Ireland Park, Toronto’s Eerie Garden

The creepily designed statues in Ireland Park, Toronto

photography by: Omri Westmark

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In the mid-19th century, Ireland lost roughly a quarter of its population when a nationwide calamity known as the Great Famine decimated the island. Paying a tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Irish refugees who desperately fled the country on their pursuit of a new homeland, Ireland Park in Toronto is a lakeside memorial which features a series of spooky sculptures, depicting the hunger-stricken migrants as they reached the shores of the city.

Between 1845 to 1852, nearly one million people perished as Ireland experienced one of the worst disasters throughout its history, the Irish Potato Famine. Due to multiple factors, including the late blight that wiped out entire crops of potatoes, the island couldn’t support its own population, leading to waves of emigration, where 2 million people sought refuge from the wide-scale hunger.

 

Among them were 38,500 or so who embarked in 1847 on a trans-Atlantic journey to Toronto, arriving at Dr. Reese’s Wharf later that year. As the city’s population was a meager 20,000 during that time, the influx of Irish men, women and children more than doubled its size in a matter of one year.

 

Unfortunately, many of whom didn’t survive the arduous journey while others died of infectious diseases upon arrival. In total, it is estimated that a fifth of those who escaped their homes in Ireland in ships headed to Toronto succumbed to hunger-related illnesses.

 

As a tribute to the victims who took the perilous voyage, a somewhat ghostly memorial was erected a mere short distance away from where the Irish migrants originally landed in the 1840’s. Inaugurated in 2007, the aptly named Ireland Park comprises a cluster of 5 bronze sculptures peppered across a small verdant plot with oak trees. Each statue represents an Irish emigrant, whose dreadful conditions are exceedingly conspicuous, from the emaciated body to the horrified expression.

 

Curiously, Ireland Park was inspired by a similar memorial in Dublin named “the Famine Memorial”, both of which were created by the same renowned sculptor, Rowan Gillespie. Nestled on Customs House Quay along the River Liffey, the Irish memorial was built in 1997, commemorating the famine’s 150th anniversary.

 

What sets this pair of monuments apart besides their location, though, is the number of sculptures, with the Dublin’s site having additional two. This in turn, resonates with the vast number of fatalities recorded during the ocean-spanning trip.

 

Designed by Irish-Canadian architect, Jonathan Kearns, the small garden in Toronto is also home to a boat-shaped limestone wall, engraved with the names of the 1847’s victims as well as prominent Torontonians who sacrificed their life for Irish strife for survival. Amongst them is Bishop Michael Power, who died in 1847 of typhus as he courageously helped thousands of refugees that contracted the disease.