The Irish Stone Montreal


“The Irish Stone Montreal” article has been kindly donated by The Ancient Order of Hibernians Montreal Quebec. Thanks to Mr. Victor Boyle President.

The “Irish Stone”, the simplest of Montreal‘s monuments, is in many ways the most impressive.

  • 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, and broods mysteriously at night. 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.
  • Anyone in Bridge Street traffic who comes close to the boulder may read the words:

preserve from desecration
the remains of 6000 immigrants
who died of ship fever
A.D. 1847-48
this stone
is erected by the workmen of
Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts
employed in the construction
of the
Victoria Bridge
A.D. 1859

  • Workmen had been unearthing bones as they dug the approaches to the new bridge. When they heard the story of how these poor people had died they wished to do something to preserve their bones from further desecration. This great boulder, taken from the bed of the river while laying one of the piers of the bridge, seemed a natural monument. In their own way they paid their tribute to the dead.
  • The “ship fever” given as the cause of death was actually the typhus. It went under other common names, such as “hospital fever” or “jail fever”. It was defined as “essentially a fever of the poor, ill-fed and badly housed”. The Irish immigrants were natural victims, suffering from poverty and half-starved by the failure of the potato crop; long ill-housed where they had lived and housed more miserably still as they crowded into Ireland‘s port towns to await ships to North America.
  • Typhus came to be known among the Irish as “ship fever” because so many fell ill on the voyage over the Atlantic. Though they had sailed without symptoms some of these immigrants must have had the typhus when they came aboard. One insidious characteristics of the disease is a period of incubation, without symptoms, lasting as long as twelve days. Some rapacious ship owners ordered captains to set sail though cases of typhus had already been reported among the passengers. On the long journey over the ocean “ship fever” spread rapidly; the ships provided the overcrowding and ill feeding that favoured the disease.
  • Ship after ship arrived. Thousands were coming ashore. In the spring of 1847 Dr. Michael McCulloch of McGill’s Medical Faculty made an ominous report to Montreal‘s Board of Health. He said that “in passing along the wharf at the upper end of the harbour in the afternoon he noticed several sick persons who had been there several days and among them one very dangerous case of fever”.
  • Something had to be done quickly. The immigrants had to be given shelter, but they had to be kept near the waterfront to prevent their coming into the city and spreading infection.
  • The Mayor of Montreal John Easton Mill was also President of the Immigration Commission. He gave orders for the hasty building of temporary wooden sheds at Pointe St. Charles to serve as hospitals. At first three sheds were considered enough; more were added, as the need spread. In the end twenty-two sheds had to be set up. These temporary hospitals were horrible. The sick were crowded in; no proper care could be provided. The sick, dying, even the dead were laying together. In courtyards between the “fever sheds” coffins of different sizes were stacked. To make matters worse, Montreal had a summer of “Calcutta heat”.
  • On June 17, 1847, news reached the Grey Nunnery in Montreal that hundreds of Irish immigrants were dying untended in the sheds by the waterfront. The Superior was Mother McMullen. She went to see for herself what the situation was, taking Sister Sainte-Croix with her. Entering the sheds the horrors appalled them. The Mother Superior drew up a report and sent it to the Emigrant Agent. She asked permission to have her nuns care for the sick in the sheds. The Emigrant Agent readily consented. She was authorized to act as she thought best.
  • Mother McMullen heard the lively conversation and laughter as she entered the room at the convent where the sisters had gathered for the recreation hour. She took her seat in the circle.
  • After a pause, she is reported to have addressed them in these words: “Sisters, I have seen a sight today that I shall never forget. I went to Point St. Charles and found hundreds of sick and dying huddled together. The stench emanating from them is too great for even the strongest constitution. The atmosphere is impregnated with it, and the air filled with the groans of the sufferers. Death is there in its most appalling aspect. Those who thus cry aloud in their agony are strangers, but their hands are outstretched for relief. Sisters, the plague is contagious.” At this point she is said to have broken down. When she had recovered her voice, she added simply “In sending you there I am signing your death warrant, but you are free to accept or refuse.”
  • A few minutes’ silence followed while the nuns recalled their vows. Then together they said “I am ready.” Mother McMullen chose eight of her nuns. The next morning they went to Pointe St. Charles.
  • As more immigrants arrived and more fever sheds were built Sister McMullen called for more sisters to serve. No sickness was reported among them until June 24th when two of the sisters did not respond to the matins bell. Day by day, more fell ill, until thirty of the convent’s forty nuns were at the point of death. When the Grey Nuns could no longer carry on their work at the sheds, their place was taken by the Sisters of Providence. Soon after, Bishop Bourget gave the sisters of the Hotel Dieu permission to leave their cloister and join the work among the immigrants. But the Grey Nuns had withdrawn only long enough to restore the sisters who were sick and bury the seven who had died. By September they had again taken their places at the sheds.
  • A glimpse of the nuns at work was given by a visitor, William Weir. To him “the saddest sight was to see the nuns, at the risk of their own lives, carrying the sick women and children in their arms from the ships to the ambulances to be taken to the sheds”.
  • Clergymen were also risking their lives at the sheds. For the Roman Catholic clergy the risks were the greatest. Hearing confessions of the desperately ill and dying in the crowded sheds, where two or three people might be lying in one bed, meant that the ear of the priest had to be kept close to the mouth of the penitent, if the duty of receiving the confession in honorable confidence was to be carried out. The priests did not shrink from a procedure so dangerous and revolting and many caught the contagion from the gasping breath of the dying. The losses among the English-speaking priests in Montreal were so heavy that a call for help was sent to New York, to the Jesuits of Fordham. They responded at once. A group of Fordham Jesuits came to Montreal and went to work in the sheds.
  • Though most of the Irish immigrants were Roman Catholics, the Anglican clergy of the city were in the sheds, to give any help they could. Among them was the Reverend Mark Willoughby, the first Rector of Trinity Anglican Church (now Trinity Memorial). He went to the sheds himself and organized in his congregation a band of workers. Willoughby contracted typhus. He was nursed by Captain Maximilian Montagu Hammond of the Riffle Brigade in the British garrison. He died on July 15, 1847, aged fifty-one.
  • In the group organized by the Reverend Mark Willoughby was Lieutenant Lloyd formerly with the Royal Navy (Some of the old accounts give his rank as captain, but lieutenant was carved on his gravestone.) He was staying in Montreal with Mark Willoughby. Captain Hammond said that Lieutenant Lloyd “was the life of our little band, spending whole days at the sheds, administering food and medicine, listening to their tale of sorrow, and giving advice and assistance, until at last he himself caught the fever, and was laid upon a bed of sickness, from which he never rose.” He was buried in the military cemetery on the Papineau Road.
  • Mayor Mills himself became a victim. He was an American from Leland, Massachusetts, who had come up to Montreal, where he became bilingual, prosperous, charitable and popular. As Mayor he modified the anger of Montrealers who were demanding to know why these immigrants were being allowed to land, bring the typhus with them. Indignation meetings were held on the Champ de Mars. Anger mounted when a ship arrived with sick tenants from the Irish estates of the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston. Rumors went about that a mob of outraged citizens might descend on Pointe St. Charles to toss the fever sheds into the river.
  • Mayor Mills not only urged restraint upon the citizens, but became a voluntary nurse in the sheds. He contracted typhus and died on November 12, 1847. “The Montreal Herald” commented on his death. The Governor-General, the Earl of Elgin, wrote in his dispatch to Earl Grey, the Secretary of State for the Colonies: “This day the Mayor of Montreal died, a very estimable man who did much for the immigrants and to whose firmness and philanthropy we chiefly owe it that the Immigrant sheds were not tossed into the river by the people of the Town during the summer. He has fallen a victim to his zeal.”
  • Death in the sheds also broke up the immigrant families. Separation was startling and swift. A Montrealer, J.W. Shaw, described two such cases:
  • “I wrote a letter for a man to his friends in Hamilton. By this means I got acquainted with his family. Next day he told me that his wife having a headache he had taken her to the Hospital. On the following day I saw that he was troubled, and asked for his wife, presuming that she was worse. “Oh”, he said, “she’s trenched”. I soon learned that this meant she was dead and buried. Only some twenty-six hours had elapsed since he had taken her there.
  • “A young man and his sister came out in our ship. He had been a teacher in Ireland. He prized his sister dearly. He had found lodgings at the Tanneries [St. Henri], a suburb of Montreal. His sister fell sick and as orders were strict that the sick should be removed immediately, he took her off to the sheds. Lest she might be deprived of any delicacy she might fancy he gave her two sovereigns and had her take a silk dress with her that she might return to her lodgings in a few days looking neat and respectable. On the third day afterwards he called at the sheds. Not a relic of his dear sister, money, clothes or any belongings were ever forth-coming. Poor fellow, I felt for him, indeed.”
  • The victims of the typhus in the immigrant sheds were not only those who died. The living victims were the children, the orphans left when their dead parents had been carried away to the burial trenches. As one account reads: “Children were counted by hundreds – the infant taken from its dead mother’s breast, or from the arms of some older one trying in vain to still its cries, the creeping baby shrieking for the father and mother who would nevermore respond to that call, and older ones sobbing and frantically trying to escape to search for parents already beneath the sod. This scene in the children’s shed was beyond description, adding a new pang in the agony of the expiring father or mother.”
  • The Grey Nuns took over the care of many orphans. The St. Patrick’s Orphan Asylum of Montreal, opened in 1846, had been given into their charge. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Montreal, Msgr. Ignace Bourget, did all he could to find homes for the orphans. He appealed to the country people. They came from all the surrounding parishes. Each family adopted one or two.
  • In 1870 an Irish priest, Father M.B. Buckley, who was in North America collecting money to build the cathedral at Cork, visited the “Irish Stone monument”. All the modern changes that have since altered the appearance of the area around the stone had not yet obliterated the marks of the tragedy. “I came down with Father Hogan”, this visitor from Ireland wrote, “To see the spot where so many of my fellow countrymen so miserably perished. There was the desolate spot, enclosed by a fragile paling there the numerous mounds and, above all, in the centre, an enormous stone. “May God have mercy on their souls!”
  • The workmen who had set up that enormous stone had intended it to stand on the spot forever “while grass grows and water flows.” It had been set up in an awkward position. Montreal grew; use of the Victoria Bridge increased. To practical minds, the “Irish Stone” seemed a block in the path of progress. In 1900 the Grand Trunk Railway decided to shift the stone several streets away. It would be set up in St. Patrick Square. The railway consulted nobody; it made no public announcement. About nine o’clock on the morning of December 21, 1900, it simply hauled up the “Irish Stone” with a big steam derrick. It ran the stone on a flatcar along the track on St. Patrick Street and deposited it in a corner of St. Patrick Square.
  • The Grand Trunk had hoped controversy would be avoided by moving quickly and quietly. It was not long in realizing its mistake. The Irish community was in an uproar. It demanded that the monument be restored immediately to its original and rightful place. The railway, claiming that public convenience was on its side, refused to give in to a sentimental clamour. It was hesitant, however, to go ahead with its plans to run tracks over the spot where the monument had previously stood. Years went by in inconclusive controversy. In 1910 the Grand Trunk decided to proceed. It made a formal application to the Board of Railway Commissioners. It asked for the right to expropriate the old site. The purpose would be the improvement of the approach to Victoria Bridge.
  • The Board of Railway Commissioners announced its decision in 1911. The Irish case had been strengthened by evidence that the old site actually belonged to the Anglican Bishop of Montreal. This fact made the Grand Trunk a trespasser. Thomas Brassey, one of the firms of contractors who built Victoria Bridge, had conveyed the monument and its site to the Anglican Bishop of Montreal. It was not really a sale, but a matter of trust. A nominal sum of five dollars was all that was paid. Monument and land were to be held as a trust by the Bishop of Montreal and his successors forever. The Board took this legal fact into consideration. But, at the same time, it reached a compromise between sentiment and utility. The land was reduced to a quarter of its original size. The stone was to be shifted about fifteen feet to the east from where it had at first stood. The Bishop of Montreal (at that time Right Reverend John C. Farthing) sold the land to the Grand Trunk. The railway assumed responsibility for its perpetual maintenance.
  • With this compromise the issue remained settled for half a century. Then Montreal began to make plans for Expo ’67. Bridge Street needed to be widened and straightened. Once more the “Irish Stone” was said to be standing in the path of progress. In September 1965, City Council was asked to vote funds for the changes to Bridge Street. Councillors Kenneth McKenna and John Lynch-Staunton spoke up in defense of the stone. It was sacred in the eyes of the Irish community, they insisted; it must not be disturbed. The Chairman of Montreal’s Executive Committee, Lucien Saulnier put forth a suggestion: let the Irish community form a committee and offer recommendations. The committee was formed and consultations with the civic administration took place. At the meeting of City Council on June 21, 1966, Lucien Saulnier announced that Montreal‘s planning and public works department had worked out a solution. The “Irish Stone” would remain unmoved. Bridge Street would be changed instead. It would pass on either side of a central dividing mall. On this mall the stone would stand, with its site extended at both ends.
  • 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 evidently 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 the 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.