by David O'Keefe
The origins of Griffintown can be traced back to Montreal's earliest days. In 1654, the area was called Nazareth Fief and was owned by Jeanne Mance, who called it La Grange des Pauvres, as its proceeds were used for the benefit of the poor of Hotel Dieu hospital. Over a century later, in 1760, the British Army under General Geoffrey Amherst arrived through the Nazareth Fief and Recollet gate to conquer Montreal, changing Canadian and North American history forever. Under British administration, the land was leased to Thomas McCord in 1791 by the nuns of Hotel Dieu. With talk of building the Lachine Canal in the air at the beginning of the 19th century, the land increased in value, and while McCord was attending to business interests in Great Britain, the land was illegally sold by an unscrupulous business associate to a Mrs Mary Griffin. Griffin immediately drew up plans to subdivide the area into streets and building lots.
After a series of lengthy court actions, McCord eventually succeeded in retrieving the land, but by that time the name of Mary Griffin had become synonymous with the parcel of land that sat strategically at the foot of Montreal's famed Mount Royal and the port of Montreal, and became known to many an Irish émigré as the gateway to Canada and North America.
Many Irish immigrants who arrived through this gateway in the early and mid-1800s were escaping some of the harshest conditions of poverty and famine. In Ireland, land reform and famine had forced many to cast their eyes across the Atlantic Ocean, and close to half a million Irish made their way to Canada. For many their first introduction to North American life came at Griffintown. By no means a utopia, Griffintown at least offered employment and a sense of community in its shantytown existence. Although some observers reported that conditions in the "Griff" (as it was known) were not much better in some ways than the conditions the Irish masses had just fled, opportunities to work in the factories, the harbours, and on the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway, the Victoria Bridge and the Lachine Canal were welcome. In fact, modern industry in Canada was born on the Lachine Canal and one could say that Griffintown was its midwife.
The Canal, which cut across Griffintown, attracted the greatest density of early industries in Montreal and made Griffintown Canada's most industrialized area. The Lachine Canal (the first major works program in the Canadas) set a pattern for providing work for the newly-arrived immigrants who settled in the Griff. For the Irish immigrants, it was the perfect job as it required nothing more technical than familiarity with a spade. The basic qualification was the stamina to endure a 15-hour day of back-breaking labour in the hot, humid Montreal summer. Working conditions along the Canal route for most Griffintowners were not unlike those portrayed by Dickens and in 1843, the first labour strike in Canada occurred with many a Griffintown labourer taking part. By this time, much of the Griff had been industrialized. With flour mills, iron foundries, nail and spike factories, cotton and wool mills, and woodworking establishments stretching along the sides of the canal, an estimated 2,000 men, women and children from Griffintown and its environs were employed.
Over the following decades of the 19th century, large factories came to dominate the landscape of much of Griffintown, often pushing out housing or crowding in and around it, filling up odd spaces and city blocks that in other parts of the city would have rapidly been used for housing. For much of the working class of Griffintown, daily life was, to say the least, difficult. Their society revolved more around the sociability built up within families, between neighbours and friends, on the streets, or in taverns and shops.
In surrounding Montreal and in Griffintown, the streets buzzed with activity until the early hours of the morning. Shops were open as late as ten at night while some families and neighbours stayed up together late, drinking and carousing. Despite the hardships, a sense of close community developed which could be seen in action: when members of the community were in need, their Griffintown neighbours stepped in and provided what little money, food, and support they could spare. Many neighbours could not avoid sharing in each other's joys and sorrows. Walls were thin and quarrels spilled out onto the streets. The pleasant distraction of entertainment came at no cost at the courthouse, where real-life murder trials, like that of Susan Kennedy for the murder of Mary Gallagher, attracted raucous crowds. The other form of entertainment for many Griffintowners was alcohol.
A few highly publicized incidents of alcoholic exuberance and brawling over the years had reinforced the stereotype of many in Griffintown as the "drunken Irishman with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a club in the other". There was however an element of truth to this. Excessive use of alcohol was as much a problem for the Irish Canadian in Griffintown as it was for their American cousins to the south. Whether the reason for abuse of alcohol lay in the search for an opiate to anaesthetize workers after a day of back-breaking work, or in the cultural tendency to excuse drunkenness as "a good man's weakness", or simply the unavoidable temptation of whiskey selling at 10 cents a gallon, the problem was one mentioned by virtually every traveler and chronicler to comment on the Irish presence in Canada. As one writer with years of service in the province noted, "Whiskey and wet feet destroy more promising men in Canada than age and fever". Drunkenness was rife in Griffintown as there was roughly one liquor store for every 160 people, but intemperance was as much a symptom as a cause of poverty.
In addition to the effects of industrialization on the Griff, many of the residents also had to endure endless natural disasters throughout the 19th century. Constant flooding of low-lying Griffintown made life miserable on many occasions as did huge fires which threatened on a daily basis. The worst of the fires came in 1852 when a carpentry shop ignited and the fire spread out of control and burned down half of Griffintown. Despite the fire and floods, the most formidable of all the Griffintown disasters was still to come.
Many of the newly-arrived Irish immigrants who stumbled off the ships in the Port of Montreal and made their way to Griffintown not only brought hopes and dreams of a better life with them, but as a result of their harrowing journey and poor health, various deadly diseases. In 1832 a cholera epidemic linked to the newly arrived Griffintowners caused the deaths of several thousand Montreal residents. The impact of the deaths was profound: One traveller reported that "whole streets had been nearly depopulated" and that there was an almost "ceaseless tolling of bells proclaiming a mournful tale of woe and death". Angry French-Canadians went so far as to charge that the Irish were the instruments of a conscious policy aimed at exterminating French Canada through epidemic disease – and suggest that the Irish be sent to the West Indies to replace recently emancipated slaves!
During the second wave of Irish immigration to the Canadas in 1847, conditions in Ireland and the refugee ships had worsened. From conservative estimates of the 100,000 immigrants that set out from Ireland, at least 30,000 were struck down with typhus or cholera. Overcrowded and filthy "fever ships" docked at the quarantine station set up at Grosse-Ile outside Quebec City. On board lay hundreds of destitute women, men and children, many of them dead or dying of cholera or typhus. During that summer, the recorded death rate was between 40 and 50 per day. The Ancient Order of Hibernians magazine, circa 1910, put the death toll at 18,000 for 1847.
However, some estimates place it as high as 25,000, but claim it was lowered by the British government to avoid embarrassment. Once they got clearance at Grosse-Ile, many travelled down the St. Lawrence to Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto, and along the U.S. border to Detroit. Many were still ill when they arrived in Montreal at the foot of Griffintown, and "fever sheds" were set up to cope with the epidemic. The Gazette reported:
"In the hastily erected emergency sheds, people were dying by the score in the crowded sheds, in the stench and heat, desperately neglected. When there were enough attendants, they were hastily tossed into shallow pits nearby when they succumbed to the fever. In all the history of Montreal, there is no story so poignant. There are hundreds of orphaned children. Many of the little ones had to be pulled from the arms of a parent who suddenly died. Older ones were wandering around frantically looking for parents who were already buried in the pits. The scene in the children's shed was beyond description."
Despite the suffering, within a few decades Griffintown was considered to be the "teeming Irish centre" of Montreal. On a typical Saturday night one could see:
"The old market was alive with an active crowd laying in the week's supply of greens and the meat for Sunday's dinner. And up and down both sides of the street were the gas-lit shops, all hives of trade, and at every corner on the west side stood in groups the men of Griffintown, after all their week's work, now clean, and dressed in their good clothes, but, withal, not to be trusted to keep the peace if a redcoat or a sailor brushed against them."
Despite the natural disasters, the 20-year period between 1825 and 1845 saw nearly half a million Irish emigrants arrive in Canada, and as a result, Griffintown swelled in size and density. In 1823, there were only 100 homes in the area, but three decades later the population of the working-class district stood at 30,000 making it the largest English-speaking minority in Lower Canada in a population overwhelmingly French Canadian. While the numbers of Irish increased, so too did their influence.
So influential in fact that when Montreal adopted its new coat of arms in 1832, the Irish influence on the city as a whole called for a shamrock to be included along with the lily, the rose and the thistle symbolic of the French, English and Scottish communities in the city. The Griff was beginning to make its mark on the life of the city and the country. In the 1860s, Griffintown was front and centre in some of North America's most influential happenings.
Canadian confederation was also on the minds of many Griffintowners in the late 1860s. As Irish Canadians, many Griffintowners were challenged when the Fenian brotherhood, made up of Irish-American veterans dedicated to the cause of an independent Ireland, commenced operations in North America at the end of the Civil War with the Canadas as their target. Many in Griffintown were sympathetic to the struggle for the eventual freedom of Ireland from the yoke of British imperial rule, but they were now faced with a new loyalty and a new reality – the formation of a new country which they too could be a central part of.
The self-proclaimed champion of the Irish cause in the Canadas was Thomas D'Arcy McGee, a firebrand newspaperman who had come to Canada and was poised by 1867 to become one of the fathers of Confederation. When the Fenian threat reared its unprepossessing head in 1866, McGee was quick to urge all Irish-Canadians to leave the struggles of the old country behind them and condemned the Fenian movement as un-Canadian and a threat to the nascent country. Griffintown was split on the issue, and fearing that the Fenians might receive help from sympathetic Griffintowners, McGee took action that would ultimately cost him his life. In an effort to show loyalty to the Canadas, McGee placed an ad in the Montreal Gazette listing the names of all suspected Fenian sympathizers in Griffintown in an effort to expose them as traitors.
In Griffintown, the move was harshly criticized and many a plot was hatched to settle the score with McGee. After many aborted attempts, McGee was shot dead outside his Ottawa home on April 7, 1868, only 10 months after Confederation. The man who pulled the trigger was never found, but the getaway driver Thomas Whelan from Griffintown was tried, found guilty and executed for the murder of D'Arcy McGee. Despite many attempts, Whelan went to his death without revealing the killer or killers of McGee.
Despite the impact the Irish of Montreal were having, life in Griffintown had improved only slightly. Overcrowding was rampant, as nearly half of the residents of the Griff were forced to pack a family of five into accommodations of three rooms or less. Poverty and unsanitary conditions continued to prevail. It was estimated that only one quarter of Griffintown houses had indoor plumbing by the late 1890s, and that in some parts of Griffintown, raw sewage still ran through the streets. In fact, even as the dawn of the 20th century approached, the infant mortality rate was the worst in the civilized world ahead of New York City and even Calcutta, India. Over a quarter of all newborns in Montreal died before they were a year old from various causes that included unsafe water, impure milk and the limited use of vaccination against smallpox and diphtheria. Although there are no specific figures for Griffintown, one can safely assume that as this was arguably the harshest existence in the industrial Canadas, that the rate would have been higher. The French Canadian Newspaper L'Opinion reported that Griffintown resembled the worst of slums in Boston or New York. According to John Francis Maguire, author of The Irish in America, "in Griffintown, poverty and wretchedness, miserably clad children and slatternly women are occasionally to be seen but they are comparatively rare". It was obvious to most onlookers that the Griff was a victim of neglect and greed, but there was no help forthcoming from federal or provincial governments nor from the private sector – to improve conditions in the Griff, the citizens would have to do it themselves. The community looked to the Church and to social organizations to help them in their plight.
As the 20th century wore on and their fortunes improved, the Irish began to move away from Griffintown, and the migration has never stopped. The population of the area by the late 1960s was only ¼ Irish with Italians and Ukranians making up much of the rest – settling in Griffintown for the same reason that the Irish settled there first. ("Old St. Ann's The Gazette editorial Montreal Thursday Sept. 25, 1969).