Category Archives: Irish Heritage of Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

Michael Anthony Fleming“, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Vol. VIII, at

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

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


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

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

Eamonn McKee and Mark McGowan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

Tanguay Collection, Dictionnaire généalogique des familles canadiennes Québec, 1608 à 1890. Online:

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Fifty Irish Lives in Canada: Preface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

Ottawa, 1 March 2023

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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

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

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