Category Archives: Canada

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.




[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.


[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, and his biographical entry in the Hockey Hall of Fame,


[3] Wikipedia entry, Edwin Dey.

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

[5] Hall of Fame biography:

[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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Thomas Ahearn, the ‘King of Electricity’ and the Man who Made Ottawa

The Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail: the Fabulous Ahearns, cont’d.

Coincidentally, the man who would create modern Ottawa was born the year that the city changed its name from Bytown. In hindsight, this was auspicious.  If Bytown owed its existence to the Duke of Wellington, Ottawa owed its entry to the modern era to Thomas Ahearn.   

We do not know much of Thomas Franklin Ahearn’s early life but considering the energetic, confident and brilliant son they had raised, John and Norah must have been loving and supportive parents.  Young Tom would have seen up close the magic worked by his blacksmith father, heating cold black iron until it glowed orange and soft enough to be shaped.  Satisfied, his father plunged it hissing into cold water.  A kind and patient father would have answered his son’s questions, turning the young lad’s wonder into curiosity about the infinite variety and utility of the things that could be made.  Likely too that Tom’s close friend Warren Soper visited the forge.  The boys supported each other in their exploration of the new scientific breakthroughs reshaping the world.  If metallurgy had fashioned civilization for millennia, and steam the age of industrialisation, harnessing electricity birthed the modern technological age.

It must have been a well-read household for Thomas was exposed enough to new developments to develop a passion for electricity.  He grew up as telegraphy came of age, spreading around the world, its binary signal spreading information in hours where before it would have taken weeks. That flow of information was transformative: for markets, armies, technology, and daily life. By the time Tom was eleven, the New York businessman Cyrus Field was hailed a hero for successfully laying the transatlantic cable, finally uniting the world’s telecommunications and putting the last piece in place for a truly globalized world. It is hard not to think that Field was an inspiration to young Tom.

Tom wanted to be a part of this but he was expelled from the College of Ottawa for misbehaviour.[1]  The lack of a formal education mattered little to him.  He joined the Montreal Telegraph office at Chaudière, as a messenger really intent on learning about the application of electricity. After a stint in New York, Tom returned as the company’s chief operator, then hired some years later aged twenty-five by Bell Telephone.  Bruce Deachman writes about this in an anecdote that tells us much about Tom:  “This latter development was not without some irony: In 1878, Ahearn, perhaps unaware of the misdeed he was committing, infringed on Alexander Graham Bell’s patent when, after reading an article in Scientific American, made the first successful long-distance telephone call from Ottawa using handmade sets he’d built from cigar boxes to place a call to Pembroke. Ahearn later sold the boxes for $16 to settle an outstanding hotel bill.”[2]

Tom knew the practical end of electricity but when he realised he was undercharging for his installation work he knew he needed a business partner.  He turned to his childhood friend Warren Soper and in 1881 they formed Ahearn & Soper Telegraphy and Electric Light Contractors.  IN 1882, their Ottawa Electric Light Company installed sixty-five street lights, Thomas working him with two Irish laborers draping the lines as they went along. The lights were powered by Canada’s first hydro-electric power from a wheel and generator at Chaudiere Falls. They won a contract with the Canadian Pacific Railway to install telegraph lines and began building a local business empire. “The following year the young men were awarded a contract to introduce electric lights into the House of Commons. The lights were switched on in January 1884, a full year earlier than at the Capitol in Washington, DC.” [3]   It would prove to be a life-long partnership that created modern Ottawa and earned them the title the Edisons of Canada. 

Ahearn is most famous for the invention of the electric oven and stove. “On 17 January, 1884, he cooked the first dinner with teh appliance in Ottawa’s Windsor Hotel before a collection of VIP journalists. The oven was over 6 feet [2 metres] in height and width and in the words of the Ottawa Citizen, ‘It was hot enough to roast an ox.’ The dinner consisted of Saginaw trout, potato croquettes, sugar-crusted ham, lamb cutlets, stuffed loin of veal, strawberry puffs chocolate cake, and apple pie.” [Sweeny, pp 351-2]

The year 1884 was also significant for Thomas personally. On 25 June, he married Lilias MacKey Fleck. In May 1886, Lilias gave birth to their son, Frank. Two years later, she gave birth their daughter but tragedy truck and Lilias died in childbirth. Grief-stricken, Thomas named his daughter Lilias. Lilias’s fate in childbirth was one of the great dangers that women had faced and continue to face. She would not see her children grow, nor her daughter Lilias marry the publisher Harry Stevenson Southam, one of the resident elite families of old Ottawa. Frank would call his daughter after her, an Irish tradition.

Ahearn and Soper literally electrified the city and brought lighting and phones to the Parliament, factory floors, the streets and homes.  In 1887 they used thousands of light bulbs to decorate Parliament in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. In 1891, Thomas Keefer transferred the rail charter to Ahearn and Soper. Keefer was the son-in-law of the builder of the Rideau Canal and founder of Bytown, Thomas Mackay. Keefer had developed the Rockcliffe neighbourhood and used horse-draw railcars to connect it to the town centre. With the charter in hand, Ahearn and Soper introduced electric trams, the new lines literally generating Ottawa’s suburbs as houses sprung up along them.  Ever inventive, Ahearn installed electric heaters in them. The tramline went first from Bank Street to Landowne, spawning the Glebe neighbourhood as the local farmer sold lots for housing.  Ahearn and Sopper bought the land adjacent to planned lines the next time. To ensure his streetcars did a good business at the weekend, Ahearn built amusement parks at Rockcliffe with, of course, electric merry-go-rounds.  He helped encourage the first skiing in the region on the scenic slopes there overlooking the Ottawa River.

Ahearn combined many traits, from creativity and constant tinkering with new devices, building networks of people to advance his projects, and thinking big about how to develop Ottawa. “However, it was his ability to find solutions to particular technological obstacles impeding the progress of large systems that gave his companies an edge over the competition. He was always innovating, interconnecting his machinery in new ways, and adapting inventions to his needs. He was also a master of promotion. On 29 Aug. 1892 he invited members of the Ottawa elite to an “electric” banquet. An entire meal was cooked in a powerhouse on electrical appliances that he had designed and constructed. The food was delivered to the dining room of the Windsor hotel by streetcar.”[4]

Thanks to Ahearn and Soper, Ottawa was first in all these things, ahead of Montreal and Toronto. “By 1900, it was reported there were 100,000 incandescent light bulbs burning in the city, more per capita than anywhere else in the world.” [5]  Ahearn drove the first car in Ottawa, notably an electric one using batteries.  He was forever inventing and held almost thirty patents in Canada and the US.  He applied his technical genius to make ovens[6], fridges, water bottle warmers, streetcar heating systems, insulators, battery jars, arc-light carbons, motor brushes, recording machines for music, telephones and telegraphs systems.

Ahearn was a close supporter of both Wilfred Laurier and Mackenzie King, the latter appointing him to the new Federal District Commission tasked with the development of the city’s parks and roads in 1927. Thanks to Ahearn we have the Queen Elizabeth Driveway and the Champlain Bridge. A year later, the Prime Minister appointed Ahearn to the Privy Council. 

Tom Ahearn died in 1938.  Anna Adamek sums up his life in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography thus:

“Thomas Ahearn’s career was truly remarkable. Although he was born in a poor working-class family, he became one of Ottawa’s richest and most influential entrepreneurs. His outstanding technical expertise, but also his intuition, allowed him to compete successfully with members of the city’s business elites and build powerful political alliances. Through the companies he founded and the institutions he led, Ahearn realized his vision of Ottawa as a modern, industrialized capital and greatly contributed to its transformation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Deachman again: “Tom, as he was known his entire life, grew up in lockstep with the new city, and it’s impossible to imagine what Ottawa might look like today without his influence. Along with his business partner, Warren Young Soper, Ahearn touched the lives of everyone in Ottawa, through transportation, electricity, beautification and leisure and entertainment. The pair’s interconnected business enterprises very much shaped how and where the city grew, as its population soared from just over 10,000 when Ahearn took in his first breath, to about 150,000 when he exhaled his last.”

We can look forward to a full treatment of Ahearn’s life when a new biography of Ahearn and Soper is published by Laura Ott.  Ott has said that Ahearn and Soper are “among the most unrecognized people for the type of impact they had on the city.”

Tom’s son Frank built a memorial to his father and you can see it now in the Glebe, at the corner of Bank and Holmwood.  As well as an image of his father, the memorial was combined with a drinking fountain, a wonderful symbol of the utility that Tom brought to the life of his beloved city of Ottawa.

So we are lost for choice when it comes to putting places on the Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage trail marking Tom Ahearn’s impact on the city.

Up next, we look at the remarkable life of his son Frank in the continuing saga of the fabulous Ahearns.

Eamonn McKee


5 December 2022

[1] Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB), entry by Anna Adamnek.

[2] Capital Builders: Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper, the ‘Edisons of Canada’,  Ottawa Citizen, 4 April 2019.

[3] DCB.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp in 2011 featuring Ahearn’s electric oven.  The oven had won him the gold medal at the Central Canada Exhibition in 1892 and featured in the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Ibid, Ottawa Citizen.

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John Ahearn, founder of an Irish Canadian Dynasty

The Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail: the Fabulous Ahearns

In three generations, the Ahearns progressed from an Irish-born blacksmith to the Privy Council and to a leading role in the Governor General’s Office, along the way creating and shaping the modern city of Ottawa. Each generation more than deserves tribute and whether individually or collectively, the Ahearns were indeed fabulous. Here is the story of the fabulous Ahearns, John, Thomas, Frank and Lilias. Each were a leader of their generation. They will be great additions to our heritage trail. First up, John Ahearn.

We do not know much about John Ahearn other than that he was born in Ireland in 1806. He married Honorah (Norah) Power, date and location unknown. He or they immigrated to Canada and he worked his trade as a blacksmith in what was then Bytown. The home of John and Norah was on Duke Street in the working class neighbourhood of Lebreton Flats, not far from Chaudiere Falls on the Ottawa River.

We can guess what brought him to the Ottawa Valley. By then the long struggle between Britain and France for global dominance was over and thanks to the Duke of Wellington, the construction of the Rideau Canal had begun, a strategic communication between Kingston and Montreal away from the St Lawrence, the likely point of attack of the United States. There was already a thriving lumber industry, dating back to the Napoleon blockade that had cut off Baltic timber. The Irish could find cheap passage as living ballast on the lumber ships on the ships’ return leg from England and the naval shipyards there.

In the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys, there were jobs in the lumber industry, though the work was dangerous and rough. There was cheap land to buy when the trees were cleared, though clearing giant tree stumps and rocks was backbreaking. However, the canal and plans to build almost one hundred locks and dams meant that there was plenty of good work for skilled craftsmen like carpenters, stone masons and blacksmiths. All of these opportunities drew in the Irish at a time when the Irish economy was in recession after the boom times of the Napoleonic wars.

John packed up his belongings, probably too the tools of his trade, and began the long sea passage across the great North Atlantic, up the St Lawrence to Montreal and then the Ottawa River to its confluence with the Gatineau and Rideau Rivers. He married Honorah Power, but we do not know whether they met in Ireland or in Canada. Her life would have been one of hard labour, giving birth and running a household without any modern conveniences. The brutal winters added to her chores, as did the muddy spring time and mosquito infested summers. Cut off from home and the support of relatives, loneliness must have been a factor too. Prevalent illnesses would have added distress as well as the ever fear of death. Throughout all of this, Norah was wife, mother, cook, cleaner, nurse, moral conscience and educator. Raising a family in these conditions was nothing short of heroic.

The construction of the Rideau Canal had stimulated a new settlement dubbed Bytown after Colonial John By, the engineer in overall charge of the canal’s construction. Officers and gentlemen worked and lived around Barracks Hill while the Irish and French workers settled in the swampy area of Lowertown. The market, taverns and shanties there became known as Byward. Perhaps indicating his status as a craftsman and perhaps too intent on avoiding the violent quarrels between the Irish and French in Lowertown as they competed for jobs and dominance, Ahearn settled in Lebron Flats, at Duke Street.

By any stretch, John’s life was fabulous, moving from an island scarred by British colonialism and savage sectarianism, across the incalculable expanse of the North Atlantic, perhaps guided by some old letters that had promised opportunity. For somebody from Ireland, the vast scale of the St Lawrence must have been awe-inspiring. He probably stopped at Quebec and then Montreal, bustling cities cacophonous with French speakers and up close with Indigenous residents, visitors and fur traders. As he travelled up the Ottawa River, he would have seen the giant rafts of squared logs, topped with cabins and guided downriver to Montreal by strong and hardy lumbermen. He would too have seen Indigenous travelers in their birch bark canoes, including warriors, hunters, and families.

When he arrived, John would have found Bytown to be boisterous and half-built, with muddy streets, shanties and some grand stone buildings, yet a city ambitious for its future. He could admire the success of fellow Irishman John Egan who had risen to be the leading lumber baron in the Valley and an influential politician. Ahearn would have noticed that the immediate region was stripped of trees. He must have gazed in wonder at the Gatineau hills and beyond the wilderness of bear and wolf stretching infinitively west and north. Imagine his first winter in Canada as all of this fell under a crystalline spell of snow and ice. At least he would not have been short of company in the large Irish community, the cadences of the Irish language common among his fellow immigrants. John and Norah’s son Thomas Franklin was born in 1855 at their home in Duke Street, Lebron Flats.

Next up, we look at Thomas’ life and his role as the founding father of modern Ottawa.


Filed under Canada, Ireland, Irish Heritage of Canada

Irish Night on the Hill, 23 November 2022, Remarks

Failte romhat, a chairde, welcome everyone. Tá an-athas mór orm, I’m delighted to see you all here. Good evening ladies and gentle, friends of Ireland. What a thrill to have you all here this evening.

This is our third Night on the Hill. The first two were organized by Jamie and my dear colleagues Jim Kelly and Michael Hurley. Tragically, both passed away in their prime. Earlier this year, I was shocked to get a phone call saying that Jim had died suddenly last St Patrick’s Day. It is impossible to reconcile his wife Anne and their two daughters, Orla and Ciara, to their loss. That is permanent, eased only by loving memories.

However, it was some comfort to recall to Anne how many people Jim had touched in Canada with his humanity, his warmth and his professional integrity as a diplomat so proud to represent his country. Knowing Jim’s love for Canada and the Irish in Canada, he would be well chuffed about our gathering this evening. We remember him this evening.

There is no better place for a Parliament than on a Hill. I love this Hill. At the confluence of the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau Rivers, this Hill was always a meeting place. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional territory of the Anishinabek and the Algonquin.

We recall too that it was John Egan from Galway who played the instrumental role in securing the land at Maniwaki for the reserve at Kitigan Zibi in 1853. Egan arrived here in 1830, penniless. He became the Ottawa Valley’s leading lumber baron. He helped to develop Bytown through lumber, stream boats and rail connections, and as a leading politician. Egan entertained Governor General Lord Elgin during his visit to Bytown as part of the campaign to make it the capital city of Canada.
Egan sold land at half price to the Irish. That is why we had such strong Irish settlement in the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys. I’d like to recognize our Irish friends here from Brennan’s Hill, Martindale and Venosta in Gatineau and from Douglas.

The Duke of Wellington was born in Dublin and raised in Trim. Most of his soldiers were Irish. Without Wellington, there would have been no Rideau Canal. No canal, no Ottawa. 

Michael McBane is here, a great local historian. Thank you Michael for all your research on this region’s Irish Heritage. It is thanks to Michael that we know that Famine Irish emigrants died of fever on this hill, men, women and children, in 1847. Thanks to Michael too, we know that some 300 hundred of their remains lie in Macdonalds Gardens Park. We are working to commemorate that site.

Thanks to Canadian compassion, like that of Sister Bruyère of the Grey Nuns, most of the Famine Irish survived in Bytown as well as all along the St Lawrence River, from Quebec and Montreal to Kingston, Toronto and Hamilton. Through such Canadian compassion, the Irish found hope here. Through the opportunities in Canada, the Irish found success here.

The Irish gave much to Canada too. Irish and French workmen built the Parliament complex. In the halls of Parliament, Thomas D’Arcy McGee could marvel at the outcome of the negotiations for Confederation in 1867. His friend, Lord Monck from Tipperary, was the Governor General who played a key role in steering those negotiations to success.

Indeed, the first three Governor Generals after Confederation were Irish; Monck, Lisgar and Lord Dufferin. Monck bought Rideau Hall. Lord and Lady Dufferin added the Ballroom, the Tent Room and skating rinks there, making it the centre of social life in Ottawa. They were part of a long line of Anglo-Irish Governor Generals, Lieutenant Governors, officials and soldiers who shaped Canada, from Guy Carlton to the Duke of Wellington.

Thomas Ahearn, son of an Irish born blacksmith, brought electric lighting to Parliament. With his genius for invention and his command of the science of electricity, he brought electric power to Ottawa, electric trams, an electric car and even invented the electric oven. His son Frank Ahearn owned the Ottawa Senators when they won the Stanley Cup in 1923, 1924 and 1927.
Frank and his daughter Lilias lived at 7 Rideau Gate. She became vice regal consort to her father-in –law, Governor General Vincent Massey, and accompanied him to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Today their home is the Government’s official guest house. In three generation, the fabulous Ahearns went from blacksmith, to business empire, to Rideau Hall itself. That says something about them. And it says something great about Canada too.

So we are working on a Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail. Call it reverse colonization. By the time we’re finished, Ottawa will be Canada’s leading Irish town. I’d like to welcome newly elected Mayor of Ottawa, Mark Sutcliffe. Great to see him here and have to chance to brief him on our plans to promote the city’s Irish heritage.

I’d also like to recognize Robert Kearns and William Peat from the Canada Ireland Foundation. They have been working for years to promote the Irish Story in Canada and have fantastic plans for the future. We deeply value our collaboration with you.

Grant Vogl of the Bytown Museum is here too. Grant and his team at the Bytown Museum do such great work promoting Ottawa’s great heritage. We’re looking forward to taking our work with them forward. Celebrating the Irish story in Canada is an exciting journey of discovery.

This night is also about friendship. Saying thanks to all our friends and supporters. And working together to build the relationship between Ireland and Canada.

Canada has been a great ally to Ireland. Next year, we celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Canadians played a key role in our peace process. Canada was a founder member of the International Fund for Ireland in 1986. Canadians supported the talks process. Judge Peter Cory became a legend for tackling the issue of collusion in Northern Ireland, a wonderful man of compassion and impeccable integrity. General John de Chastelain played a key role on the Decommissioning Commission in taking the gun out of Irish politics. Al Hutchinson helped consolidate the new policing as Police Ombudsman.

Our Peace Process is a work in progress. We are working to restore power-sharing, to remit the damage caused by Brexit. Our future faces challenges that are daunting but exciting, the prospect of unification. That is journey where Canadian support will be vital. Because in Canada we learn that divergent loyalties can happily the same space in peace and stability.

I would like to say a special thank you to my wife and our small team at the Embassy for all that they do promoting Ireland in Canada. They have worked really hard to make this event happen. The team was led by Second Secretary Sally Bourne and she did a terrific job pulling all this together. A warm round of applause and thanks to them.

We have to say goodbye to John Boylan, our Deputy Head of Mission and I know a friend to many of you here. We will sorely miss you John, thanks for your outstanding contribution and best of luck for the future to you, Deirdre and your family.

I would like to acknowledge the Sue Healy school of Irish dancing, and dancers Nora and Nessa Healy, Joely Henderson, Rosalie Boisselle, Hannah Clegg, Ainsley Smith, Lauren Mortimer, Anna Jackson and Adele Stanton-Bursey. Thank you!
Piper Ross Davison, thank you! That’s a genuine set of pipes he’s got there, Uilleann pipes! None of this blowing in a tube stuff!

I would like to pay a particular tribute to my friend James Maloney, Member for Etobicoke. It has been my honour and pleasure getting to know him and to count him as my friend. Thanks to his leadership and support of the Parliamentary Friendship Group, March is officially Irish Heritage Month. And we have great plans for the future. James, the floor is yours.

I am honoured to introduce Senator Robert Black. If his devotion to farming and agriculture is anything to go by, he definitively has Irish genes!

I am now honoured to call on his honour, Kevin Waugh MP. Kevin distinguished himself in his great speech on the Second Reading of the Motion to Irish Heritage Month. In fact, he proved his Irish credentials by breaking into song!

Eamonn McKee



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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.



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.


[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.


[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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Memorial Service and Rededication of the Restored Geddes Window

Remarks at St Bartholomew’s Church, Ottawa, 6 November 2022

Eamonn McKee, Ambassador of Ireland

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go leir. I am honoured and delighted to a part of this service today as we rededicate this wonderful stained glass window by Irish artist Wilhelmina Geddes.

I want to pay particular thanks to Reverend Father David Clunie for inviting me to be a part of this restoration project. I thought at first he was just looking for money but I quickly realized that what he really wanted was my endorsement as the Irish Ambassador. He rightly intuited that this was a really important dimension to this endeavor.

Since our first meeting at the home of our neighbors Rob and Joanne Nelson, this has been great, a certain highlight of my time here. I have to say as a civil servant you do not often start a project and get to see it finished! But here it is less than two years later and how wonderful. The detail and clarity is amazing.

We should acknowledge too the restoration team who must have a special feeling for this window and they cleaned and restored it piece by piece. They have done a wonderful job.

Thank you then to David, his fundraising committee and all the supporters of this wonderful piece of Irish art, newly restored and good for another one hundred years.

The Geddes Window was commissioned in early 1916 when so much was in flux in Irish society and in art. Geddes was an artist working in the medium of stained glass, at the Túr Gloine studio in Dublin, part of a revival of artisanal craft and the medieval world. As Reverend Clunie noted, the medieval motif makes this work ageless.

When I approached my colleagues back at Headquarters, they immediately recognized the significance of this project and gathered funding to support it.

We hosted a reception last Thursday at Residence to mark the completion of the restoration. We premiered David’s wonderful documentary on the history of the Geddes Window. Beautifully done and soon to be online and available to the public. Well done David and all the volunteers who shared in its making.

As a result of the restoration, St Bartholomew’s and this Geddes Window will be a gem in the Bytown-Ottawa Heritage Trail on which we are working. We hope this will help make more people aware of this treasure, both here in Canada and in Ireland.

We will also put Rideau Hall and Rideau Gate on our Irish Heritage Trail. Call it reverse colonization!

These Church walls bear the names of Governor Generals. The first three after Confederation in 1867 were Anglo-Irish: Viscount Monck, born in Tipperary and educated at Trinity College Dublin; Lord Lisgar whose father was from Bailieborough in Country Cavan; and of course Lord and Lady Dufferin, Frederick and Hariot Blackwood, probably the most consequential couple to live at Rideau Hall as they transformed the function of that office.

The last private family living at No 7 Rideau Gate, now the Government of Canada’s official guest house, were the Ahearns. Lilias Ahearn Massey grew up there and became vice regal consort, attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. From her Irish-born blacksmith great-grandfather, her grandfather Thomas and father Frank Ahearn, to that august role was but three generations

The Geddes Window represents a time in Ireland’s history when local loyalties and aspirations, hopes and fears collided with global events and the outbreak of World War I. The struggles in Ireland were projected onto the wider screen of European hostilities.

Ulster loyalists resisting Home Rule joined the Ulster Volunteer Force and then the 36th Ulster Division to fight for King, country and little Belgium.

Irish nationalists insisting on Home Rule joined the National Volunteers and then the British Army to fight for home rule for Ireland and little Belgium.

Irish Catholic Canadians joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force King, country, and home rule for Ireland.

They all fought and died for what they believed were noble causes.

The noble cause of Irish freedom also called to Irish patriots who fought for Ireland in the streets of Dublin in 1916 and paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.

We honour our patriot dead at our Garden of Remembrance. There in 2011, Queen Elizabeth II paid her respects. It was an historic peacemaking gesture in reconciling Ireland and Britain. In this year of her passing, we remember her too.

So this window is part of the mosaic of our shared history. Irish, British, and Canadian. Nationalist, unionist, and Commonwealth.

We remember today the 200,000 Irish men and women from all traditions who enlisted in the Great War and the 35,000 who fell.

To what degree they were betrayed by the great powers that led them to such horror and sacrifice remains a live historical debate. That debate enhances our memorial of them. It serves to remind us that war is a solemn and grim business.

That as all soldiers know who must put their lives on the line, the greatest honour is reserved for the peace makers.

We are honoured today to have with us a soldier and a peace maker, John de Chastelain. He and his fellow members of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning helped take the gun out of Irish politics.

It is the peace makers who strive to avoid conflict until all other options are exhausted.

And when that fatal price is paid in the fight for our beliefs, we honour the fallen, we remember them.

Thank you.

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Wellington and Ottawa: How an Irishman and a Pot of Spanish Silver Transformed Canada

It is hard to imagine the development of modern Canada without the decisive intervention of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and one of the most influential Anglo-Irish figures of the 19th century.  Without his vision of Canada as a strategic bulwark protecting Britain’s global hegemony, there would have been no Lachine, Rideau or Welland Canals, no Bytown hence no Ottawa, and no modern Halifax. The names of Wellington’s men, sent to build up Canada and administer British North America are now common place names of streets and universities across the country. Their job was to protect Canada from US invasion and annexation. Wellington himself had the authority, the manpower and, critically, a huge pot of Spanish silver to realize his vision of Canada as Britain’s indispensable ally. Without Wellington, British North America could well have been absorbed into the United States as many American political leaders expected and demanded for most of the century.

Famously, the Duke of Wellington was said to have retorted about his Irish origins that ‘being born in a stable did not make you a horse.’ [1]   Nonetheless, it remained a fact that not only was he born on Merrion Street in Dublin and raised in Ireland, but his family also had deep roots there going back at least six generations.  His Cowley (later Colley[2]) forebears arrived from England around 1500 and successive Irish patriarchs were members of the Irish House of Commons.  Their lands were near Trim and Wellington was raised there and in Dublin, leaving when he was twelve to go to Eton (where he was deeply unhappy).  Whatever about his alleged distain, Wellington led many Irish into battle wherever he fought and as Prime Minister delivered Catholic Emancipation in the face of ferocious opposition from his own Tory party and the king. As as Freemason, Wellington was a life-long member of his Lodge in Trim.

As I have written elsewhere[3], generations of Anglo-Irish imperial soldiers and administrators made their careers in North America and had formative influence on the development of British North America as the French departed in 1763 and the American War of Independence ended in 1783. 

Like many of them, Wellington joined the British Army when an elder brother inherited the family estate.  Yet without ever serving in British North America, it was Wellington who exerted such decisive influence on the colony’s development.[4] 

Wellington’s vision for Canada was triggered by outrage at the events of 1812.  The titanic struggle between Britain and France for global supremacy had been going on for a century, with episodes fought in North America, Ireland, the Atlantic, the West Indies, the East Indies, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.  Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Syria in 1798, for example, had been an attempt to access Asia and take control of India, thereby directly threatening British hegemony in Asia and the world.  Nelson’s naval victory at The Battle of the Nile quickly put paid to that ambition.[5] 

“The Napoleonic Wars of 1800-1815 were a global, not just a European struggle,” writes Dominic Lieven in Russia Against Napoleon.  The battles were fought in Europe during the climactic phase of this global contest because successive British naval victories had confined Napoleon there.  The stakes could not have been higher.  “It was in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras that Britain consolidated its hugely powerful global empire, both territorial and commercial…. Napoleon’s attempt to create a European empire was simply a last, heroic effort to balance British imperialism and avoid defeat in France’s century-long conflict with Britain.  The odds were very much against Napoleon, though by 1812 he had come seemingly very close to success.”[6]  In June 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée of almost 700,000 men invaded Russia. 

That same month, with the British Empire’s future on a knife edge, the United States declared war on the UK and invaded its territory in British North America. As Sweeny notes, that the American Ambassador in Paris was on the campaign trail with the Grande Armée helped cement the impression that the US was taking advantage of Britain’s peril (the Ambassador froze to death in Poland and the return leg). In reality, the war party in Washington were infuriated by Britain’s seizure of US ships and crews and general interference in its trade. To Wellington, the US attack was a grievous stab in the back.  Britain had to divert some of its best troops to defend Canada, as well as part of the Navy to ward off the US-backed privateers plundering British merchant ships in the North Atlantic.

After the disaster of Napoleon’s Russian invasion and then Waterloo, writes Sweeny, “Wellington’s problem was no longer France, it was the United States.  Everything had to be done, from diplomacy to money power to fortifications, to prevent the Americans from capturing British North America.”[7]

Thanks to the Napoleonic blockade, Canada was already substituting for the loss of Baltic lumber to build and repair Britain’s navy.  Hemp for ropes and sails were vital to the British Navy: a frigate required fifty tons every two years.  Most of that came from Russia, a supply line that had been threatened by Napoleon.[8] Canada’s supply of hemp was limited but could be encouraged longer term. As an imperial strategist, Wellington became convinced that the key to Britain’s global military security was British North America.  He decided to fortify Canada, ensure that it had secure transportation links along the St Lawrence linking Kingston, Montreal and Quebec, was capable of defending the coast and trade routes across the North Atlantic from a base at Halifax, and had a strong settled population of loyalists along the St Lawrence in the vulnerable Ontario region. 

Wellington was uniquely placed to carry out his plan.  As Master General of the Ordnance in 1818, Commander-in-Chief in 1827 and Prime Minister from 1828-1830, he had the authority to order British Army engineers and sappers to help build vital infrastructure. [9]   To finance his endeavours, and by a bizarre twist of history, the Admiralty had a treasure of Spanish silver beyond Parliamentary control.  Thanks to Sweeny’s indomitable sleuthing we now know that in 1808 Napoleon’s banker proposed, and the British accepted, a deal to split a vast consignment of Spanish silver, minted in Mexico, and transported by a fleet of twenty-six ships of the Royal Navy.  The Admiralty’s share of the silver was kept offshore to avoid destabilizing the British financial system; or at least that was their argument.[10]  By 1818, Wellington was free to spend it in Canada. 

Without the need for Parliamentary approval or oversight, spend it he did.  In return for free transportation for the military on the proposed canals, Wellington subsidized the building of the Lachine Canal at Montreal, which opened trade along the upper St Lawrence and the Ottawa Rivers.  The canal was built with mainly Irish labour under the direction of Scottish master stone mason and building contractor Thomas Mackay (from Perth, Scotland).

Wellington also sanctioned the building of the Rideau Canal to link the Ottawa River to the St Lawrence at Kingston and thereby protect supply lines between Montreal and the Great Lakes in the event of an American attack across the St Lawrence. While mainly for military reasons, it made commercial sense too.  The US plan to build the Erie Canal, linking the Hudson to the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence, threatened to snuffle out Montreal’s export trade with Europe by providing easy access to New York. 

Thanks to the superb quality of his work and management of large projects, Mackay won the contract for the Rideau Canal.  Irish labourers again featured strongly in his workforce.  Mackay built the first stone building in Ottawa, the canal site’s commissary, today the Bytown Museum.[11]  Both he and his partner, John Redpath, were handsomely paid, literally with barrels of Spanish silver coin.  Redpath invested his in Montreal, but Mackay decided to put down roots in Bytown and develop it: building fine homes at Rideau Hall and Earnscliffe, an industrial complex and housing in what he called New Edinburgh, and laying out Rockcliffe Park for prized housing development.  Soon he and other figures like Governor Dalhousie were intent on making Bytown the capital of a new and vital partner in Britain’s global imperial system.

The same logic informed the decision to build the Welland Canal, to which Wellington lent his support, his own money, and his name.[12]  The Welland was planned to link Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, across the Niagara peninsula. Without Wellington’s backing and his Spanish silver, not to mention British Army engineers and sappers, the building of the Lachine and Welland canals would almost certainly have taken longer, and the Rideau Canal would never have been proposed. No canal, no Ottawa. While built for military reasons, their value as vital arteries for trade and the development of the economy were clearly understood at the time. They indeed proved vital to Canada’s economic development in the 19th century.  Even today the Welland Canal is a key part of the St Lawrence Seaway, which handles upwards of fifty million tons of cargo each year between the Great Lakes, domestic markets and overseas ones in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

To protect these transportation routes, fortifications were built at key points, including sixteen Martello towers: five at Halifax, four at Quebec, six at Kingston, and one at St John. Militia units were established to protect the canal locks and dams, as well as to be ready to repulse any American incursions across the St Lawrence or up the Richelieu River from Lake Champlain.[13]  Halifax boomed with the decision to make it a strategic harbour for the defence of its North Atlantic waters and the coast of British North America against US intentions.[14] (Had he lived to see it, Wellington’s fellow Dublin man and the founding father of Nova Scotia, Richard Bulkley, would have been well-pleased to see this development!)

As Wellington downsized the British Army after Waterloo in 1815, soldiers were offered land, supplies and tools “to form a loyal and war-like population on the banks of the Rideau and Ottawa.”[15]  Indeed, the British Army and its Royal Staff Corps played a vital role in surveying and building roads to connect the population centres along the St Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, and establishing fortifications and logistical depots. 

As Sweeny writes in his fascinating book on Mackay and the founding of Ottawa, the names of the men Wellington dispatched to Canada to realise his vision “resonate today in the names of hundreds of Canadian towns, cities, counties, streets, schools, and universities”: Charles Lennox the Duke of Richmond, George Ramsay the Earl of Dalhousie, Sherbrooke, Aylmer, Kempt, Murray, Colborne, Bagot, Maitland, Lennox, Drummond, Cathcart, and Arthur.  “They were all Wellington’s men.  Along with them came hundreds of his staff officers, including Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers.”[16] 

Under Wellington’s stewardship and with the active support of the British Army and Navy, Canada was a hive of activity.  Canals were being built.  New towns were being established, linked by new road networks.  Land was being allotted and settled by demobilized soldiers, subsidized as settlers.  The lumber industry thrived, and with it the provisioning business so vital to the livelihoods of merchants and farmers.  Immigrants flooded to British North America thanks to cheap passage on the ships heading there for cargoes of lumber.

All of this economic activity drew Irish immigrants to Central Canada, about twice as many Protestants as Catholics in the first two decades of the 19th century, mainly to farm.  Catholic immigrants came to build the canals in the 1820s and 1830s, and then settle the land.  They also arrived in numbers to British North America as soldiers, journalists, administrators, priests, businessmen and merchants, lawyers and politicians. The Irish lumber baron John Egan boosted the Irish presence in the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys.  He not only gave them employment in the lumber industry but offered them land to farm at half price.[17]

One has to remember too that most of Wellington’s army in the Peninsular War in Spain had been Irish, most of Nelson’s navy were Irish sailors, and Irish soldiers had been a sizeable presence on the field at Waterloo, upwards of 40% in some estimates.  Indeed, for most of the 19th century, one third of the British Army were Irish, and Irish Catholic at that.[18]  Many of them found their way to British North America either as part of their units or as settlers.[19]

Wellington’s strategic vision of Canada’s value to Britain’s global security was ultimately correct.  Britain had beaten Spain as its chief global competitor in the 15th century.  It had ultimately beaten France, its chief rival in the 18th and 19th centuries, first in North America on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec and then decisively in Europe at Waterloo.  Once the United States gave up its predatory intentions toward Canada, it was a key diplomatic and trading partner with the UK, part of an Anglophone Atlantic sphere of influence.  The support of North America as a whole proved decisive in the defeat of Britain’s chief 20th century rival, Germany, in two world wars.  What Wellington could not have anticipated was that his own chief rival in America, the United States, would by the mid-twentieth century eclipse the British Empire.

Wellington’s strategic vision of Canada as Britain’s ultimate guarantor was validated by none other than Winston Churchill. By May 1940, Britain’s situation was so dire that the British Government debated whether to seek a negotiated settlement with Nazi Germany. Over three days, Foreign Secretary Halifax argued in favour. Prime Minister Churchill argued against and eventually had his way. Britain would fight on. When Churchill met the US Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, he argued for more American support. Kennedy believed Britain was doomed to lose the war and that the US should stay out. He told Churchill that the American public was against involvement, his own position in fact. Churchill was convinced that the American public would come on side. Britain would fight on. “I’ll fight them from Canada. I’ll never give up the fleet.” [Fredrik Logevall, JFK, Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, p. 260]

Before Wellington’s strategic decision to bolster Canada with the Rideau Canal and Bytown, the area was Algonquin territory.  The confluence of the Rideau, Ottawa, and Gatineau Rivers had been a gathering point for Indigenous people where they met seasonally to exchange news, trade, pray and feast.  ‘Ottawa’ comes from the Algonquin adawa meaning to trade and Odawa is the name of an Anishnabe people.  Where the Rideau River cascaded into the Ottawa in two great waterfalls, they made offerings.  Samuel de Champlain too admired the plumes of mist but prosaically called them curtains, hence ‘Rideau’. Pioneer lumber baron Philemon Wright had established a small settlement on the northern bank of the Ottawa at the confluence with the Gatineau River.  The Algonquin came to trade with the strange new settlers led by Wright, lacking the information to understand that they were the tip of a vast imperial machine that would take their land and crush their civilization.[20]

Ottawa exists today because of Wellington’s order to build the Rideau Canal, which in turn created the means to settle the whole area.  In Colonel John By, Thomas Mackay and John Redpath, he had the men capable of doing it.  Occasionally, British Army engineers and sappers were needed to tackle tricky problems, and the mainly Irish workforce provided the muscle and skills to build the 47 locks and 52 dams.[21] A Celtic cross stands today at the head of the Canal to honour all those who died through disease and injury, including Irish, Scottish, French, and Indigenous workers. Everyone risked malaria but it took a devastating toll on the most exposed Irish: “The lock sites on the Cataraqui River were hit hard by the malaria epidemics, which killed almost five hundred men, mostly Irish immigrants.”[22] 

By 1832, the Rideau Canal was completed, at a cost of $800,000: about as much, Sweeny reckons, as the value of the silver cargo of one ship.[23] 

Wellington certainly deserves to have Ottawa’s main thoroughfare named after him in the capital city of a country he did so much to defend against America’s territorial ambitions, bolster its administration, sponsor its settlement, and boost its economic development.  His intervention also created the conditions which encouraged the Irish to immigrate to British North America, establishing Irish settlement patterns up to the last great wave of Irish emigration during the most disastrous year of the Great Irish Famine in 1847.[24]  Thereafter, large scale Irish emigration to Canada ends.  The US was the new destination for waves of mainly Catholic Irish who saw themselves as political exiles, not mere economic emigrants.[25]   By then, Irish settlement patterns in Canada were well established and the Irish themselves had already made a deeply felt, if somewhat occluded, impact on the development of Canada.  Like Canada itself, the chief architect of this legacy was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and his pot of Spanish silver.

Like Canada, Ireland was shaped by British imperial interests.  Fears that it would be swept up in French Revolutionary fervour convinced London to abolish the Irish Parliament 1800 and to bind Ireland to Britain in the Act of Union 1800. Yet the same drive to bind Canada as an ally led it to succor the relationship, granting it responsible government in the 1840s and Confederation as the first Dominion of the Commonwealth in 1867. Had Britain taken a similar tact with Ireland, our history would have been very different. 

Irish revolutionaries who believed that only force would deliver Ireland’s freedom also so the value of Canada to Britain. The Fenian Brother conspired to provoke an Anglo-America war by invading Canada. Mobilizing Irish and Irish American veterans of the Civil War, the launched several cross border raids between 1866 and 1871. It is a story captured brilliantly in David Wilson’s recently published Canadian Spy Story, Irish Revolutionaries and the Secret Police.

Prime Minister Churchill, when faced with the prospect of a successful invasion by Nazi Germany, opined that he would take the fleet to Halifax, declaring privately ‘I’ll fight them from Canada!’

Canada’s role as imperial bulwark threatened by a perfidious revolutionary America has faded in memory as the sun set on the British Empire and risen on American global hegemony. Yet this story has led me hear in Canada’s national anthem the echoes of its colonial history:  “True patriot love in all of us command, With glowing hearts we see thee rise, The True North strong and free!  From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

Eamonn McKee


26 October 2022

[1] Born Wesley but later taking his mother’s name Wellesley.

[2] Wellington’s grandfather, Richard, changed his surname from Colley to Wesley after he inherited the estate of his cousin Garret Wesley in 1728 (Wikipedia).


[4] Wellington earned his spurs with long service in India.  He won fame fighting Napoleon’s forces in Spain in the savage war there.  More than 70% of his Peninsular Army were Irish.

[5] For a very lively account, see Juan Cole’s Napoleon’s Egypt, Invading the Middle East.

[6] Lieven, Russia against Napoleon, The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace, (Viking, 2009), pp 16-17.  Lieven’s book is a declared attempt to correct western accounts that underestimate the significance of Russia’s victory and the logistical achievement of chasing Napoleon all the way to Paris. The logic behind Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was shared by Hitler: only by being truly unchallenged in Europe could either hope to defeat Britain.  See Timothy Snyder’s incomparable Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

[7] Sweeny, p 49.

[8] Sweeny slightly overstates cutting off the British Navy’s supply of hemp as being the predominant reason for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

[9] Wikipedia.

[10] Ibid, pp 134-5.

[11] Bytown got its name from Col. John By, the British Army engineer overseeing the canal’s construction.  It was changed to Ottawa in 1855.

[12] Ibid, p. 54.

[13] As had happened in the French and Indian Wars; see Fintan O’Toole’s William Johnson, White Savage.

[14] Thomas Raddall, Halifax, Warden of the North, p 167.  In an ironic twist, the plans of the new fortification there were drawn up by Colonel James Arnold, son of Benedict Arnold, the arch US traitor.

[15] Sweeny, quoted p 49.

[16] Sweeny, p. 48.

[17] Michael McBane, John Egan, Pine and Politics (Ottawa, 2018).  Egan was also instrumental in the land grant for the Algonquin reserve at Kitigan Zibi in the Gatineau Valley at Maniwaki.

[18] Thomas Bartlett, Ireland during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1791-1815, pp 74-75, in the Cambridge History of Ireland, vol. III.

[19] Historian Michael McBane tells me that one of his forebears on this mother’s side perfectly illustrates this pattern: John Kearns (Catholic, b. Enniskillen, Ireland, 1777; d. Plantagenent, Upper Canada, 1863).  As a young soldier, Kearns, saw action during the Irish rebellion of 1798. He served in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars in the West Indies, Spain and the Netherlands. He joined the Duke of Wellington’s Army in 1811 and was present at many battles during the Peninsula Wars. He immigrated to Upper Canada in 1818.  He held the rank of Colonel in the Prescott Militia and participated in the Battle of Saint-Eustache during the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837.  He represented Prescott in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada at York (Toronto) from 1836 to 1841 as a Conservative.

[20] Sweeny, pp 12-14.

[21] Ibid, p 144.

[22] Ibid, p 141.

[23] Ibid, p 136.

[24] Mark McGowan, Death or Canada, The Irish Famine Migration to Toronto, 1847 (Novalis, 2009). Donald H Akenson, The Irish in Ontario (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1984), 28-34.

[25] See Kirby Miller’s classic study Emigrants and Exiles.


Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland, Irish Heritage of Canada

Tadhg O’Brennan, a great candidate as the first recorded Irishman in Canada

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


Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland, Irish Heritage of Canada

Fifty Irish Lives in Canada: It’s Complicated and That’s Great

Fifty Irish Lives in Canada is a project I have launched profiling the lives of the Irish in Canada, with the aim of picking from those profiles fifty lives of Irish born people who made a contribution to Canada or lived lives emblematic of the Irish immigrant experience. It was inspired by the Royal Irish Academy’s publication, Irish Lives in America. I want to thank the RIA for their advice on this project. Along with a group of the leading historians of the Irish in Canada, we are working to compile some of these profiles, with a release date next March, Irish Heritage Month in Canada. Only when we have a critical mass of profiles can we consider picking the representative Fifty.

The following comprises (I) an overview essay (II) a history of Canada and the Irish in Canada in 250 words and (III) a list of some of the candidates for the Fifty Irish Lives Project.

The profiles being readied for publication next March will be less than 1000 words and the list here is a selective indication of what is to come. On the list you will find at least one governor, military officer, provincial founder, business leader, bishop, educator, rescuer, murderer, labour leader, brewer, explorer, botanist, statesman, actress, journalist, novelist, and the founder of a legal system.

What they have in common is that they were all born in Ireland. We have to start somewhere. Collating the impact and contribution of Irish Canadians in an immense task for another time.

The Irish helped make Canada what it is today. That contribution is complicated. Because it was made over three hundred years of tumultuous history. Because the Irish came from all walks of life, competing religious and political beliefs, and loyalties that converged and divided over time. It is complicated and all the richer for that.

To note, what follows are living documents that will be continuously amended and updated.

Eamonn McKee


13 October 2022

I: Overview, The Irish Contribution to Canada

The Irish contribution to Canada is as epic and magnificent as it has been low-key. It was low-key because the Irish had to fit into a complex society comprising a dominant Anglophone, Protestant elite with the crown as its sovereign, a Catholic Francophone Province, and an Indigenous society whose hold on their own land was quickly being usurped, with devastating consequences for them.

Most times, Canada and its settlement project was an enriching environment full of challenges and opportunities for the new arrivals. Sometimes it meant that the imperial Irish, the Anglo-Irish Ascendency that had conquered Ireland and seized its lands, carried on careers in Britain’s North American colonies. Sometimes, it meant Catholic Irish becoming Anglican or Presbyterians a Methodist. Sometimes, the Irish just dropped the O’ and the Mc.

When did it start? The Medieval epic tale, the Voyage of St Brendan, confirms that the eponymous monk explored much of the Atlantic seaboard around Ireland, Scotland and Iceland. Because they embarked without necessarily thoughts of return, it is possible that early Irish Christian monks sailed far enough west to reach Newfoundland. However, there is no evidence of it.

We know that the Vikings under Leif Erikson settled in Newfoundland at l’Anse aux Meadow. We also know that the Vikings from Norway who settled Iceland took sheep and women from Scotland and Ireland on their voyages to Iceland. Perhaps some Irish women was among Erikson’s hardy band in Newfoundland but she is lost to history.

The first significant migrations of Irish were to the cod banks of Newfoundland in the 17th century. So familiar was it to them that they gave it an Irish name, the only one outside of Ireland, Talamh an Éisc, land of the fish. Along with English and French, they settled there and elsewhere in Atlantic Canada in growing numbers throughout the 18th century. To this day, Newfoundland shares exceptionally strong kinship ties with Waterford and Wexford but also southern parts of Kilkenny, Carlow and Tipperary.

The first recorded Irishman in Canada, then known as New France, was Tadhg O’Brennan. His was an ancient Gaelic line with deep roots around Castlecomer in Co Kilkenny. They had managed for four hundred years to hold onto some of their lands against the depredations of the Norman invaders. However, the Cromwellian invasion was overwhelming and Tadhg departed for France and in 1661 for Quebec, aged 45, where he married and had a family.

In the second half of the 18th century, Anglo-Irish officers and administrators took leading roles in the founding of the Canadian colonies, applying skills and often prejudices hard won in their conquest of Ireland from the early 17th century onwards. They had family roots in Ireland’s conquests, from the Tudor wars to the Cromwellian and Williamite settlements. They had taken land by the sword from the Gaelic Irish, like the O’Brennans, and imposed an alien system of governance, religion, and law. The Anglo-Irish learned how to colonize in Ireland, often brutally and with deep sectarian convictions about Catholics and natives. Men like Guy Carlton, his brother Thomas, John Parr, Richard Bulkeley and Walter Patterson applied their skills in Canada, their political acumen honed by navigating Ireland’s complexities.

The Anglo-Irish also intermarried with the Gaelic Irish elite giving them links and insights into a culture that shared many precepts with the Indigenous of Canada. Over the generations, the Anglo-Irish regarded themselves as Irish though not native like the Gaelic and largely Catholic Irish. After all, Richard Bulkeley’s ancestor on his father’s side, Lancelot, arrived in Ireland in 1613 as Anglican Archbishop. The Anglo-Irish aristocrats took pride in their Irish Parliament, were loyal to the Crown but haggled endless with London for the betterment of Ireland’s trade and development. By the end of the 18th century they had developed their own sense of nationality.

Famously some Anglo-Irish aristocrats like Henry Grattan, Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and Lord Edward FitzGerald became advocates for Irish independence, became even republicans in the mold of the French Revolution. The young Lord Edward in his travels in Canada rhapsodized about the possibilities it offered as Edenic and egalitarian. Irish patriots and poets helped shaped the imaginative landscape of Canadian writers.

Such dreams ended when London decided that its imperial interests demanded the abolition of the Irish Parliament. In a narrow window of fright at the possibilities of a republican neighbour they achieved that aim in 1800. That act sent Ireland on its way to deep sectarian division, economic decline and eventually the catastrophe of famine.

In summary, when family property and prospects did not come their way at home, the Anglo-Irish looked to British North America for careers, land, money and adventure, true-blue believers in the Empire like Dominick Daly.

Protestant Irish farmers, often of Scottish origin who had settled in Ulster in the plantations of the 17th centuries, outnumbered Catholics by two-to-one up to the 1830s. By the 1820s Irish Catholics began arriving in number finding work in the rough lumber business, building canals, and farming on land of course taken from the Indigenous. Some like John Egan who found great wealth and esteem were instrumental in encouraging Irish settlement in places like the Ottawa and Gatineau valleys. From colonization at home to being part of colonel settlement in Canada. Survival can be complicated. Many Irish born helped build a country and at times make contributions that in hindsight added to the woes, even the decimation of the Indigenous.

The story of the Irish in Canada is complicated. That’s history. Let’s not uncomplicate it.

The Catholic Irish were a minority in a predominantly Protestant Canada and doubly so in Quebec as a minority amidst the dominant French Catholics. With leadership from their own priests, bishops, journalists and politicians, the Catholic Irish organized mutual support, established schools, built magnificent churches as statements of pride, and mobilized politically.

For women, immigration offered at least some release from the restrictions at home. By the mid-19th century, more women were crossing the Atlantic than men. However, it had added perils. In a patriarchal society women were not expected to be educated, were expected to marry and where upwards of twenty per cent were expected to fall into prostitution. The acceptance of this fate infuriated writers like Anna Murphy. Women writers like Mary Anne Sadlier through fiction addressed key issues in their lives.

In this kind of society, putting food on the table when a husband died left few and often dreadful choices. Prison and the insane asylum were often the fate of rebellious or the unfortunate. Gracie Marks’ hard life saw her at the age of fifteen convicted of a double murder. Yet in the list here we see women like Ellie Chapman and Catherine O’Hare who fought their way to a certain kind of freedom. Women like Belinda Maloney, Ellen Dease and Ellen Dinon, in religious orders, founded schools and gave the first real opportunity for proper education to generations of girls and young women.

The patriarchy wrote the history and only saw themselves there. One of the challenges of the Fifty Irish Lives in Canada will be re-writing women into the historical record.

Another key point of this project is to embrace the history not try to reshape it. The Irish were very much a part of the colonial settlement project. Two Irishmen, Palliser and Macoun, encouraged the ‘settlement’ of the Northwest. The Royal Irish Constabulary served as the model for the police force to enforce it, the NW Mounted Police, later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Irish nationalist and supporter of women’s suffrage, Nicholas Flood Davin has earned profound moral distain for his report that established the Indian Residential Schools system.

What is so striking about the Irish in Canada is they came from all walks of life in Ireland and all the traditions that share our island. His relative James Gowan more or less single-handedly created the Canadian criminal justice system. Imperialists and nationalists. Catholics and Protestants. Orangemen and Irish rebels. Landlords and labourers. Protestant aristocrats and Catholic bishops.

Out of the Irish cauldron, many Irish reached across home-grown sectarian divides and determined that Canada would be different. A deep-dyed Orangeman like Ogle Gowan could in Canada reach across the sectarian divide in seeking Catholic political support.

Catholic Bishop like Michael Fleming imported the tactics of Daniel O’Connell to better the miserable conditions of the Irish of Newfoundland and in the process reshape the Province’s politics. Episcopal leaders like Archbishops Lynch and Connolly were mindful to council restraint and avoid sowing religious divisions in Canada. Avoiding the sectarianism sowed at home inspired John Egan just as it would Thomas D’Arcy McGee and fellow Irish journalists and politicians in their contribution to the founding of Confederated Canada. They helped create a model that inspired Irish nationalists at home until the paradigm shifting Easter Rising of 1916.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee was one of the founding fathers of Confederation, steering the debates with his knowledge of Irish, British and American politics, determined that the new Dominion would not repeat grave mistakes of governance, would become a democratic and tolerant society.

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. 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.

Lord Lisgar worked closely with PM Macdonald to ease tensions around the Red River Rebellion and smoothed relations 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.

Lord and Lady Dufferin were immensely popular throughout Canada. They 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.

Who thinks of Ireland when they look at the Canadian flag? It was designed by an Irishman, Patrick Reid, also the key figure behind the Montreal Expo ’67, regarded as modern Canada’s coming out party.

In the contribution of the Irish to Canada we see the talents of an undivided and variated Ireland at work. As we plan our own future in Ireland, Canada and the Irish contribution here is an inspiration, complications and all. The value lies in its complications.

The research phase of our Fifty Irish Lives in Canada project is well in progress. The list below is just a rough-hewn teaser of the profiles to come. More will be revealed in time!

II: A History of Canada and the Irish in Canada in 250 Words

The establishment of Canada was shaped by beaver hunting (felt for the global hat industry; leading to exploration westward), relations with the Indigenous, climate, the fact that its river systems run east-west where in the US they run north-south, the co-existence of French and English settlers, the withdrawal of France and rule by Britain, tensions between large Protestant and Catholic populations, lumber extraction, mass European immigration, relations with the US, participation in WW I and WW II, and the fossil fuel industry. Politically and constitutionally Canada was shaped primarily by events in and awareness of developments in Britain, Ireland and the United States (notably horrified reaction to the civil war and the Fenian threat of invasion).

Most Irish immigrants arrived before the Famine, two-thirds of them were Protestant and the Orange Order became the dominant social and political association in English-speaking Canada up to the 1970s. Irish settlement patterns are deep and precede Great Famine immigration which was tragic and short-lived, with most refugees heading to the US. The Irish in Canada were determined to become good Canadian citizens, while cherishing their Irish identity. They have made an enormous and largely unregistered contribution to the development of Canada. Canada was the future that Ireland never had, due to the abolition of the Irish parliament in 1800, the failure to restore it in the subsequent 120 years, and the paradigm-shifting Easter Rising. Ireland and Canada today embrace the diversity and rights of their historical identities and of their contemporary societies.

III: Some Irish Lives in Canada

Tadhg Cornelius Ó’Braonáin, 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.

Richard Bulkeley (b. Ireland 1717, d. Halifax 1800): As a friend and aide-camp to Edward Cornwallis, Richard was part of the 1749 expedition that established Halifax. By October he was director of public works; Provincial Secretary October 1758, clerk of the Council 1763, and Brigadier-general of the provincial militia 1780.  Worked hard with Governor John Parr, a fellow Irishman, to accommodate all the loyalists arriving in NS after the American Revolution and on agreeing the borders between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and St John’s Island (PEI).  He helped organise the peace with the Mi’kmaq and the ceremonial burying of the hatchet in 1761 which ended 75 years of hostilities and wars. He was commended for the efficiency with which he organized the emigration of black loyalists to Sierra Leone.  Co-founder and President of the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax.  Remembered as a beloved man of integrity and ‘father of the Province.’

Guy Carleton (b. 1724 Strabane, d.1808 ): 1st Baron DORCHESTER, the man who ‘saved Quebec’ and therefore Canada, by advocating against forced Anglicization of Quebec. Army officer and colonial administrator. He twice served as Governor of the Province of Quebec, from 1768 to 1778.  Carleton served as Commander-in-Chief of British forces from 1782 to the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War.  He twice served as Governor General of British North America, during his tenure as Governor of Quebec, and again from 1785 to 1795.

Richard John Uniacke (b. 1753, Castletown, Kildare, d. 1830): career politician in Nova Scotia, long time attorney general of the Province, and one of the leaders of the Charitable Irish Society.

James FitzGibbon (b. 1780 Limerick, d. 1863): Soldier and public servant. Hero of the War of 1812, FitzGibbon is best known for his actions as a guerrilla fighter who harassed the American forces, and for being the soldier whom Laura Secord informed of the American surprise attack after the capture of Fort George in May 1813. Handsome, charming, tough and wily, FitzGibbon was one of the few soldiers who fought both conventional battles and irregular warfare during the War of 1812. Befriended Anna Murphy during her time in Canada.

Belinda Maloney (b. 1781, Galway, d. 1865): Founded the Presentation Sisters in Newfoundland; the first religious order of women in the colony and the forerunners of schools and public charity.

Michael Anthony Fleming (b. 1792, Carrick-on-Suir, d. St John’s 1850): Bishop of St. John’s Newfoundland, Fleming was inspired by Daniel O’Connell’s political leadership in Ireland, instilling pride in the poor and marginalised Catholic Irish of Newfoundland, provided education and care, politically built the Liberal Party, won Catholic Emancipation, and outwitted a series of Governors. He conceived and built the Basilica of St. John the Baptist.

James Owen McCarthy (b. 1794 often known as James Owen or Owens, d. Hamilton 1835): Tailor, businessman, allegedly a brawler, and convicted of murder rather than manslaughter, McCarthy won support for commutation to exile through successful petitions for his plight but died the day before his release in an altercation with the jailor.  McCarthy had vociferously complained about conditions in the jail. A further petition led to some reforms of jail conditions which at the time were overcrowded and poorly regulated.

Anna Murphy (b. 1794 Dublin, d. 1860): Travel writer, women’s rights advocate and adventurer, she was famous in Canada for her travelogue published in 1838 Summer Rambles and Winter Studies. She was appalled that society accepted that 20% of women would fall into prostitution and that without educational opportunities women had few career options outside of marriage. Her writing remains an important source on life in Canada at this time and the perspective of a talented and perceptive writer.

Dominick Daly (b. 1798 Galway, d. Australia 1868) Colonial administrator and politician, provincial secretary whose “conscientiousness and impartiality in his work won respect and confidence, which made his post-rebellion transition from provincial cum civil servant to provincial secretary cum politician so easy.” [DCB] He was notably sympatheic to the French of Lower Canada. Daly operated at a complex time in Canada’s history as it managed the rebellions of 1837-38 and a new colonial administrative system that converted appointed jobs into ones based on elective office. In 1854, he was appointed as the first Catholic Lt.Governor of Prince Edward Island where he inherited the land question unresolved since Patterson’s time. He announced his resignation after four years and in 1861 served in a new colonial role in Australia until his death. “Daly was an adherent of the old colonial system who tried to perpetuate that system in the Canadas long after it had been replaced by a new régime. Later, however, in Prince Edward Island and Australia, he respected the principles of responsible government, though he always gave priority to the rights of the crown and vested interests, priorities typical of a man of his aristocratic background.” [Elizabeth Gibbs, DCB].

Edward Kenny (b. 1800, Kerry, d. 1891): Businessman, politician, militia officer, and office holder. He co-founded the Union and Merchants’ banks and served as Mayor of Halifax. He was a Conservative senator from 1867 to 1876.

John Kinder Labatt (b. 1803, Laois, d. 1866): farmer and brewer, eldest of the seven children of Valentine Knightley Chetwode Labat (Labatt), whose Huguenot ancestors came from the Bordeaux region of France, and his wife Jane.  He immigrated with his English wife Eliza to Canada and purchased a 200 acre farm. Heroically, Eliza had five sons and nine daughters. He sold the farm and in 1847 founded a brewery, Labatt and Eccles in London Ontario, later buying out his partner.  His son, John, grew it into Canada’s largest brewery. Grandsons John and Hugh produced Labatt 50, the best selling beer for three decades from its launch in 1950.

Ogle Gowan  (b. 1803 Wexford, d. 1876): Orangeman from the age of 15, journalist, gentleman farmer, and politician, Ogle was vehemently anti-Catholic when in Ireland but sought political alliances with Catholics in Ontario.  Paradoxically, in many ways Gowan’s political activism and communications skills reflected the influence of Daniel O’Connell.   Godson of George Ogle, a Grand Master of the Irish Orange Order, Ogle immigrated to Canada in 1826, already well known in Orange circles in its strongholds along the St Lawrence, including Toronto, Kingston and Brockville, as well as in Perth.  It is possible Ogle’s ambition was to create a Grand Lodge and he did so without hesitation, using his considerable demotic communication skills to found the Grand Orange Lodge of British North America with himself as Grand Master. “By 1836, Gowan was already a figure of consequence in provincial politics, and he consolidated his position by founding the Brockville Statesman in 1836, his first successful venture in journalism.” (DCB) Militia leader during the 1837 rebellion, he was twice wounded at the battle of the Windmill near Prescott (worth a visit today). Contentious relations with Tories were not helped by his advocacy for responsible government.  As a parliamentarian, he was a feared debater, one of the best speakers in the Assembly.  His refusal to distance himself from his Orange connections probably stalled his promotion to office under Macdonald, though a habit of quarrels deepened the view of Reformers and Tories that he was not sufficiently respectable.  Having retired from politics, he was active in the founding of the Imperial Grand Council in Belfast in 1867, the year of Canadian Confederation, reflecting his interest in convening all of the Empire’s lodges occasionally. He wrote a multi-volume history of Orangeism, though the fourth volume remains lost.

John Egan  (b. 1811, Galway, d. 1857):  Egan arrived penniless in the Ottawa Valley aged twenty but his talents and personality, along with a judicious switch to Anglicanism, and partnership with lumber baron Ruggles Wright saw him quickly prosper.  It took immense organizational skills and leadership qualities to successfully run a lumber business: “By 1854, John Egan & Co. (J.E. & Co.) employed 3800 men in one hundred lumber camps.” [Michael McBane to whom I am indebted for this sketch.]  Many of these were Irish and he encouraged Irish settlement on the land, fifty cents on the acre, payment often deferred.  At the same time he had won the friendship the local Quebecois and was respected as a mediator and peace maker.  Egan was determined to avoid sectarianism and promoted tolerance, along with responsible government, temperance and the avoidance of the violence that often accompanied elections.  Egan entertained the elite, including hosting a dinner and ball at his home in Aylmer for Governor Lord Elgin when he visited Bytown in 1853. Elgin’s visit was partly to assess its potential as a future capital (the visit was a triumph).  Egan’s intervention was critical to the land grant at Maniwaki that created the Annisabeg reserve of Kitigan Zibi. Eventually one of the leading Lumber Barons in the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys, by the time of his death aged 48 he had achieved success as a businessman, office holder, justice of the peace, militia officer, and politician.  His determination to create in Canada a society that had absorbed the fell lessons of divisive and neglectful government in Ireland anticipated the views and influence of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

 Thomas Louis Connolly (b. 1814, d. 1876): served as Bishop of Saint John New Brunswick and Archbishop of Halifax; powerful advocate for Confederation, Catholic separate schools, Irish migration to Canada, and the establishment of women’s religious order. One of the few bishops to vote against papal infallibility at the first Vatican Council.

James Robert Gowan  (b. 1815, Wexford, d. 1909): Lawyer, Orange Order executive, judge, senator, and architect of Canadian criminal law, judiciary and jurisprudence.  Through prodigious output, he founded and filled legal journals and wrote most of the statutes governing Canadian criminal law.

John Joseph Lynch  (b. 1816, d. 1888): First Irish born Bishop of Toronto from 1860 to 1870 and its first Archbishop, from 1870 to 1888. Lynch nurtured the separate Catholic schools won by his predecessor Armand-Francois-Marie de Charbonnel, careful to avoid inciting Protestant hostility as the Catholic population in Toronto had expanded.  He used his influence diplomatically to encourage political leaders like John A. Macdonald to appoint Catholics to provincial office.  He was also an influential figure in Rome.  He recognised that the Irish had proven themselves responsible citizens in North America, confirming his belief they were a chosen people.  Lynch supported Home Rule for Ireland, opposed physical force and was guided in all things by his pursuit of the well-being for his Church and his people, the Irish. He oversaw an expansion in the church, under this careful if strict management style.  “During his incumbency 70 priests were ordained; two priests of the diocese, Jean-François Jamot and John Walsh, were elevated to the episcopacy; and, in addition, 40 churches, 30 presbyteries, and 7 convents were established.” [DCB] In a critical period in the formation of Canada, Lynch had proven himself an adept and successful leader.

John Palliser (Dublin 1817-1887): Landed gentleman, big game hunter, and explorer, Palliser led the famed eponymous expedition across Western Canada, also known as the British North American Exploring Expedition. This greatly encouraged Prime Minster John A. Macdonald to order the colonization of the region.

James Richardson, (b. 1819, Aughnacloy, d. Kingston 1892), tailor, businessman, and politician. James Richardson was paid in grain as an apprentice tailor and having managed to transition to traditional commercial trading he used his earnings to invest in various enterprises as Kingston was coming into its period of commercial dominance.  He founded Richardson and Sons in 1857.  His grandson, James, not only greatly expanded the company’s interests and income but single-handedly created Canada’s commercial aviation.  Richardson and Sons remains today a private company and one of Canada’s largest with interests in agriculture, food, property, energy and financial services. 

Sir Francis Leopold McClintock (b. 1819, Dundalk, d. 1907): Naval officer and Arctic explorer. Franklin search and major figure in Canadian Arctic Exploration. McClintock’s finest achievements were his contribution to the solving of the Franklin mystery and his development of a sledging method that led to the rapid exploration of many of Canada’s Arctic islands.

 Ellen (Sr Teresa) Dease (b. 1820, Naas, d. 1889): From a prominent military family and one of the founders of the Canadian branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loretto Sisters), with mother house in Rathfarnham. From her new Toronto HQ in 1847, she established the North American network of Loretto Schools.

Mary Anne Sadlier (b. 1820 Cootehill, Co. Cavan, d. Montreal 1903):  Sadlier published roughly twenty-three novels and numerous stories. She wrote for Irish immigrants in both the United States and Canada, encouraging them to attend mass and retain the Catholic faith. In so doing, Sadlier also addressed the related themes of anti-Catholicism, the Irish Famine, emigration, and domestic work.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee (Carlingford Co Louth 1825-1868) Irish-Canadian politician, Catholic spokesman, journalist, poet, and a Father of Canadian Confederation. Dubbed “Canada’s first nationalist” for his role in convincing Catholics and Protestants to come together for confederation. A year after Confederation, he was assassinated in Ottawa in 1868, apparently by the Fenians who were outraged by  his vehement condemnation of them.  While Patrick J. Whelan participated in the crime with an accomplice, and was convicted of murder, doubts remain that he pulled the trigger and that it was fact his accomplice who did.

Kate Horn Buckland (1826, d. 1896) A Canadian stage actress and theatre director. She was a popular actor during her active years from 1845 to 1873, and was the managing director of the Theatre Royal, Montréal from 1873 to 1880.

Grace Marks (b. 1828, d. circa 1873): Grace arrived in Canada in 1840 from Ulster aged twelve in the company of her abusive, alcoholic father, her mother having died on the crossing. Along with James McDermott, she was convicted for the 1843 murder of her employer, James Kinnear, though the gruesome circumstances involved also the murder of his lover and pregnant housekeeper. McDermott was hanged, Grace’s conviction was commuted and she was pardoned thirty years later, leaving for New York and obscurity.  Her story appeared in the autobiography Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush by Susanna Moodie (1803-1885), the 1996 novel Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (shortlisted for the Booker Prize), and a Canadian television miniseries.

Ellen (Sr Mary Bernard) Dinan (b. 1829, Macroom, d. 1901): one of the founding sisters of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Toronto; created a network of schools, social services, and hospitals across Ontario, which eventually provided the foundation of a powerful network of CSJ institutions across Canada.

John Macoun (1831, Co Down, d. 1921): He was nineteen when is family emigrated to Canada and even by then his character was set in stone.  Supremely confident of his abilities and moral superiority, he was a convinced Orangeman and dedicated loyalist to the Crown and the Empire.  Outdoor life had imbued a great love of nature as well as encouraging his independent streak from his earliest years and in Canada his passion for botany developed. He became a teacher but his fieldwork, study and contacts with leading botanists soon made him an expert of the region’s flora. Between 1872 and 1881, he surveyed railway route westward and combined this with his botanical interests, convincing himself and others of the agricultural potential of the Northwest, though his widely popular book Manitoba and the great north-west. The government appointed him the region’s explorer. Along with Palliser’s explorations, Macoun was a decisive figure in Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s decision to expand Canada westward. Macoun’s enthusiasm and his fondness for fieldwork undermined his scientific rigor. His views were misleading as he underplayed the harshness of the prairie winters. “His greatest legacy, however, was his ability as a field naturalist. A tireless field man who could recognize new forms at sight and who discovered a large number of species and subspecies, many of which were named after him, he covered an incredible range of territory – from Atlantic Canada to the Pacific coast and as far north as the Yukon – making large collections in all kinds of environments. It is not too exaggerated to say that John Macoun tried almost single-handedly to roll back the natural-history frontiers of Canada.” [DCB]

Patrick Boyle (Co Mayo 1832-1901), a printer and publisher.  His outrage over British colonialism in Ireland, combined with the ethos of sectarian bitterness in Toronto, prompted him to establish the Irish Canadian there in January 1863. Since the paper’s stockholders, printers, and editors were largely members of the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Canada, of which Boyle was secretary, he was regarded as the mouthpiece of this Irish working-class association.

William Clendinneng (1833, Cavan, d. 1907) Manufacturer, merchant, and philanthropist, based in Montreal, Clendinneng made his money leading a foundry and making cast iron products. He was director of several benevolent societies and Protestant charities, and was associated with many causes including missions, hospitals, and sailor and animal welfare.  All of this helped him become a city councilman between 1876 and 1879 and again between 1888 and 1893. He was elected provincial member for Montreal, running for the Conservatives in 1890.   As his business suffered reverses, he withdrew from his philanthropic activities.  He lived with his daughter in New York for four months before he was hit by a train and died.

Timothy Eaton (b. 1834, Antrim, d. 1907): Like many of his fellow Ulster Presbyterians, Eaton learned early the virtues of discipline, independence and hard work which stood him in good stead when, like them too, he immigrated to Canada in the footsteps of his five siblings. He and his brother James opened a small store, adding baked goods to their dry goods and groceries.  He was not the first but he was the most successful in moving his business to cash sales only. He struck on his own when he moved to Toronto where cash sales worked a treat in an urban, industrialized setting.  His target buyers were cash paid workers. Buying direct from British sources he cut out the extortionate wholesalers.  He commissioned a purpose built, three storied department store, ensuring that his customers could get everything they needed in one place.  Eventually Eaton’s department stores were operating across Canada. Eaton kept prices low and expanded his lines of merchandise, including ready to wear. He invested heavily in advertising. He opened a mail order business, offering full refunds for any unsatisfactory goods.  The regular arrival of the Eaton catalogue in towns across Canada was a major event, offering clothing, furniture and every new gadget being produced by the scientific and manufacturing revolution. While no innovator, Eaton revolutionized retail by quickly applying the techniques that met the needs of modern customers created by a modernising society.  A devout Christian, he had converted to Methodism when he was twenty-four but this did not stop Eaton’s posting No Catholics Need Apply signs. Eaton started off his life in Toronto declaring that all his assets were “a wife, five children and seven dollars.” He left an estate worth $5.25 million and established a family dynasty regarded as the Kennedy’s of Canada.

Catherine (O’Hare) Schubert (b. Rathfriland, Co. Down, 1835, d. BC 1918): Having lost their home and farm to a flood and not wishing her husband to go alone, she was the only female member of the Overlanders settlers who travelled from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to the interior of British Columbia at Kamloops, following the Cariboo Gold Rush in 1862.  She was pregnant at the time.  With their children often strapped to their backs, she and her husband forded icy rivers and trekked narrow mountainous passes.  Her fourth child, a daughter,was born en route and named Rose in honour of the rose hips they had eaten when food ran out. In BC, she farmed, ran an inn, taught local children and was a midwife, often while her husband prospected for gold.

Charles (Joe Beef) McKiernan (Co Cavan 1835-1889): Soldier and innkeeper, he was a quartermaster in the British army during the Crimean War. In 1864, he obtained his discharge and opened in Montreal “Joe Beef’s Canteen,” an establishment soon known throughout North America.

Nicholas Flood Davin (b. 1840, Kilfinane, d. Winnipeg 1901):  In 1879 Flood Davin wrote the Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, otherwise known as The Davin Report, in which he advised the federal government to institute residential schools for Indigenous children. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the assimilation amounted to cultural genocide.

Daniel john O’Donoghue (b. 1844, Kilarney, d. 1907): Printer, trade-union leader, politician, editor, and civil servant. Having married Quebecois Marie-Marguerite Cloutier in Ottawa, O’Donoghue earned the support of both English and French speaking workers, helping to found Canada’s strong labour movement.

Ellen Cashman (b. 1845, Cork, d. 1925) an Irish nurse, restaurateur, businesswoman and philanthropist in Arizona, Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon. Cashman led a rescue party across mountains and through blizzards to miners at the Cassiar gold mine in British Columbia earning her the nickname “the miners’ Angel.”

Isabella Valancy Crawford  (b. 1850, Dublin, d. 1887): Author and poet. She was one of the first Canadians to make a living as a freelance writer.” Crawford is increasingly being viewed as Canada’s first major poet.” She is the author of “Malcolm’s Katie,” a poem that has achieved “a central place in the canon of nineteenth-century Canadian poetry.”

Kathleen “Kit” Coleman (Co Galway 1856, d. 1915): An Irish-Canadian newspaper columnist. Coleman was the world’s first accredited female war correspondent, covering the Spanish–American War for the Toronto Mail in 1898. Coleman also served as the first president of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, an organization of women journalists.

Sara McLagan (Co Tyrone 1855-1924): An Irish-born Canadian newspaper editor and clubwoman, co-founder and publisher of the Vancouver Daily World. She is often described as “the first female publisher of a daily newspaper in Canada” or “the first Canadian female newspaper editor.”



Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland