t get home. The woman had a possible place to stay in town but the man didn’t know anyone. They were just two of the many people who live in the West Island and beyond who could not get home Tuesday night and no one from the City of Montreal or the STM or the police or anyone official offered them any information or comfort. Technology exists to send text messages on smartphones. There’s not really any excuse in this day and age for neglecting people like this.

This situation shocked me because I thought Montreal was hardcore and good at handling emergencies. It’s not as though we haven’t had bad snowstorms before. We survived an Ice Storm in 1998 and handled that well. On Tuesday I had the impression city officials were asleep at the wheel. Didn’t they know people were stranded across the city? Isn’t there a protocol for such a situation, even if it happens off hours? Could they have arranged with the AMT to put more trains on so that people heading west would at least have a chance of getting home?

When a huge group of buses suddenly arrived at Lionel-Groulx and abruptly parked, the woman and her friend and I decided it was time to go but the man from Île-Perrot stayed. As I headed into the metro, I asked the guy at the ticket booth what was going on and he said 150 buses were out of service (apparently drivers couldn’t make their shifts and many buses got stuck in snow , most likely because they’re not equipped for it. In their story about the buses, CBC reported Montreal buses aren’t equipped with snow tires. What’s puzzling me is this story mentioning the STM tweeting that its buses have winter tires.  It seems the tires mentioned in the story may not be winter tires at all but something called traction tires. If you know anything about this, please write a comment below). I headed to Villa Maria metro, the closest metro to my parents’ house. A large number of people were waiting in vain for the 103 bus. Among the group were many seniors, people who regularly depend on public transportation to get around. I waited with them for a while, maybe half an hour. But when we saw a bus on Monkland struggling to move forward to get to the station but unable to because there was too much snow, I knew I wouldn’t be taking a bus. So I walked to my parents’ house. I wasn’t the only one walking. I followed a family as they made their way along Monkland. I also met women who too were walking along unplowed sidewalks. It was beautiful out and would have been fine were the wind not so icy. It took more than an hour to get to my parents’ house and I got there close to midnight. But I was lucky. I had a place to stay in Montreal. I don’t know that everyone else did. There were no “portes ouvertes” efforts on Twitter or Facebook to help stranded people out, there was just nothing in terms of emergency preparedness.

Food for thought?

Highway 13 drivers weren’t the only ones stranded during Montreal’s record-setting blizzard

Tonight! Progressive Salon’s Harm Reduction in a Marijuana World

 

salonprogressistemarijuanalegalizationdiscussionimage
Source: Salon Progressiste/Progressive Salon/Facebook

 

If you’re in Montreal and especially if you can get to NDG tonight, there’s a really interesting event happening at the Coop La Maison Verte.

Progressive Salon (Salon Progressiste) aims “to offer regular opportunities for Montrealers to convene and discuss in a serious and structured way the great questions challenging Canada” and tonight’s Harm Reduction in a Marijuana World – the implications of legalization of marijuana in Canada will have you wondering what life will be like if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau keeps his promise to introduce legislation to legalize pot this spring.

Guest speakers include Dr. Mark Ware, Associate Professor in Family Medicine and Anesthesia at McGill University and executive director of the non-profit Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids (CCIC)  and Adam Greenblatt, Head of Quebec Engagement for Tweed, a Smiths Falls-based company licensed to produce medical marijuana.

When: 7:30-9 p.m.

Where: Coop La Maison Verte,

Admission: Free but get a ticket by filling out a form here.

Or visit the event’s Facebook page

Tonight! Progressive Salon’s Harm Reduction in a Marijuana World

Shiny happy government?

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with women on International Women’s Day 2017     Source: PMO 

I have so many mixed feelings about our current Canadian government. After so many years of seeing pretty much everything I love destroyed under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, you’d think I’d be thrilled with our progressive, “feminist,” prime minister.

But I can’t shake the feeling that this government is all about photo-ops and I’m tired of seeing a slick marketing machine.

I mentioned it before on this blog. I’ve been sick. I have some sort of chronic illness that’s making me feel incredibly tired and is messing up my digestive system. I’ve undergone all sorts of tests and conventional medicine is not giving me any answers. It could be IBS-C, food intolerances, something with my gallbladder, a microbiome needing nourishment. Friends have made excellent suggestions, I’m trying out different solutions, am changing my diet (which already was mostly vegetarian and usually low-fat!), and I think I will be fine in the long run. But being home sick means I’m watching TV.

I was watching a clip of one of our federal cabinet ministers, I won’t name him, but all I could think of was ‘wow, that goes guy does not have a hair out of place and does he have a manicure?’ I’m supposed to be listening to what he’s saying but instead of listening I’m thinking, ‘wow, he looks a lot more styled than what I’m used to.'” Then on International Women’s Day, all the Members of Parliament (MPs) were gone for the day, replaced by young women who sat in the MP’s seats in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister was there addressing them and listening. The young women were amazing but all I wondered was the event even about them? Or was it, you’re such a feminist, Justin! What a gent! What a photo-op!

As a teenager I met my MP,  the late Warren Allmand, who at different times in his career was a cabinet minister in Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s government (Justin Trudeau is the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau). Mr. Allmand wasn’t ill-groomed but he didn’t look like he’d stepped out of GQ Magazine either. He looked normal.  He spoke normally too. He wasn’t on message all the time. He wasn’t looking for a camera. And he didn’t give me the feeling he wanted to be liked. He just did his job.

My high school wasn’t co-ed so I have no idea what life is like in a typical high school. But to me, Justin Trudeau’s cabinet is like some sort of student council run by the popular kids. They look good and they want to be liked and they think they’re cool. Why does everyone dress like it’s school photo day all the time?  Why is their hair so perfect? Do they have a stylist on standby? And why is everything they say so scripted? What happened to simply being yourself? Or staying on message but speaking in a normal way?

Here in the Montreal area a scandal recently erupted surrounding a nomination for a Liberal MP in the Saint-Laurent riding. The local borough mayor wanted to be the Liberal candidate in an upcoming by-election but he wasn’t selected even though he had tons of credentials and knows the area incredibly well. The word on the street was the federal Liberal party had chosen their own star candidate and wanted her to get the nomination, even though she wasn’t from Saint-Laurent. Last night the star candidate the Liberals had supposedly handpicked came in last during a nomination vote. To everyone’s surprise, a young woman from Saint-Laurent secured the nomination instead.

It’s a relief to know that not everyone is drinking the Trudeau Kool-Aid. People want an MP from their own neighbourhood, not someone the Liberal brass parachuted in. Substance matters more than style. In Saint-Laurent the people’s voices were heard.

Political parties need to remember their grass roots. Their representatives need to listen carefully to voters and connect. I would love to see the folks in Trudeau’s cabinet go off script from time to time. Life is not an endless press conference or a marketing campaign. I vote for keeping it real.

 

 

 

Shiny happy government?