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Symposium

Symposium 2008

2008 Irish Studies Symposium: November 3 & 4

Monumental Differences: Quebec's Other Great Famine Memorial
Mr. Colin McMahon, York University

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Next year marks the 100th and 150th anniversaries of Quebec's two most significant Great Famine memorials: Grosse-Île's Celtic Cross and Montreal's Ship Fever Monument, better known as the Black Stone these days.

To celebrate the centenary of the Celtic Cross, the Ancient Order of Hibernians is organizing a three-day pilgrimage to Grosse-Île in August. The centerpiece of which will be a re-enactment of the monument's 1909 inaugural ceremony, which is expected to draw 2,500 participants and generate commemorative interest across Canada, the U.S. and Ireland. Compared to the voluble centennial celebrations that will be taking place around the Cross, the observance of the 150th anniversary of Quebec's other — much older — Famine monument, Black Stone will likely be a relatively muted affair. Just as large-scale commemorations on Grosse-Île in the first and last decades of the twentieth century ensured the Celtic Cross cast a long shadow over Montreal's monument, the commemorative events slated for 2009 promised to confirm the island Cross as the pre-eminent memorial to the victims of the 1847 migration.

The relatively subordinate place of the Black Stone in public memory is striking given that Quebec's two Famine monuments mark sites that were exposed to the same typhus epidemic in 1847, with equally catastrophic consequences. At least 5,500 Irish newcomers, who survived the harrowing transatlantic voyage from Ireland, succumbed to the disease while on Grosse-Île, where they were buried en masse. This tragedy was repeated in Montreal, when 75,000 of the Irish migrants who had passed through quarantine on Grosse-Île were deposited on the city's waterfront by steamers sent up the St. Lawrence. Typhus spread rapidly in the fever sheds of Pointe Saint-Charles in Montreal, claiming the lives of 6,000 Irish who were interred in nearby mass graves.

Though the experiences of typhus-stricken Famine migrants in Montreal and on Grosse-Île were remarkably similar, the two monuments constructed to preserve their memory took very different forms. These shaped the dynamics of Famine commemoration in Quebec. Focusing on the monumental meanings ascribed to the Black Stone since the 1897 Famine jubilee, this paper will show that while Montreal's Famine memorial lacked the lustre of its counterpart on Grosse-Île, it has a long history as a focal point for Famine remembrance. The Stone's unpolished appearance, Anglican ownership and bleak setting in the industrial corridor of southwest Montreal limited its commemorative cachet and left it continually vulnerable to political and commercial incursions. But the efforts of successive generations of Irish Catholic groups to imbue the boulder with historic significance ensured that it stood its ground, not only as a memorial to Irish migrants in 1847 but as a site central to the construction of Irish Catholic identities over the course of the twentieth century.

The greatest impediment Irish Catholics lay claim to Montreal's Famine-era burial site was the very monument that was chosen in 1859 to preserve it from desecration. It took the form of a 30-ton granite boulder that was unearthed during the construction of the Victoria Bridge from a field near the 1847 burial grounds. Though there is some evidence to suggest that Irish labourers involved in the building project were so concerned that the gravesite of their compatriots would be forgotten that they demanded that their employers erect a monument on the spot, it remains unclear the extent to which the monument was an Irish initiative. What is certain is that the British firm responsible for building the bridge, agreed to install the enormous Stone on the site, but was sure to omit any references to the Irish or the Famine in its dedicatory inscription.

The inaugural ceremony on December 1st 1859, led by Anglican Bishop of Montreal, Francis Fulford, was a further reminder that the Stone was not intended as a memorial to Irish Catholic Famine refugees. As Bishop Fulford assured the small crowd in attendance, the monument was erected for one purpose only: to ensure that the immigrants of no particular nation or denomination who were buried on site "be preserved from any irreverent usage." The notable absence of representatives of the Roman Catholic hierarchy at the ceremony was another clear signal that Irish Catholics were not meant to share this memorial. Relations between Anglo-Protestants and Irish Catholics in the city were already strained at mid-century and the architects of the monument were not interested in identifying the victims of typhus in 1847 as predominantly Irish Catholic and risk creating a site that might lend credence to a nascent movement of radical Irish nationalism, which looked to the Famine as evidence of British misgovernment and even genocide.

In the decades following its dedication, Irish Catholic Montrealers were slow to express affinity for the massive, misshapen tombstone. Yet they were increasingly drawn to the Famine-era burial site over which it stood guard. From the first recorded Irish collective act of remembrance at the memorial in 1870, when a visiting Irish priest, Father Buckley was brought to the site and left perplexed by the absence of the word Irish from the monument's dedication, Irish feeling for the Stone was at best ambivalent. In 1895, in an effort to make the memorial more identifiably Irish Catholic, the Ancient Order of Hibernians attempted to gain control of the site from Anglican authorities, proposing to erect a cross next to the Stone. However, the Anglican Bishop's refusal to relinquish ownership on the grounds that people of more than one denomination were buried there served as yet another reminder that the Black Stone was never meant to be an Irish Catholic Famine memorial and its Anglican custodians were intent on keeping it that way.

Though increasingly disillusioned with the monument and its caretakers, Irish societies in the city were not deterred from laying claim to the memorial site to mark the Famine jubilee. On September 19th 1897, 20,000 Montrealers gathered around the Black Stone to listen to speeches recalling the tragedy that struck Famine migrants 50 years earlier.

While all of the Irish Catholic dignitaries who spoke during the commemorative ceremony insisted upon the sanctity of the burial grounds, they were not shy about expressing their displeasure with the Black Stone. To some, the boulder appeared crude in comparison to the refined bronze and marble statuary that was being erected in Montreal and cities throughout North America at the end of the nineteenth century.

One prominent Irishman, Justice Frank Curran referred disparagingly to the 1859 memorial as "that primitive rock." Not only was the Stone seen as unworthy as a commemorative object, it was eminently unsuited to the site. In its coverage of the commemorative event, The True Witness and Catholic Chronicle, the mouthpiece of Irish Catholics in the city at the time, echoed a sentiment that resonated throughout the ceremony when it pronounced that the monument "came from stranger's hands and is in no sense an Irish monument." Apparently, what the site needed was a monument more appropriately dignified in design, one that would "enhance the reputation of Irish people, not only of this city and Dominion, but of the Irish race the world over."

By the turn of the century, as Irish groups in Montreal struggled to reconcile their fidelity to the Famine site and their frustration with its monumental marker, the Grand Trunk Railway, in a bid to expand land in the southwest of the city, went ahead and moved the Stone several blocks west to St. Patrick's Square in Griffintown. An object once promising permanence, the Stone now stood bereft of the site it was meant to preserve. This was a transformative moment for the Famine site, as the railway's heist had the effect of suddenly generating an unprecedented amount of affection for the Black Stone. Though some Irish Catholics in the city had themselves at one point advocated moving the monument or constructing one deemed more authentically Irish, the boulder now gained legitimacy as a memorial to the martyrs of 1847 and a new salience as a symbol of the indignities suffered by their descendants a half century later.

As part of the lobbying effort to pressure the railway to return it to its rightful place, the Stone was recast as a Famine memorial of national significance. In 1901, The True Witness and Catholic Chronicle, which just four years earlier had looked askance at the boulder, described it as "a national monument." Prominent figures in the Irish community, such as J.J. Guerin (future Mayor of Montreal) agreed, insisting that "the Irish throughout Canada, from Sarnia to Halifax were indignant at this violent spoliation." Joseph Regan, national president of the AOH (The Ancient Order of Hibernians) went a step further by declaring the monument "an emblem of the Irish race".

For such stalwart Irish nationalists, the Stone had become ideologically charged. Not only was it a powerful reminder of the Famine tragedy, it now also stood as a symbol of the political struggle of the city's Irish Catholics to protect an important landmark: a rare, if rudimentary, symbol of the place of Irish Canadians in the cultural landscape of Montreal.

Yet, despite the protestations of politicians, newspapers, and representatives from each of the five Irish parishes of Montreal, it wasn't until 1912, after the Railway Board of Commissioners in Ottawa adjudicated the matter, that the railway was legally compelled to return the monument to its original site. In the time it had taken for Irish Montrealers to reinvent the beleaguered Black Stone as a cherished Irish Famine memorial and oversee its return, the locus of Famine commemoration in Quebec had shifted to Grosse-Île, where a Celtic Cross was erected by the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The organizers of the dedication ceremony in August 1909, which drew 8,000 people to the island from across Canada and the U.S. were well aware of the removal of Montreal's monument, and were determined to ensure that no such desecration would be repeated. If Montreal's Stone was, as the 1909 commemorative booklet dismissed it, a monument standing wide of the mark, Grosse-Île's Cross hit the spot as "a proper and lasting national memento."

While the various participants in the 1909 dedicatory ceremonies ascribed a range of political and historical meanings to the events of 1847, as reflected in the inscriptions in Gaelic, English, and French on the panels at the base of the memorial, the Celtic Cross was widely recognized as a distinguished Irish Catholic Famine memorial, one that would indelibly mark the Irishness of a Famine gravesite in ways that Montreal's "primitive rock" never could.

Though commemorative activity on Grosse-Île in the decades that followed was limited by the island's operations as a quarantine station and then as a research base for experimental bacteriological weaponry during the Second World War, the island's 46-foot Cross had eclipsed Montreal's Stone as Quebec's dominant Famine memorial. Other than receiving annual visitations led by small groups of Hibernians, the Montreal Stone was a relatively lonely landmark surrounded by the busy network of railroad yards, sheds, and tracks of Pointe Saint-Charles.

However, a grisly discovery in the area in 1942 briefly renewed Irish Catholics' sense of ownership of the monument. Workers engaged in the excavation of a tunnel in the vicinity of the Stone unearthed the remains of twelve typhus victims from 1847. The inadvertent exhumation reinforced Irish Catholic claims to the Stone monument. In conjunction with the CNR and Anglican authorities, the AOH (the Ancient Order of Hibernians), the St. Patrick's Society, and the United Irish Societies organized a ceremony in November 1942 at which the remains would be re-interred next to the Black Stone.

Though both Catholic and Anglican religious services were held, the speeches delivered during the ceremony reaffirmed the sanctity of the site and its memorial for Irish Catholics in the city. Dr. L.P. Nelligan, past president of St. Patrick's Society, urged those in attendance to look upon the Stone as "symbolic of the abiding strength and faith of Irish Catholics, whose tragic passing in 1847 served to build a great nation." Thus, Irish groups involved in the re-interment re-imagined the Montreal monument as a symbol of the foundational role of Irish Catholics as Canadian pioneers and patriots.

Though the surge of interest generated by the 1942 ceremony helped further entrench the Stone as an integral part of the memorial site, the Famine centenary just five years later failed to draw much notice. Montreal's Famine memorial was not even deemed the worthy commemorative alternative to Grosse-Île's Celtic Cross. When in September 1947 the Canadian government cancelled a 1,000 person pilgrimage to the Cross due to concerns about environmental conditions on the island, Quebec's AOH overlooked the Black Stone and redirected the pilgrimage to Sainte Anne de Beaupré, a popular Catholic shrine but a site of no relevance to the 1847 migration.

The following year, the Hibernians in Montreal did finally organize their own small commemorative event marking the Famine centenary, at which the Black Stone was likened to the Treaty Stone of Limerick, and celebrated for "its air of solemnity that strikes the observer more forcibly than the grandeur of sculptural granite or mounted bronze." But this grandiose description of the boulder belied Hibernians' disappointment with Irish Catholic in the city who remained reluctant to rediscover "the wealth of story, romantic, tragic, heroic and inspiring," that the Stone was thought to represent.

In the two decades following the Famine centenary, the Black Stone appeared increasingly derelict amidst the industrial debris of Pointe Saint-Charles, as many Irish Catholics moved away from working class neighbourhoods in the city's southwest. However, it was not long before Montreal's Famine monument was made conspicuous anew. In 1965, as urban redevelopment in preparation for Expo '67 threatened to topple the Stone from its pedestal, an Irish Stone Committee was struck to protest its proposed removal. After nine months of negotiations with the city, the Anglican Bishop, and the CN railway, a solution was reached that solved the city's traffic issues while leaving the Stone unturned. Rather than altering the memorial site, Bridge Street, which is adjacent to the Stone, was divided as a thoroughfare that would pass on either side of a central dividing mall where the monument would remain.

The struggle to preserve the city's besieged Famine memorial — now doubling as a traffic island on a busy road — did not end there, though. The site not only periodically incurred damages courtesy of wayward cars and overzealous snow ploughs, over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, municipal plans to redevelop the southwest sector of the city, yet again threatened to displace the Stone. Irish groups intent on preserving the memorial, were thus kept busy pressuring the railway and, after 1982, the City of Montreal, to fulfill their legal obligations to maintain the site. Repeated attempts to circumvent municipal and corporate interests by petitioning for national historic recognition for the Stone were also stymied. Unlike Grosse-Île, which in 1974 was identified as a site with heritage potential, the Historic Sites and Monument Board of Canada deemed Montreal's memorial unsuitable for national commemoration.

By 1992 when Parks Canada unveiled its plans to develop Grosse-Île as a national historic site, it was apparent that the Black Stone would not be protected by the national heritage. Moreover, the controversy that arose over how Parks Canada would construct Grosse-Île which led organizations across Canada, the U.S. and Ireland to demand that the Irish dimension of Grosse-Île's history be given full commemorative treatment, was another reminder of the relative obscurity and insecurity of Montreal's memorial. As the Famine sesquicentennial approached and Parks Canada agreed to reconfigure its commemoration to highlight the history of Irish Famine-era emigration, the island's Celtic Cross was affirmed once again as Quebec's most evocative touchstone to an Irish past, even by Irish Montrealers who had a vested interest in the fate of their city's own Famine memorial.

Nonetheless, while the outpouring of interest in Grosse-Île's history engendered by the controversy reaffirmed the primacy of the Celtic Cross, it also inspired Irish Montrealers to redouble efforts to revitalize the city's comparatively moribund Famine monument. In 1994, the CN was persuaded to erect a new fence as well as repair crumbling pedestal of the Stone, while the City agreed to landscape and light the site. Irish groups also worked to brand the memorial Irish, a label that had never quite stuck to the Stone. Several ideas were introduced to augment the Irishness, including implanting an Irish Garden of Remembrance and a 15-foot green marble "Irish Cross" next to the Stone. Eventually, Irish groups settled on decorating the fence around the memorial site with shamrocks that most act as an Irish symbol. More significantly, the City of Montreal installed an interpretive plaque, which states that 6,000 Irish immigrants were buried on the site in 1847. For those Montrealers long disgruntled with the glaring absence of references to the Irish on the Stone's inscription, the plaque was an important addition that finally imprinted Irishness on the memorial, 125 years after its inauguration.

According to Seamus Heaney, Irishness in the diaspora constitutes "a big unconscious voltage. All it needs is some transformer to make it current in a new and significant way." Quebec's two major Famine monuments over the course of the twentieth century stood out in their own ways as powerful, albeit intermittently utilized, transformers of Irishness. Of the two monumental sites, Grosse-Île established itself as a particularly potent place from which Irishness was conducted and activated. With its bucolic setting and its imposing Celtic Cross, which towers above the still visible mounds of the 1847 gravesite, Grosse-Île has had the requisite air of gravitas and appearance of authenticity of an Irish Famine site. Its Irish artefacts have over time and through commemoration been naturalized as part of the island's scenery. Though its construction as a memorial site has been a deliberate and often politically contentious undertaking, as we all know, during the Irish stand-up with Parks Canada in the 1990s, it has projected an image as a naturally formed Canadian conduit to an Irish past.

While an important transformer of Irishness in its own right, Montreal's Famine monument has never enjoyed the same cachet. With its architects and trustees Anglican, its dedication to Irish Catholics absent, its form unfinished, its maintenance by crown corporations and municipal authorities neglected, and its location desolate, the Black Stone has always been a deeply flawed monumental manifestation of Famine memory.

However, these perceived imperfections in the Stone, which left the site perennially violable, were instrumental at various points during the twentieth century in motivating groups of Irish Catholics in the city to preserve the memorial and organize acts of Famine remembrance. Despite the lingering ambivalence regarding the suitability of the Stone as a Famine memorial, at moments when the Stone was either under siege or overlooked, and was at risk of disappearing altogether, Irish Catholic groups responded by rallying to preserve the landmark and re-acquaint themselves with the historical events that led to its construction. In the process, they became more aware of the efforts to preceding generations of Irish Catholics in the city to safeguard the site.

Famine commemoration at the Black Stone thus, became more than a matter of recalling the events of 1847. It was also an opportunity to remember those who since 1900 had preserved the memorial from desecration and resume the ongoing political battle to claim an Irish Catholic state in Montreal's memorial landscape. The question remains whether at this time next year, months after the centennial commemorative commotion on Grosse-Île has died down, if anyone will acknowledge the 150th anniversary of Quebec's other Famine monument, recall the tragic events in Montreal that led to its construction, or reflect on the longstanding struggle of Irish Catholics in the city to set its meaning in stone.

Session II


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