Every Irish emigrant was and is an explorer of sorts. However, the Irish as significant explorers into lands unknown (at least to Europeans) is not often highlighted.
With temperatures dropping and snow on the ground, think of the Irish explorers of the Canadian Arctic. I asked John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, for his take on the Irish contribution to Canadian exploration. Immense, he said, and immediately suggested four figures.
Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier: While he is not profiled yet in the excellent Canadian Dictionary of Biography (free online), you can find his story in Wikipedia. He was born in Banbridge, Co. Down (which erected a fine statue to him), joined the British Navy at age thirteen, and explored the Arctic and Antarctic six times. Fatefully, he joined the Franklin Expedition in 1845 to navigate the Northwest Passage: ‘Crozier was considered to lead this expedition, but his Irish ancestry and humble birth counted against him.’ Icebound for a year, with its leader Franklin dead, Crozier led the survivors in hope of reaching the Canadian mainland. They were never found. Public opinion demanded a search for the lost expedition. The fate of the expedition fate became a national obsession in Britain.
Francis McClintock from Dundalk joined the Franklin search parties between 1848 and 1859. He developed a system for using human-pulled sledges; ‘McClintock’s system would revolutionize polar exploration by allowing seaborne expeditions to extend their range by thousands of miles’, notes the CDB. Finally in command of his own search party paid for by Franklin’s wife, McClintock found relics and skeletons proving conclusively that Franklin and his men died on King William Island. So the man from Dundalk found the man from nearby Banbridge. McClintock returned a hero, having solved the mystery.
Robert McClure was born in Wexford in 1807. He is profiled in the CDB as the man who not only was the first to circumnavigate the Americas but was also the first to traverse the famed Northwest Passage, the first indeed to cross Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic. His voyage as commander of the Investigator is an epic of Arctic travels, again begun to find the Franklin Expedition. He and his crew spent four winters there and though he was court-martialled for losing his ship, parliament rewarded him after his acquittal and he was knighted. Interestingly, McClure survived by employing an Inuit interpreter and guide, finding better places to winter, and use of cairns as message stations (which led directly to his rescue). Had Franklin done this, he and his expedition might have survived.
John Pallister was born in Dublin. The CDB notes that ‘the devoutly Protestant Pallisers combined social eminence and a lively social, artistic, and intellectual life with a tradition of public service and conservative politics. They travelled extensively, living not only in Ireland at Derryluskan House, County Tipperary, at Comragh House, and in Dublin, but also in London, Rome, Florence, Paris, and Heidelberg.’ Explorer, big game hunter, and passionate traveller, Palliser began an exploration and survey of the Canadian Northwest between 1857 and 1859, opening it up to colonial settlement. After a life of adventures that eventually bankrupted him, Pallister retired to Comragh House where he died in 1887 and was buried in nearby Kilrossanty.
After Palliser’s survey, and to support the settlement of the Northwest, Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. McDonald, wanted an armed, mounted gendarmerie. He instructed that it be modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary. This new organisation would evolve into one of the most iconic of Canadian institutions, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
It was not all men of course. I searched for Murphy in the CDB and found the story of Dubliner and popular 19th century traveller writer Anna Murphy. She became an object of fascination to Canadians for her explorations in Upper Canada which she published as Winter Studies and summer rambles in Canada in 1838. She was less impressed with Toronto but was dazzled by Canada’s unspoilt natural environment. The CDB concludes that ‘In Canada, Winter studies and summer rambles has remained a classic among our travel journals.’
Ottawa, 21 December 2021