This early scenario is a little different from how the documentary turned out, but the essence is the same.
On a warm June night in 1879, the streets of Griffintown -- the Irish working class district of Montreal -- were teaming with the sights and sounds of the burgeoning industrial age. The daytime noises and acrid smoke emanating from the steel foundries, the cotton and sugar mills, the Grand Trunk railway yards and the Lachine canal had given way to the sights and sounds of Irish shopkeepers and tavern owners hawking their wares in their gas-lit shops. On William Street in the heart of the "Griff" (as the locals called it), many a worker tried to drown the memory of his 14-hour day in cheap whiskey. Near midnight, three drunken souls staggered up the steps to a second floor flat. The William St. residence was occupied by 23-year-old Susan Kennedy who, by all accounts, was well versed in the ways of the oldest profession. Accompanying Kennedy was her friend, associate and soon-to-be rival, Mary Gallagher, 38, and their latest trick – a young Griffintown factory worker named Michael Flanagan. As the night wore on, the two women increasingly vied for the attentions of the handsome Irishman until it became clear to Kennedy that Flanagan was more interested in Mary Gallagher and a bottle of whiskey than in her amorous advances. After carousing with Gallagher for about an hour, Flanagan passed out on the floor of the William St. flat, sending Kennedy into a jealous, intoxicated rage. After knocking Mary Gallagher to the floor, she took an axe from the kitchen and proceeded to sever Mary's head in a series of blunt awkward strokes. After some 10 minutes of hacking, Kennedy disposed of the grisly trophy in a water pail beside the kitchen sink.
Each and every seven years since Mary Gallagher's murder, residents of the Griff arrive to watch for her ghost, said to walk the streets of the mislaid Irish heart of Montreal in search of her missing head. The gathering of former Griffintowners on June 26 every seven years also commemorates the search for the vibrant spirit of this Irish working-class community in Montreal, mercilessly obliterated by urban renewal in the last half century. For most who are gathered, it is not the ghost of Mary Gallagher but the ghosts of their long-lost Griffintown which beckon.
One of the people called out by the ghost is Patricia Burns, the author of a book about the Irish of Montreal and particularly their association with Griffintown. As a child, Burns was regaled with her father’s stories of life in the Griff. In this documentary, she introduces us to many of the people who also have vivid and fond memories of a life where money and the luxuries of life were scarce, but a sense of belonging was not. She will learn with us some of the early history of the working-class neighbourhood – a history that forged the unique Griffintown spirit that has now all but passed away.
We meet Patricia Burns as she prepares for a helicopter flight over Griffintown. We are introduced to the physical landscape and some of the area’s early history. We see an aerial view of Griffintown from the helicopter, cutting away to a map of Montreal. Lying at the foot of Montreal, Griffintown’s closeness to the St. Lawrence River has been both a boon and a bane: from the late 1700s, it is considered prime real estate for both housing and industry, but is subject to terrible flooding.
Griffintown received its name from Mrs. Mary Griffin, who bought the property from an unscrupulous business associate of Thomas McCord – another important Montreal name – who himself had leased it from the nuns of Hôtel Dieu Hospital who used the proceeds for the benefit of the poor. Mary Griffin drew up plans to subdivide the valuable land into street and building lots, in one of North America's earliest efforts at urban planning. Eventually, the courts ruled that the land had to be returned to Thomas McCord, but the Griffin name stuck.
Cutting through Griffintown is the Lachine Canal, built in 1825 and expanded starting in 1840, largely by Irish immigrants. Three years later, in 1843, one of the first labour strikes in Canada took place in Griffintown, led by maltreated workers employed in the canal expansion. We see an archival map showing the burgeoning industries that were drawn to Griffintown like a magnet because of the canal: flour mills, iron foundries, nail and spike factories, cotton and wool mills and woodworking establishments. At one time, Griffintown was one of Canada's most industrialized area, with factories dominating much of its landscape by the final decades of the 19th century.
Our first interview is with Patricia and she tells us how much she enjoyed accompanying her father and his friend Charlie Blickstead, now 93, whenever they planned a pilgrimage to Griffintown to recall its heyday. Patricia’s father has since died but we see a bit of VHS footage taken of one of their walks. Patricia and Charlie have maintained a friendship and we will join them later as they pay a visit to St. Patrick’s church for Mass.
They then have lunch at a long-established hot dog stand at Notre Dame and Mountain (the Jewish owner there has many good memories of his Irish customers from the past), and then continue on to visit Griffintown landmarks.
The map appears again to show where our walk with Patricia begins, at the Recollet Church, east of McGill Street. She is joined this time by Don Pidgeon, an historian with the United Irish Societies and a former Griffintowner. He tells us that in 1825, the Recollet church became the first church that served the local Irish Catholics. There were only 100 families in the area, but barely 30 years later, Griffintown's population had swollen to 30,000, and it built its own church, St. Ann's, which opened its doors in 1854.
St. Ann's was the heart and soul of Griffintown. Because the population decreased so drastically, the church was razed in 1970. In recent years, the city of Montreal has turned the site into a green space, exposing the foundations of the church and placing park benches where the pews used to be. We visit the site along with Charlie Blickstead. He talks about St. Ann's and how central it was to the life of the community. He describes the Our Lady of Perpetual Help devotions held every Tuesday.
So hugely popular, they even attracted Protestants and required extra city buses in order to bring the devout from downtown. He talks about the Redemptorist priests who ran the parish and were well loved for their kindness. We cut to home movies from the early 50s which show the pageantry of the Corpus Christi procession. The whole neighbourhood got involved in events like this.
Charlie then shows us where Patricia's father used to live, and tells stories about the two of them growing up in Griffintown, who their friends were, who their enemies were, what they did for fun, happy memories and sad ones. How Irish was Griffintown? What made it so unique?
We are now introduced to Dennis Dougherty, a former Griffintowner now in his early 60's. He shows us the former Kindergarten run by the nuns, located on Eleanor street. He moves on to the girls' school and the boys' school. Now vacant lots, their present state is in stark contrast to the archival photos showing crowded classrooms filled with smiling children.
Denis reflects on his own schooling, how his Griffintown childhood affected his life afterwards, and talks about how difficult life was for his widowed mother, relieved only by the kindness of neighbours. We meet one of Denis' neighbours at a party and hear their reminiscences of life in a community where people just walked in and out of each other's houses, and everyone watched out for everyone else's children.
Back at the ghost watch, Denis Delaney treats us to tales of hard times in Griffintown, spiced with a hint of Irish brogue. He talks about his drunken father, and his mother feeding her family morning, noon and night on beans and potatoes. He shows us where the local coal yard was, where he would trick the guard dogs so that he could sneak away a few precious lumps of coal.
We hear former Griffintowner Rita Pidgeon, Don's sister, talk about how they used to play hockey with frozen clumps of horse manure and how Friday night's major entertainment was to sit out and watch the neighbours fight after they had too much to drink.
We pay a visit to the home of one of Griffintown's most famous sons, Thomas D'Arcy McGee. McGee, an Irish-born journalist who went on to become one of the fathers of Confederation, denounced the Fenian movement and was shot by Fenians outside his Ottawa home when the Confederation was only 10 months old.
Moving on, we pass the corner of Ottawa and Shannon, where the Boys and Girls Club once stood. Being such a tough neighbourhood, a boy needed to develop confidence and learn how to use his fists. The late Cliff Sowery, the director of the Club, taught them how and even managed to coach some of his young boxers, like Armand Savoie, into Olympic contenders. Armand's widow Rita Savoie reminisces after a visit to the Lasalle Boxing Club where that type of coaching continues.
We hear from Cliff Sowery himself in a CBC Sports story done in the early 90's. We then pay a visit to the Dawson Boys & Girls Club in Verdun and hear how the services offered to the community today differ from those offered in the 30's and 40's.
The corner of Ottawa and Shannon was notable for another reason: a bomber crashed there in 1944, with 15 lives lost. This event strongly affected the community, and is recounted by eyewitnesses.
We rejoin Patricia and Charlie as they call on Leo Leonard, a longtime Griffintown resident who is still there running the Horse Palace stable which supplies horses for Old Montreal's popular horse and buggy rides. He talks about his days driving an ice wagon and share other memories with Charlie. We learn about how he was able to renovate his home in the 1960s despite Mayor Drapeau's law preventing any improvements to the area. We cut away to footage of him preparing his horses and an antique Irish jaunting cart to take part in the annual St. Patrick's Day parade.
We sit down now with Don Pidgeon in his den full of files and old photos. He acted in the St. Ann's Young Men's Society drama presentations. He talks about the type of plays they put on and what the important themes were. The Society's annual St Patrick's Day show at the Monument National attracted crowds from all over the city. Don talks to us about how Griffintowners created their own social, cultural, and athletic organizations. No one was ever bored in Griffintown.
One of Griffintown's most important landmarks isn't in Griffintown at all, but in Goose Village also a former tight-knit community just across the canal from Griffintown which fell victim to the wrecker's ball as well, to make way for Expo '67. The monument close to the heart of Griffintowners is a massive stone marking the mass grave of 6,000 Irish immigrants and others who died of typhus in the fever sheds in which they were quarantined upon their arrival in Montreal.
Former Griffintowners and others make sure the past is not forgotten by staging an annual march out to the stone to lay wreaths. Many of the immigrants who survived the voyage came to live in Griffintown because of its strong Irish identity.
What happened to turn a bustling community into a ghost town so quickly? We view archival sketches of destructive floods and fires. We see the remains of the slum-like buildings and poor housing erected by greedy landlords, and small properties sharing land with larger industries. Small wonder that Griffintowners moved out as they came more affluent.
Construction of the Bonaventure Expressway in the 1960s sounded the death knell for Griffintown. St. Ann's church was demolished in 1970, for want of parishioners. If the ghost of Mary Gallagher ever did return, she would have a hard time finding her way around.
The documentary closes with the end of the ghost watch, people wandering off. The quiet of the street corner where the ghost was to appear is replaced by the sound of heavy machinery. The narration reflects on whether Griffintown is really dead. New construction is taking place, Griffintown is now becoming a centre for the multimedia industry, condos and lofts are springing up. The Lachine canal, in disuse for a number of years, will soon be opening up to pleasure craft.
The camera slowly zooms in on a condo as night is falling. The street sounds now mix with the sounds of Griffintown in its glory days: old-fashioned piano music and a crowd of party guests singing and enjoying themselves.