Sunday 18 February 2018

Canada tour ends at famine memorial

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited the Canadian border with the US to meet the frontline staff
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited the Canadian border with the US to meet the frontline staff
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Mid-way into the Taoiseach's speech, two large bin trucks rumbled by and, though he tried his best, he struggled to raise his voice loud enough to be heard over the hubbub of the big city.

A look of fleeting irritation crossed Leo Varadkar's face but, in a way, the moment, shared by the small group clustered together around a tiny handkerchief of bare soil retrieved from under the Toronto pavestones seemed to serve as an oddly appropriate metaphor for the far-greater struggles being recalled.

This anonymous spot, surrounded by modern high-rise glass edifices and a small strip of quaint, run-down older houses across the road, had 170 years ago been the scene of horrors untold, as the former site of fever sheds used to treat victims of the Great Famine suffering from deadly typhus.

Having survived the journey across the Atlantic during the summer of 'Black '47', more than 38,000 wretched victims had swamped Toronto - a city then of just 20,000 people.

Newspaper reports conveyed the terror caused by the sudden influx of the starving and desperately ill men, women and children.

And though Catholic, Irish-speaking and impoverished, amid a very British and Protestant city, one wealthy doctor, George Grassett, risked all to help them - living only six weeks himself in the process. "In a way, you could call him the first Médecins Sans Frontières doctor in Canada. He knew he would die helping these people," explained Robert Kearns, chairman of the Ireland Park Foundation in Toronto.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited the Canadian border with the US to meet the frontline staff
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited the Canadian border with the US to meet the frontline staff

A total of 892 people had died, and 10 local medical staff lost their lives tending them. Theirs had been the untold story, said Mr Kearns.

With a shiny new shovel, the Taoiseach turned the sod for what will be a park, about to be created there to remember the city's decency, with a tall glass sculpture etched with cheesecloth patterns - as a nod to the rolls of the fabric used to treat the typhus victims.

The Taoiseach said the famine was a chapter of our national story we would never forget and which still defines who we are.

Much of the background research had been done by Irish-born historian Laura Smith, a consultant for the project, who said that of those children who survived, many went into indentured service.

In a curious 21st-century twist, the Taoiseach spoke of his delight that Toronto Dominion Bank has decided to move its post-Brexit EU hub to Ireland.

"It's one of the upsides, if you like, of Brexit that Ireland is somewhere now that people can invest."

With that, his official tour of Canada drew to a close.

Next was a pit stop to the border between Canada and the US to inspect it for himself - in the anticipation that it would not be a credible option for Ireland post-Brexit.

Irish Independent

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