Between 1845 and 1851, the famine years, 1.5 million Irish emigrated. In an attempt to stop the Irish influx, the United States doubled their entry tariff, effectively making it impossible for Irish emigrants to travel there.
120,000 emigrants left Ireland for Canada, many carrying the deadly disease typhus. Their arrival brought Canada’s major cities to their knees, threatening the colony with total devastation. Toronto was utterly swamped, with almost 40,000 Irish, twice the city’s population, arriving in just 3 months.
The population of Toronto in 1847 was a mere 20,000 – now in 2008, Toronto has a population of 6 million (growing by 1,000 nearly every week).
Of the Irish emigrants who survived, many made their way across the border into America – including the famous Irish-American families of Bing Crosby, Henry Ford and John F Kennedy.
150 years later, in 2007, archaeologists in Toronto uncovered the sites of the hospital and fever sheds that housed the thousands of Irish refugees underneath the car park where the new Toronto Film Festival HQ is to be built.
Death or Canada is literally making history for Toronto.
Using ships manifests and extensive genealogical research, we were able to piece together the forgotten and tragic story of the Willis family. They were a Protestant family with five children from Limerick who sold their home and belongings to purchase their fares to Canada in the hope of surviving the Great famine.
Tradition has it that America welcomed the Irish with open arms, but in 1847 – the worst year of the famine – America shut its doors. Had it not been for this British Colony – Canada – those Irish migrants would have had nowhere to go.
Following the international critical acclaim of his Famine Sculptures at the IFSC in Dublin, Rowan Gillespie was commissioned to sculpt a second set of statues for the IRELAND PARK in Toronto, which was opened by President Mary McAleese in 2007 to commemorate the thousands of Irish Famine emigrants who arrived and died in Toronto in 1847. www.irelandparkfoundation.com