President begins Canadian visit today


President Mary McAleese travels to Toronto today for a four-day visit that will focus on commemorating tens of thousands of Irish immigrants who fled to Canada to escape the Famine.

The President will open Ireland Park, a memorial to 38,000 Famine victims who arrived in Toronto in 1847, when the city had a population of only 20,000.

The park, which has been 11 years in the making, is built around a series of sculptures by Rowan Gillespie that mirror the sculptor's portrayals of Famine emigrants that stand on the Liffey quays near the Custom House in Dublin.

The names of about 1,100 people who died in Toronto in the summer of 1847 - mostly Irish immigrants but also local people who helped them - will be carved into a 25-metre wall of uneven stone slabs on the waterfront site in the city.

A six-metre tall glass tower will house three interactive computer screens telling the story of the Famine victims in Toronto.

Mrs McAleese is patron of the foundation that raised $3.5 million (€2.4 million) to build Ireland Park, which has received support from both the Irish and Canadian governments.

During her visit to Toronto, Mrs McAleese will also attend a lunch hosted by Enterprise Ireland and a reception for the Irish community hosted by Ireland's Ambassador to Canada, Declan Kelly.

Before she opens Ireland Park on Thursday, the President will attend a reception on board the the Naval Service flagship LE Eithne and she will be present at an Ireland Fund gala dinner later that evening.

Mrs McAleese arrives in Canada as the country experiences an economic boom fuelled by a global expansion in the market for Canada's natural resources.

Exports of oil, gas, copper and zinc have driven the Canadian dollar towards parity with its US counterpart as economic growth has soared, unemployment has plummeted and the government posts a budget surplus.

Like Ireland, Canada has seen a dramatic rise in property prices in recent years and a surge in immigration that has made Toronto one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.