Perhaps the most haunting piece of sculpture in Ireland is the group of gaunt, skeletal famine figures on Dublin’s docklands. They are simply walking, to somewhere, to a better place. Sculptor Rowan Gillespie has captured these desperate images of tortured souls, their defeated faces and sunken eyes. Gillespie was inspired by sketches drawn by charitable Quakers working in rural Cork during the winter of 1846. Years ago, when I first saw these ghoulish figures in the Docklands, I was immediately transported back to the desperate Ireland of our ancestors. Maybe that’s what great art does, it gets under your skin.
Gillespie’s famine statues inspired the novelist Joseph O’Connor to write his brilliant famine novel “The Star of the Sea”.
When O’Connor saw these images of starving, helpless people, walking towards something, just walking, he began to conceive his characters in what was to be one of the finest Irish novels written in the past 50 years.
This morning, in the bright sunlight over Lake Ontario, I am amidst the same statues in Ireland Park, Toronto. And one of the statues is Rowan Gillespie’s depiction of O’Connor’s deeply, malignant character, Pious Mulvey, from ‘The Star of the Sea’.
Ireland Park is a wonderful monument to the Irish Diaspora and Irish history here in Toronto. The park is right on the water with an amazing view of the lakeshore skyline. You couldn’t get a better location to celebrate the Irish in this part of the world.
Canada is again becoming one of the fastest-growing destinations in the world for young Irish people. These days, the emigration experience is a totally different one. Latest figures show that migration from Ireland is a two way street – much more likely to be part of the leg of a journey, rather than a final destination.
Today, many young Irish people are moving as easily to places like Toronto as their parents did from rural Ireland to Dublin in the 1970s.
It is a special place for me because I could have easily been Canadian. My parents were set to emigrate to Canada in 1960. They both had visas, jobs and were about to embark on a new life in Ontario but got the heebie-geebies at the last minute and stayed in Ireland.
Back then, you weren’t coming back – once you went, you went. In 1985, I headed to Toronto for a summer job and loved it – first working as a barman in a Chinese restaurant.
Toronto is home to one of the largest Irish diasporas and one of the oldest. While Irish fishermen fished the Grand Banks with the Basques in the 17th century (which is why Newfoundland in Irish is Talamh an Éisc), the main wave of migrants came in the 19th century.
Between 1815 and 1845, 496,000 Irish people emigrated to Canada.
This is a huge figure. In 1847 alone, 98,500 Irish emigrants landed in Canada. Given that there was a 20pc mortality rate on the ships, it implies that in the spring of 1847, close to 120,000 left Ireland for Canada.
Consider that 38,565 of these people landed in Toronto – a town that at the time had a population of only 20,000. It’s a little-known fact that the reason so many came to Canada is that the US imposed huge fines on ships bringing typhus into American ports. The families of Henry Ford, Bing Crosby and even Walt Disney came to North America through Canada.
Ireland Park is a memorial to the Irish Famine migrants, including the thousands who died on arrival here, most of whom left no trace; not even their names are known as they were buried in mass graves.
Today, 4,354,000 Canadians are of either full or partial Irish descent. This is 14pc of the country’s total population. Here in Ontario, 531,865 people registered as Irish Canadian in the last census.
This makes the self-declared ‘Irish’ the fourth-largest cultural group in Toronto. Modern Canada is also extremely welcoming to Irish people.
This morning, Canada wakes up to a new government embodied by the youthful leader of the Liberals, Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau is Quebecois and because so many Catholic Irish chose to stay in Catholic Quebec rather than Protestant Ontario, it is believed that as many as 25pc of Quebecois are of Irish descent.
In fact, the defeated leader of the New Democratic Party, Tom Mulcair – representing the French-speaking Outremont constituency – is a prime example of these French-speaking Irish-Canadians.
Today, far more young Irish people are getting visas for Canada than the US. For example, 10,000 ‘International Experience Canada Visas’ are now being allotted to Ireland per year. Last year, 6,000 new work visas were snapped up by Irish people online in thirteen minutes!
Seventy per cent of Irish who come to Canada land in Toronto, which for the first time in years has direct flights to Dublin.
When I came here, I had to fly via Amsterdam. Today, unlike in previous generations, 64pc of Irish who emigrate to Canada have third-level degrees. This compares with 42pc of the Irish population in general.
Trade between Canada and Ireland is increasing steadily. In 2013, two-way trade between Canada and Ireland in goods and services approached $3.7bn (€2.5bn). Five hundred Irish companies operate in Canada and 50 have subsidiaries here, employing 6,000 people. A quarter of all Irish investment abroad is in Canada.
Canada’s merchandise exports to Ireland totalled nearly $429.2m in 2013, an increase of 35.4pc from 2012. At the end of 2013, the stock of Canadian Direct Investment Abroad (CDIA) in Ireland reached nearly $16bn, ranking Ireland the ninth-largest destination of CDIA.
Meanwhile, 200,000 Canadians visit Ireland each year and in total, between 2013-2014, trade with Canada grew by 18pc.
The cultural, ethnic and commercial links between Canada and Ireland are extremely strong. Sometimes this is overlooked because of the dominance of the US in Ireland’s North American odyssey.
Toronto is changing rapidly. For example, I saw my first and only Orange March here in July 1985.
This used to be a very Protestant city and indeed the link between Ontario and Ulster used to be extremely strong. My northern wife has lots of distant relations originally from Antrim dotted all around rural Ontario.
But today it is a multicultural melting pot, of which the Irish – from all over the island of Ireland – add our own significant flavour. This looks like continuing.
On the day Canada celebrates a new political dawn, I sit here, looking back at the waterfront skyline, in the shadow of Gillespie’s haunting famine figures, and I am sure the story of Ireland and Canada is about to open a new uplifting chapter.