Griffintown Remembered | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Griffintown Remembered

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 17, 2003. Partner content is not updated.

HAPPY FURLONG'S LIFE was saved by a quart of beer. When the elderly carriage driver left his rooming house at the corner of Shannon and Ottawa streets in MONTREAL's Griffintown shortly after 10 a.m.

Griffintown Remembered

HAPPY FURLONG'S LIFE was saved by a quart of beer. When the elderly carriage driver left his rooming house at the corner of Shannon and Ottawa streets in MONTREAL's Griffintown shortly after 10 a.m., to buy his favourite ale at the local corner store, he had no idea that an RAF Liberator was about to take off from a supply base in Dorval. That 25-ton bomber, on a classified mission to Europe on that drizzly spring morning of April 25, 1944, would develop engine trouble as it approached Mount Royal. My uncle, Frank Doyle, then an 11-year-old student in St. Ann's Boys' School, a block from Furlong's flat, remembers how the plane swooped over the school as the pilot made a desperate attempt to reach the river. "We were just coming in after recess," he says. "We heard this big noise, zoom, it shook the place. Brother Edward, our teacher, said, 'Stay here and pray.' " God saved the schoolchildren. The plane missed the school and crashed into the block where Furlong lived. Nine of his neighbours, a beat constable, and the plane's five crew members died.

So the luck of the IRISH goes only so far. The plane crash is the worst of many calamities to hit Griffintown. The storied neighbourhood - home to Irish immigrants who fled the potato famines in the 1800s and to several generations of their descendants - has endured floods, fires, riots and strikes. It's a colourful past that has won Griffintown a small, if unhappy, place in the literary imagination. In the acclaimed historical novel AWAY, Ontario writer Jane Urquhart's heroine heads to Griffintown in search of her lover, only to encounter "ragged families huddled on thatched or tin rooftops," trying to escape a flood. Author Brian MOORE chose Griffintown as the home for the hapless protoganist of his 1960 award-winner, The Luck of Ginger Coffey. Even renowned humorist Stephen LEACOCK found only gloom there. In his 1942 book about his adopted home, Montreal: Seaport and City, Leacock touches on Griffintown, and dismisses it as "a wretched area, whose tumbled, shabby houses mock at the wealth of Montreal," and "the first of our industrial 'slums.' "

You could easily get the impression that Griffintown is the setting for Canada's own Angela's Ashes - a downtrodden spot where transplanted Irishmen suffered unremitting misery. You could - but you'd be wrong. Because despite their hardships, Griffintowners felt rich in a way no outsider could understand. "It's a paradox," says Betty Bryant, 71. "We were poor, but we didn't think we were poor. There was something special about Griffintown. I feel very favoured to have grown up there." If Leacock, a well-to-do professor of economics at McGill University, had cared to look beyond the facade of humble rowhouses, tucked between the Lachine Canal and the hulking brewery on Notre-Dame Street, he would have discovered a close-knit, caring community of proud, spirited people. If he had knocked on the doors of the Murphys or the Healys or the McCambridges, he may have gleaned a hint of their troubles. But over a cup of tea or, maybe, a pint, he might have noticed that the oilcloth on the kitchen floor was well-scrubbed. Maybe he would have pulled a chair up close to the wood stove to hear the tales of gifted storytellers, or joined in a singsong around the piano in the parlour. The British-born Leacock may not have shared their lament for the Ould' Sod, but he would certainly have shared in their laughter. Because in Griffintown, Canada's most famous humorist would have encountered a collection of characters more entertaining than any this side of Mariposa.

I know, because I grew up there.

HISTORIANS HAVE given the neighbourhood only a few grudging paragraphs. In 1654, Paul de Chomedey de MAISONNEUVE, the founder of Montreal, granted the land that would eventually become Griffintown to Jeanne MANCE, a pious woman who, with the nuns of the Hôtel-Dieu, ran the city's first hospital. The nuns rented out parcels of the seigneurial property for farming until Thomas McCord came along. In 1791, this canny Irish Protestant, having heard talk of a new railway and a canal, realized the commercial potential of the sleepy suburb adjacent to the port of Montreal and acquired a 99-year lease on the property. He nearly lost it in a swindle: Mary Griffin, whose husband, Robert, owned a nearby soap factory, bought the contract - illegally - from one of McCord's associates while he was abroad. McCord eventually reclaimed the property in 1814, after a decade-long court battle, but by then Griffin's name had stuck.

At the height of the potato famine in the mid-19th century, as many as 30,000 Irish immigrants arrived in Montreal each year. Thousands died during quarantine in fever sheds, but many of the survivors settled in Griffintown. Jobs were plentiful in what was Canada's first industrial area, spurred on by the construction of the nearby Lachine Canal, the Grand Trunk Railway and the Victoria Bridge. But working conditions were grim: 15-hour days of back-breaking labour for a meagre wage - leading, in 1843, to one of Canada's first labour strikes.

Living conditions were also precarious in those early years. On low-lying land at the edge of the river, and lacking the sewers and paved roads that graced the wealthy "upper city," Griffintown was prone to flooding. Fire was also a constant threat to the mostly wood-frame buildings; one blaze in 1852 spread through half of Griffintown, leaving 500 families homeless. But those early immigrants - among them my great-grandparents, Danny Doyle and Sarah Coffey from County Cork - who were sturdy enough to survive the coffin ships and fever sheds, sank their roots into Canada and transcended those shantytown conditions.

Over the next century or so, Griffintown grew into a vibrant, working-class neighbourhood. "Oh, yes, we suffered," says Charlie Blickstead, 96. The former Montreal fire department division chief remembers classmates in St. Ann's who died of tuberculosis, and others forced to drop out of school. "They had to help feed the family," he says. But the descendants of the men who built the canal and the railway worked their way up to white-collar jobs as Griffintown produced its share of success stories - wealthy businessmen, Olympic athletes, teachers, doctors, a federal cabinet minister. What makes Griffintown unique is that many chose to remain, even after they had made it. "Mordecai Richler used to speak of St. Urbain Street - how it was in his blood," says Father Thomas McEntee, 79, a member of the Order of Canada, born and raised in Griffintown. "That's the same kind of passion that Griffintowners had - a very warm feeling in our heart."

There's not much left of Griffintown. Students and artists, attracted by the funky charm of the few remaining houses, have moved in next to a handful of old-timers. In 1963, the city rezoned the area for industrial use. One by one, landlords demolished residential properties, forcing long-time tenants to move. Huge swaths were flattened to make room for the Bonaventure Expressway. Then, in 1970, St. Ann's, the beloved parish church, was torn down. "They broke three cables before they got the steeple down," says Amelia Murphy, 86, who watched the demolition from her house across the street. "It was heartbreaking." A few years later, the wrecking ball returned to knock down St. Ann's Academy, polished to perfection by the nuns since 1864. The final blow came in 1990, when the city gave Griffintown a new French name - Faubourg-des-Récollets, for the first order of missionaries to settle in Canada. Don Pidgeon, 66, the United Irish Societies' historian and a former Griffintowner, still fumes over the decision. "It's saying the Irish never existed."

But you can't bulldoze memories. And the spirit of Griffintown is as irrepressible as the weeds that force their way through the bricks and stones in its now mostly vacant lots. "To this day, Griffintowners feel a connection," says Pidgeon, who leads tours of the neighbourhood. Leo "Clawhammer Jack" Leonard's Horse Palace, a stable that dates back before 1867, serves as an unofficial drop-in centre for nostalgic visitors who return to stroll through the empty streets, conjuring up a lost era. On one such occasion, McEntee, looking over the park where St. Ann's Church once stood, began to sing the old neighbourhood anthem: "Oh, take me back to Griffintown, Griffintown, Griffintown, that's where I long to be, with the folks so dear to me."

WE ALL HAVE our own private Griffintowns. In Blickstead's, horses clatter down cobblestone streets; a saloon stands on nearly every corner; a wooden sidewalk lines Dupré Lane. In my Griffintown, Fords and Chevys roll down paved streets; the blue glow of television shines out of a few windows; there's only one tavern. I arrived in the 1950s, the first of Muriel and Danny Doyle's 12 children, when hot water had begun to flow in the cold-water flats and electric appliances began to replace wood stoves and iceboxes. But it was the people who made Griffintown. Even as a child, I learned to treasure the tragicomic tales of the saints and sinners who inhabited our streets. "There was always something going on," says Bryant. "It was like theatre."

Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie. Think The Bells of St. Mary's, with nuns and priests and Irish brogues and choirs singing Latin hymns. Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted, tough guys wisecracking on the corner. The sidewalks were busy, and familiar voices and laughter, along with the odd shout and clatter, would filter through the shutters, joining the whiff of yeast from the brewery, the scent of chocolate from Lowney's factory. The red-brick houses, hard to the sidewalk, made a dramatic backdrop for some larger-than-life characters. Griffintowners found amusement in the steady stream of peddlers, milkmen, ragmen and eccentrics who made their way down the streets. "No one was ever lonely, or bored," says John (Moscow) Hanley Jr., 74. "Just living here, period, was funny."

Hook-the-Hat, the old lady who would pull the hats off passersby with a long, curved stick, was gone by my time. So was Johnny Fish, a tall, wiry gentleman who would shuffle along, in his top hat and plaid scarf, providing forecasts in a solemn voice to children taunting, "What's the weather, Johnny?" Hanley recalls how, when the iceman made his regular rounds, kids would run home and yell, "Here comes Stacey!" The iceman drove a truck in the '50s, but, like Hanley in his day, we too would get bits of ice from the back of his transport: free if flavourless popsicles.

Families were big, strong and traditional. "My mother, God love her, had her hands full," says Blickstead, the lone boy in a family of six children. "The women did the washing and scrubbed the floors by hand, cooked over a wood stove - a baby under one arm. But my mother would say, 'I was never so happy as when I had one in me belly and one on me hip.' " And few would argue fathers' right to a pint or two in the evening. "There was a lot of drinking but you could see why," says Bryant. "The men had to go out and make a living at miserable bloody jobs. They had to have some relief. My father was a good, good person, but he would shoot craps with the guys in the lane."

On fine summer evenings, we would sit on the front steps and chat with friends and neighbours out for a stroll. The guys would join their buddies on the corner. "That's what we did," says Blickstead. "Go to work all day - those who had jobs - go home, have supper, wash up, put on our peak caps, blue shirts and our tan shoes and hang around the candy store - all dressed up."

The Griffintown gangs, a fixture on almost every corner, could intimidate strangers. But they gave us a sense of security - and entertainment. At one point there was a police station on Young Street, but it closed after a year or so because there was so little crime. There were pranks, however. Leonard Normoyle became a legend the day he walked out of his house - through a second storey window. "His mother was having fits," recalls Hanley. "She thought he jumped onto the sidewalk, but he jumped into a wagon full of oats." Sonny Howden, 83, a retired railway employee, remembers finding a novel way to get a cool brew during the Depression. "We'd hop onto the back of a moving brewery truck, take a few bottles and throw them in the snowbank, then jump off and go collect them," he explains.

The priests did their best to keep idle hands busy. In 1885, they founded the St. Ann's Young Men's Society to encourage "moral, upright living." They also built the three-storey St. Ann's Hall, on Ottawa Street, complete with a library, bowling alley and concert hall, to accommodate glee clubs, drama and debating societies. "I remember Father Murray saying, 'You might not be a good Catholic but you'll be an educated Catholic,' " Bryant says.

St. Ann's Church was the heart and soul of Griffintown. Even the least devout attended mass every Sunday. God help you if you didn't. Hanley looks back with affectionate awe on the discipline meted out by the Christian Brothers, who ran the boys' school. "They'd ask you on Monday morning, 'Did you go to church yesterday?' 'Yeah.' 'Who said the mass?' 'Father Bennett.' It wasn't Father Bennett. 'Put your hand out,' they'd say. Out came the ruler. Oh boy, you'd have sore fingers." But the fear of God instilled by the sterner priests and brothers was offset by Father Francis Kearney, the kind-hearted priest who always had the longest lineups for confession. "Even if you murdered someone," says Frank Dougherty, 74, a retired university professor raised in Griffintown, "he'd give you a lollipop and one Hail Mary for a penance." Then, in the anonymity of the confessional, "he would ask, 'How's your mother, Francis?' "

Griffintown kids always had more imagination than toys. McEntee played street hockey with frozen horse manure for a puck. In Blickstead's day, "You'd make your own ball with cord and paper." By the '50s, most of us had store-bought rubber balls, but it still seemed a shame to see one bounce into the sewer. So we'd hunt for a leggy boy crazy enough to let us hold onto his arms, while he dangled his feet into the muck to retrieve it. But most of our play took place in the big backyards shared by all the families in a block. In the winter, the older boys, running a hose from a kitchen tap, would make ice castles or a rink. Summer would bring baseball, kick-the-can and one-two-three-red-light. A few would head to the canal for a forbidden swim. But fear of the headless woman kept generations of us away from the corner of William and Murray streets, where the ghost of Mary Gallagher - a prostitute murdered in 1876 by a jealous rival - was believed to roam.

People took pride in helping each other. Hanley, whose parents had to sign up for relief during the Depression, remembers neighbours' generosity. "They were good people," he says. "If somebody was working, it was nothing for them to share." And they understood why, in the fall, Arabian Ryan had to break a store window. "He was harmless, an alcoholic who'd get arrested so he could go to Bordeaux jail," Blickstead says. "He needed a bed during the cold winter months." Nor was there any hesitation when Ryan knocked on the door at 95 Duke Street one day and asked Blickstead's mother, "Have you got a pair of trousers for me?" As Blickstead recalls, "She gave him my father's good trousers and he got halfway down the street and he sold 'em."

Nellie Howden's generosity earned her the nickname "Queen of Griffintown." That her heart of gold came roughly wrapped was just an exquisite irony. A big, heavy woman, she called her gentle husband, Arthur, "the old bastard," and kept her 12 children in line with a voice that could be heard blocks away. Sonny and his brother, Norm, chuckle at the memory of their tough-talking mother. "She was scared of no one," says Norm, 74. "She cursed the same no matter who you were," Sonny, 83, adds. "But if anybody needed help, she was there and everybody knew that." In Griffintown, anyone who put on airs could expect a sharp retort. Blickstead recalls a response to one mild backyard boast on a Sunday afternoon: "Mrs. Mullaly calls out, 'We're having a lovely roast of pork for lunch today.' And my mother said, 'Mary, the only pork you're going to have is in a can of beans.' "

Even sweet old ladies joined in the shenanigans on Victoria Day, setting off firecrackers from their rocking chairs on the sidewalk. I remember weaving down the street, trying to avoid the swirling sparklers and bangers that would explode underfoot. And everyone would have collected newspapers, old furniture and scraps for illegal bonfires. "On our street, they would gather rubber tires for the bonfire," says Bryant. "My granny would put in a lot of things too."

After that it was Corpus Christi, a solemn feast celebrated with an outdoor procession in June. Griffintowners would paint their shutters and wash their windows, then fill them with statues and flowers. "The men in our little block always put up an altar in our laneway," says Bryant. "Granny was Protestant but she loved the procession." The firemen at Station No. 3 would construct the most elaborate flower-bedecked altars.

Nothing could eclipse the excitement of St. Patrick's Day. As we burst through the big wooden doors of St. Ann's at the end of mass, the organ would pump the soaring strains of "Come back to Erin, Mavourneen, Mavourneen" right out onto the street, smack into the whine of bagpipes warming up for the parade. Montreal boasts the longest-running St. Patrick's Day parade in North America and, from its start in 1824, Griffintown made an impressive show. My father - honoured as Irishman of the Year in 1998, two years before his death - never broke the family tradition of walking with the St. Ann's Young Men's Society, in his top hat trimmed with shamrocks. My shining moment came in Grade 2 when I was chosen for the "hop-one-two-three" - the dance that opened the annual St. Patrick's concert - much of it romanticizing an Ireland we had never seen.

In 1984, I returned to Montreal for a Griffintown reunion. Hundreds of us showed up for a weekend of activities that included a mass on the site of St. Ann's Church and a "banquet" at the Coffee Pot, the café where people used to congregate after church. And then there was the big event designed to put poor neglected Griffintown on the map - or at least into the book of Guinness World Records. On the final day, we would raise the largest-ever Canadian flag over our old neighbourhood. The moment came and the moment went. We waited. Then a buzz went through the crowd. Nobody had thought to buy the world's biggest flagpole.

Disappointed, people started to leave. But the word went around: go to the Basin Street park. There, the flag - big enough to cover a baseball field - was laid flat on the ground. We all took our places around it, picked it up and waved it with all our giddy might. We laughed so much we nearly cried. Because we're solidly Canadian now, but with enough Irishness left to delight in the moment and the friendship and the sheer joy of being alive. We are survivors.

Maclean's March 17, 2003