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THE IRISH HERITAGE OF THE LAURENTIANS

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This month the McCord Museum of Montreal opens an exhibit entitled “Being Irish” to celebrate over 250 years of the Irish presence in Quebec. Usually what comes to mind when referring to our Irish history is Montreal and, to a lesser extent, Quebec City, where people of Irish origin have been, and have remained prominent in large numbers consistently for over two centuries. However, less known but equally important is the Irish rural heritage in Quebec. One area, first occupied by Irish settlers, was the vast tract of unsettled wilderness, to the north of the St. Lawrence. In the Laurentians, this Irish influx stretched from Rawdon in the east to Grenville and Carillon at the confluence of the North and the Ottawa Rivers in the west.

Contrary to the general belief that nearly all Irish emigration to North America began only with the Great Famine of 1847, Irish settlement started long before that time and predates by 150 years the existence of Lower Canada / Quebec. The first significant exodus from Ireland was in the 1720s, and mainlyinvolved what were later called “Scotch-Irish” from Ulster. These people settled first in the Appalachian regions of what later became the United States and have left a lasting cultural imprint, especially in music and popular images of frontier life. This early emigration most likely set the tone for later departures when conditions again became hard in Ireland.

The next large out-migration followed after the Napoleonic Wars, due to various economic and political tensions throughout the British Isles. Also, this period saw the increase of British colonial expansion. The British government encouraged occupation of newly acquired territories. With this emigration, we see the start of the settlement of the Laurentians.

In a remarkable chronicle of pioneer times, History of the Counties of Argenteuil, Quebec & Prescott, Ontario, by Cyrus Thomas, published in 1896, we find that well over half the people living in the western Laurentians inthe author'stime were of Irish origin. Of that number,about one third had been born in Ireland and the rest were second or third generation descended from Irish emigrants. Other than the names of the towns, and sometimes just the counties, of their Irish origin, next to nothing was recounted to Thomas about their lives before coming to Canada or their Irish roots. It is as if all these people had closed one life and entered another, choosing to forget what had gone before. This is characteristic of both the well off and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, Catholic and Protestant, men and women, indeed all stations of life. Only a few meager references to Ireland appear. For example, we read that, “William Watchorn… who settled in Morin, came to this country from Ardoin, County of Wicklow... in 1852...Before leaving Ireland, he joined a regiment called the Carlow Rifles and was with it Sergeant five years… and saw service in the Russian War.” The modern reader does wonder about Thomas’ lack of further curiosity about this Crimean veteran whose life took him into the bush of Lower Canada.

References to early Irish settlement are also vague to the east. Irish immigrants occupied Rawdon Township in the early part of the nineteenth century. The first mention of them comes from Joseph Bouchette’s great mapping survey of 1824 in which he reported that there were about 200 Irish origin people living in Rawdon. These were “unofficial” settlers, sometimes unkindly referred to as squatters. As the lands were open and uninhabited and there was little or no civic organization prior to the 1840s, most of these so-called squatters were actually honest pioneers who eventually received official grants for the lands they had occupied.

Irish Protestants, who seem to have been an organized group, settled the township of Kilkenny, just west of Rawdon, slightly later. This kind of settlement appeared to be more common along the southern reaches of the Laurentians, with the relatively better farmland on the banks of the L’Achigan and North Rivers. Often these more serene Irish farming groups had known each other in Ireland and sometimes came with clergy.

The best known of these, and perhaps the earliest known organized Irish farming settlement was St. Columban, across the North River from St. Jerome. These Roman Catholic Irish had first come to Montreal before 1820 to “escape difficult economic times coupled with religious and political persecution… Father Patrick Phelan convinced the Sulpicians to grant land... to these Irish settlers. The area was made up of dense forest and land that was rocky with very little top soil which made farming difficult… by 1835 the Parish of St. Columban was officially founded.” (Remembering St. Columban, Kenneth Neil, 2007)

Traditional dance at Rockcliff Hotel, Morin Heights, c. 1950, Robert John Ivall playing the fiddle, his sister Naomi Ivall at the piano and Melvin Dey calling the sets. (Photo - Courtesy of Sandra Stock)All throughout the Laurentian settlements, farming was supplemented by potash making, lumbering and, around St. Columban, a granite quarry. The pioneers used what was available and became fairly prosperous. However, the second and third generations of Irish started to leave the Laurentians for points West, or for education and work opportunities in Montreal. Both of these written works share a rather melancholic undertone, which is also one of the characteristics of much of Irish poetry and prose.

Was Ireland altogether forgotten? Did these people retain no traces of their origins? Was the traumatic break, via dangerous sailing ships, often from poverty, disease and a society where, at that time, ordinary people had no hopes of owning land or advancing themselves, complete?

Of course, even the wealthier Irish emigrants couldn’t bring much with them on a cramped ship, so there aren’t many pre-1900 antiques or artifacts of Irish provenance in existence in the Laurentians. Some obvious cultural remnants of Ireland remained and persisted, even thrived into the mid-twentieth century. The traditional music and dance continued and were an element of social cohesion in all the small communities. Even in the 1950s, old-time Irish dances were held in Morin Heights and Mille Isles. Sadly, with the increased contact with the general North American culture, the coming of television, deaths of the old local musicians and so on, this has faded away. The speech of the local people preserved the rhythms and accents of Ireland again until about the 1960s. The end of over a hundred years of isolationfor these communities, along withthe sudden spread of a more urban society, erased Ireland from their voices.

Some creative writing has been produced on the theme of Irish settlement in pioneer times. In 1969, the late Margaret Cook wrote a historical novel called Land Possessed. The plot and characters were based on real events and people who had come from Ireland to live in the then thriving agricultural community of Shrewsbury, part of the Township of Gore between Lachute and Mille Isles. Cook’s descriptions of daily life are probably very accurate and based on her extensive interviews with several elderly residents of this area who were, mostly, grandchildren of the original settlers. The storyline is that of a romance thwarted by religious prejudices, leading to violence, still common among some of the Irish at that time. In 2005, Cook’s novel was (very loosely) adapted to the theatre by Don Stewart, past president of the Morin Heights Historical Association. This play, titled Nature’s Victory, updated the conflict and the romance into a linguistic confrontation – more attuned to our period when language seems to have replaced religion as a source of misunderstanding. However, Stewart’s play, produced by the amateurs of Theatre Morin Heights, washighly successful, especially among local people whose historic background it illustrated. By the 1930s, Shrewsbury as a community had become depopulated, its residents moving on and leaving their stony farms for more prosperous Laurentian towns, Montreal, or the West. Today, only St. John’s Anglican Church remains, with its cemetery, among the encroaching trees. Little else remains of this settlement.

One other aspect of daily life in which an Irish cultural inheritance was maintained among the Laurentian communities was in the sphere of transportation. The rough, hilly, rock-strewn terrain didn’t lend itself to ordinary wheeled vehicles, especially before the coming of paved roads. Well into the 1950s and even the 1960s,transportation was difficult. In the winter, many secondary roads (all dirt still) were closed except to sleighs. The horse was still king, in both agriculture and as transport. In the early days of settlement, even the horse could not penetrate the dense bush in this mountainous region, and most trails were simple footpaths. By the 1860s with more land cleared for growing forage crops, more horses-drawn wheeled vehiclesfinally start to appear. The first means of carrying goods, other than on one's back, had been what the Irish (in Ireland) called a “side car” – two long sticks that a man or animal could drag behind – what already existed in the Americas in the form of the aboriginal travois.

Stoneboat, used to clear fields, Milles Isles, circa 1930s. (Photo - Courtesy of Sandra Stock)Also, the Irish turf sledge, used in Ireland for hauling peat from the wet slippery bogs, was adapted to the Laurentians as the stone boat, and used for clearing rocks and other debris from fields. This was a very low, light sled on runners, not exactly a sleigh (too low to the ground for use in snow) that could move well on wet, muddy ground. As it was fairly light,a horse or even a man could pull it along. On steep hills, these runner-based vehicles worked better than wheels.

Another Irish vehicle that was popular as private transport in the Laurentians was the jaunting cart. This was a light, fast, small, two-wheeled carriage that, again, one horse could easily manage. The jaunting cart was the direct descendant of the ancient Celtic war chariot, used in battle by the tribes that ruled Ireland from about 600 BCE. As Ireland was comparatively isolated from the rest of Europe, some vestiges of this ancient society seem to have persisted longer. Also, the jaunting cart was well suited to hilly country and the type of horse (Standard breed) favored by the Laurentian settlers. In Ireland, these carts evolved into public taxis and became more sophisticated, but the basket shape, with one driver up front, and room for only one or two (if small) passengers in the “basket,” prevailed in rural Quebec. For more information about Irish vehicles, visit the website of the National Museum of Northern Ireland www.magni.org.uk.
Irish jaunting cart, Morin Heights, circa 1950. The driver is William Stock (the author's father); the horse's name was Nicky. (Photo - Courtesy of Sandra Stock)

Recently there has been a renewal of interest in the Irish roots of the Laurentians, especially since the growth of genealogical research has been helped by the spread of Internet access. Researching one's ancestors usually leads to researching one's ancestors' society, as well. Although most concrete traces of Irish pioneer society have disappeared and the generation that overtly demonstrated an Irish origin has long gone, this renewed interest has contributed to the activities of local historical societies, has raised concern about the preservation of Laurentian cemeteries and heritage buildings and has, for many individuals, given them a pride in their ancestral origin.