Irish president opens new park dedicated to Irish refugees in Toronto, Canada

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Friday, June 22, 2007

McAleese cutting the ribbon
Image: Joshua Sherurcij.

Irish president Mary McAleese wrapped up a two-day visit to Toronto, Canada on Thursday by cutting the ribbon at the opening of a new park. The city's Ireland Park is dedicated to the Irish immigrants who fled the great famine to start a new life in Canada 160 years ago.

More than 1,200 people were present to watch McAleese disembark the Irish naval flagship L.E. Eithne to enter the park, after earlier having laid flowers at the St. James Cemetery which holds the remains of 281 immigrants.

Accompanied by 45 dignitaries, security and naval officers, McAleese then walked around the perimeter of the park, admiring the monuments and pausing to enjoy the live music.

McAleese then cut the scarlet ribbon, opening the park to those gathered - including the likes of Toronto mayor David Miller, Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, Irish ambassador Declan Kelly and federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

After the ceremony, the presidential entourage moved to the nearby stage to speak with the crowd, following the rendition of both the Canadian and Irish national anthems.

Following her thanks to Canadians on Wednesday for helping to promote Ireland's economic improvements over the past fifteen years, McAleese also thanked the country for being "a place of welcome for people around the world", noting that "the amazing Toronto welcome hasn't changed in 160 years".

But the speech was not simply about past history, as McAleese drew a parallel between modern refugees and those fleeing Ireland's famine in the mid-19th century, speaking of a "moral obligation to those around the world who continue to starve".

The speech left an impression on the crowd, including 4th-generation Irishman Arn Bailey. "It was really rather impressive", explained Bailey - rueing the fact that he was unable to decipher the opening Gailge phrase that McAleese spoke to the gathering.

Cquote1.svg ...we are all immigrants to this place, and that is what makes us Torontonians Cquote2.svg

Mayor David Miller also took his turn at public speaking, reminding those gathered that "we are all immigrants to this place, and that is what makes us Torontonians"

The limestone monument
Image: Joshua Sherurcij.

The brainchild of brothers Robert and Jonathan Kearns, the park was built at a cost of $3.5 million dollars over the past seven years. The governments of both Canada and Ireland pledged matching $500,000 donations to help allay the cost, with the rest coming from donors and fundraisings.

"The Irish community of Toronto came forward with unprecedented generosity", explained park founder Robert Kearns, blessing their ancestors for having "stamped into the mold of this nation, the hallmark of...determination".

The park's main feature, a towering monument bearing the names of hundreds of immigrants who died on Toronto's wharves, is made of irregular limestone shipped from a 200-year old quarry in Kilkenny, Ireland. Interactive outdoor computer terminals rest in the shadow of an illuminated glass tower, which will remain lit at night as a beacon.

The Apprehensive Man
Image: Joshua Sherurcij.

The eastern edge of the 300'x70' park is bordered by five bronze statues of destitute refugees, created by Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie in Dublin, and shipped to Toronto in February at a total cost of $325,000. The statues were made to complement a set of seven similar statues built on the coast of Ireland in 1997, to symbolise the emigrants leaving the island.

Approximately 38,000 Irish refugees landed in Toronto after their stay at Grosse Ile, more than doubling the city's population in a mere six months. While more than 1,100 died shortly after arriving in the city, McAleeese noted that at least they "had the comfort of knowing that they died [in Toronto], among love".

Today, there are nearly four million Irish-Canadians, a population rivaling that of the Emerald Isle itself.

The park is located along the Toronto Harbourfront, on a section of road renamed Éireann Quay in honour of the park in a ceremony last month.

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