AFTER BLACK ROCK
I slept through fits of fever
stomach clutching stones
head floating empty
waking to wild wind through black
will or words
(I did not think to kiss the stone)
wondering what grief or poverty –
famine, empire, and holy ghost –
makes memorial out of big
rock, bluntly chiseled
epitaph, no Celtic cross atop it?
This St. Patrick’s Day, I’m wondering about the Irish in me. I’m a fourth generation Irish Canadian. I have absolutely no idea what this means. I have never celebrated Irish holidays and never been to Ireland. I’ve observed that all my relatives on this side of the family have thick hair, like going for long walks, and all enjoy ice cream. Beyond that, I have no clue what “our traditions” are, when the last time it was that someone in our family spoke Gaelic, and if it’s possible, or even desirable, to lay claim to an ancestry that I have no interaction with.
Mostly, I wonder about our relationship to land. I wonder if my ancestors were indigenous to Ireland. I know they were Roman Catholic Irish, and may have been flax farmers, possibly from County Armagh or County Kerry. But I don’t know what they felt when they sailed from Ireland to Canada, never to return. Likely displaced by poverty and politics, and pulled across the sea by the promise of land, made available to them by the hands of the same empire that pushed them from their own homeland. I wonder if they carried sadness with them, fear, optimism, excitement, hope. If their descendants inherited homesickness, longing, loss, gratitude for the opportunity for new life in a new land, freedom.
We know they arrived in Canada in 1847, during the potato famine, so were likely “famine emigrants”, refugees in a sense.
Last summer, on a family visit to Montreal, I went searching for what I’d heard called the Black Rock Memorial.
The Irish Commemorative Stone or Black Rock (Leacht Cuimhneachain Na Ngael) in Montreal stands in an unassuming place, at the entrance to Victoria Bridge, surrounded by four lanes of traffic.
It approximately marks the centre of a cemetery, in an area known as Windmill Point, where 3,500-6,000 Irish immigrants who died in 1847 of typhus or “ship fever” were buried in mass graves. In 1859, workers constructing the Victoria Bridge, many of whom were of Irish descent, discovered the mass grave, and decided to erect the memorial.
Each year at the end of May, the Montreal Irish-Canadian community hosts a walk from St. Gabriel’s church in Pointe St. Charles, to the stone to commemorate those lives that were lost. The neighbourhoods bordering the Lachine Canal, Point St. Charles and Griffintown began as a working class, Anglophone neighbourhoods, inhabited by many Irish, who worked on the Lachine Canal, or the Grand Trunk Railway or built the Victoria Bridge.
I don’t know if my ancestors passed through this port. I don’t know if any of them lost family members to typhus. I don’t if they were strong, or lucky, or smart.
I do know that their relationship to the lands they arrived on was one of homesteader, pioneer, settler, farmer.
the settlers were ill-prepared for the severe winter ahead: colonist, colonizer, frontiersman, frontierswoman, pioneer, bushwhacker; immigrant, newcomer; historical homesteader. ANTONYMS native.
The land they acquired was referred to as Lot 6, Concession 6, Ellice Township in Perth County, Ontario. The county was named after Perthshire, Scotland. This land was within the Huron Tract Purchase also known as the Huron Block. In 1827, 2.1 million acres of land was ceded by the Anishinaabe of Kettle and Stony Point to the British Crown, with the signing of the Huron Tract Treaty, Crown Treaty 29. Over a 9 year period, the British met in council with the Chippewa of the region to discuss acquisition of the land. In return the Chippewas of Chenail Ecarte (Walpole Island), River St. Clair (Sarnia) and River Aux Sauble (Kettle and Stony Point) were granted a perpetual annuity. Four reserves, comprising less than 1 per cent of the land, were reserved out of the cession in locations chosen by the Chippewas (Ipperwash Commission of Inquiry, Historical Background). The Huron Tract was purchased by the Canada Company, an agent of the British government, to be distributed to colonial settlers of Upper Canada. John Galt, the founding member of the Canada Company, originally envisioned the settlement of the Huron Tract as an agricultural experiment.
For the next several generations, my family made their homes in and around Stratford, Ontario, on the Avon River, named after Shakespeare’s hometown. They were farmers, teachers, and small business people. They lived on a farm, and then later in brick houses they had built on property they owned. Only in the last generation have they left the region to migrate west within Canada, now owning and renting homes in cities in Ontario, Alberta and BC.
1 he settled in Otsego County: make one’s home in, set up home in, take up residence in, put down roots in, establish oneself in; live in, move to, emigrate to.
2 immigrants settled much of Australia: colonize, occupy, inhabit, people, populate.
3 Catherine settled down to her work: apply oneself to, get down to, set about, attack; concentrate on, focus on, devote oneself to.
4 the class wouldn’t settle down : calm down, quiet down, be quiet, be still; informal shut up.
5 a brandy will settle your nerves: calm, quiet; soothe, pacify, quell; sedate, tranquilize; Brit. quieten. ANTONYMS agitate, disturb.
6 he settled into an armchair: sit down, seat oneself, install oneself, ensconce oneself, plant oneself; informal park oneself, plunk oneself.
7 a butterfly settled on the flower: land, come to rest, alight, descend, perch; archaic light.
8 when the stirring stops, the sediment settles: sink, subside, fall, gravitate. ANTONYMS rise.
There is so much I don’t know, and I welcome feedback, information and dialogue. I am working to understand what it means to have been born and raised on land in Treaty 6 Territory, and to now be living and studying on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territories of the Skwxwú7mesh, Xwméthkwyiem and Tsleil-Waututh nations.
I hope that if there is any point in knowing where one comes from, and if it is possible to carry anything in me that is Irish, it is to be able to grasp onto a seed of empathy. A seed that can grow into a commitment to stand with those who have been, and continue to be, displaced or dispossessed of the lands they call home, be it in the name of city building or resource extraction. I hope it can grow into an awareness of how I am complicit in displacing or dispossessing others of their homes. I hope that I can grow to understand what it means to live in relation with this land upon which I am a guest.