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Downtown parkette to honour Toronto’s Irish history

Rendering of Grassett Park in Toronto at Adelaide Street West and Widmer Street.

Denegri Bessai Studios

A bustling downtown corner surrounded by condo towers will soon be home to a series of angular glass sculptures meant to memorialize the sacrifice made by a Protestant doctor who gave his life treating the thousands of sick and desperate Irish Catholic migrants who came to Toronto in 1847.

A small 80-foot-by-20-foot parkette at Adelaide Street West and Widmer Street will be named in honour of Dr. George Robert Grasett, the chief attending surgeon of the Emigrant Hospital of Toronto set up nearby to deal with the waves of Irish suffering from typhus as they came off the ships that pulled into the city's harbour. The park's final design was unveiled this week.

In the 1840s, this corner was part of plot of land remote from the city centre and earmarked for hospital use. The city's first brick hospital was built nearby. In 1847, at the height of Ireland's devastating Potato Famine, more than 38,000 Irish migrants arrived in Toronto, which then itself had a population of just 20,000, and the land was dedicated to deal with the crisis.

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Many migrants contracted typhus, or "cabin fever," on board the dirty, crowded "coffin ships" that ferried them across the Atlantic. Those who survived the trip were herded into makeshift field hospitals, known as "fever sheds" near what will soon be the park site.

More than 860 died of typhus in 1847 alone, including Dr. Grasett, who put aside the prejudices of his day to fight for better treatment of his Irish Catholic patients but succumbed to the disease himself in July of that year.

The memorial's final design, by architect Tom Bessai of Denegri Bessai Studios, includes glass structures that will be lit at night and patterned with a cheesecloth design meant to mimic the temporary walls of the fever sheds. An 1842 map of Toronto will be etched into its granite-slab floor. It is scheduled to be completed in September.

The $2.1-million project is being funded by a combination of $1-million in city funds secured from developers, $150,000 from the Irish government and money raised by the Ireland Park Foundation, which oversaw a design competition.

Toronto City Council must still approve $400,000 of the municipality's portion.

This is the second Toronto park the charity has spearheaded to honour Irish Canadians. The first was the waterfront Ireland Park on Bathurst Quay.

Among those spearheading the latest project is local city councillor Joe Cressy, who counts Thomas D'Arcy McGee – the Irish-Canadian Father of Confederation shot by anti-British Irish Fenians in Ottawa in 1868 – as an ancestor, his great-great uncle.

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Mr. Cressy says the new park's glass sculptures will be the largest in Canada. And the memorial, he said, not only honours Toronto's Irish heritage, but its tradition as a city that welcomes newcomers.

"At a time of strong anti-Catholic sentiment, you had a Protestant doctor who was committed to welcoming them," Mr. Cressy said. "So talk about the symmetry here, of Toronto opening its doors and its borders to welcome refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, as we honour a Protestant who treated Catholics fleeing the famine."

Mr. Bessai, the architect behind the new park's design, said the idea was to allow pedestrians to walk between the glass walls, to evoke the character of the fever sheds that stood nearby 170 years ago: "A lot of this has to do with bringing the resonance of this previous time and the events that happened on that site, in a visceral way, into people's consciousness as they experience the space."

Video: Explore the 1930’s system that directs trains through Toronto’s Union Station (The Globe and Mail)
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