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Suffering carved in stone Add to ...

Sometimes, walking to work, I think about it. Mostly, if it comes into my mind, I try to push it away. It's like an old love-hurt that was left unhealed, obscure and hidden, deep in the dark recess of memory, and then came out of the shadows, sure to find me on a lonely day.

I don't believe in ghosts and then, on those days, I do. They're there, even in sunshine. They don't form as ghouls before me. They were ghoulish enough in life: skeletal, fevered, whimpering. I know how they looked. It's the ghostly, lingering sound of their heartbreak I hear, and it hurts.

Where I work, The Globe and Mail, is in a building on Front Street West. I have long known that it was here, on this stretch of street, in the summer of 1847, that so many Irish landed and numberless died. It was here, on this very street, that the sheds were hastily built to shelter the famished, the diseased, the dying and the desperate. They had fled the Great Famine in Ireland. They are my people, the lost, the victims of unspeakable horror. They had barely lived through the trauma of a small, island nation racked by appalling disaster.

Then the cruelty of escape, survival of the rough sea crossing, and coming ashore, mere detritus from far away, but succumbing to disease, left to die by the water in this small, strange city. In 1847, the population of Toronto was 20,000 people. In the summer months of that year, 38,000 Irish victims of the Great Famine landed here. Toronto was overwhelmed.

What happened is commemorated at Ireland Park, which opens next week. It is a small park at the foot of Bathurst Street, near where I write this. It's a memorial to the Famine dead and honours those who survived to contribute to this city and to Canada. The bronze sculptures in the park, created by Rowan Gillespie, depict those who landed - bedraggled, fragile, bewildered people. Few who live in this city that has seen so many waves of impoverished immigrants even know what happened in 1847. Or its magnitude. And few who arrived here over the decades were as impoverished and weakened as those Irish. The honour paid to them at Ireland Park has been a long time coming. Most of those who arrived did survive. But it is the dead who preoccupy me. Those men, women and children should not have died like that, in anguish, all hope crushed. An acrid memory hovers in one small part of this great city.

Those who landed here were fleeing indescribable horror. In 1845, when blight struck the Irish potato crop and destroyed it, Ireland was under colonial British rule and less than 5 per cent of the population owned 95 per cent of the land. The 95 per cent non-owners were Irish tenant farmers, no better than slaves, living where little could grow except the nutritious potato.

The 5 per cent were landlords, almost all English and many living in England. When the Famine struck, in adherence with economic philosophy, grain that could have fed the starving was routinely exported from Ireland. The British government refused to send food to Ireland because bulk buying by a government would have interfered with the free market.

In the four years of the Great Famine in Ireland, a million people died of starvation or disease. A million more left the country. Typhoid fever and cholera were rampant, and some brought the diseases with them. The Famine devastated Ireland. Eight million peasants, trapped in a precarious, primitive agricultural system, were vulnerable. The onus of local famine relief was on the tax-paying landlords. Faced with growing tax bills, many landlords just evicted peasants from their lands, lowering the population and making it less expensive to provide workhouses to sustain the starving peasantry. Other landlords had their tenants shipped out to England, the United States and Canada.

Hundreds of thousands of the starving were evicted and wandered the roads. The workhouses were overwhelmed and became sources for disease. In County Leitrim, where I lived in Ireland at one time, 30 per cent of the population disappeared during the Famine. Where I lived, played and walked to school, once there were thousands of men, women and children dying of starvation on the streets where they lay, under rags. This I learned as a boy: Every field, every ditch, every bend in the road was filled with the ghosts of the Famine dead.

And it followed me here. I keep it to myself, as most Irish people do. The Famine is a searing, angry sore beneath the surface of the Irish consciousness, a rage at the avoidable deaths, a shame that we were reduced to that - living on nettles if we were lucky, waiting for death in a field. All this horror while food that did not belong to us left our country, a country that did not belong to us either. The Great Famine is a lacerating memory. A country and culture was brought to its knees by death and grief.

The Famine took the past from us and cursed our future. The Famine, mass death and emigration almost wiped out the Gaelic language and culture, as the impoverished, Gaelic-speaking areas were the worst affected. After the Famine, the traumatized population clung on, in an exhausted, dispirited country. It was half a century before the fight for Irish independence from Britain was reignited. It was yet another century before Ireland was prosperous, confident and joyous. The emigration that began with the Famine continued, generation after generation. The last wave came in the 1980s and I was one of those who left, coming to Toronto.

Once, I was asked by a magazine to name my favourite places in Toronto. I named a pub, a park, my home. But it wasn't the truth. The place where my soul feels soothed, where comfort comes, is in St. Lawrence Market. I know this to be true and, simultaneously, I fear it a little. It is the Famine memory that's eased when I'm there. It is a solace that comes from the sight and smells of such abundance of food. I have never known real hunger, never been skeletal from want, never sheltered in a ditch in Ireland or a shed on Front Street, Toronto, weak from want of food. My people did.

One recent evening, I walked along Front Street to Bathurst and south to the site of Ireland Park. I stared at the tiny patch of grass where those commemorative sculptures will stand. It's so small, almost hidden. The air is cool off Lake Ontario, the water laps constantly. It's a fitting place to remember those who fled the Great Famine to come here. The sculpted figures will huddle, as the real victims did nearby. The real victims huddled, hoped and, hearts broken, probably wondered where God's love had gone. The sculptures, so thin and so solemn in the despair they capture, cry out to be embraced and comforted. Walking back past where they sheltered, I was comforted a little on their behalf.

On that same day, this newspaper carried reports of Bob Geldof and Bono meeting the leaders of the G8 summit in Germany. They're always at it, these two Irish men, traipsing around the world, badgering politicians and businessmen to do more and more to aid the vulnerable in Africa, where victims of starvation and disease die every hour of every day. They could enjoy their wealth and write cheques for charity if they chose. But they keep going, arguing and appealing, oblivious to the scorn on their efforts. They, like me and so many Irish men and women, even today when the Irish have all the swagger and poise of prosperity, hear the ghosts of the Famine dead.

Sometimes, walking to work, I think about it. Mostly, if it comes into my mind, I try to push it away. They're there, the ghosts, even in sunshine. Now, the sound of their heartbreak might come less often. Now, at least an epitaph is etched into the shoreline of this city where they landed and so many despaired, and died. Now, this city embraces them.

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