I’m adding Rideau Hall to the Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail

On the hunt for the Irish heritage of Ottawa, or as I like to call it the Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail, the more I look the more I find.  Like the fact that the first three Governor Generals after Canadian Confederation were Anglo-Irish. I am proposing to add Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General, as a candidate for inclusion on the Irish Heritage Trail in Canada’s capital city.

And from my latest discoveries, I’m going to propose 7 Rideau Gate, the Canadian Government’s official guest house, as well as the actual wrought iron gates to Rideau Hall, both with strong claims to deserve inclusion. More on those anon, but here’s Rideau Hall’s claim to Irish heritage (we’re not just handing them out to anyone!)

We know that Thomas D’Arcy McGee was a founding father of Canadian Confederation in 1867.  Indeed, Canada’s Confederation and the political settlement underpinning it were the result of the influence of Britain, Ireland and the United States, the latter two as warnings on how not to run a country.  D’Arcy McGee’s knowledge of Irish history, British politics, and his aversion to the United States were the source of much of this influence.[1] 

What appears to have been forgotten is that after Confederation, the first three Governor Generals in the premiere Dominion of the Commonwealth were Irish, more precisely Anglo-Irish.  They all played a role in developing the function of that office, the representative of the British sovereign monarch in Canada.

The last Governor General of Provincial Canada and the first Governor General (GG) of the Canadian Confederation was Charles Monck, 4th Viscount Monck.  Born in Templemore, County Tipperary, and educated at Trinity College Dublin, he served for a time as MP for Portsmouth.  As GG to Provincial Canada from 1861 to 1867, Monck diffused tensions with the US that threatened war and strongly supported Confederation throughout its negotiation at the Quebec, Charlottetown and London Conferences, working hard to ensure consensus.   

As his biography says on the GG’s official website: “Lord Monck’s skill as a diplomat in Canadian-American relations was matched by his ability in promoting Confederation.  He helped build ‘The Great Coalition’, the consolidation of the Reform and Conservative parties that was key to the colonies’ pursuit of federalism.  In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, he was a tireless promoter of unity and played a leading role in the preparations for a federal union.”  “I like him amazingly”, wrote John A. MacDonald of Monck, “and shall be very sorry when he leaves, as he has been a very prudent and efficient administrator of public affairs.”[2]

Monck lived in Quebec during this time.  When he became GG of the Confederation he travelled to Bytown and chose Rideau Hall as the GG’s official residence, purchased for $82,000 in 1868.  As a keen horticulturalist, he did much to develop the gardens and grounds.  After his duties in the new Confederation ended, he returned to Ireland to serve as Lord Lieutenant of County Dublin from 1874 to 1892 (not to be confused with Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; the Dublin position was abolished in 1922).  He died two years later in Enniskerry, aged 75.

Monck was succeeded by John Young, 1st Baron Lisgar.  He was Anglo-Irish, born in Bombay.  His father was William Young of Bailieborough Castle, Country Cavan.  The castle was known as Lisgar House, hence John’s title.  William had bought the castle in 1814 and laid out the plans for the town of Bailieborough. His son John was MP for Cavan for twenty-four years, rising to Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1852 to 1855 (essentially running the country on behalf of the British Government) under Prime Minister Robert Peel. After stints in colonial service in Greece and New South Wales, Young was appointed as the second GG for Confederated Canada, serving until 1872.

In his time as GG, Young was raised to Baron or Lord Lisgar in 1870.  He faced crises provoked by Fenian raids into Canada and the Red River Rebellion led by Louis Riel. In both cases, he strongly counselled against executions to avoid creating bitterness and division.  He worked closely with PM Macdonald to ease tensions.   The Red River Rebellion had been sparked by the transfer of Prince Rupert’s Land (the incomprehensively large territory that drained into Hudson Bay, ranging from Alberta to Nunavut) from the Crown to the Confederation.  Riel demanded land rights on their holdings and autonomy for the Métis.  In 1870 Manitoba was created after negotiations with Riel but Métis demands failed to materialize and Riel was exiled to the US in 1875[3].

Lisgar helped ease long standing tensions with the US that had their roots in the American War of Independence, had flared up in the War of 1812 and had festered ever since.  He travelled to Washington to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant.[4]

According to his official GG biography:   “In both conflicts, Lord Lisgar was a wise mediator who helped lessen some of the potential bitterness. He also prevented the execution of the captured Fenian invaders by sending a sternly worded telegram to those who were ready to apply quick justice.”  It goes on to say that “Lord Lisgar and his wife, Lady Adelaide Annabella Dalton Lisgar, added many important traditions to Rideau Hall. They held the first recorded New Year’s Levee in 1869, while he was Administrator, and organized Christmas and Garden Parties. And in 1872, the noon gun firing on Parliament Hill was established, and the Governor General’s Foot Guards army regiment was created. The first duty of the new regiment was to provide a guard of honour for Lord Lisgar on his departure from office in June of the same year.”[5]

The third Anglo-Irish GG was Lord Dufferin.  Because of the pandemic, I only recently met the Governor General, Her Excellency Mary May Simon, at Rideau Hall.  After our meeting, in which we discussed the Irish contribution to Canada of course, we were given a tour of Rideau Hall, including the opulent Ballroom with its massive Waterford crystal chandelier (1200 pieces), and the Tent Room with its startling marquee-like interior of alternating vertical white and pink stripes.  These magnificent additions to Rideau Hall were the work of the Lord and Lady from Ireland, one of the more consequential occupants of the Governor General’s Residence.

Frederick Temple Blackwood, the future Lord Dufferin, was the only son of Price Blackwood, 4th Baron of Dufferin and Clandeboye in what is now Northern Ireland.  The Scottish Blackwood family had settled in the area to the east of Belfast city on the southern shores of Belfast Lough in the early 1600s. 

Frederick’s mother Helen was a granddaughter of the famous Irish playwright, satirist and MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  He was a very devoted son and built Helen’s Tower to celebrate her, a wonderful folly in the Clandeboye demesne based on the traditional Scottish tower.[6] 

As a young student, Frederick visited Clonakilty in West Cork to see the wretched conditions of the Great Famine and raised money for relief of the poor and starving.  He was a student at Eton College which he hated, and left after two years without a degree.  Not that he needed it: with the early death of his father, he became Baron of Dufferin and Clandeboye in 1841.

Frederick cut a dash as a young aristocrat with his good looks, kind heart, and charm.  By 1850 he was a member of the House of Lords.  Some years later he sailed in the North Atlantic and his humorous travelogue, the popular Letters from High Latitudes, demonstrated his fine writing skills.  He turned to diplomacy where he was involved in the negotiations at the end of the Crimean War.  He had a distinguished and influential series of postings in Lebanon, Syria and India.

In the meantime, Frederick had married a distance cousin, Hariot Rowan-Hamilton of nearby Killyleagh Castle (the Blackwoods had a keen eye for a good marriage that enhanced their position). They would be blessed with twelve children in all.  She would prove to be an adept diplomat herself, and they were the quintessential power-couple.  In 1872, Frederick now Lord Dufferin, travelled with his wife to Rideau Hall to take up his appointment as Governor General. 

The Dufferins remodelled Rideau Hall adding both the Ballroom and the Tent Room. He also built rinks for skating and curling for public use.  They hosted balls, theatre, and concerts, making Rideau Hall the centre of social life in the young capital city.  He created the GG’s Academic medals to reward scholarly achievement.

Dufferin was keenly political and an admirer of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald.  He watched the young Confederation’s parliamentary business closely and solicitously.  Within the Privy Council he felt it was his right to engage on substantive matters with Ministers.  As he put it, “Within the walls of the Privy Council I have as much right to contend for my opinion as any of my Ministers, and in matters of the moment, they must not expect me to accept their advice merely because they give it but must approve it to my understanding and conscience.” 

Dufferin commuted Ambroise Lépine’s death sentence for killing Thomas Scott during the Red River Rebellion.  Though Scott was the son of one of his tenants back in Ireland, Dufferin considered him a ruffian. Like his fellow Anglo-Irishman, the Duke of Wellington, Dufferin kept a wary eye of US’s interests in Canada, and urged facilitating Canadian self-government as much as possible to ward off the US, noting that Quebec “has in great measure saved the English population from Yankification.”

The Dufferins were very taken with Quebec, no doubt its Francophone ambience appealing to both of them.  They were horrified when the City started to demolish its old walls, campaigned to stop it, and raised funds to preserve them.  They created a promenade, Dufferin Terrace with views of the St Lawrence, an enduring landmark in the city.  Thanks to their invention, Quebec was in a good position almost a century later to become a UNESCO world heritage site.

Dufferin and his wife visited every Province, including Indigenous communities from whom they received gifts of native craft and art. He strongly endorsed the Prime Minister’s plan for a cross-Canada railway.  They went out of their way to attend events where they had a chance to meet all walks of life and not just the social elite. Lady Dufferin published her letters to her mother as My Canadian Journal and considered their time in Canada as the happiest of their lives. This was reciprocated by the Canadians.  The popularity of this Irish couple in Canada is shown in the number of streets, schools and places named Dufferin.

Monck, Lisgar and Dufferin were the Confederation chapter of a long and influential Anglo-Irish legacy in colonial Canada stretching back to its most formative period during and after the American War of Independence.  Figures like Guy Carleton Baron Dorchester (born in Strabane), in Quebec and then GG of Canada, his brother Thomas (also Strabane) as a military leader and first Lt Governor of New Brunswick, Richard Bulkeley the founding father of Nova Scotia and John Parr, Lt Governor of Nova Scotia (both from Dublin), and Walter Prendergast (Foxhall, Donegal), first Lt Governor of St John’s Island (PEI).[7]  Perhaps most consequential of them all, as I have written elsewhere, was the Duke of Wellington (born in Dublin, family from Trim) without whom there would have been no Ottawa at all.

Collectively, the first three Anglo-Irish GG’s made significant contributions at a critical period of the new Confederation, bringing experience, confidence and an abiding sense of affection for Canada to their roles and the office itself. They literally left a physical mark in Rideau Hall but left too a legacy in the functioning and public perception of the office of Governor General.

Eamonn

Ottawa

11 November 2022


[1] The prolific D’Arcy McGee was admitted to the Royal Irish Academy on the strength of his 1863 A popular history of Ireland.   See Michele Holmgren’s treatment of D’Arcy McGee’s literary influence in her Canada to Ireland, Poetry, Politics, and the Shaping of Canadian Nationalism 1788-1900.

[2] https://www.gg.ca/en/governor-general/former-governors-general/viscount-monck

[3] Riel returned to lead the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, was caught and executed.  His execution generated the deep and long lasting bitterness that Lisgar had striven to avoid in the aftermath of the Red River Rebellion.

[4] Lisgar welcome the first British royal to the Confederation in 1869, Victoria’s son Prince Arthur.  Prince Arthur would return as GG and commission Wilhelmina Geddes to create the magnificent WWI memorial stained glass window in St Bartholomew’s, the chapel of the GG and the GG’s Foot Guards, installed in 1919.

[5] https://www.gg.ca/en/governor-general/former-governors-general/lord-lisgar

[6] Since the 36th Ulster Division trained there, the tower served as the model for the Ulster Tower in Thiepval to commemorate Ulster’s fallen in World War I. Helen’s Tower is available to rent for a holiday.

[7] The second Lt Gov of PEI was Edmund Fanning, born on Long Island but apparently of Irish parents.

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3 Comments

Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland

3 responses to “I’m adding Rideau Hall to the Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail

  1. Pat Marshall and Germain Vezina

    We are going to have to petition Dublin to keep you here until you’ve excavated every bit of Irish Canadian history!

  2. Donnie Kealey

    Having taken my school classes for skating and tours of Rideau Hall, Eamonn now has provided me with so much more insight into the Irish historical influence that was part of this important Ottawa landmark. Donnie Kealey

  3. Lisa Kelly

    Brilliant work to shed light on how Rideau Hall became the beautiful landmark that it is today and the people who influenced it’s development.

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