By Dick Nieuwendyk
It is a huge, rugged, uneven boulder which came from the bed of the St. Lawrence River. Raised on its end, it stands ten feet high. Weather and more than a century’s grime have made it almost black. It looms up, massive and solemn. It stands on a grassy island on Bridge Street, near the entrance to Victoria Bridge. Heavy traffic thuds by on both sides. The spot is scarcely peaceful, yet this boulder stands to guard the bones of thousands of Irish immigrants buried there and nearby.
When the Victoria Bridge was being built between 1854 and 1859, workmen discovered the human remains of Irish immigrants to Canada, who had fled the famine in Ireland, only to die during the typhus epidemic of 1847 in fever sheds at nearby Windmill Point, later renamed Victoriatown, after the adjacent Victoria Bridge, but commonly known as Goose Village, a six-street area near Griffintown. In Montreal, between 3,500 and 6,000 Irish immigrants died of typhus or “ship fever” in fever sheds in a quarantine area known as Windmill Point in 1847 and 1848. The immigrants had been transferred from quarantine in Grosse Isle, Quebec. Due to a lack of suitable preparations, typhus soon reached epidemic proportions in Montreal. Three fever sheds were initially constructed,150 feet long by 40 to 50 feet wide. As thousands more sick immigrants landed, the number of sheds would grow to 22, with troops cordoning off the area so the sick could not escape. Grey Nuns cared for the sick, carrying women and children in their arms from ships to the ambulances. Priests also helped, many falling ill after hearing the last confessions of the dying. When a mob threatened to throw the fever sheds into the river, Montreal mayor John Easton Mills quelled the riot and provided care, giving patients water and changing bedding. He died in November, serving less than a year in office. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Montreal urged French Québécois to help their fellow Catholics. Many travelled to Montreal from the countryside to adopt children, in some cases passing their land on to them.
Over the years the “Irish Stone” has not only marked a grave site; it has been the gathering place of bones unearthed nearby. Burials, officiated by the Ancient Order of Hibernians took place over a wide area. Whenever bones have been dug up, they have all been buried close to the old stone. ”Every time these bones are found (said Irish Ambassador, John Hearne, when some were unearthed in 1942), they have been” a voice arising from the old clay”. Since 1867, on the last Sunday in May, the Ancient Order of Hibernians has held a commemorative at the Stone.
In the early sixties Montreal was preparing for Expo 67 and Bridge Street needed to be widened and straightened. The “Irish Stone” was said to be standing in the path of progress and had to be moved. Councillors Kenneth McKenna and John Lynch-Staunton spoke up in defense of the stone. It was sacred in the eyes of the Irish community, it must not be disturbed. At the City Council meeting on June 21, 1966, it was announced that the “Irish Stone” would remain unmoved. Bridge Street would be changed instead and would pass on either side of a central dividing mall. On this mall the stone would stand, with its site extended at both ends. Today, anyone who comes close to the boulder may read the words: “To preserve from desecration the remains of 6000 immigrants who died of ship fever A.D.1847-8 this stone is erected by the workmen of Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts employed in the construction of the Victoria Bridge A.D.1859.”