Just when I think I’ve found the last Canadian Memorial erected to commemorate the tragic plight of the Irish during the Great Famine, I discover a new quiet, tranquil corner of the world honouring the Irish people who, in their most dire need, immigrated to Canada, and helped tame this great land.
In the fall of 2010 my family canoed Little Lake in Peterborough, Ontario, about an hour north of Toronto. In Del Crary Park, just before reaching the docks, and hidden amongst faded tiger lilies and unruly bushes, sits a large stone and plaque.
Like other memorials along the majestic St. Lawrence River, the Irish Memorial in Peterborough is quite ordinary and unassuming, nothing like the extraordinary, impoverished people it commemorates.
In 1823, over ten years before the great Famine struck Erin, Peter Robinson, a politician in the city of York (present day Toronto) and for whom Peterborough, “Peter’s Borough,” was named, initiated an emigration plan to bring destitute Irish families to Upper Canada. Ontario had just recently surveyed its local townships, and needed farmers to settle the land. Over the next two years, Robinson would bring over two thousand Irish to the New World. The Irish landed at Quebec City, having survived two months across the stormy Atlantic. They transferred first to steamships, then barges to climb the St. Lawrence River, and finally to wagons or boats for their journey north to their new homes. The Irish immigrants were given provisions, tools and farmland, as well as rudimentary shanties, in and around the Peterborough area.
A recruitment poster for immigrant reads: “No portion of the Dominion offers greater inducements to emigrants. What the country needs is men to clear the forest lands, to cultivate the soil, to build houses, to make the ordinary household goods, and to open up communication from one part of the country to another, by the construction of roads and railways.”
The memorial, erected in 1997, commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine in Ireland.
“In 1847, many Irish emigrants fleeing the famine died in the fever shed near this site, then known as “Hospital Point”. Like the Irish emigrants who preceded and followed, the survivors contributed to the development and heritage of this region.”
We’ve canoed Little Lake many times before. A nice drive north, followed by a lazy canoe ride, early supper, and a leisurely drive home, all constituted a good day away from Toronto. How did we discover the plaque this day? I don’t know. It makes me wonder how many more memorials to the extraordinary people of Ireland are yet to be discovered…
Whenever and wherever I may come across an Irish memorial in Canada, I will continue to pay tribute. It is my way to ensure that the tenacity and the bravery of the Irish people survive; a people who journeyed forth, and in so doing, gave hope to their children in circumstances where hope was little to be found.