Irish eyes smiling about new waterfront park

By Angela Scappatura –

Next summer, a slice of stark brownfield along the Toronto waterfront will be transformed into Ireland Park, a serene corner dedicated to the penury and survival of the Irish Famine Immigrants of 1847.

Robert Kearns, Chairman of the Ireland Park Foundation explains that the process began during  a 1996 meeting with acclaimed sculptor Rowan Gillespie in Dublin Ireland. Gillespie agreed to craft the sculptures if Kearns could acquire a waterfront location for them to stand.  Along with assistance from then City Councilor Olivia Chow, Kearns secured the southeast corner of Bathurst Quay as the future site for Ireland Park, and area that, according to Kearns, is meant to “symbolize the triumph over adversity.”

The park, surrounded by rough-hewn limestone from a quarry base in Kilkenny will be set with natural rocky layers, serving as seating areas, mirroring the landscape unique to Ireland.  Five bronze cast sculptures, created by Rowan Gillespie, depicting solitary stories of arrival will exist individually among sheltering Irish Oak trees.  Kearns explains that the figures are not meant to merely stand as statues, “like all art” he said, “these sculptures are intended to evoke emotion.”

The sculptures will serve as a point of arrival for a series of  works located in Dublin Ireland commissioned by Norma Smurfit and created by Gillespie to commemorate the famine emigrants. Seven works remain in Dublin while only five will stand in Ireland Park, according to Kearns, “to recognize those who did not survive the journey”  

The inspiration for one of the sculptures destined for Ireland Park, arose from Gillespie’s first visit to the park site.  According to Kearns,  Gillespie traveled to Toronto and visited the site during the early morning hours, he said, “Rowan saw the sun rise behind the eastern horizon of the city and his first impulse was to raise his arms to the beautiful skyline.”  The first sculpture, ‘Man With Arms Raised’ is currently on display in the atrium of BCE place.

The stories detailing individual experiences of the Irish famine immigrants are countless and all equally tragic.  Ireland Park Foundation board member and former Provincial Deputy Minister Terry Smith is one of many who possess a personal connection to the famine immigrants.

Between the months of May and October 1847 and during a period where the population of Toronto stood at a mere 20,000, roughly 38, 000 Irish immigrants arrived on Toronto’s shore in search of relief from the potato famine.  Ms. Smith’s great great-grandmother Bridgette Anne Treacey was one of those thousands of immigrants to make the arduous journey and her tale highlights the loss many endured on their search for better lives.  

At six years of age Bridgette Anne Treacey was set to travel by boat to Canada along with her brother and aunt.  Caught amid a crush of people on the docks, her brother was lost and never found, in fact, memory of this additional family member had vanished until a few months ago when Ms. Smith uncovered his existence during some research.   Despite the circumstances of her arrival, Ms. Smith’s great great-grandmother persevered, “The fact that she came over on one of these famine ships and survived and became the matriarch is amazing,” she said, “at one point we all were immigrants working to become contributing citizens to the city and country.”

The official opening of Ireland Park will take place on June 21st 2007 following a celebratory concert at Roy Thomson Hall and attended by the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese.