The existence of a cemetery where 6,000 Irish immigrants were thought to be buried in 1847 was confirmed last November 2019 when archaeologists found bone fragments at a REM construction site in Pointe-Saint-Charles. The remains of 14 people were discovered and the historical significance of the area was confirmed. When the Victoria Bridge was built back in 1859, workers had also discovered some bone fragments and they decided to install a monument in memory of the victims. The monument, known today as the ‘Black Rock’, was pulled from the river to mark the cemetery area, so as to avoid any desecration – and the first tribute was paid to the deceased.
It was with this historical knowledge in mind that the REM began work in the area in 2019. They used maps and documents from that time, knowing it was likely some of the work would take place where the Irish cemetery was thought to be.
HISTORY OF THE IRISH COMMUNITY IN MONTREAL
The Irish contributed significantly to the city’s development. They took part in all the major projects of the time, such as the Lachine Canal (1825), its extensions (1843, 1875) and the Victoria Bridge (1854). Working under difficult conditions, they also participated in the development of unions. In the 19th century, they were the second-largest ethnic group in Montreal. In fact, since 1833 the city’s Coat Of Arms has included the Irish shamrock on it – in recognition of Irish immigrants as one of the city’s founding people, exemplifying the community’s influence on the city.
The typhus epidemic of 1847: History took a tragic turn in the middle of the century. The Irish fled their country due to the lack of food that hit Ireland during the Great Famine (1845–1852). Packed into ships under unhealthy conditions, many travelers came down with typhus, a deadly fever transmitted by insects living on rodents.
In 1847, thousands of Irish immigrants arrived by boat and were quarantined on Grosse Ile, near Quebec City, before continuing on to Montreal. Despite the quarantine, travelers carrying the bacteria arrived in the city and an epidemic broke out. More than 6,000 Irish people died of typhus, in addition to 1,000 residents including John Easton Mills, the mayor at the time, who had visited the sick.
Given the magnitude of the epidemic, the dead were buried anonymously in wooden coffins near the St. Lawrence River. “It wasn’t an organized cemetery as we know it,” says Elizabeth Boivin, the REM’s deputy director of environment. “The burials were carried out with care, but there were no markers to precisely delineate the cemetery. It’s even more difficult given that the site is largely covered by railway tracks and roads today.”
To minimize the impact, the design was specifically adapted in the area. “We agreed with the contractor to build a single pillar in this area, rather than the two we would normally put in place. The span between the pillars is therefore longer and we are using custom-made steel beams… we also commissioned a firm to conduct archaeological excavations in the pillar’s caisson,” she explained. The innovative approach was presented to and approved by the Ministere de la culture et des communications and Montreal’s Irish community. On June 12th 2019, a ceremony was held at the Black Rock to bless the soil before work began. Representatives of various religious groups, as well as the First Nations, attended the event.
After the preparatory work, archaeological excavations were carried out at the site of the future pillar. It was a very meticulous undertaking – the excavations occurred within a diameter of three metres with little space to proceed, as the railway tracks were right next to it. First, the steel ‘caisson’ (drilled shafts, cast-in-place, deep foundation elements, designed with steel reinforcement) was bored and anchored in the rock, at a depth of about 12 metres. The railway embankment (about five metres) was excavated to reach the level of the cemetery. Archaeologists entered the caisson in a cylindrical basket, custom-designed for the project. The basket had six removable plates, allowing the archaeologists to methodically carry out the excavations.
The research led to the discovery of the bones of 14 people. “The bone fragments are very well preserved in a layer of clay, despite the trains rolling above them,” said Boivin. “The specialized firm is currently cleaning, documenting and analyzing the graves. Given the position of the pillar and the historical information available to us, there is little doubt that these bones belong to Irish immigrants.”
Once the analyses have been completed, the bone fragments will be turned over to the Irish community, who have been working with the City of Montreal and Hydro-Quebec to create a memorial park – a way to pay tribute to the Irish people who have made such a substantial contribution to the City’s economic, social and cultural development.