Montreal·Point of View

As an Irish Montrealer, naming a Griffintown landmark after Bernard Landry feels like an insult

"We don't want the neighborhood that our ancestors built from the ground up, including the Lachine Canal and Victoria Bridge, branded with that name," writes Donovan King.

The late former premier slammed immigrants after the 1995 referendum; why should a REM station bear his name?

Donovan King, left, attends the 2012 St. Patrick's Day Parade with one of his brothers, Matthew. Their other brother lives in Dublin. (Submitted by Donovan King)

UPDATE: Since CBC Montreal published this piece in November, workers on the future REM station in Pointe-Saint-Charles have discovered human remains near the Black Rock — the site where some 6,000 Irish famine refugees who died of typhus are buried.

The Fédération Histoire Québec then penned an open letter to Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, echoing the Montreal Irish community's opposition to a plan to name the Griffintown REM station after former premier Bernard Landry.

On Dec. 8, Donovan King and other members of the Irish community gathered at the Black Rock to press their case once again for a memorial park to honour Irish typhus victims.

My Irish ancestors purchased five burial plots in the Catholic cemetery on Mount Royal, and yet there is almost nobody left in Montreal to occupy those plots when we pass.

I was born into an Irish Montreal family in NDG in 1972, shortly after the October Crisis.

By then, most of our extended family had already been displaced, having left for the U.S. during the first stirrings of the Quiet Revolution, but as a young man, my father returned here to escape the Vietnam draft.

It was a time of extreme linguistic and cultural tension. For example, when I was five, with the wave of a magic "Bill 101" wand, Montreal was transformed from a bilingual city into a unilingual French metropolis. Hundreds of thousands of anglophones left the province, including many with Irish roots.

Like many Irish Montreal families, we gradually "moved up" from working-class enclaves like Griffintown, Saint-Henri and the Pointe.

My family hopped around from LaSalle to Pincourt and finally, to Pointe-Claire, where I grew up.

Being Irish, there was always a sense of loss about the past.

During one visit to my grandparents in the United States, I told my grandmother that I wanted to learn Gaeilge, the Irish language. 

"Don't bother," she said. "It's a dead language. Learn German or something more useful."

The fight for our famine cemeteries

My grandparents, seen here on their wedding day, left Quebec during the first stirrings of the Quiet Revolution and moved to Washington. (Submitted by Donovan King)

My father often spoke of distant and lost relatives, lost Irish history and the lost Irish language. He was pessimistic about the political situation in Quebec and suggested that one day that his three sons would all move away to greener pastures.

He was wrong. Two out of three of us, my brother Matthew and I, stayed.

Jason was the only one to leave for Dublin. He now works with the Irish National Trust. His focus is on famine research — an important topic in Montreal where the cemeteries where 6,000 Irish famine refugees who died of typhus when they got here are either unmarked or all but forgotten.

In 2014, I wrote a blog called Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation needs support to right a historical wrong, urging citizens to contact the mayor to do something about the disgraceful lack of a commemoration for the Irish refugees buried there. 

As a result, the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation invited me to join its board of directors. I gladly accepted.

I also wrote an academic paper and co-founded a tour company called Griffin Tours with fellow Irish Montrealer, Caitie Moynan. It includes Irish Montreal excursions, along with Haunted Montreal ghost tours and other gems.

I have also given speeches and attended public consultations to try and get stakeholders to consult the Irish community before doing anything that affects our heritage. That heritage is being erased at an alarming rate, triggering bad memories of the wholesale destruction of Griffintown in the 1960s, courtesy of former mayor Jean Drapeau.

"Don't worry, the Irish community will be consulted," we are told by officials, but it rarely happens.

Case in point: the recent proposal by Mayor Valérie Plante to name the Griffintown REM station after Bernard Landry came out of the blue, with no consultation whatsoever. 

While I am a huge fan of Plante's work at social inclusion, this proposal has thoroughly rankled the Irish community and feels like a swift kick in the teeth. Why? Because the former Parti Québécois premier had absolutely no connection to the Griff — and he also had a dark history of berating immigrants, as noted by the media worldwide, even the New York Times, after the 1995 referendum.

We don't want the neighborhood that our ancestors built from the ground up, including the Lachine Canal and Victoria Bridge, branded with that name.

Irish labourers helped build the Lachine Canal and the Victoria Bridge. The Black Rock, a monument at the foot of the bridge, was erected by Irish workers in 1859 to honour the 6,000 Irish famine refugees who died of typhus upon their arrival. (McCord Museum)

The Irish are a highly resilient and adaptable people — we are everywhere on this planet. An estimated 40 per cent of old stock Quebecers have Irish in their blood, experts say.

The Irish traditionally have great respect for immigrants, Indigenous peoples and different language groups around the globe.

Furthermore, we will often raise our collective voices in solidarity with others. We work to support our allies, the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) First Nation, on whose unceded territory we live. We will never forget the gesture of solidarity when, in 1847, the Mohawk people raised $150 in Irish Famine relief, an enormous sum at the time from a fellow nation also impoverished and oppressed due to colonization.

There's a second Irish cemetery on the other side of the Lachine Canal from Griffintown which is not marked at all. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

We invite all Quebecers to celebrate Irish culture

Now for the good news. 

A resurgence of Irish culture is unfolding in Montreal. It's partly thanks to the creation of the Concordia University Irish Studies program a decade ago. Also, Irish Montrealers just keep forming new organizations, like the Bloomsday Festival, for example.

We welcome all Quebecers to taste our culture at any Irish pub and join us at the St. Paddy's Day Parade and the annual Walk to the Black Rock, a pilgrimage on the third Sunday in May.

With over 25 Irish-Montreal organizations existing today, including Gaelic athletics, Irish dancing, film, music, language, literature, theatre, Wiccan and Catholic religious groups, and political groups — not to mention our own Irish-Montreal walking tours — our community is growing again. 

Montrealers always love coming out in full shamrock garb to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. (Elise Jacob/CBC)

There are so many ways to connect to our community, and even a person with no Irish roots is welcome to join in. 

The Irish are among the warmest and most hospitable people on the planet, and we invite all Montrealers to join us in celebrating our culture.

Éire go Brách! (Ireland, to the end of time.)


Donovan King is a Montreal teacher, historian and tour guide. He is the founder of tour companies Griffin Tours and Haunted Montreal. He also serves on the board of directors of the Irish Monument Park Foundation.


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