On the 140th anniversary of Mary Gallagher's murder, historian appeals to city to mark Griffintown sites
In Montreal's hippest new neighbourhood, no statues or commemorative plaques mark story of Irish settlement
An Irish Montrealer and historian is asking the City of Montreal to step in to help preserve the history of the Irish settlement of Griffintown before all signs of that history disappear beneath the area's galloping development.
Donovan King, who founded the tour company Haunted Montreal, has asked his blog readers to contact Mayor Valérie Plante about preserving a key site: the corner close to where the prostitute Mary Gallagher was murdered 140 years ago today.
"We want to try to convince the mayor to make that street corner a small commemorative park," King said.
"We're not asking for the world, but we are asking for a little bit."
He's optimistic — a few years ago he did the same kind of call-out to his readers over the Black Rock, the giant boulder erected in 1859 to commemorate the 6,000 Irish emigrants buried in unmarked graves near the spot at Des Irlandais and Bridge streets.
Every May, hundreds of Montrealers, many of Irish descent, walk to the foot of the Victoria Bridge, where the Black Rock stands on a fenced-in patch of grass, right next to a busy road. For years, the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation has lobbied to create a park at the site.
The land now belongs to Hydro-Québec, and this spring, it committed to provide space to create a proper memorial.
There's little left of Griffintown's Irish working-class past: the neighbourhood is almost unrecognizable, with cutting-edge furniture stores, buzzed-about restaurants and a new condo building going up every other week — some of them alluding to the neighbourhood's roots, with their brick exteriors and Irish names.
King's popular tours stop at their doorsteps, and he said some new residents of Griffintown aren't happy about that.
He shrugs them off.
"We've been telling these stories for years, and suddenly the people who live in the condos just move in and think they have more rights," King said.
These are a few key things King hopes will be commemorated to preserve the history of the area.
Burial ground of typhus victims
In 1847, at the peak of the potato famine, 75,000 Irish refugees poured into Montreal, said King.
"It would be like six million refugees showing up today," he said.
Many contracted typhus on the ships and were put in fever sheds that were left over from a cholera epidemic ten years before.
The sheds were located across the canal from Griffintown, and it was only when workers began digging the Wellington Basin in 1876 that they found the bones of thousands of skeletons in unmarked graves.
Donovan said many Irish typhus victims are still buried there, and there is no plaque or statue to commemorate them.
"They have a plan to build a baseball stadium on the site of the cemetery, so it's still very much at risk," he said.
John Easton Mills
The fifth mayor of Montreal only served for about a year before dying of typhus after volunteering to nurse the sick.
Mills was amazing, King said.
"He worked with carpenters to build shelters and built 10 of them. He would also care for the refugees at night to give the doctors and nuns a rest."
King said despite Mills' importance to the city and its Irish community, there is no statue or commemorative plaque of him in Griffintown.
He said there's a tiny road named after Easton Mills east of the neighbourhood, but naming a more prominent street in the area after him, such as Wellington Street, would have been much more appropriate.
The ruins of St. Ann's Church
"Between 1854 and 1970, this was the hub of the community," King said.
The park where the church stood used to have a picture of it at the site, but it's been replaced by a small sculpture with a paragraph about the church pasted on it.
He wants to see the city restore the image of the church, so visitors can get a sense of the historic site.
He said adding real commemorative features to Griffintown will boost tourism.
Site of Mary Gallagher's death
"It's tough to commemorate a headless ghost, but it should be visual," King said.
The École de technologie supérieure stands at the corner of Murray and William streets, and King said if the school just made that corner a commemorative area, it would satisfy visitors.
The ghost of "Headless Mary" is said to return to the site of her death every seven years.
King expects that despite development in the area, the growth of tourism for haunted places means the tradition will be even bigger when people gather to hear the story again seven years from now.
"But where will it be told? What will that look like?"