Most were sick and debilitated before they even boarded the wretched coffin ships from Ireland. And the voyage across the Atlantic, in what came to be called Black '47, beggared description.
Thousands in flight from a starving nation and one of the most appalling calamities of modern world history, men, women and children huddled together, ragged and barefoot, without light, without air, wallowing in filth, the fevered lying next to the well – conditions to match the slave ships from Africa.
"Oh, pity us," was the lament scrawled on a scrap of paper found in 1847.
Not much to ask, by most accounts. But for victims of Ireland's Great Hunger, the famine that scarred the psyche of a people, there was little pity this side of the grave.
The "quay at Toronto was crowded with a throng of dying and diseased abjects; the living and the dead lay huddled together in horrible embrace," reported The Times of London.
Officials in Toronto tried to keep out immigrants who had no friends or relatives in the city. Editorials protested that the city was swamped, its resources drained, its prospects ruined at having to handle the fallout of Europe's folly. Even the able-bodied among the arrivals were shunned by locals fearing disease.
On Thursday, 160 years on, at the official opening of the memorial site to famine victims at Ireland Park at the foot of Bathurst St., near where the fever sheds on the wharves once stood, there will be a remembering of that unspeakable human suffering — and of the failures and the heroism in dealing with it.
The memorial – a stone monument by architect Jonathan Kearns, four life-sized bronze figures by Rowan Gillespie depicting the Irish in all their misery, a wall carved with the names of 600 identified deceased – promises to be both stark and stirring. There is, after all, little more primal than hunger and thirst.
No people, it has been said, own a race memory to match that of the Irish. And nothing occupies that memory and shapes the national character like the famine. The trauma has been handed down the generations — the fear and the rage, the shame and the defiance, and the black wit behind which it all hides.
Among the survivors and their children, "the famine lingered in a myriad of shameful legends, vanished names, roofless cabins, fever graves," wrote Thomas Keneally. And thousands of those fever graves were dug in this country, in this city.
All these generations on, there are names well-known in Toronto, so familiar, in fact, they are names without context, names without stories, names fastened above schools, on letterhead, on uniforms and T-shirts.
Names like Michael Power and John Strachan – men best known nowadays for the schools named in their honour. Power was the first Roman Catholic bishop of Toronto. Strachan was the city's first Anglican bishop.
In January 1847, Power travelled to Europe, visited Ireland en route home and witnessed the distress of the Irish peasantry. By the time he returned to Toronto, immigrants who had succumbed to disease were being buried in trenches near Catholic churches.
"While the city hid in fear of the contagion, Bishop Power gathered what help he could to tend the plague-stricken and starving," historian Murray Nicolson has written.
Power, other volunteers and Bishop Strachan "entered the fever sheds set up on the wharves to tend the sick and the dying."
On one of these visits, called to administer last rites, Power contracted typhus and died himself.
His memory has long lived on in Toronto. Now, others' will, too.