Tadhg Cornelius Ó’Braonáin, or in English Tadhg O’Brennan, known as Tec Cornelius Aubrenan, was the first known Irish-born immigrant to Canada since we do not have any names for the fishermen who had settled earlier in Newfoundland. He arrived in what was then New France in 1661 aged 45 and married Jeanne Chartier on October 9, 1670 in Notre Dame Cathedral in Quebec City. They had two children, Madeleine Therese Aubry, born August 8, 1671 in Vercheres and Francois Aubyn born October 31, 1677 in Lachenaie. He died aged fifty-five 1687 and is buried Pointe-aux-Trembles.
Born around 1616, 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 Tadgh’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.
In his Irish Names of Places, PW Joyce writes that Dysert is found commonly in Ireland, meaning hermitage. Dinin could be daingain meaning a stronghold, not usual to find at a confluence of rivers. Thus Diasonnay can reasonably read as ‘Dysert-on-the-Dinin.”
Dysert at the River Dinin is just south of Castlecomer, the ‘Castle at the confluence’ and indeed it is where the Dinan, Cloghogue and Brokcagh rivers meet. Because of its strategic significance, the Anglo-Norman Lord, William Marshall, established a stronghold there around 1200. Marshall had married the daughter of Dermot McMurrough, the Leinster king who had invited Henry II to invade Ireland thirty years earlier. Marshall had been his right hand man and the marriage, along with claims to Leinster, was his reward for lifelong service. Marshall’s arrival forced the O’Brennan’s into the hills around Dysert. Aubry quotes the following from the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquarians:
“But the O’Broenains were not extirpated or even subdued; they retreated before the feudal tenants of the Earl Marshall to the hills around Castlecomer; ‘where, in the land of the Dinin,’ surrounded by bogs and woods, they retained a stormy independence until later in the reign of the First Charles, when in 1635, a jury presented that the O’Broenains held their lands ‘manu forte’ [by the strength of their hand, or force of arms].”
However, the O’Brennan’s were unable to hold their lands in the face of the brutal onslaught of the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland in 1650. After infamous massacres and much destruction, the conquest ended in 1652, with sporadic guerrilla war finally petering out a year later. Lands held by Catholics were seized as spoils of war for his officers and as part of the extirpation of Catholicism by the New English, fanatical Protestant regicides. This was the foundation of Anglo-Irish Ascendancy taking shape, encompassing the New English with the surviving Old English who traced their roots back to the Norman invasion at the end of the twelfth century. Catholics were ordered to “hell or to Connaught” and under the Penal Laws made legal aliens in their own country.
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. New France had been established by Samuel de Champlain with the intention of creating a non-sectarian and egalitarian society in contrast to France and its prolonged religious civil war that saw some two million die.
We do not know much about Tadgh’s life in Quebec. Clearly he was a hardy fellow, a soldier of fortune by force of circumstance. He would have had stories to tell not just of own tumultuous his life but of the ancient and still vibrant Gaelic culture in which he had been born and raised. His family lineage and his life story were in themselves a plumb line that reached deep into Ireland’s history. A fitting character then to have the honour of being the first known Irishman in Canada.
Ottawa, 14 October 2022