McDonald Gardens Park to Commemorate the Global Irish Famine Way

From the use of Irish labour during the construction of the Rideau Canal to the assassination of D’arcy McGee in 1868, Ottawa has a deep history tied to the Irish diaspora. In fact, twelve percent of the Canadian population draws its roots directly back to the Emerald Isles.

Between 1845 and 1852, Ireland, then a British possession, suffered a catastrophic famine. Roughly one million people died, and one million more fled. Of those, 285,000 came to Canada. Historical records show that hundreds of Irish emigrants fleeing famine were buried in Ottawa’s McDonald Gardens Park.

During an April 2024 event held at the Irish Embassy in Ottawa, Ambassador Eamonn McKee celebrated the support offered by Canada’s Indigenous peoples to Irish immigrants in the mid-1800s who escaped the catastrophic famine at home. Three native birch trees were planted at the residence, and the ambassador commented to the assembled guests and dignitaries that McDonald Gardens Park would be a desirable location for a Global Irish Famine Way monument.

In Ireland, the Famine Emigrant Way is marked by Bronze Shoe monuments, commemorating the route Irish emigrants took to southern ports before embarking on ships to North America.

In Ottawa, the graves at McDonald Gardens Park have long since been relocated to Beechwood Cemetery. Ottawa’s Built Heritage Committee received a motion brought forward by Councillor Theresa Kavanaugh to have a Bronze Shoe monument located at McDonald’s Gardens Park.

In a meeting that lasted just under four hours, historians, local Irish Canadians, and other interested parties, including Dr. Mark McGowan, an Ottawa native and professor of history at St. Michael’s College, spoke in support of the monument.

McGowan pointed out that the victims of the Irish famine in Canada came to the country poor and downtrodden and that they were “buried hastily, and there were no markers for their burial.” Next of kin rarely knew where their loved ones’ remains were located.

Not all voices were unanimous in support. A group calling itself the “Friends of McDonald Gardens Park” spoke against the monument, saying there was little consultation and questioning how many monuments one park can accommodate.

The Lowertown Community Association also opposes the monument. A letter to Mayor Sutcliffe stated that the memorial is problematic because it only commemorates “one group.”

Councillor Rawlson King spoke in favour of the monument and thanked community members who showed up to support it. King called the memorial a “unique opportunity to commemorate a chapter often overlooked in our city’s rich tapestry.” King pointed out that for “too long, the memory of the victims of one of the most harrowing times in Irish history has remained shrouded in obscurity in our city.”

King concluded his remarks by stating that Bronze Shoe monuments would be installed nationwide and that the Nation’s Capital ought to participate in this meaningful commemoration.

Councillor Kavanaugh’s motion passed, and the monument will move ahead.