On the 140th anniversary of Mary Gallagher's murder, historian appeals to city to mark Griffintown sites

There are no statues or commemorative plaques marking the story of Irish settlement of old Griffintown, says Irish Montrealer Donovan King, who is asking Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante to help preserve the hip neighbourhood's historic past.

In Montreal's hippest new neighbourhood, no statues or commemorative plaques mark story of Irish settlement

Donovan King said the burial ground for Irish typhus victims has no markers to let new residents know they're jogging on bones. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

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 annual walk to commemorate the thousands of Irish refugees who died of typhus in the fever sheds near this spot in 1847 ends here, at the stone erected in their memory in 1859. This walk took place in 2014. (Facebook/Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation)

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.

King stands in front of the former Horse Palace, Montreal's oldest horse stable. Inhabitants of the condos seen on the right are particularly antagonized by tours stopping here and will yell at the groups or blast music to discourage them from stopping. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

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.

The fever sheds where thousands of Irish typhus victims died in 1847 can be clearly seen from this photograph taken by William Notman from the brand new Victoria Bridge in 1858 or 1859. (McCord Museum)

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

Montreal's fifth mayor, John Easton Mills, died of typhus in 1847 after less than a year in office, after volunteering to help tend to the sick Irish refugees quarantined in fever sheds. (Ville de Montréal archives)

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 ruins of St. Ann Church are preserved in a park, but there isn't much to show what it looked like when it served as a hub for the community. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

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.

Gathering on the night of her death is a tradition that goes back a century, and this year's edition is the most organized yet — there will be free storytelling in English and French, music and speeches.

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?"

King said this corner of the lot at Murray and William streets would be a perfect site for a commemorative site to murdered prostitute and popular ghost Mary Gallagher. The École de technologie supérieure that will be building on the lot is seen on the right. (Elysha Enos/CBC)


Elysha Enos


Elysha Enos is a journalist with CBC Montreal.