50 ILIC: Bishop Michael Fleming, radical pastor with a long legacy in Newfoundland

The monumental Basilica of St John’s, the Taj Mahal of the Irish in Canada, is the legacy of Bishop Michael Fleming.  Son of a tenant farmer in Kilkenny, Fleming was educated and ordained in Wexford at a time of growing Catholic mobilization. Fleming modelled his episcopal leadership in Newfoundland on Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for Catholic emancipation and the Catholic Church’s Ultramontanism. He transformed the Irish Catholic community, colonial politics, and Newfoundland itself in a lasting way.

From the 1680s Irish fisherman had joined in the annual migratory cod fishery to Newfoundland, the only place outside of Ireland bearing an Irish name, Talamh an Éisce, land of the fish.   The resident Irish Catholic population grew in parallel with its English Protestant counterpart. With Newfoundland under the Penal Laws, each occupied different ends of the socio-economic scale.

Arriving in 1823, Fleming found Newfoundland grimly familiar: a comfortable mercantile Anglican elite led by the Crown-appointed Governor that discriminated, disenfranchised, and marginalized the Catholic Irish from all offices of influence. Lives were brutishly hard fishing, seal hunting, or scrimping a living from smallholdings Catholics were debarred from owning. When a smallpox epidemic broke out in Petty Harbour in the winter of 1835-36, Fleming lived with the poor, tended to their sick, and built a church. That was what he had done everywhere he travelled, leaving a trail of churches and newfound pride in his wake.

Fleming treated Newfoundland as if it were Ireland and determined to reverse Catholic humiliation and poverty.  On trips home, he recruited 36 priests, forged like him in O’Connell’s Ireland of politically mobilized Catholics. Fleming opened a school for young girls in 1833 run by Presentations Sister from Galway. The Sisters of Mercy from Dublin established a girls’ school for the small Irish middle-class, while Franciscans were brought to teach boys.  For Fleming, the students were future leaders.

Pastoral work paralleled fearless engagement in politics.  O’Connellite mobilization, fundraising, boycotts, and even excommunications were deployed. Support was offered to Liberal candidates who endorsed Fleming’s agenda.  Governor Thomas Cochrane and a handful of ‘respectable’ Irish Catholics (dubbed “Mad Dogs”) resisted, prompting sectarian tensions and, on occasion, riots. By 1832 Fleming and his reformers had won Catholic Emancipation. Formidable Catholic voter support for the Liberal Party, and state funding for Catholic schools soon followed.

Crown vexations over this ‘troublesome priest’ led to protests to Rome. In response, Fleming cultivated the cardinals. Through St. Isidore’s Irish Franciscan College in Rome, he sent them smoked Newfoundland salmon. He visited the Holy See and in 1837 submitted his report, Relazione, an impressive account of his travels and pastoral work along with counter-allegations of persecution by the colonial authorities. By 1840, fresh complaints from Newfoundland’s new governor, Henry Prescott, prompted Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell to ask Rome to remove Fleming.  Rome summoned Fleming.  The bishop ignored it. When British mandarins let Fleming see the secret inflammatory correspondence of Prescott, it was Prescott who packed his bags.

A factor in Fleming’s strong position was his ambitious cathedral. In Relazione, Fleming cleverly alluded to obstacles put in his way to securing land for this project, five years of “vexation and annoyance”. By 1838 Fleming had secured the Barrens, formerly site of the garrison overlooking St Johns, informally a location of Irish faction-fights and hurling matches. He put his formidable organizational and fundraising skills into top gear.  Small donations from low-income Catholics and some sizeable ones from the wealthy, including Protestants, flowed.  The larger Newfoundland community marshalled as a workforce, cutting timber and fencing land. In two days during May 1839, thousands of men, women, and children excavated over 4,250 tonnes of soil, women hauling it away in their aprons. 

Construction of the cathedral took fourteen years and 35,000 tons of granite.  In wintertime, up to his waist in water on the beach at Kelly’s Island in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, Fleming loaded cut stone into small boats for transport to the building site. Limestone from Galway was used on exterior walls, and granite from Dublin was used for the quoins, mouldings and window frames. Five

 times he scoured Europe for materials.  By 1847 he was too ill to travel. Financial setbacks and a great fire in St John’s the previous year did not deter him, even as the fire consumed his papers.  Frail and failing with tuberculosis, Fleming whispered the first mass within the cathedral in January 1850, its chill cavernous shell a glimpse of future grandeur beyond the dust, scaffolding and exposed rafters. He knelt in prayer, occasionally helped, but finished the Mass.  That was his last public rite. He was sequestered until July when he died and was interred in his cathedral’s vault.

The cathedral, finished by Fleming’s successor Bishop John Mullock of Limerick, was a triumph of Ultramontanism and neoclassicism, embellished with statues by the best Irish artists. Fleming’s cathedral was the largest architectural and cultural achievement of Ireland’s pre-Famine diaspora, a statement of faith in the future. At its consecration in 1855, Archbishop John Hughes of New York left determined that his city should have a cathedral to match the achievement of Newfoundland’s poor fishermen.

Fleming’s achievements were extraordinary.  Fired by injustice and inspired by his hero O’Connell, he used his determination, guile and talents to advance the status of Newfoundland’s Catholic Irish.  In the Franciscan tradition, he eschewed the fine living and clothes customary of many bishops.  Fleming devoted his life to the young and the poor through the provision of opportunity and pride. His cathedral (named Minor Basilica in 1955) was designed to instil that pride, its grandeur hardly out of place had it been built in Rome itself.  Just as enduring was Fleming’s political legacy which forged the politics of his Irish community and of the island, orienting Newfoundland away from Canada and towards Ireland and Europe. If Fleming had had his way, Newfoundland might well have become Ireland’s fifth province. Newfoundland only officially joined Canada in 1949.

Further reading:

Susan Chalker Browne, The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, (St John’s, 2015).

J.B. Darcy, Fire Upon the Earth – The Life and Times of Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming  (St. John’s, 2003).

Michael Anthony Fleming“, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Vol. VIII, at http://www.biographi.ca

J.E. FitzGerald, “Michael Anthony Fleming and Ultramontanism in Irish Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, 1829-1850,  CCHA Historical Studies 64 (1998): 27-45.

J.E. FitzGerald, “Conflict and Culture in Irish-Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, 1829-1850” Ph.D. thesis, Univ. Ottawa, 1997.


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A First Trip to The Bahamas and Jamaica

Delayed for two years by the pandemic and having presented my credentials virtually, I finally made my first official trip to two of my accreditations, The Bahamas and Jamaica.  This was very much a case of familiarization but also to see if I could identify areas for cooperation and possibly to generate some projects with good outputs in a reasonable span of time.  Ireland wants to step up its game in the region.  More on that later. First some observations.

The Bahamas is an islands’ nation.  There is an inescapable interplay between the land and sea. The sea is everywhere physically but the maritime percolates the culture and outlook of Bahamians.  Like the Aran Islands, the terrain of The Bahamas offers little fertility. Perched not far above the water line, the seas are sapphire and cobalt, the beaches ivory, and the land rocky and green.  The Indigenous Lucayan population, possibly 30,000 strong, were unfortunate to be the first to encounter Christopher Columbus.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Certainly it was history for the Indigenous there as most were wiped out by disease and slavery.

Not fit for sugar plantations and therefore the oppressions of colonialism and racism, the society that grew there comprised pirates and escaped slaves, free booters and fishermen, those seeking freedom of religion or just freedom. That The Bahamas is a nation at all is a miracle of resilience and hope. Yet its perilously low-lying land means that climate change is an existential threat. 

Jamaica is a hunk of mountains in the sea.  Less like The Bahamas and more like Ireland, Jamaica can be seen more accurately as a country surrounded by the sea rather than an island.  I remembered, in my student days in Ireland, a friend saying in frustration that she needed to get off the island.  What island is she talking about, I wondered. With the seventh largest natural harbour in the world, clouds rolling in that catch in the Blue Mountains, the influence of the sea is never far away.  However, my sense is that Jamaicans’ perspective is landward, tracing the mountain passes to the parishes, towns and villages of the interior.  Ireland and Jamaica both share not just brio and sociability but a ferocious sense of survival and therefore identity.  We both have outsized cultural influence beyond our shores.

Ireland is lucky to have William Mills as our Honorary Consul in The Bahamas, supported by his wife Wendy.  Like I say about my wife Mary, they are the unpaid half of the diplomatic team. Bill organized a lunch at the club at Lyford Cay for Irish business contacts where we discussed trade opportunities. (The exclusive club was founded by Canadian tycoon E.P. Taylor whose ancestors came from Ireland).  And he convened a reception that I hosted for the Irish community, small and resilient like The Bahamians themselves. They all had taken different routes to new lives in The Bahamas, not unexpectedly, but all agreed it was a hard place to leave.

The Honorary Consuls of The Bahamas hosted a lunch.  I was seated with the Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell, the US chargé Usha Pitts and the British High Commissioner Tom Hartley.  It was great to get their insights on The Bahamas and the politics of the Caribbean. In his skillful extempore remarks to the assembled diplomats, the Minister spoke about a range of issues, including the meeting of Caricom hosted by The Bahamas only days previously and where Prime Minister Trudeau was a keynote speaker.  However, the deteriorating situation in Haiti was a major concern.  He appealed for the international community to pay attention and assist, wisely noting that this was not about a solution, but improving the situation incrementally and putting Haiti on the right track.  In conversation, Minister Mitchell told me he’d often been to Ireland because of a close family connection.  He is a passionate Joycean too. I briefed him on our plans for region.

On these kinds of trips, it is always useful just to wander around.  Left hand drive cars from America drive on the left hand side of the road: a metaphor for enduring Bahamian links to the British crown and the economic influence of its gigantic neighbor. The capital Nassau has charm, bustling between 11am and 3pm when four or five gigantic cruise ships unload their mainly American passengers.  The Bahamians are building new port facilities and aim to keep these tourists at least overnight. I’m sure the guys at the one Irish bar, Shenanigans, would appreciate that development!

National galleries often offer insights and the National Gallery did not disappoint.  Housed in a colonial mansion built by one William Doyle, the gallery was devoted to a magnificent exhibition of the art of Antonius Roberts, the country’s leading artist. Brimming with multi-media work, its theme was sacred space.  The exhibition was suffused with images and installations about place and nature, the sea and sand, light and colour, natural catastrophe and human resilience.

After slingshot flights to Miami and then Jamaica’s capital city Kingston, we were met by our Honorary Consul there, Brian Denning and his wife Kay.  Again, we are so lucky to have them represent Ireland in Jamaica.  Brian has handled some really difficult consular cases in recent years, with great sensitivity and effectiveness.  His network of contacts is unrivalled.

Brian and Kay toured us around Kingston, offering insights into Jamaica’s history.  We passed by Sabina Park where Ireland’s cricket team famously beat Pakistan in 2007.  Sabina Park was an enslaved woman whose remains lie somewhere there.  A slave on Goat Island where the brutality of the regime prompted a high suicide rate, she killed her four-month-old infant son rather than have him enslaved to work for whites.  She was hanged of course, and died a hero to other slaves for her implacable resistance.  Sabina was the slave of Joseph Gordon, a Scottish plantation owner who had eight children with another slave, Ann Rattray.  Gordon gave freedom to a son, George William.  George William Gordon became a successful businessman, politician, and advocate for the poor and for Jamaican freedom.  He was executed after the Mordant Bay Rebellion in 1865 and declared a National Hero in 1969.

Jamaica faces many challenges as a developing nation but the vision and effectiveness of its government is impressive.  Unemployment is at an all-time low of 6.6%, inflation is tracking downward, and the Government has dramatically lowered its debt to GDP ratio.  I could only be there for some of Jamaica’s diplomatic week along with a host of other ambassadors, resident and non-resident, and High Commissioners.  The speeches and Q and A by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Kamina Johnson Smith, and Minister for Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, were all clear slighted and ambitious, delivered with depth of knowledge and assurance. Both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister had just returned from a visit to Haiti, again underlining their concern about the crisis and the need for international support.

With leadership like that, you have to be confident about Jamaica’s future.  As only the second nation (after Haiti) to emerge from a former slave colony, Jamaica’s journey is remarkable.  Last year, Jamaica celebrated its 60th anniversary as an independent nation. As for relations with the British crown, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister want to ensure that all stakeholders, including the Opposition, join them on the road to becoming a republic.

The mountains of both Jamaica and Ireland played roles in our history as refuges for rebels.  Recall Redmond O’Hanlon around Slieve Gullion, or the men of 1798 taking to the fastness of Wicklow. Maroon communities of escaped slaves formed communities in the Jamaican mountains.  The Leeward Maroons such successful guerrilla fighters that the British signed a deal with them in 1739. Along with Captain Cudjoe, another Maroon leader was Nanny, a legend and heroine of Jamaica. History is complicated and the alliance with the British, including an obligation to returned runaway slaves, rankles other Jamaicans. To this day, the Maroons have cohesive communities and ambitions for the future.  No problem with that, as Foreign Minister Johnson Smith noted, within the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Jamaica.  Like Ireland, Jamaica has to manage the long influence of its colonial past along with its other challenges. 

I had a very productive bilateral meeting with Minister Johnson Smith, which was substantive and full of opportunities to develop our relationship.  Suffice to say, there is plenty of follow-up both with HQ and in another visit I am planning.  My message to the Minister, as it has been to Foreign Minister Mitchell in The Bahamas, was that Ireland had a new strategy for the Caribbean, we were setting up an Office of the Caribbean at our Consulate General in Miami, and we wanted to support our partners in the region on such vital issues as the Small Island Developing States agenda.

I hosted a reception for the Irish community, drawn together by Brian and Kay.  We were able to engage with all of the guests, some of whom had come from Montego Bay and elsewhere to join us.  It is always amazing how small the world is, at least for the Irish.  I met someone who knew colleagues and shared acquaintances not just back in Dublin but in Toronto. “By the way, do you know my aunt in Toronto…?”  Know her?  I did a podcast with her! 

At the Irish community reception, I also met Veronica Salters, known as Ronnie, a doyen of the Irish who had lived most of her long life in Jamaica.  Her mission was to engage my interest in Jamaica’s Irish heritage, notably the role of the reforming Governor General, Marquess Sligo, Henry Browne, whose journals and papers are in Kingston.  Sligo had been keen to accelerate the transition from slavery to freedom in his time there between 1834 and 1836, earning the ire of the plantation owners, some of whom simply murdered their slaves rather than let them free.  They forced his resignation.  Yes, she had my interest, and a project is taking shape.

Indeed, I kept picking up references to Jamaica’s Irish heritage.  Jamaica was England’s second experiment in plantation after Ireland.  Cromwellians threw the Spanish out of Jamaica in 1655 and promptly deported defeated Catholic Irish there to work plantations as indentured labour. There are plenty of Irish placenames, like Dublin Castle, Irish Town, Clonmel and even a Sligoville in honour of the man himself. If you go to the market today to buy potatoes, you say you want some Irish to distinguish it from ‘potato’ which refers to a sweet potato.  Folk traditions are heavily influenced by the Irish. A quarter of Jamaicans have some Irish ancestry. I am sure that the more I look, the more I will find. Our shared colonialism has woven a dense tapestry of historical and living interconnections.

I returned to Ottawa to promote those very interconnections between Ireland and Canada with the Fifty Irish Lives project.  I now have some sense of both The Bahamas and Jamaica so reading about them will be more meaningful.  Plans are underway to visit my two new accreditations in the Caribbean, St Lucia and Antigua and Barbuda.  I was assigned them in a new divvy up of Caribbean accreditations.  This is part of our efforts to bring more focus to our diplomatic presence.  Interesting times ahead for Ireland’s relations with our partners in the Caribbean.

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador to Canada, The Bahamas and Jamaica


7 March 2023

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50 ILIC: Tadgh O’Brennan and the Irish of New France

Born Castlecomer, County Kilkenny, 1632. Died Pointe-aux-Trembles, Quebec, 1687.

Eamonn McKee and Mark McGowan

Tadhg Cornelius Ó’Braonáin, Tadhg O’Brennan, known as Tec Cornelius Aubrenan, may have been the first documented Irish-born immigrant to Canada.  There had been other Irish who had set foot in Canada before him, such as the fishermen who had settled in Newfoundland, and perhaps Irish women among the Norse explorers to what was known in their sagas as Vineland, now disputed as either Newfoundland or Cape Breton. The honour of being known and named in official records, however, lies with Tadhg O’Brennan.

Born around 1632, it appears that Tadgh was from a parish near Castlecomer, County Kilkenny.  In a thoroughly researched paper published in 2002, Louis Aubry, one of his descendants, suggested that his father was Connor O’Brennan who held lands in Kilkenny.  He further speculates that ‘Diasonnay’, the phonetic record of Tadhg’s birthplace recorded on his marriage certificate, is probably a parish called Dysert near the river Dinin, a tributary of the Nore River just north of Kilkenny city.  There he finds Dysert Bridge where the two rivers called Dinan converge.

The O’Brennans held their strategic lands and became known as a military force in the region. By the time of the Cromwellian invasions, in 1650, however, the O’Brennans were unable to hold their estates and it is likely that Tadhg was one of the many Irish soldiers allowed to leave for France after the Cromwellian invasion.  In France, and though likely illiterate, Tadgh would have learned French, essential to his decision to move to New France. 

Tadhg arrived in what was then New France in 1661 at the age of 29.  He married Jeanne Chartier on 9 October 1670 in Notre Dame Cathedral in Quebec City, although they moved to the Montreal area where they had their family.  Tadhg and Jeanne had seven children, Madeleine Therese (1671), Catherine (1673), Jean-Cornelius (1675), Jean-Baptiste (1676), Francois (1677), Geneviève (1679), Etienne Aubrenon, who died in infancy at Repentigny, in 1681.  Tadhg died at age fifty-five in 1687 and is buried at Pointe-aux-Trembles, near Montreal.

Tadhg would have not felt isolated as an Irishmen in the St. Lawrence Valley. In 1700, “Tanguay’s Parish Registers” report that of the 2,500 families living in the colony, about 100 were natives of Ireland, and there were 30 other cases where either the husband or the wife was Irish-born. In parish registers, the local priest just listed the individuals as “Irlandais,” without reference to county of origin. Among those discovered in the  records of 17th century include Jean Houssye, dit Bellerose, who was actually John Hussey, married in New France in 1671. He was a native of Dublin and son of Matthew Hussey and Elizabeth Hogan of St. Lawrence O’Toole Parish. In 1688, Pierre and Jean Lehait were living in Quebec City, and were brothers formerly known as Peter and John Leahy from County Wicklow. Peter was a servant in the entourage of Governor Louis de Baude, Count de Frontenac. Similarly, two other Irishmen, Jean Lehaise (John Leahy) and Jean LeMer St.Germain, dit Irelande, of Thurles, were both granted land by the Sulpician Fathers, the seigneurs of the island of Montreal. Finally, in 1704, Jean Baptiste Riel was married at Isle du Pads. Antiquarian, John O’Farrell, suggests that he may actually be John Rielly of Limerick, and a distant ancestor of the famous Canadian patriot, Louis Riel.

The naturalization records from 17th century New France also list a number of women whose sometimes Gallicized names suggest Irish origin: Marie Washton (married to an Irish colonist); Anne Lord (Tierney); Catherine Dunkin (O’Dongen); Martha Finn; Madeline Alleyne (O’Halloyne); and Marie-Charlotte Brojon (O’Brogan). They may have come directly from Ireland, been refugees from the English colonies, or taken captive by French and Indigenous raiding parties on the frontiers of New England.

While Catholic refugees fleeing from the English and Protestant Colonies as far south as Virginia provided one of the sources of Irish migration to New France, the French and Spanish militaries were another important agency of emigration. Irish expatriates, like Tadhg who had joined the French army of Louis XIV often appeared in the regiments stationed in New France. Timothy Sullivan, for example, was a native of Kerry who had served with the Spanish Dragoons, and after having escaped capture by the English, fled to Montreal via the New England colonies. In 1718, he appears as a physician in Montreal, with a Gallicized surname Sylvain, and married the widowed mother of Marguerite D’Youville, the founder the Sisters of Charity, or Grey Nuns. Similarly, Charles de Latouche McCarthy, was born in Brest in 1706, France, son of Irish refugees. He was a decorated captain in the French navy and served in New France from 1737 to 1763. He married Angelique-Jeanne Guillimin, the daughter of a member of the Sovereign Council. He served New France with distinction through the wars of the Austrian Succession (1740-47) and the Seven Years War (1756-63). During the latter war, Governor Pierre Riguad de Vaudreuil assembled an Irish Company of troops consisting of deserters from the English army, Irish colonists, and refugees in New France. His Irish company was transferred to the European theatre of the war before the fall of New France in 1760.

We do not know much about Tadhg O’Brennan’s life in Quebec.  Nevertheless, he represents several generations of Irish men and women who recognized that there was no future for themselves or their faith after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. They found temporary homes in France, either through the military or the merchant trades, and many ended up in France’s colonial possessions in North America. Other Irish had found themselves in the New England colonies, but fled to New France for the liberty of practicing their Catholic Faith. Tadhg’s family lineage, and that of Sullivan and McCarthy, were in themselves a plumb line that reached deep into Ireland’s history.  As a microcosm of early Irish migration to Canada, Tadhg is a fitting character to have the honour of being the first officially recorded Irishman in Canada.

Further Reading:

Thomas Guerin, The Gael in New France (Montreal: Private, 1946)

John O’Farrell, “Irish Families in Ancient Quebec,” in Robert O’Driscoll and Lorna Reynolds, eds., The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada. Toronto: Celtic Arts of Canada, 1988. Pp 281-94. Originally published on 15 January 1872 as a speech to the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Quebec.

Tanguay Collection, Dictionnaire généalogique des familles canadiennes Québec, 1608 à 1890. Online: https://www.ancestry.ca/search/collections/2177/

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Fifty Irish Lives in Canada: Preface

Today we celebrate the start of Irish Heritage Month, officially recognized as such by the Government of Canada thanks to the leadership of James Maloney MP and the Canada Ireland Parliamentary Friendship Group.

In celebration of Irish Heritage Month, we will launch Fifty Irish Lives in Canada on Friday March 3rd. Please join James, me, and our guests online for the event. From this day onwards, we will publish one profile of the Irish in Canada over the past three centuries. The profiles we are launching resoundingly affirm that indeed the story of the Irish in Canada is a fascinating one. Its richness lies in its complexity.

The launch of Fifty Irish Lives in Canada is the culmination of over a year’s work. The project was inspired by the Royal Irish Academy’s (RIA) publication of Irish Lives in America in December 2021. Surely, I thought, the story of the Irish in Canada deserved no less.

Professor Mark McGowan immediately endorsed the idea. Within days of bouncing emails between various places, the enthusiastic and willing response of the prospective contributors launched what was for all a labour of both love and discovery. Sage advice and expert inputs flowed from David Wilson, Michele Holmgren, Elizabeth Smyth, and others.

The collective wisdom from early on was that we had to confine the candidates to Irish born to avoid being overwhelmed. Being deceased was also accepted as a useful parameter. We realized quickly that we should strive to embrace not just those whose achievements gave them prominence, but those whose ‘ordinary’ lives were emblematic of the immigrant experience.

There is of course a notable predominance of men. Society at the time and in recorded history rendered half the population invisible: lack of respect, education, and encouragement denied women opportunity in life and a place in the record books. Between this launch and eventual publication, there is much work to be done to recover women and their contribution, whether quotidian or prominent.

We intend on publication to include an essay on gender and diversity. We also plan to include a response from Indigenous communities so that we can share the perspective on the Irish in Canada, who came from one colony to help found another one, whether their coming was willing or unwilling, knowing or unknowing about the impact on the pre-European natives of the land that we call Canada but to them was Turtle Island.

As the project gathered pace, we quickly grasped that not only was the story fascinating, it was also complex. In fact, we soon adopted the motto “it’s complicated.” Over three centuries, we see unfold in Canada the story of a complicated symbiotic relationship with the colony of Ireland, England’s first imperial adventure.

Traditionally seen as a story of immigration, the Irish in Canada must be understood as a story of colonialism. Only that can explain why so many varieties of Irish identity and background turned up in Canada: from the émigré Tadgh O’Brennan in the 17th century to the Anglo-Irish colonists of the 18th; from the fishermen of the 17th and 18th centuries; from Protestant farmers and Orangemen to Catholic labourers and the Fenians in the 19th; from the soldiers in Wellington’s British Army who settled in Canada in the 1820s and 1830s to the forced relocation of Irish tenants during and after the Great Famine.

The rich parade of Irish identity and perspectives revealed even in this small sampling testifies to the complicated history of Ireland itself and the key role many Irish played in the British Empire, whether unwilling or, as in many cases, willingly. Canada loomed large in the imagination of moderate Irish nationalists at home who strived for the re-establishment of an Irish parliament. History took Ireland in a different direction in a quickening of events between 1916 and 1922. Canada became the future that Ireland never had.

Tensions back in Ireland played out in Canada, notably between Catholic nationalists and Orange loyalists. Yet Canada provided a society that ultimately allowed such divergent loyalties to find common cause in building a stable and prosperous society.

No figure perhaps encapsulates this complexity more starkly than Nicholas Flood Davin. A supporter of Home Rule for Ireland, a supporter too of votes for women, Flood Davin was similarly inspired to write in 1877 a history of the Irish in Canada to correct a record that suggested Canada was the product of the Scotch, English, French and Mennonite Germans. He had harsh words for those Irish who denigrated their identity: “you may as well seek to fly from your shadow as to escape your nationality.” Yet, it was this proud Irish nationalist who undertook the commission of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to report on Indigenous issues. He recommended the establishment of the Indian residential school system. From that conjuration of colonized and colonizer much tragedy flowed.

Yet the Indigenous and the Irish found a common humanity too that transcended the forces of history shaping their lives. As we will reveal, the suffering of the Indigenous inspired them to respond to the suffering of the Irish as news of the Great Famine spread and desperate Irish refugees arrived in the traditional lands of the Indigenous.

The project is now open to all submissions, each of which will be part of our online bank of Irish Lives in Canada. Now is the time to submit your favourites. Pick your person, keep the profile to one thousand words and your submission will be eligible for inclusion. We are keen to welcome entries that reflect the rich diversity of the Irish in Canada.

I want to thank all those who have been involved in this project, particularly the contributors and Mark McGowan who has written an overview essay of the patterns of Irish migration to British North America, capturing its duration and complexity with eloquence and clarity.

Following the advice of the RIA, we have adhered to the limitation of 1000 words. That is no easy task and I hope that you agree that we have collectively have achieved it without compromise of thoroughness or eloquence.


Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

Ottawa, 1 March 2023

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Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement

19 January, 2023

Statement by Eamonn McKee

Anglo-Irish Division 1986-89

I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in October 1986 and was assigned to the Political Section of Anglo-Irish Division. The Division had increased its staff numbers to implement the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, notably:

The establishment of the Secretariat of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) at Palace Barracks, Belfast. The Secretariat serviced the regular meetings of the Conference and was manned 24-7 by Irish and British officials and staff members.

An expanded team of travelers based out of Iveagh House with specific areas of responsibility derived from the objectives of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Their reports were vital to the briefings and discussions at the Secretariat and the summit meetings of the BIIGC.

  1. The weekly pattern in the Division entailed the dispatch of travelers early in the week to meet with contacts and to report back. Their reports were compiled on Friday morning along with other reports of contacts and meetings from the embassies in London, Washington, and elsewhere into the weekly brief, known as the ‘Box.’ The Box was copied and circulated to the Government and senior officials on Friday afternoon. That day also saw the return of the team from the Secretariat and the departure of the weekend team to Belfast, under high security.
  1. The background of the Ulster Says No campaign led by the DUP, loyalist protests outside the Secretariat, ongoing paramilitary violence, and allegations of security force collusion and human rights abuses created a sense of purpose and consequence in the Division. Writing speeches and briefing notes, responding to a high level of PQs, attending meetings with official counterparts, NGOs, and groups and party representatives from NI, and responding to acts of violence generated a very full work programme. The SDLP, notably John Hume and Seamus Mallon, were frequent visitors to Dublin. SDLP representatives across Northern Ireland were essential sources of advice and guidance.
  2. As a junior officer, I supported the work of the political traveller, Liam Canniffe. Liam and I worked with members of the SDLP, notably Alastair McDonnell, to develop the Disadvantaged Areas Programme to help direct funds from the International Fund for Ireland to areas most affected by the conflict.
  3. The Department of Foreign Affairs conducted a human resource strategy that ensured that officers who were assigned to Anglo-Irish Division were rotated to related postings (Embassy London and Missions in the United States) and back to the Division on return to HQ. This developed a cadre of officers who had in-depth knowledge of, as well as a range of contacts relating to, the key issues in the peace process. This was an important factor in the negotiations of the GFA and the long process of its implementation.
  4. Following the pattern established by the Department, I was posted as Vice-Consul General Boston in August 1989. I was then transferred to the Embassy Washington in January 1990.
  5. I worked directly with the Political Director at the Embassy Washington, Brendan Scannell. Early tasks included countering Ancient Order of Hibernia critiques of the International Fund for Ireland, the establishment of a funding scheme for Irish emigrant groups in the US, and support for the passage of legislation creating the Morrison visa programme which solved the problem at that time of the undocumented Irish. The Embassy’s relationship with Senator Kennedy, the Speakers O’Neill and Foley, the Congressional Friends of Ireland and related staffers was particularly strong and productive on issues related to Northern Ireland but also on all other issues, from visas to agricultural regulations.
  6. Ambassador Dermot Gallagher had opened lines of communication with Bill Clinton and the Clinton-Gore campaign. At the request of Senator Kennedy’s office, which was providing advice to Clinton-Gore on foreign policy and policy in relation to Northern Ireland, I wrote the draft text for the Clinton-Gore letter on Northern Ireland. Clinton’s presidency transformed the role of the White House with regard to the peace process and gave the Embassy unparalleled access. Brendan Scannell played a key role in this, having developed key contacts from his time as Consulate General in Boston. The Saint Patrick’s Day receptions at the White House were invaluable opportunities for networking and validating the significance of the Peace Process.

Anglo-Irish Division 1996-1999

  1. I returned to Anglo-Irish Division at the request of its then Director, Sean Ó hUigínn, to act as the traveller for the Justice and Security Section. Sean had been the key architect, along with Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, of the Downing Street Declaration, one of the breakthrough documents of the peace process leading to the 1994 ceasefires. This breakthrough built on the courageous outreach of John Hume in the Hume-Adams talks. Issues on my desk included parades (the Government’s submission to the North Commission), Bloody Sunday (the Irish Government’s Assessment of the New Material), policing, administration of justice, use of lethal force by the security forces, and allegations of collusion. I worked closely with a number of key contacts, including Alex Attwood of the SDLP, Don Mullan, Martin O’Brien and the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Jane Winter of British Irish Rights Watch, Brendan McAllister of Mediation Northern Ireland, Resident groups in Belfast, Garvaghy Road, Dunloy, journalists, solicitors, and republican contacts. I travelled extensively, more or less weekly, filing reports for the Box and regularly briefing the Secretariat on current issues and participating in meetings there with NIO officials. I acted as the lead official for the proximity talks on Drumcree 1997-1998. My opposite number was Jonathan Powell, Prime Minister Blair’s Chief of Staff.
  2. In the run-up to the negotiations for the GFA, the new Director of Anglo-Irish Division, Dermot Gallagher, formed the Talks Team. I was a member of that team with particular responsibility for policing, justice and security normalisation. Martin Mansergh worked on the new proposed text for Articles 2 and 3 and I sent him a paper recommending the addition of ‘entitlement’ to the ‘birth right.’ By the time I arrived at Castle Complex, draft text had been agreed to on the policing section of the GFA. I invited Seamus Mallon and Alex Attwood to review it, and they confirmed my concerns. Thereafter I was the lead official negotiating new text with the NIO team. The NIO were focused on policing, that which continued to be effective, whereas I was focused on a future policing service that in its composition and ethos reflected society. Both objectives were essential. This creative tension produced hard bargaining, but a very good outcome regarding the terms of reference for what would become the Patten Commission’s recommendations. I extracted some final concessions at our last negotiation session unaware that PM Blair had instructed his officials that all text be finalised with the exception of the language around the North-South bodies.
  3. Overall, the Patten Commission did an excellent job through extensive consultations and a comprehensive set of recommendations that adhered closely to the terms of reference. Patten himself made this clear on the publication of his report when some unionists expressed surprise at the outcome of the Commission’s work. The post-conflict transition in the security sector is one of the most difficult to achieve and sustain in any peace process. In the formation of the Patten Commission, I insisted on the inclusion of Professor Peter Lynch. I understand that he made a significant contribution that helped eliminate the use of plastic baton rounds. The PSNI is an outstanding example of a successful security sector reform process.
  4. I would like to pay tribute to Alex Attwood and Brian Barrington who helped steer the whole implementation of the Patten Recommendations and the establishment of the Policing Board with a forensic focus and determination. For example, Alex played a particularly crucial role in resolving the issue of the Policing Board’s access to sensitive material involving national security on matters relevant to the Authority and its credibility. As with the Finucane case, the SDLP were determined to ensure that allegations of state collusion in the use of lethal force could not and would not be outside the mechanisms for accountability that it endorsed.
  5. Another crucial factor in the success of the policing transformation was the creation of the Oversight Commission led by former New York police officer John Considine and the Office of the Police Ombudsman under Dame Nuala O’Loan. The Oversight Commission ensured that the recommendations of the Patten Commission were fully implemented and operational on the ground. This provided a vital assurance for the acceptance of the PSNI and the eventual decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

Consulate General New York, 1999-2001
I was assigned as Press Officer to the Consulate General in New York and returned to HQ in December 2001.

Anglo-Irish Division, 2002-2004
I was again assigned to Anglo-Irish, this time as head of the Justice and Security Section.

  1. During the negotiations of the GFA, I learned that it had been agreed that while policing would have a full independent commission, the justice system would be reviewed only. This reflected a strong belief in the NIO and among Unionists that the justice system had continued to operate throughout the conflict and did not require fundamental reform. However, the review process was not without its problems. When I returned in 2002, I learned from contacts that the Criminal Justice Act, which gave effect to the recommendations of the Review, fell short of requirements, notably on judicial appointments. In anticipation of another round of talks to advance the implement of the GFA and secure the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, I convened talks involving the SDLP, led by Alex Attwood, and Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Kelly, at the Wellington Park hotel to agree a common agenda for amendments to the Act. These proposed changes became part of the negotiations convened at Hillsborough in March 2003. These commitments, including to a new Act, were published in a Joint Declaration by the British and Irish Governments in April 2003.
  2. I was also involved in secret talks at Farmleigh with British security officials on security normalisation. This was the culmination of many years of talks about the pace of normalisation. For example, the Chief Constable regarded the Observation Towers in South Armagh as essential to the safety of his officers where locals detested them as unwarranted intrusions. They had continued in operation for many years after the signing of the GFA. Seamus Mallon with mordant humour regarded them as the bane of his life. The eventual dismantling of the Towers and other military installations were seen as tangible indications of the progress of the peace process.
  3. Arising from the Weston Park Agreement and the SDLP’s endorsement of the new policing arrangements, the British and Irish Governments agreed to appoint a judge of international standing to investigate allegations of collusion in six controversial cases, including the murder of Pat Finucane. The judge was to make a recommendation on whether any or all of these cases merited a public inquiry. There was considerable back and forth between Dublin and London as to the appointee7. I interviewed and recommended Judge Peter Cory of the Supreme Court of Canada. This was endorsed by the British Government. Judge Cory did an outstanding job with speed and great integrity. His recommendation for a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane has yet to be implemented.

Irish Aid, UN Director, Director Conflict Resolution Unit, 2004-2009

In 2005 I was asked by the Secretary General Dermot Gallagher, acting at the request of the Minister, Dermot Ahern T.D., to establish a conflict resolution unit to share the lessons of the peace process. We launched a number of initiatives including a National Action Plan on UNSC 1325 Women, Peace and Security, and projects in East Timor, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In 2009 I was appointed as Ambassador to the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

2013 to the present
In 2013 I was appointed Ambassador to Israel. In 2015 I returned to HQ as Director General for Trade. In 2020 I was appointed as Ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and The Bahamas.

Eamonn McKee
Ambassador of Ireland, Ottawa
15 January 2022

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The Good Friday Agreement Twenty-five years on: The Summer of 1998 and the Long Road to Peace

Travelers were officials working in Anglo-Irish Division who would weekly travel north to meet contacts, learn what was going on, report back and feed into intergovernmental discussions. Memory jog seeing my NI reports surface in the released state papers.[1] The parades issue was my beat as a traveler.  It pitched NI into new levels of heightened social tensions with dire potential.

Flashpoints combusted when Orange Lodges insisted on marching through nationalist areas. Places like the Lower Ormeau Road in south Belfast and the small village of Dunloy in the heart of Orange country in Antrim.  Drumcree in Armagh, the birthplace of Orangism, emerged as the leading battle of wills. 

Portadown Orange Lodge No. 1 held a traditional church service at Drumcree on the Sunday before the Twelfth of July, the annual celebration of King William of Orange’s victory over King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1691.  The traditional route took them along the Garvaghy Road, a nationalist housing estate on the edge of the predominantly loyalist Portadown. For the Twelfth, Portadown centre would be festooned with red, white and blue bunting, curb stones similarly painted, and triumphal arches erected across the street depicting King Billy astride a white horse.

Why now, with the ceasefires in place? As my contact and friend Brendan McAllister of Mediation Northern Ireland explained to me, the parades issue emerged after the paramilitary ceasefires as the new vehicle for the cross-community divisions that lay at the heart of the conflict.  The struggle between the paramilitaries and the security forces had acted as a default, a kind of lethal Punch and Judy show between ‘professionals’ on both sides, paramilitaries and the security forces.[2] 

The Orange Lodges insisted that they had the right to march ‘the Queen’s highways.’  Resident groups resisted this, saying they should not be locked in their homes with the security forces aiding a sectarian and triumphal demonstration. Each side saw in this a contest about their place in society, their rights, and the esteem of their identity.

The British Government appointed the North Commission to review parades and marches.  It reported that “The dispute in the summer of 1996 between the Loyal Orders and Nationalist residents groups, which required major intervention by the police under the public order legislation, brought Northern Ireland close to anarchy.”[3] Since the issue was on my desk, I drafted the Government’s response to the North Review.  It appeared from my research that while the right to assembly was a well-established one in many jurisdictions, there was no right to decide the route to that assembly.  Our submission argued that each parade dispute be subjected to arbitration based on the rule of law to adjudicate between those who insisted on marching and those who resisted such marches. The Director General, Sean Ó hUigínn, reviewed, honed and approved the draft. We traveled to meet the North Review to discuss the submission, Sean leading the delegation and responding to their questions with his eloquence and deep intellect. He left satisfied with the outcome. The North Review recommended the establishment of a Parades Commission operating under a new Public Processions (NI) Act 1998.[4] 

Tensions spilled over again in July 1997 as the Garvaghy Residents were cleared off their streets by the RUC on the night before the Orange parade. Riots broke out across the North.  The Minister, Ray Burke, called me to his office and instructed me to meet the residents. From the rise above Newry town, an eerie sight of plumes of black smoke rose across the North.

With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, the Drumcree march in July became a test case.  The newly established Parades Commission had ruled against the parade going via the Garvaghy Road. Loyalists and Orangemen gathered outside the church at Drumcree.  Nationalist supporters flooded into the Garvaghy Road.  The British Army dug a ditch and put up barbed wire in between both groups. There was something primal about the carnival of menace, jeering, fireworks and hatred from Drumcree hill. Everything seemed to be on the line: rights, law and order, the authority of the Parades Commission, the future.

In an attempt to head off the confrontation, ‘proximity talks’ were convened.  The Orange Order refused to meet directly with the Garvaghy Residents, seeing in this an admission that the Residents had a say in public order.  I was with them as the Government’s representative.  Their legal advisor was Rosemary Nelson from nearby Lurgan. I knew Rosemary from previous cases that we had raised through the Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Conference.  We talked a lot about the North in the longueurs of the proximity talks, about the tensions of living there, of the relief she felt whenever she crossed the border south. There wasn’t much for me to do but observe, check with contacts, make sure no untoward or unacceptable initiatives made matters worse, and keep Dublin closely informed. Under the leadership of the new DG of Anglo-Irish, Dermot Gallagher, senior officials in Dublin, Belfast and London were actively engaged and monitoring developments, advising the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as developments unfolded. I’m sure the lines between Ahern and Blair were busy. Up north, as a mediator trusted by all sides including leading churchmen on both sides, Brendan McAllister was trying his best to cajole a solution. My opposite number was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff.  Jonathan too tried his best to negotiate a solution as he shuttled between Portadown Orange Lodge No 1 and the Garvaghy Road Residents. 

Then a horrific incident changed the atmosphere. Jason, Mark and Richard Quinn, three young boys, died in a UVF firebomb attack on their home in Ballymoney on July 12th. Widespread condemnation was immediate, including from some very courageous Protestant clergymen who spoke out from the pulpits.  A new consensus coalesced, enough was enough. Tensions eased, the Parades Commission’s decision was upheld. Garvaghy Road did not see an Orange Parade.

The Good Friday Agreement faced another dreadful test a month later.  On August 15th the Real IRA exploded a bomb in Omagh, killing 29 and including more than 200.  It was the worst incident of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, surpassed in lethality only by the Dublin Monaghan bombings in 1974 that killed 33 and injured more than 300. The consensus hardened that such murderous violence had to be consigned to the past, that the GFA was the future. 

In that summer of 1998, it was as if the Agreement, the shield of good intentions and high ambitions, made of words and ink, blessed by the people’s endorsement North and South, was being tested by the swords and dragons of Northern Ireland.  

Though Northern Ireland’s swordsmen and dragons died hard, the shield stood.  There would be other killings, for sure. In March 1999, Rosemary Nelson was killed when a bomb exploded under her car.  It was claimed by a loyalist group.  Yet peace had the upper hand and the inclination to use of violence ebbed.  Even the means to carry it out were tackled, led by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.  Canada’s General John de Chastelain played a key role in this along with its other members.  I had never been sure that decommissioning had been feasible.  In the wake of the GFA, a republican contact in Derry had thrown a live round across a table at me, said take it to Dublin and “tell them that’s the only f—king decommissioning they’re going to see.” It was a stubborn issue that took years to unlock but that too was achieved. As the new policing represented by the PSNI took hold, the prize of decommissioning all paramilitary weapons was finally won. The monopoly on the use of violence was returned to the state.

Twenty-five years on, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement reminds us of what we left behind: killing and hatred, a decent future frustrated by the claims of the past. Finding peace in Northern Ireland had been a long road: the Sunningdale Agreement 1973-74, the Haughey-Thatcher summits in the early 1980s, the Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985, the Hume-Adams talks, the paramilitary ceases fires in 1994 and 1997, the GFA in 1998 and the twenty-nine subsequent agreements to implement it.  Through infinite hours of talks, meetings and negotiations, peace came dropping slow.

Great leaders emerged who took courageous decisions: Hume, Mallon, Haughey, Thatcher, FitzGerald, Spring, Major, Reynolds, Adams, McGuinness, Trimble, Robinson, Bruton, McAleese, Paisely (eventually) and Blair.  Countless others included the women of the Peace Movement like Mairead Corrigan and later leaders of the Women’s Coalition like Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar.  People working in NGOs and community groups at interfaces, risking vilification and physical violence to inch forward toleration.

Now the black swan of Brexit calls again for leadership of a very high order, provided on the Irish side by a new political generation. Like generations of peace makers of all kinds, as officials we were sustained by a ‘duty of hope’, committed to the process, always working toward a better future.  Here’s to more progress in 2023.



1 January 2023

[1] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/pithy-and-precise-the-post-it-notes-from-bruton-s-era-1.4765531

[2] Security forces as a term covers many organizations, including RUC, its Special Branch which was regarded as a force within a force, the British Army and a host of covert intelligence agencies, including MI5 and the British Army’s Force Research Unit.

[3] https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/issues/parade/docs/north97sum.pdf

[4] http://www.paradescommission.org/

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Bloody Sunday: When and Why Apologies Work

Interesting to read about British discussions in 1997 about an apology for Bloody Sunday.  Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam wanted a review but only one such that “no soldier or other crown servant should be placed in jeopardy of legal action by whatever the reviewer might find or by what might flow from his findings”.  

As the Irish Times reports, “the restricted files released in Belfast show there was considerable debate within the UK government during 1997 over whether a fresh inquiry was necessary, or if a more limited review and apology might suffice.”[1]  The Defence Secretary, George Robertson, was concerned either that a review without legal consequence could not be guaranteed since a decision to prosecute lay with the AG, or that such a review would be of little interest to the Bloody Sunday relatives.  “A heartfelt apology should, in my view, be the Government’s last word on the subject.”

Here’s why an apology would not have worked in 1997 but was appropriate and fitting in 2010.

An apology in 1997 would have been an attempt to head off the pressure for a new inquiry into the 1972 killing of 14 people in Derry by the British Army (the Paras).  Pressure to revisit the killings increased dramatically with Don Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday. With forensic skill and detective work, Don worked through the contemporaneous statements ignored by Widgery.  Over 500 statements had been collected by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the National Council for Civil Liberties.[2] His account directly challenged the official British version contained in the report of the Widgery Inquiry.

Widgery, the Lord Chief Justice of Britain, had conducted a public inquiry under the gold-standard Tribunal of Inquiries Act 1921.  With undue haste, it took him only a month.  Yet his conclusions echoed through the years.  In exonerating the soldiers and blaming the victims with false accusations that they were armed, Widgery became synonymous in Ireland with a white wash. The Widgery Report was dismissed, including by the Irish Government.

The events of Bloody Sunday and the Widgery Report exacerbated the conflict, strengthened the Provisional IRA, cast the British Army into the role of aggressor, and robbed nationalists of any belief that the rule of law or justice was available to them under British rule. 

Yet however much nationalists would denigrate the Widgery Report, it was the official British version of events by the Lord Chief Justice, the officer at the very apex of the British legal system.  This is what the long campaign of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign was up against. If there was ever to be a new inquiry, the Widgery Report would have to be set aside. By 1997 the case against Widgery was reaching a climax.

The publication of Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday prompted renewed calls for another inquiry and the campaign of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign got a fresh impetus. In addition to Don’s work, others like Professor Dermot Walsh of the University of Limerick had analysed the statements by soldiers to the Military Police and Treasury Solicitors, detailing their many discrepancies and alterations.  New ballistic evidence emerged, reinforcing the questions raised back in 1972 by Samuel Dash. Channel Four News broadcast new interviews with soldiers on duty that day that challenged the Widgery version of events. We discovered 101 statements by eyewitnesses collected by Irish Government officials.  Investigative reporting by the Sunday Business Post added to the growing body of evidence that the Widgery was indeed a white wash, at the very least an incomplete and distorted account of events. 

Parliamentary Questions were tabled in the Dáil.  In drafting responses, I suggested and the Department of the Taoiseach (Paul McGarry) agreed, that the ‘new material’ presented by Don Mullan would be assessed.  Initially I had no idea how to do this.  A colleague and friend, Gerry Corr, was intrigued.  “You are summoning beasts from the deep” he said, “What will you do if they come?” (Gerry became a life-long friend with a highly distinguished diplomatic career and one of the Department’s great speech writers. He had worked as a traveler in Anglo-Irish Division during some of the worst years of the conflict.)

So I went back to the source and read the Widgery Report.  It was a rich repository of material about the events of that infamous day.  It was plain to see where Widgery had to distort the narrative to validate pre-determined conclusions.  The rationale for ignoring eyewitness statements that conflicted with Widgery’s mission to exculpate of the soldiers was clear. The new material from all its various sources did not need to be proven factually or legally correct. Rather it could be collated and aimed directly at Widgery’s claims, paragraph by paragraph.  The Widgery Report could be hoist on its own petard. The draft Assessment was finished with great editorial and research support from colleagues in Anglo-Irish Division, and Gerry Cribben and Wally Kirwan in the Department of the Taoiseach.

However to my mind, the real test of the Assessment’s merit was the judgement of the Director General of Anglo-Irish Division at the time, Sean Ó hUigínn.  Sean played a pivotal role in the peace process, a supreme intellect at work navigating the way forward in the crucial transition from conflict to ceasefires.  He had been the architect of the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, working closely with the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, another driving force in the peace process. After Sean had read the draft, I was summoned to his office.  He was leafing through the document and lay it on the coffee table as I sat down. As long as there were no glaring errors in it, he approved text.  Relief. In his view, the new material fatally undermined and discredited the Widgery Report. More than that, Sean subsequently added concluding paragraphs that resounded with the high principles of justice at stake.  His indictment was eloquent and excoriating: 

“There have been many atrocities in Northern Ireland since Bloody Sunday.  Other innocent victims have suffered grievously at various hands. The victims of Bloody Sunday met their fate at the hands of those whose duty it was to respect as well as to uphold the rule of law.  However, what sets this case apart from other tragedies which might rival it in bloodshed, is not the identity of those killing and killed, or even the horrendous circumstances of the day.  It is rather that the victims of Bloody Sunday suffered a second injustice, this time at the hands of Lord Widgery, the pivotal trustee of the rule of law, who  sought to taint them with responsibility for their own deaths in order to exonerate, even at great moral cost, those he found it inexpedient to blame.”[3]

Under Sean’s seal of approval, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern conveyed the Assessment to the newly elected British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.  I understand that he underlined in the strongest possible terms the import of how Blair would respond and of the significance of overturning the historic wrong of Bloody Sunday.  Blair could have little doubt that such a powerful gesture would reinforce the momentum toward peace and reconciliation.

The intention was to publish the Assessment eventually so that even if the British Government refused a new inquiry, the Irish Government would table in effect an alternative narrative. It was a great example of the collective talent and teamwork that the Irish system was able to bring to the peace process.

Legend has it that Blair gave the Assessment to his wife Cherie to read with her legal eye.  She had just taken silk, become a Queen’s Counsel.  I like to think that that might be true. Imagine the scene as, possibly armed with a legal pad of her notes, she tells Tony that he can’t stand over Widgery.

It was quite a moment then in January 1998 as, across the floor of the House of Commons, Blair faced Ted Heath, the Prime Minister who had established the Widgery Inquiry over twenty-five years earlier.  Blair announced a new inquiry: “I have been strongly advised that there are indeed grounds for such a further Inquiry. We believe that the weight of material now available is such that these events require re-examination.”

The Inquiry would take twelve years and cost £200 million. Yet in that brave decision Blair sent a profound message that he meant business about a new form of engagement in Northern Ireland. 

Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology in 2010 was meaningful precisely because it was based on the conclusions of the Saville Inquiry. “What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong……Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”

An apology in 1997 would have done little to substantively correct the double injustice of the victims, murdered and then blamed for their own deaths.  Thanks to the Saville Inquiry, the victims of Bloody Sunday had their innocence not just declared but proven.  The wrongs of Bloody Sunday were laid at the door of the British Army. And through the long years of the Saville Inquiry, there was much truth recovery that in future years will be invaluable for future assessments of what happened that day and why.



31 December 2022

[1] https://www.irishtimes.com/history/2022/12/31/bloody-sunday-mo-mowlams-draft-apology-on-soldiers-not-intending-murder-ruled-out/

[2] Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, 25th Anniversary edition, p 23.

[3] Bloody Sunday and the Report of the Widgery Tribunal, The Irish Government’s Assessment of the New Material, p

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Christmas Message 2022

Dear Friends,

This was very much a year of two halves. The grip of the pandemic loosened as we entered spring and by the summer life had really returned to normal in earnest. It was great to see the streets bustling again, restaurants opening up, and cities across Canada coming alive, and friends and families crossing the North Atlantic.

The pandemic showed that we can use online events to extend our reach. We hosted some great events to celebrate Irish Heritage Month and St Patrick’s Day. The chair of the Canada Ireland Parliamentary Friendship Group, James Maloney MP and myself were honoured to be joined by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. You can find it here if you missed it. We had great fun with discussions and celebrations of St Brigid’s Day, the Women behind James Joyce, readings from Ulysses for Bloomsday, as well as posting podcasts about a host of topics.

Since we were able to travel and assemble, we were able to enjoy a great St Patrick Day’s Parade in Toronto, pulled together with little advance notice but a lot of passion and energy.

Sadly, we learned the following day of the unexpected passing of our dear friend and colleague, the former Ambassador to Canada, Jim Kelly. It was shocking news for one so young to die and with so much more to offer. We miss him and continue to have Anne, Ciara and Orla in our thoughts at this time of year when the loss of loved ones is felt so keenly.

In terms of my colleagues working here, we said goodbye to Frank Flood who did such a great job establishing the new Consulate General in Vancouver. I was delighted to welcome Cathy Geagan as our second Consul General and she’s already doing a great job.  It was a thrill to finally establish a Consulate General in Toronto: Consul General Janice McGann and Deputy Consul General William Barrett are off to a flying start.

I want to thank all of our Honorary Consuls who do such a great job supporting us, aiding the community and promoting Ireland. Eithne Heffernan has passed the torch to Janice and I want to pay tribute to the amazing job she did with such grace as our Honorary Consul in Toronto over the years, notably through the years of the pandemic which proved difficult for so many. We deeply value the work and outreach of I/CAN as providing essential support and services to the Irish in Canada. Our great Honorary Consul in Alberta, Doodie Cahill, retired. Mary and I were able to join the Edmonton Irish Sports and Social Society there to say thanks to Doodie and enjoy the Club’s 60th anniversary. We also visited Calgary to catch up with our great Honorary Consul there, Deirdre Halferty. We met for a great evening with the Irish Cultural Society of ceol agus craic. It was a real pleasure too to get down to business with our Honorary Vice Consul, Laureen Regan who has been sterling work with her newly launched and dynamic Ireland Alberta Trade Association.

This has been an exciting year of discovery about the depth and strength of the Irish in Canada. The Irish in Canada have a lot of which to be very proud indeed. From Anglo-Irish administrators and Governor Generals to Catholic Church leaders, from hard working immigrants in the lumber industry, farms, and cities, to business barons, founding fathers, politicians, labour organisers, soldiers, explorers and writers, the list keeps growing. We want to spread the word that Ireland and the Irish should come to mind when you think of the westward expansion of Canada, the RCMP, Canadian botany, the Canadian Flag and a host of businesses from Labatt’s to Eaton’s and Richardson’s.

We’re really excited by the vision and ambitions of Robert Kearns of the Canada Ireland Foundation and look forward to partnering with them in promoting Irish heritage and contemporary Irish culture. The Cultural Centre that Robert, William Peat and their board are creating at the Corleck Building will be an enormous asset in a new era of Irish-Canadian relations.

We visited Newfoundland in May, a Province that is unimaginable without the decisive influence of the Irish and where Irish accents are so deep you think you’re home. We were part of a very moving ceremony at the Irish Famine Grave at Grosse Ȋle in July with thanks to Bryan O’Gallagher and Irish Heritage Quebec for keeping that hallowed space cherished and its memory alive.

We had the honour of our naval vessel the LE James Joyce visit Halifax Nova Scotia (whose founding father was Dublin man Richard Bulkeley), and still managed to have the on-board VIP reception despite the attentions of the uninvited guest that was hurricane Fiona!

Visits to Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Hamilton, Montreal, Quebec, and Toronto were fabulous engagements with Irish societies proud of their heritage and vibrant with plans for the future.

We hosted Irish Night on Parliament Hill in November and if there was one event that summed up the spirit of the Irish in Canada it was this one. We had over four hundred guests, with great music, dancing, and short but passionate speeches. You can get a flavour of the evening here.

As a Resident of Ottawa, I have been particularly thrilled to discover the city’s Irish heritage. I am not surprised that this is news to me. I am surprised that it is news to so many. Thanks to local historian Michael McBane, we learned of the famine grave at Macdonald Gardens Park and held a ceremony of remembrance there in August.

From the Rideau Canal to the Irish heritage of Rideau Hall and the decisive role of the Ahearn family in the development of the city, we have much to be proud of here. The great Irish stained glass window by Wilhelmina Geddes was restored with Irish Government support, and was rededicated at a Remembrance Service led by the window’s champion Reverend Father David Clunie of St Bartholomew’s Church. We wish him well on his retirement.

Ottawa was created and developed by its large and extensive Irish community, which reaches deep into the Ottawa, Rideau, and Gatineau Valleys. We are looking forward to developing our Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail. Irish Senator and genealogist Jillian Van Turnout and I shared great stories on our inaugural tour of the trail, taking us from the city up to the great Irish community at Low and Venosta in the Gatineau. Just let me say this, it will be a long heritage trail with many stops along the way!

We have been busy at the Residence too with music, readings, receptions and networking dinners. The pandemic was well and truly over when we hosted our Team Ireland Conference at the Residence in June, joined by the State Agencies and colleagues from Dublin. We were delighted to work in partnership with Bord Bia and Tourism Ireland to bring the great Irish chef JP McMahon over to cook with Indigenous Chefs at the Field to Feast Festival in Glengarry. At the Residence, he showed me how to cook halibut! Prof Joseph Valente gave a great talk about Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the Residence to an audience enlivened by many in costume!

We hosted two great events at the Residence with Enterprise Ireland and the IDA promoting bilateral economic links. We were a bit rusty after two-years of pandemic induced torpor. However, thanks to a magnificent effort by the team, led by the incomparably active Second Secretary Sally Bourne, and diligently supported in all things by my wife Mary (truly a hostess with the mostest!), we really had some splendid evenings. We look forward to doing more.

Finally, we organized a simple gesture of lighting a candle of remembrance at the grave of some three-hundred victims the Famine Irish at Macdonalds Gardens Park Ottawa at dusk on the Winter Solstice, 21 December.  We did this in association with the National Famine Museum at Strokestown House, Quebec, Montreal, and Toronto where candles were lit.  We are planning to do this again next year at the Winter Solstice and look forward to doing so at more locations where Irish Famine victims lie.

As metrics go, social media may not be the best but nor is it the worst. We recorded some 600,000 impressions over the year, reflecting the wide interest in our content and activities.

After a busy year in a world where the predictable has been replaced by the uncertain, Christmas is special time of year to take some time out, reflect on the past and remind ourselves that compassion, generosity and kindness are what truly enrich life. I wish everyone a very happy Christmas, holiday season and New Year. 

Nollaig Shona Diaobh!


Ambassador of Ireland

Ottawa, 22 December 2022

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Lilias Ahearn Massey: The Utility of Glamour and the Value of Privacy

(The Bytown-Ottawa Heritage Trail: the Fabulous Ahearns concluded)

Lilias Evva Ahearn was born in 1918 into a family that had a local dynasty in Ottawa. Her father Frank had married Nora Lewis in 1909. Frank returned from the front in 1916, having been wounded.  As a war hero, scion of the business empire built by his father Thomas, and soon-to-be sports mogul, Frank was quite the man about town.  She was named after Frank’s mother who had tragically died giving birth to her aunt, also called Lilias. The family home was 7 Rideau Gate, a walk across the road from the gates to Rideau Hall, official residence of the GG.[1] 

Lilias would have learned from the outset of her life that attention was her due; from her doting parents, from the powerful people that visited them, and from the press.  As a young girl, she was often the prized flower girl at weddings of the local elite.  As she grew, her life was regularly reported in the press.  Gregarious by nature, a natural and witty hostess, Lilias learned to use to tools of glamour as an asset.  And then she had the wisdom to leave that behind, to discover the value of privacy.  

The Ahearn family were no mere spectators to the comings and goings of the Governor Generals that passed their door on their way to their official residence at Rideau Hall.  Her grandfather Thomas was a confidante of Prime Minister MacKenzie King and later a member of the Privy Council.  Her father Frank was a busy man in a city that the family had done so much to modernize and develop.  Lilias grew up in an atmosphere of politics and glamour within the small resident elite of Ottawa.  Family lore was rich, reaching back to John Ahearn, her great-grandfather and the Irish-born blacksmith who had come to what was then the rough lumber Bytown in the late 1840s or early 1850s.

In her perceptive view, the historian Charlotte Gray wrote that the Ahearns were Ottawa ‘lifers’, not like the ‘self-important comings and goings of the Dominion capital’.  The Ahearns and their Ottawa friends took access to the GG’s Residence as a right, not a privilege, she notes.  When she was 18, Lilias the debutante was presented at Rideau Hall:

“They [the lifers] included the Southams, the Sherwoods, the Scotts, the Keefers – and the Ahearns.  Thomas Ahearn, known as the King of Electricity because he brought electric street cars to Ottawa, was Lilias’ paternal grandfather.  Lilias Ahearn was born in the family cottage at Thirty One Mile Lake, a grew up with both the assurance of a rich man’s daughter, and the insecurity produced by Establishment Expectations.”[2]

The first years of Lilias’ life were momentous.  Canadians had just come through the trauma and victory of Vimy Ridge in 1917, a decisive episode in the formation of Canadian identity.  The Winnipeg General Strike put government on notice that Canada had to provide decent lives for all its citizens. The year she was born saw women granted the vote. This, combined with social change and the impact of technology, gave Lilias a degree of freedom and autonomy that generations of Ahearn women could not have dreamed.

Other reliefs to the slavish lives of women were coming on stream. Like her mother Nora, Lilias would have servants in the house, a dramatically different lifestyle to that of her grandmother, and even more so that of her great-grandmother. At any rate, the harnessing of electricity for domestic appliances achieved by her grandfather would transform households. He had invented the electric oven but others would apply the technology to a host of other functions, including fridges, irons and above all the washing machine, the greatest liberation from drudgery since the invention of clothes.

As a toddler, Lilias would have been known to Lord Byng (GG 1921-26), who had been the Commander of the Canadian Army Corps at Vimy and a Canadian hero.  Byng was an avid sportsman and loved the Ottawa Senators so much that he rarely missed a game.  That the Senators were owned by her father reinforced the social ties. However, the Byng-King crisis must have strained relations.  It was a complicated tussle between Prime Minister MacKenzie King and the Governor General about the dissolution of parliament.  As the crisis roiled, Frank and his father Thomas no doubt supported their friend, the Prime Minister. The outcome saw a significant evolution in the role of the Governor General.  At the Prime Minister’s insistence, the Governor General from then onwards represented the British monarch only, not additionally the British Government.

As Lilias matured into a young girl, Viscount Willingdon arrived at Rideau Hall in 1926.  This was also a momentous year as the Imperial Conference degreed that all Dominions within the Commonwealth were members equal in status to Britain.  The Governor General henceforth represented the crown but acted on the advice of the Canadian Government.

Society was changing fast, driven by the upheavals of war and the speed of technological development. Willingdon was the first Governor General to travel by air, flying return to Montreal.[3]  Telecommunications technology had fascinated her grandfather as a boy and propelled him into fame as an inventor and wealth as a businessman.  Telecommunications were was developing apace.  Grandfather Thomas was the technical expert for the first official transatlantic phone call made a Canadian Prime Minister in 1927.  “The same year he was appointed the chairman of the broadcasting committee for the diamond jubilee [60th] of confederation and oversaw the earliest coast-to-coast radio broadcast.” [4]  Thanks to his expertise, the celebrations were broadcast on radio, including the first ringing of the new carillon at Parliament’s Victoria [now Peace] Tower. A year later her granddad was appointed to the Privy Council.

By 1932, Canada had its first trans-Canadian phone system, thanks in large part to Thomas Ahearn.  The Governor General by then was the Anglo-Irish Earl of Bessborough who inaugurated the system from his study in Rideau Hall with calls to all his Lieutenant Governors.

When World War II erupted, Lilias joined the Red Cross and was part of the Royal Canadian Airforce. She met and fell in love with Flying Officer Douglas Byrd Van Buskirk from New York. As reported in the press, on 9 November 1941, Lilias learned that her husband was missing in action.  Then she received the fateful telegram from London that he had been killed in an air raid over Germany. It had been a massive formation flying in bad weather.  It took severe casualties with 37 bombers and 15 fighters failing to return.  Buskirk and his crew were buried in Dusseldorf, according to the German authorities. Lilias had just enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She then joined the Canadian Red Cross in England as an ambulance driver, the press reported.[5]

Charlotte Gray again: “Then she reverted to type and married into the closet thing that Canada could offer as an aristocracy: the immensely rich Massey family.”  The splashy wedding in 1946 certainly lit up dreary post-war Ottawa.  Lilias had a blast and her wedding photo with her handsome husband Lionel and five bridesmaids shows it.

Lionel Massy himself had by this stage an interesting career.  He had served as Press Attaché for the British Commonwealth Relations Conference in Australia in 1938 which might have started a diplomat career (his father had been Canada’s first High Commissioner or ambassador in Washington).  However, he joined the army on the outbreak of war and served as a captain in the King’s Rifle Corps.  He fought in Egypt and Greece where machine gun fire injured both knees and he was a German prisoner of war between 1941 and 1944. 

In 1952 Lionel’s father Vincent Massey was appointed as the first Canadian to serve as Governor General.[6]  Lionel accepted the post of Secretary to his father but with reservations about the impression it might create of turning the office into a family affair.

No such reservations dogged his wife.  All of Lilias’ background, character and natural gifts had prepare her for her next and most significant role.  Since Vincent was a widower, Lilias was a natural choice to act as chȃtelaine, or vice-regal consort. Once she, Lionel and their three daughters were ensconced in the cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall, Lilias took up her duties with gusto. “The Masseys organized the most divine dinner dances.  Vincent had a sense of style from his years in the diplomatic service, and Lilias was an excellent hostess,” recalled one contemporary.[7]  Dinners, lunches, receptions and even movies filled the Massey calendar. Lilias hosted with aplomb guests like Eisenhower, Nehru, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, Queen Juliana and Haile Salassie, and a host of European crown heads.

One of Lilias’ first duties was to represent her father-in-law at the 1952 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London.  Interestingly, Vincent himself opted to stay in Canada:

“Mr. Massey revived the use of the State carriage in 1953 when it was used in Ottawa for the Coronation celebrations of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Amid much pageantry, the carriage brought Vincent Massey and his staff to Parliament Hill under escort by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Mr. Massey introduced Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation speech, broadcast in London and around the world. The carriage he used that day is still used for the opening of Parliament and during official State visits. To commemorate Her Majesty’s Coronation, Mr. Massey issued silver spoons to all Canadian children born on that day, June 2, 1953.”[8]

As the first Canadian citizen to be Governor General, Vincent Massey was a tireless champion for Canada, making 86 trips around the vast country.  He travelled extensively “visiting every corner of the country – where plane or ship couldn’t reach, he went by canoe or dog team.”[9]  On all but two of his travels, Lilias went with him, showing again that adventurous streak, grabbing life with both hands. When he had decided to remind Canadians about their great arctic territory and its Inuit culture, she flew with him when such air travel still had its dangers.  She was the first airborne woman over the North Pole.

Lilias used her talents and glamour to support the image of Canada’s first native Governor General and to demonstrate that Canada could hold its own with world leaders. She and her family illustrated too what an immigrant family could do if and when given the opportuntity. Canada had given them that. And they had given Canada much.

When Vincent’s term concluded as Governor General in September 1959, the Masseys left Rideau Hall.  Lionel took up a post as administrative director at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, promoted to Associate Director in 1963.  He died suddenly two years later of a stroke, aged 49.  Lilias moved back to Ottawa and into an apartment. She passed away three decades later in January 1997.  

In a way, an era ended not with her death but thirty years earlier when she returned as a widow to her home town.  By the time she had left Rideau Hall, Canada had established itself as a nation in its own right.  A new chapter was beckoning in which Canada would forge its own modern identity with a refashioned constitution, a new national flag, and a vibrant creative culture. As members of the jet-set, Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret channelled a new kind of glamour. 

At so many levels, the 1960s and 1970s challenged virtually every aspect of the society in which Lilias had grown and prospered. With a strategic insight worthy of her father and grandfather, she manifestly grasped this.  Privacy was her new value. On return to Ottawa in1965, she closed the door on the limelight.  Perhaps she intuited too that the iconoclastic new era would change the traditional deference of the press to social elites, rip the veil that shielded their affairs, illnesses and scandals from the public eye.  Glamour had utility but now demanded more imtimacies and with it more dangers for those who wielded it.

From now on, as Gray records, Lilias’ social circle were the friends she had known all her life, the aging lifers of Ottawa.  Lilias and her friends no doubt watched with interest the political and cultural forces reshaping Canada but their greatest adventures were in their memories. 

Lilias was the last leader of the Ahearns.  They had made an enormous contribution to Ottawa and a significant one to Canada.  Within three generations they had through talent and energy moved from a blacksmithing immigrant from Ireland to a business empire, the Privy Council and on to Rideau Hall.  That said something about them, the fabulous Ahearns, and it said something too about Canada, their land of opportunity.

Today, Lilias’ old family home at 7 Rideau Gate is the Canadian Government’s official guest accommodation and the Prime Minister lives in the cottage that hosted Lionel, Lilias and their family in the glory years when the Masseys ruled Rideau Hall.

Eamonn McKee


18 December 2022

[1] As I have written elsewhere, bought by Irish GG Monck and extensively developed by the Anglo-Irish Lord and Lady Dufferin.

[2] https://www.facebook.com/wwiicdnwomensproject.org/photos/pcb.248477750075474/248477500075499/?type=3&theater

[3] https://www.GG.ca/en/governor-general/former-governors-general/viscount-willingdon

[4] http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ahearn_thomas_16E.html

[5] There is also a strange reference to the granting of annulment in the marriage of Lilias Ahearn and Wilbur Pittman Roberts, ibid, WW II Canadian Women’s Project, ibid.

[6] The family had made its fortune with the Massey-Harris company, founded in 1891, the largest producer of agricultural machinery in the Commonwealth, later Massey-Ferguson, so well known and loved in Ireland that the Massey-Ferguson is synonymous with tractor.  Vincent’s brother was the Hollywood actor Raymond Massey.

[7] Cited by Gray, op cit.

[8] https://www.GG.ca/en/governor-general/former-governors-general/vincent-massey

[9] Ibid.

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Frank Ahearn: Businessman, MP, and Sports Mogul

(Bytown-Ottawa Heritage Trail: The Fabulous Ahearns cont’d)

Thomas Franklin Ahearn, known as Frank, was in Ottawa in 1886.  By then his father Thomas had embarked on a career that would see him successfully establish a business empire with Warren Soper and a reputation as Canada’s leading inventor and moderniser of the city of Ottawa (see blog). Frank showed similar drive and ambition to his father, embracing with gusto a varied career as a military officer, businessman, parliamentarian and sporting mogul.

In his young days, Frank played ice hockey with his pals, using an old street car from his father’s company as a dressing room.  Ice hockey indeed would be a life-long devotion and mark one of his significant contributions to Ottawa and Canada.

In the meantime, World War I intervened and like so many other Irish Canadians, Frank joined the army as a lieutenant with the First Canadian Supply Division, Mechanical Transport in January 1914.  He served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France, saw action, was promoted to captain and was wounded.  He returned home in 1916 and later became orderly officer to the Minister of the Militia, Sir Sam Hughes.[1]

Frank rekindled his love for hockey, managing amateur junior and senior hockey.  “He became interested in professional Hockey because he felt that was the best way to get the city a badly needed new facility. Besides, he’d grown tired of the huge gray area represented by the term amateur during this period.”[2]  Frank became a part-owner of the Ottawa Senators in 1920 and was a key figure in the evolution of the sport from amateur to professional. 

The Ottawa Senators were a storied team since their foundation in 1883, the first club in Ontario and a founding member of the National Hockey League.  They won the first Stanley Cup challenge in 1893 and kept it until 1906. They returned to winning form in 1920 when Frank became a part owner of the team, along with the founder and majority owner Edwin ‘Ted’ Dey.[3] 

Tommy Gorman was another part-owner, one of the greatest managers and talent spotters in ice hockey history, winning seven Stanley Cups during his career. First generation Irish, Tommy was born in Ottawa of an Irish father, Thomas Patrick Gorman who was born in Kilmanagan, Co Kilkenny in 1849. Thomas Patrick was a newspaper editor so it was not surprising that his son Tommy became a writer with the Ottawa Citizen in the years up to 1921, writing about his great passion, sports.[4]

The Senators won the Cup again in 1922 again in 1923.  It was then that Frank bought the Senators from Dey who was retiring. The Senators won the Stanley Cup again in 1924, with Frank demonstrating “his prowess as a handler of player personnel.”[5] Tommy sold his share to Frank in 1925 and went to New York to establish professional hockey there. The Senators were champions again in 1927, the (possibly) eleventh and final time they won the Championship.[6]  The team for the 1926-27 season included some of the greats of ice hockey, Irish Canadians like King Clancy, Alec Connell, Cy Denneny, and the ‘Shawville Express’ Frank Finnigan (so called because he got the train to Ottawa but I’m sure it had something to do with his style of play!)[7]

Frank’s biography in the Hockey Hall of Fame:

“Ahearn was not one to shy away from significant transactions. After winning the Stanley Cup he sent Hooley Smith to the Montreal Maroons for $22, 500 and the immensely talented Punch Broadbent. A few years later sold King Clancy to the Toronto Maple Leafs for two players and $35,000. The latter move was one of desperation as the Depression took its toll on the once proud franchise. Ahearn fought hard and lost a great deal of money trying to keep the Senators afloat. He successfully lobbied for the team to be excused from the 1931-32 season. The next year the club finished last and was forced to relocate to St. Louis, Missouri were it ended for good after one season. Despite the ending, Ottawans enjoyed many years of outstanding hockey as a result of Ahearn’s commitment.”[8]

Along with Gorman and Dey, Frank was part of the consortium that built the Ottawa Auditorium, home to the Senators from 1923, capable of hosting 10,000 spectators. It was located beside what is today the Canadian Museum of Nature on the site of what is now a YMCA. The Auditorium’s fortunes waned along with the team’s decline from greatness.  It went into receivership in 1936, with Gorman returning to take ownership in 1945.

Throughout these years, Frank was a leading businessman, following in the footsteps of his famous father, taking over the Ottawa Electric Railway Company in 1938 when Thomas Ahearn died. Two years later he headed the Ottawa Electric Company and had many business interests in realty, car manufacture and investments.

Frank was certainly a chip off the old block and in addition to his interests in business and hockey, he was elected to Parliament where he served for almost a decade between 1930 and 1940, a Liberal MP first for Ottawa City and then Ottawa West.  

Frank’s family home was at 7 Rideau Gate, a fine detached residence, where he lived with his wife Norah, son Thomas and daughters Joan and Lilias.  Frank died in 1962.  That year he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.  Four years later he was inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame.

Frank, his wife and children were the last private family to live at 7 Rideau Hall before it became the official guest accommodation of the Canadian Government.  And that is part of Lilias’ story.

Eamonn McKee


17 December 2022

[1] Parliamentary Profile, https://lop.parl.ca/sites/ParlInfo/default/en_CA/People/Profile?personId=507 and his biographical entry in the Hockey Hall of Fame, https://www.hhof.com/HonouredMembers/MemberDetails.html?type=Builder&mem=B196201&list=ByName

[2] https://hockeygods.com/images/14791-Frank_Ahearn_Ottawa_Senators_President_and_Owner

[3] Wikipedia entry, Edwin Dey. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Dey

[4] Thanks to Michael McBane for establishing the Irish birth of Tommy’s father.

[5] Hall of Fame biography: https://www.hhof.com/HonouredMembers/MemberDetails.html?type=Builder&mem=B196201&list=ByName

[6] It is a matter of some dispute whether in fact they won it 9, 10 or 11 times.

[7] Finnigan won the Stanley Cup again, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. After his sporting career ended in 1937, Finnigan had a problem with alcohol and Frank Ahearn got him a job.  Finnigan overcame his drinking problem and managed hotels in the area.  His daughter Joan became a writer and collected many stories of the Irish in the Ottawa Valley.  She wrote the screenplay for the 1968 docudrama, The Best Damn Fiddler Player from Calabogie to Kaladar which won the Canadian Film Award, as did the film itself.  Margot Kidder, famously playing Lois Lane in the Superman movie, made her film debut in the movie.

[8] Op cit.


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