Victoria Day Was A Fiery Celebration In The Point

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To the hordes of children that populated the working-class neighbourhood, the third Monday of May was known simply as “firecracker night.”
Just as the sun dipped below the office buildings and apartment complexes in downtown Montreal, Irish families throughout “the Point” lit up the sky with fireworks. Residents look back on those evenings fondly, recalling entire blocks of kids watching from the front steps of their brick row houses. The youngest ones stood in their pajamas, trying to absorb the excitement of every single explosion crackling overhead.
And then, when the neighborhood finally depleted its arsenal of Roman candles and bottle rockets, the bonfires would begin.
“The kids would grab anything they could: a loose section of fence, an old sofa and tires, oh did we ever love to watch those tires burn,” said Donald Pidgeon, who grew up in neighboring Griffintown during the 1940s. “Some of the fires would be in a field, some would be right there in the middle of Wellington St. I remember the fire department would put one out only to see an even bigger fire pop up a few blocks over.”
Pidgeon, a historian for the Montreal Irish Societies, says he can’t say where the tradition began. But as far back as he remembers, children were running throughout the southwest Montreal neighborhood lighting fires on the Queen’s Birthday.
Other locals who came up in the 1940s and 1950s remember the holiday as a good bit of fun. It was only in later decades that things began to spiral out of control. Victoria Day celebrations from the mid-1970s until the 1980s often devolved into a large scale street fight between police and a few dozen teenagers, who would inevitably be rounded up and carted off to a holding cell downtown.
By the early 1990s, “firecracker night” fizzled out, leaving a much more tame celebration in its wake.
But for many within the Point, Victoria Days of the past embodied the clannish nature of their neighbourhood.
“Every block was like a little family, like a little tribe,” said Albert, who wished to remain anonymous. “That was an expression of who we were, it was something that was ours, that made us feel like we were the Irish of Point St. Charles.”
Albert, 80, says almost every block would have a gang of boys tasked with gathering firewood months before the holiday. They would scan the Point’s network of unpaved laneways for discarded fruit crates and broken furniture. The boys eyeballed wood fences that looked particularly flimsy or a few railroad planks that may have seemed expendable to the Canadian Pacific Railway Corporation.
One year, Albert remembers his friends hoarding the Christmas trees people tossed into the alley behind their homes.
“We would keep the wood in our parents shacks or under their balconies or maybe in the cellar,” he said. “When I think about it now, it’s a miracle we didn’t burn the neighbourhood down. I mean our house was a tinderbox in the weeks leading up to May.”
Old tires were an especially popular find because of the thick clouds of black smoke they produced when thrown onto the burning heap. Tires were exceptionally rare during the ’40s given that so few families in Point St. Charles could afford a car.
“We didn’t know we were poor because that was just the only life we knew,” Pidgeon said. “It was kind of the beauty of it. It was thrilling, it was something that we looked forward to for months.”
By the end of “firecracker night,” Pidgeon’s hands, his face and his clothes would be covered in soot.

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