Ireland-Canada: Famine, Fenians, Friends!

I’m Irish but spent forty years in Canada and I am still learning about the many deep, and too often tragic, links between my two countries. Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers, (above) is coming to the West Cork History Festival in Skibbereen this week to talk about Irish-born Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. So in honour of that occasion I’ve been reviewing some of the connections between our nations.

‘Departure’ – the harrowing sculpture by Rowan Gillespie on the Dublin quays

Although my own experience as a Canadian immigrant was a happy one, not all emigration stories are founded in choice and success. There’s a park in Toronto called Ireland Park. Lovely, you say – how nice that we have a memorial in this wonderful city. But Ireland Park commemorates a dark past – the year of 1847 when almost 40,000 immigrants fleeing the Irish Famine arrived in the coffin ships, overwhelming the city.

John Behan’s Coffin Ship Famine memorial in Murrisk, Co Mayo

They brought typhus, chaos, starvation and death and were soon filling the fever sheds built by the heroic citizens of the fledgling city. Catholic and Protestant arrived, and Catholic and Protestant co-operated to help them survive. It’s a tale of heroism and suffering and it echoes strongly  to this day, when we think about the refugees pouring into Greece and Calais – those people were once us.

Take a look at snippets from the haunting documentary film ‘Death or Canada’ (one here and another here) – it will give you a sense of what was involved for the incoming famine victims and for those on the ground.

Rowan Gillespie’s ‘Arrival’ in Ireland Park, Toronto

On a more muscular note, I have written elsewhere about the Fenians in Canada. Taking the fight for Irish freedom to ‘British soil’ in North America, there were many raids and one pitched battle organised by the Fenians in Canada. Ironically, the Battle of Ridgeway helped pave the way for Canadian Confederation.

One of the Fathers of that Confederation was Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a complex character who started off in the Young Ireland Movement. In his early days he was a firebrand revolutionary and that’s how he is chiefly remembered here – as one of a group of poets and writers committed to the liberation of Ireland from British rule. In this he would have seen common cause with that old Unrepentant Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee: the young revolutionary and the elder statesman

However, life in the United States, to which he was eventually forced to flee, while it radicalised Rossa even further, made a conservative out of McGee. He settled in Canada and became an ardent advocate for Canadian nationhood; however, he turned against violent rebellion and espoused a form of Home Rule, thereby earning the enmity of the Fenians who eventually ordered him assassinated. His funeral, held on what would have been his 43rd birthday, saw 80,000 people line the streets of Montreal to mourn a man that had given so much to his adopted country.

Image © Library and Archives Canada

I have written extensively about the Air India Disaster of June 1985. The beautiful memorial in Ahakista has become a place of focus for the families of the victims, who still come every year to remember those who died so tragically on that day. As a Canadian and an Irish person it has become a special place for me – at once a reminder of the terrorist threats that touch on all our lives and the warm and human response that we in West Cork delivered when it all came close to home.

And now we discover that Justin Trudeau, through his mother, is descended from the Bernards of Bandon. This is quite a pedigree – according to The Irish Times In 1661, Francis Bernard married Mary Freake and had six daughters and two sons, the research shows. Mr Trudeau is descended from their younger son, Arthur Bernard, who was High Sheriff of Cork in 1697 and MP for Bandon from 1713-14. My own wanderings around churches have paid off here – take a look at this memorial in St Peter’s Church of Ireland in Bandon – it’s for Francis Bernard – Arthur’s older brother!

So there you are, Ambassador Vickers – one Canadian-Irish woman’s take on some of what binds us as nations. Oh – and for those of you who don’t know who Kevin Vickers is, this is no regular ambassador, no career diplomat. This is a genuine Canadian hero! We look forward to welcoming him back to West Cork and to hearing him speak on Irish-born Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. I wonder if he’ll arrive on his Harley?A famous Canadian painting depicts the Fathers of confederation – and there’s D’Arcy McGee in the front row, second from the right. Image © Canadian House of Commons.

 

Priests and Poets, Part 1

outlookOften, while walking the Fastnet Trails, I stop to wander around the old graveyard at Stouke, near Ballydehob. I am struck each time by the lonely beauty of the site, on an elevated hillside with vistas of the countryside and distant hills. I have also come to realise that this one small place resounds with echoes of the past – a past that in Ireland seems always so intricately woven into our present that it can never be ignored or forgotten.

From the wall

The Barry tomb dominates the graveyard

There is much to say about Stouke Graveyard and my theme of Priests and Poets but I will start with one grave in particular and leave the rest to a second post. This is the grave of Father James Barry, his brother, Father John Barry, their sister, Margaret, and their housekeeper, Julia Roberts. I have mentioned this grave before briefly, but I have now had an opportunity to look at it more closely.

offerings

Coins and tokens have been left on the tomb

Why does this large chest tomb occupy the most elevated and central place in the graveyard? Why are coins and tokens left as offerings on it? Why, according to notes made by the Historic Graves Project, do people come to pray here on St John’s Day (June 24th) every year? Although I didn’t find all the answers, researching the questions led me to Father James Barry, Parish Priest of Schull before and during the Great Famine.

Frs Barry, Stouke

James was obviously a man of learning and compassion, and one who was called upon locally to be a spokesperson and advocate for his flock. Even before the Famine he gave evidence to boards of inquiry about the conditions in West Cork, pointing out the miserable diet, lack of proper clothing and housing, poor prospects for employment, the uncertainty of a lease being continued, the lack of compensation to tenants when lands were taken to build new roads, the desire of many to emigrate and the good account they gave of their experiences in their new homes.  He would have read their letters to them, since many of his parishioners were illiterate – his remarks focused on the many advantages of the New World, including a pointed reference to the absence of tyranny. In what seems like a very modern concern with income inequality, he commented on how the rich got richer as their tenants’ lives became ever more difficult. (Reported in British Parliamentary Papers)

Famine Memorial at Murrisk

The Famine Memorial at Murrisk in Mayo. The ‘coffin ships’ that carried a generation of people to North America were notorious but for those who chose to go the voyage was preferable to the nightmare of famine at home

During the Famine, he and his brother, Father John, also of Schull parish, worked to help establish soup kitchens but insisted that more than soup be served, since the soup was not nutritious enough. Called eating houses, these places fed many people who would otherwise have died, and replaced the hated and ineffective Board of Works schemes that put weak and starving people to hard labour so they could buy their own corn, thus supposedly salvaging their dignity and rescuing them from the evils of pauperism.

soup-kitchen1

Famine Soup Kitchen

The efforts of the eating house committees crossed religious boundaries and appear to have been effective in slowing the rates of starvation to such an extent that in one of his depositions James states that “deaths were now so few that the slide-bottomed coffins were no longer in use.”

Among the unmarked graves

Many unmarked graves dot the Stouke graveyard, some no doubt dating to the Famine years

James advocated tirelessly for his parishioners, through giving information and evidence and through submissions to authorities. His anger is unconcealed when he describes his visit to the village of Kilbronogue near Ballydehob: Fever consequent upon starvation was spreading among the clusters of cabins…the townland  [will] soon be at the immediate disposal of the head landlord, Lord Bandon. There will be no need of extermination or of migration to thin the dense swarm of poor people…; this will take place without his lordship’s intervention or agency, I hope, to a better world. Indeed his words were prophetic – there is no longer a village in Kilbronogue.

Trench’s book, Realities of Irish Life, is available online. The illustration is of an incident in which tenants are down on their knees begging for a reduction in rent.

Fr Barry acted as a guide for William Steuart Trench, a controversial land agent who later described his visit to the famine-stricken area of Schull in the book Realities of Irish Life (available to read online). In cottage after cottage he found families sick, dying or dead. The account is heart-rending. It led me to wonder if James Barry could have been the model for Peter Gilligan in WB Yeats’ poem The Ballad of Father Gilligan.

yeats2The old priest Peter Gilligan
Was weary night and day;
For half his flock were in their beds,
Or under green sods lay.

Once, while he nodded on a chair,
At the moth-hour of eve,
Another poor man sent for him,
And he began to grieve.

‘I have no rest, nor joy, nor peace,
For people die and die’;
And after cried he, ‘God forgive!
My body spake, not I!’

He knelt, and leaning on the chair
He prayed and fell asleep;
And the moth-hour went from the fields,
And stars began to peep.

They slowly into millions grew,
And leaves shook in the wind;
And God covered the world with shade,
And whispered to mankind.

Upon the time of sparrow-chirp
When the moths came once more.
The old priest Peter Gilligan
Stood upright on the floor.

‘Mavrone, mavrone! the man has died
While I slept on the chair’;
He roused his horse out of its sleep,
And rode with little care.

He rode now as he never rode,
By rocky lane and fen;
The sick man’s wife opened the door:
‘Father! you come again!’

‘And is the poor man dead?’ he cried.
‘He died an hour ago.’
The old priest Peter Gilligan
In grief swayed to and fro.

‘When you were gone, he turned and died
As merry as a bird.’
The old priest Peter Gilligan
He knelt him at that word.

‘He Who hath made the night of stars
For souls who tire and bleed,
Sent one of His great angels down
To help me in my need.’

‘He Who is wrapped in purple robes,
With planets in His care,
Had pity on the least of things
Asleep upon a chair.’

Although this is an unusual poem for Yeats (he was not a Catholic and he did not often publish simple quatrain-based ballads) it reflects his interest in the Irish stories he collected and loved. It was a favourite, as you can imagine, of the nuns who taught us English, combining as it did ease of memorisation,  the religious fervour they hoped to inculcate in their convent classrooms and the unassailable respectability of having been composed by Ireland’s Nobel Laureate.

Brothers' grave

But back to the grave…the priests’ housekeeper, Julia Roberts, who died in 1838 was the first to be buried here. James and John’s sister, Margaret, died at the height of the Famine in 1848 (although we do not know if her death was in any way associated with this event). The Historic Graves record contains this intriguing note: When his sister died and was also buried here Sarah’s (should be ‘Julia’s’) coffin was in perfect condition. She was reburied with the parish priest even though she was not a Catholic.

James went on to serve as Parish Priest of Bantry and died in 1853. James’ brother, John was apparently similarly active but not much has survived recording his life. He took over from James as Parish Priest in Schull, where he served until his own death in 1863.

railings

Next week I will continue my tour of this wonderful spot – and we’ll have a little more poetry – although from a different source.