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 once surrounded by a beautiful iron fence adorned with shamrocks. At the edge of a parking lot facing the Black Stone, the community erected a plaque in Irish, English, and French to explain the monument’s significance. Today the black paint on the fence around that plaque is rusty and the glass (plexiglass?) covering the plaque is damaged.

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 his granddaughter, Emma, 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 Company (I think of it as a 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). Addendum: May 28, 2017: Last year organizers said they were holding the 152nd Walk to the Stone but today’s walk was called the 152nd and it was mentioned that the Ancient Order of Hibernians has organized it for 150 years but sources differ on the exact date it started.

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
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Getting their Irish up

Irish musical misadventure

This fall I registered for a beginner’s tin whistle class at Siamsa, the Irish School of Music.  A  tin whistle (penny whistle) had been gathering dust for years ever since a musician acquaintance gave it as a gift for my son’s baby shower.

My son is now 14. For years the whistle sat in a toy bin. My son cared little for it and I thought I’d put it to good use. I was fearless about learning even though I haven’t played any musical instrument for years. I was comforted in knowing the tin whistle was originally viewed as a children’s instrument, a bit like the recorder.  How hard could it be? After all, ‘Siamsa” is Irish for ‘pleasant musical diversion.’

How wrong I was. First, I was ignorant about the instrument and didn’t realize the one that had gathered so much dust over the years is in the wrong key. You need a tin whistle in the key of D. I’d forgotten that in traditional music people learn from one another by watching. There might not be any sheet music and you have to count on having a good ear. As well, Irish music is fast, very fast. Duh. What was I thinking?

I spent the first lesson using a whistle borrowed from my teacher. My fingers were too small to cover the holes properly and I squeaked all the time. I had trouble with the fingering and was useless at playing scales, never mind arpeggios. I wasn’t sure if I was holding the whistle properly and watched bewildered as the teacher showed the class how to play the Kerry Polka, a simple enough tune if you know how to hold the instrument and your fingers actually move easily!

Watching his fingers was like watching birds flying or trying to learn Martian or learn how to fold paper very quickly. I could watch but not mimic. It seems my brain just couldn’t send the messages so my fingers would catch up with what I was seeing.  Everyone else caught on. They were playing the Kerry Polka in rhythm by the end of two hours. I was bewildered. The teacher offered me my money back if I wasn’t committed. That got my Irish temper flaring.Jerry Freeman tweaked Mellow Dog D Irish tin whistle I was determined to prove him wrong.

Snob that I am (not really, more like champagne tastes on a beer budget) I wanted a good instrument, not some cheap, poorly made whistle. I researched and discovered a guy in the States who tweaks whistles to make them sound better. I knew I would miss the second class (it was the night of the Arcade Fire concert) but figured if I ordered the whistle quickly I’d have it in time for the third class.

It didn’t arrive. Tried to cancel the order but the seller was insistent that I get a whistle and promised it would come the following week. I bought another whistle at a local music shop on the day of my third class. By this time I was two scales, two arpeggios and five tunes behind. There was no sheet music for a new tune we were taught in class and I had a hard time getting my fingers around the new whistle. I asked the teacher would he please not call on me to play in front of everyone else?

I was offered a ride home by some Siamsa musicians and on the way related the problem I was having in the beginner’s class. Like me,  one man said he needed sheet music to learn the whistle and found it hard to learn by watching. He told me about these great tin whistle lessons offered on YouTube by a Jesuit priest. He was right. The lessons are terrific.

This week Canada Post delivered not one, but two tweaked whistles (seems I’ve been sent an extra one). Beautiful, easy to hold, easy to play and no squeaking. Problem is I was very behind the rest of the class  and didn’t know the little tricks you only learn in class (how to quickly move from one note to another, do you cover all the holes or five holes for high D etc.)  When I offered to pay my teacher for remedial lessons so I could catch up, he refused on the grounds that we don’t see eye to eye on teaching style. He prefers “no sheet music, trusting your ear, learning by doing.”

I quit the class and asked for a credit for the guitar class next semester.

I now own three tin whistles. Come hell or high water I will play the Kerry Polka by Christmas. Just watch me.

Irish musical misadventure