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Black ’47 Commemoration and Remembrance, Ottawa

Of course it rained yesterday. We were assembling at a graveyard. Not just any graveyard but one that held hundreds of remains of Irish Famine refugees who died in what was then Bytown, today Ottawa. And not a graveyard by the look of it. It had been leveled to make Macdonald Gardens Park. That it had been a graveyard for the town between the 1840s and the 1870s has been largely forgotten. Yesterday the Embassy and local historian Michael McBane hosted an event to commemorate those brave people who helped the desperate Irish, and to remember the Irish that had fled the Irish Famine. It was the first time such an event had been held there. Over 130 people turned up to listen to the speeches and music, to recall those dreadful events and to commemorate the compassion of some very brave people. My remarks below thank those involved and recall the events of Black ’47, the greatest humanitarian disaster to hit Canada. What happened that year accelerated Canada’s drive for Confederation and ultimately Irish independence.

Irish Famine Commemoration and Remembrance

Macdonald Park, Ottawa, 4 August 2022

Remarks by H.E. Dr Eamonn McKee, Ambassador of Ireland to Canada

I want to thank our MC Pat Marshall for doing such a great job. James Maloney MP and chairman of the Canada Ireland Parliamentary Friendship Group, our champion of Irish causes and the story of the Irish in Canada.  I want to acknowledge the presence of Sister Rachelle Watier, Superior General of the Sisters of Charity, Ottawa, the delegation of Sisters and  Oblate Father Laroche with us today, representing a great tradition of compassion. Thank you to Rev Tim Kehoe for your powerful remarks and to Kevin Dooley for the gift of song and music.  All those who have made this event possible, thank you. 

I want to recognise the presence of Prof Mark McGowan whose scholarship has championed the story of the Irish in Canada and in particular the role that the Famine played in that story. He has delved deep into the archives of Strokestown House to trace the story and experiences of the tenants and their families displaced during the Great Famine from their homes in Roscommon to Canada.

I want to pay a particular tribute to local historian Michael McBane, an extraordinary resource on the Irish heritage of Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley.  His book on Bytown 1847 and Élizabeth Bruyrèreis is evocative and perceptive, humane and strategic. This event did not exist a month ago but after my suggestion, Michael worked with the Embassy team, bringing his energy, commitment and passion to help make this happen.

This event is about Commemoration and Remembrance.  We commemorate all those in Canada who helped the victims of the Irish Famine.  And we remember those victims who lie beneath our feet here.

Only a month ago, I had innocently thought that Macdonald Gardens was just a park, that the bones that rested here from the 1840s to the 1870s had been moved to Beechwood Cemetery.  Then Michael set me right.  Hundreds of the remains of the early settlers in Bytown lie here.  Along with them lie Irish Famine victims of 1847.

Having come from a wonderful ceremony at Grosse Ȋle in July where almost 5,500 famine remains lie buried with dignity and respect, my new awareness of Macdonald Gardens was quite a contrast.  That conjuration of Grosse Ȋle and Macdonald Gardens inspired this commemoration and this remembrance.

This event is a commemoration because of the heroic compassion and bravery of people like Sister Bruyrère and her band of sisters, less than twenty in number, most young women, many teenagers, some of them Irish.  They treated the Irish who were sickened by a disease of unknown cause, but often deadly effect; ship’s fever, typhus.  The Oblate Fathers took similar risks tending to the sick and the dying.  Some volunteer women too defied the terror of typhus. Dr. Van Cortland also ranks among these heroes, along with emigrant agent George Burke. Most of the Irish survived but those that died did so in the care and compassion of the Grey Sisters and all those who helped them.  That compassion in Canada was in stark contrast to the callousness that had seen them off the island of Ireland.

Today, we commemorate these heroes who found themselves faced with the greatest humanitarian disaster in Canadian history. They join the religious, medical and official heroes in Grosse Ȋle, Montreal, Quebec, Kingston, Toronto and many other places who fearlessly assisted the tens of thousands of starving and distraught Irish, unloaded by the British Government along the St Lawrence from the coffin ships that had taken them in cruel and often fatal conditions across the Atlantic.

There are undoubtedly other smaller communities in the Ottawa River, Rideau and St Lawrence River catchments that had similar encounters.  Some we know about.  Only an hour’s drive down the road at Cornwall there is a common grave of some fifty Irish famine victims, honoured by a Celtic Cross.  Many we do not.

The sites of Irish mass or common graves  have been protected and defended by local Irish communities.  Grosse Ȋle is an honoured place of remembrance today thanks to the intervention of Irish communities across Canada in the 1990s who insisted that the remains of the Irish be treated with dignity and respect.  That the awful events of 1847 be remembered.  To them and all the Irish community groups and individuals with a passion for Ireland and their heritage, on behalf of the Government of Ireland I offer most sincere gratitude for your efforts over the generations.

Blight and the failure of the potato did not cause the Great Irish Famine.  Colonialism caused the Famine, the death of one million and the emigration of another million.

The road to disaster began almost fifty years earlier when the British Government in 1800 abolished the Irish Parliament and ran Ireland directly, with sad indifference to its decline into the worst poverty in Western Europe.

Without proper government and with capital flight, Irish poverty became rampant, the potato being the poor families’ staple food. Though studied and widely reported over the years, nothing was done about it.  Being Catholic, it was held, meant that the Irish were responsible for their poverty, even if they were not responsible for their own government.  For imperialists, contradictions can be convenient.

The economic and agricultural decline of Ireland after 1800 was immediate.  From being a leading city of Europe, Dublin’s development halted and the city declined.  Every government in Europe regarded population growth as the key to economic development.  Except in Ireland.   Only in Ireland was population growth regarded by the ruling government in London as a problem, only there. Why was that? Sovereign countries delighted in population growth.  Imperial powers dreaded it in their colonies as a risk and a danger.

Ideology within the British Government played its part.  Government funding to relieve starvation was cut back in 1846.  Despite the starvation, exports of food continued so as not to disrupt the market.  Would the ideology of laissez-faire economics have trumped compassion and political sense had starvation ravaged England?  I think not.  To allow starvation and mass exodus act as instruments of social engineering could only be tolerated, even commended, in situations of colonial management and imperial interests.

Without the prospect of help, the Irish panicked and fled by whatever means they could find in 1847, what we remember as Black ’47.

We had a population of 8 million in 1845.  If we’re lucky, we might reach 7 million within the next decade.  Ireland today has one of the lowest population densities in Western Europe.

Today, we remember our Irish kin here in Canada.  The thousands who found themselves in Bytown, having survived the awful Atlantic passage, quarantine at Grosse Ȋle, and trafficking by barge down the St Lawrence Rivers. 

Most survived and built new lives in Canada, helping to create this nation with their energy and talents.  The evidence of that contribution is everywhere, even on our doorstep here in Ottawa.  One of the constant surprises of my posting here is the discovery of the depth of the Irish story in the capital city and in the Valleys of the Ottawa, the Gatineau, Rideau and St Lawrence.

Fifteen to twenty refugees from the Great Irish Famine died every day in Bytown that terrible summer of 1847. Every day their remains were brought here, a short distance from the Temporary Emigrant Hospital, or the tents on Barracks Hill, or the fever sheds on the Rideau Canal or even the streets of Lower Town.

Three hundred in all were buried here where we stand in Macdonald Park.  Most lie there still. 

Today, we are here to remember them.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

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Ireland at 100: Colonization, Self-Determination and What the Census Tells Us

After the Easter Rising in 1916, the War of Independence, British-imposed partition and a peace treaty in 1921, Ireland gained her independence 100 years ago.

It was a long road from the time when Norman invaders seized Dublin in 1170. The Normans might have been absorbed into Irish society, were it not for the brutal second conquest by the Tudors in the 16th century. After defeat in the wars of religion in the 17th century, the Catholic population lived under the thumb of a Protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy.

Yet like the Normans before them, in the 18th century the Ascendancy developed an Irish identity, proudly manifest in their Parliament in Dublin — the first purpose-built bicameral one in the world. They lobbied London successfully for Irish economic interests. Dublin boomed and the population recovered from the devastation of war. The penal laws against the Catholics withered away, save for the right to vote.

The French Revolution inspired both Irish Protestant and Catholic leaders to imagine a new, democratic Ireland where religion was secondary to citizenship. This put the fear of God into Britain’s political leadership. Encouraged by the French, the Rising of 1798 in Ireland confirmed the worst. The prime minister, William Pitt, decided that the Irish Parliament had to go. It was bullied and bribed out of existence in 1800.

The economic decline in Ireland was almost immediate. The development of Dublin stalled and never recovered. Agriculture declined, but the population, burgeoning to eight million, paid handsome rents to absent landlords even as desperate poverty proliferated. When the potato crop failed between 1845 and 1851, one million died, and one million emigrated. Emigration created a great diaspora but reduced the population by half.

In Black ’47, the worst year of the Great Famine, some 200,000 famine refugees fled, with half coming to Canada — mass graves dot the St. Lawrence to this day. Almost 40,000 arrived in Toronto to a resident population half that. It is to the city’s eternal honour that its doctors and nurses looked after them, often at a cost to their own lives.

If population is a measure of society’s well-being, colonialism in Ireland was a demonstrable failure. As the population in Western Europe doubled, Ireland continued its decline. Even today, the U.K. ranks eighth in population density, Ireland 36th.

How did independent Ireland fare? Shorn of our industrial base by partition, we struggled to develop; emigration continued for most of the 20th century. However, in the 1950s Ireland decided to look for investment internationally and started on a journey that would, by the 1990s, create the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger, ending involuntary emigration.

Thanks to foreign direct investment, membership in the EU, globalization and a well-educated workforce, Ireland’s strengths in pharmaceuticals, medtech, information and communication technologies, and digital and financial services have produced a robust economy that withstood the global financial crash and the pandemic.

Our focus on innovation, infrastructure and talent ensures our future. We have taken our place among the nations of the world. But what about our population?

By 2011, Ireland had the highest rate of fertility within the EU. Ten years later, in April 2021, the Central Statistics Office of Ireland reported the country’s population had reached 5.1 million. Combined with the population of Northern Ireland of 1.89 million, this put the population on the island at nearly seven million.

Just about a million to go, then, to restore the population we had over 170 years ago. We may still have not reached the pre-Famine population of over eight million, but we have established a strong upward trend that will get us there.

The rise in Ireland’s population demonstrates our success as a nation-state over the last 100 years. Self-determination beats colonialism.

The next Irish census happens in April, delayed by the pandemic but coincidentally falling on our 100th anniversary. We can fill in the form with a sense of achievement and national pride. This is us — we survived and prospered. Here are the statistics.

This blog appeared originally as an Op Ed in the Toronto Star on 17 March 2022 under the title ‘St. Patrick’s Day: What a century of Irish independence tells us.’

Eamonn McKee

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St Brendan’s Voyages in the North Atlantic and His Medieval Best Seller

As a university student, I once spent a summer working on the Shetland Islands.  In a yard by the sea just outside Lerwick, we broke and cut reinforced concrete off pipes rejected for the pipeline that would link the North Sea oil fields to an oil refinery in Sullom Voe at the north end of the main island.  Nearby, I used to see a man building a boat.  He was a loner, with a handsome chiselled face and rangy body. When I asked an English friend about him, he said he was building it to row across the Atlantic on his own, not telling anyone. I don’t know if he made it or not.  Whether that urge was courageous or suicidal, it seemed to me nonetheless admirable.  It seems even more so now in the social media age where nothing matters if it is not shared. 

My English friend was intent on settling in Shetland as a crofter and he worked with us in our primitive endeavours smashing concrete to make the money to achieve that. His plummy accent suggested that it was far from that lifestyle that he was raised.  There’s a certain class of people that are drawn to remoteness. Few however have the universal appeal, spiritual import, or cultural impact of St Brendan and his followers as they pursued their epic quest around the North Atlantic.

We like to think that St Brendan and his monks sailed and rowed across the Atlantic by its shortest route, from Kerry to Newfoundland. That it was technically possible using the technology of the time was demonstrated by Tim Severin in 1976-77.  That it was achieved in the 6th century, alas there is no evidence.

St Brendan may not have crossed the North Atlantic to Canada but he and his crew unmistakably traversed at good part of the Ocean, certainly as far as Iceland.  That much is evident from the ancient account of his voyage, the medieval best seller, Navigatio Brendani.  Written in Hiberno-Latin around 800, it was translated many times and is regarded as “popular Irish work of the entire Middle Ages…..It took on the stature almost of a European epic.”[1]  There are some 120 manuscripts running from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, spreading as far north as the Baltics, east to Russia and south to the Iberian Penninsula.[2] 

St Brendan himself was an historical figure, born c.484 in Co Kerry, somewhere around Tralee Bay, possibly near Fenit or Kilfenora.  Baptised by Bishop Erc, he was fostered between the ages of one and six by St Ita, famous for her virtues and her school where she taught many of the patron saints of Ireland as young boys.  True faith, pure heart and simple life were her watchwords.  Brendan would visit her throughout his life and abide by her counsel. Famed for his chastity, even as young boy of ten years, he mercilessly beat a young princess for daring to ask him to play with her.[3]

As a follower of St Finnian, Brendan became known as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.  He founded monasteries where he sailed, including the Aran Islands, islands off the Scottish coast, in Wales and Brittany.  His most famous monastery was at Clonfert in east Galway.

The Brendan voyage was particularly popular with the Anglo-Normans from the twelfth-century onwards.  The Normans were very keen on commissioning histories and biographies of their illustrious relatives in what was a deliberate creation of a distinct lineage and identity regarding Norman society.  As new conquerors and arrivistes, this makes sense. It was part pride in their achievements and part promulgation of their legitimacy to hold what they had won by conquest. 

Aristocratic women from the Carolingian through to the Middle Ages were keen patrons of literature, using their wealth to further the arts in the expensive business of translation and publication. They exercised their patronage to ensure the development of culture within their societies.[4]

As Susan M. Johns notes in Noblewomen, Aristocratic and Power in the Twelfth Century Realm, “In twelfth-century England and Normandy it is significant that women had a role in the patronage of innovative forms of literature which affected the development of secular literature.  Royal women were in the vanguard of patronizing these new forms of literature.”[5] Benedictine monk and church historian, Hugh of Fluery praised his patron, Adela of Blois, for her “generosity, intelligence and literary skills.” Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I who was son of William the Conqueror, commissioned William of Malmesbury to write his famous The Deeds of the King of England.  She also commissioned a life of her mother, Margaret of Scotland and, in turn, her granddaughter Matilda of Boulogne commissioned a life of her maternal grandmother, Ida of Boulogne.

It was also Queen Matilda that commissioned the translation of the Voyage of Brendan as a poem in French around the turn of the twelfth-century.  “It is the earliest surviving example of a poem in octosyllabic form, and prefigured romance literature” notes Johns. The Brendan epic was immensely popular:

 “It is a Celtic version of the classical odyssey poem, a well-worn literary theme, and thus possibly particularly popular at the Anglo-Norman court, given the eleventh-century Norman expansion into England, Wales and Sicily as well as the recent preaching and popular response to the first Crusade.  Thus Queen Matilda patronised a poet who was not only experimental and at the vanguard of creativity with fictional forms but who could provide the court with a cosmopolitan and exciting travel story.”[6]

We thus have a fascinating conjunction of wealthy and powerful royal women at the apex of societies created by the Norman warrior elite, who sponsor culture and entertainment, finding a popular hit in the life of an ascetic Irish monk devoted to the renunciation of this world and the creation of the monastic ideal. Is it possible to understand this popular appeal reading the tale today?

In my view, I think so.  Startlingly vivid images live on after a read-through of the Navigatio Brendani. [7]  Of the tortured Judas on his rock in the ocean, swarmed by demons and his pitiful pleading. Of the island of smithies hurling fiery rocks at Brendan and his crew such that the sea boiled.  The famous dejeuner sur le balon. Of a tree festooned by birds who chant and speak, bells ringing as they beat their wings (actually it is explained that they are the temporary embodiment of angels neutral during the war with Satan, a reference that brushed with heresy). Of the gigantic pillar in the sea (an iceberg) and its inexplicable net.  Of the clashing monsters of the deep and of the air. Of the monk from whose chest a demon emerges. Of the anchorite covered in white bodily hair living on a high circular island with little more than two caves, a stream and a helpful otter to get him going with supplies of fish.

There is the authentic but en passant reference to voyaging on the sea, the sense of brine, the description of difficult landing spots, and the chores of finding supplies.  Of hoisting the sail and either rowing or surrendering to the wind and currents in faith of God’s will. Naturalistic it certainly is, but it is not realism.  Its purpose rather is the other-worldly, the divine architecture of space and time, and how its gyres turn all about the heavens and earth so that Brendan and his crew return each of their seven years on the sea to the same place in accordance to the liturgical calendar, notably his high point, Easter devotions.

Their seven years of voyages are cyclical, calling in to meet other monasteries, hermits and anchorites, descriptions redolent of real encounters.  Their grail is ostensibly finding the Promised Land of the Saints but it in truth it is an allegory about the ideal monastic life. 

Amidst these gyrations, the fixed centre is the imperturbable figure of St Brendan, the man of God, the father of his group of monks.  He is the conduit for God’s will, commanding demons, reassuring his panicked companions, presciently seeing through the illusions to the divine purpose. His quest is successful as indeed he finds through a liminal fog the paradisiac Island suffused in divine light, moving beyond our time and space.  He can return home, his pilgrimage successful, to die as pre-ordained.

It is also clear that however fantastical the images, the tale is referencing actual locations, notably the Faroe Islands, Rockall, and memorably Iceland.[8] That he reached Greenland and the Sargasso Sea is, according to one authority, Elva Johnson, merely speculative. Had the tale said that Brendan sailed west to the Promised Land of the Saints one might argue he reached Newfoundland (like Severin’s landing at Hamilton Bay) but it is clear from the text that he sailed east. 

That said, Irish monks including St Brendan did in fact extensively explore the North Atlantic and settled its islands in the search of the perfect monastic life such as famously at Iona in the Hebrides. Brendan himself, in addition to his main establishment in Clonfert (east Galway) established monasteries in the islands near Iona.  He was not alone in this as Comgall of Bangor and Colum Cille did so too.[9] Dicuil, an Irish geographer of the early ninth-century, notes that Irish monks settled Iceland around 795 and recent research suggests they settled on the Faroes.[10] 

For the Normans, then, the appeal of the Brendan voyage seems clear.  It is a familiar literary form.  It is an adventure for an adventuring society, ready to head into the unknown.  The search for the New Jerusalem implicit and at times explicit in Brendan’s quest resonates with the prize of the actual Jerusalem, seized by the Crusaders in 1099, in which Normans played a key role.  This was only a few years before Matilda commissioned the translation.  The voyage involves a group of men headed by a leader whose qualities the Normans admired in their own leaders: calm in a crisis, matter of fact in the face of daunting odds (the English stiff upper lip traces back to the Anglo-Normans), ingenious in finding solutions in the nick of time. Brendan faced into the North Atlantic just as they had themselves ventured from the Norman Dukedom to conquer England, Sicily and Antioch.  These were men who understood the risks and rewards of venturing into the unknown.  And that success depended on coherence within the group.  When Brendan has chosen his fourteen brothers, he gathered them in one oratory and told them of his ‘fixed determination’.  “How does this seem to you. What advice would you give?”  In unison, they replied: “Abbot, your will is ours.  Have we not left our parents behind?  Have we not spurned our inheritance and given our bodies into your hands?  So we are prepared to go along with you to death or life.  Only one thing we ask, the will of God.”   The audience of Norman aristocrats listening to the cadences of this part of the Brendan epic would have recognized their own ethos, the coherence and discipline that had made them the most successful knightly adventurers in history.  If the monks wielded love and the Normans swords, they were still all soldiers, a strong motif both in the Navigatio and for the monastic tradition generally.  Both believed that they were doing God’s will. Brendan’s triumph mirrored their own wishes that their violence and invasions would all turn out well in the end, would be in fact in accord with God’s plan.  Everyone likes a Hollywood ending.

The Normans would have shared too St Brendan’s insatiable curiosity. Marvelling at the wonders of nature was for monks a way of understanding God through the world he had created.  Yet for St Brendan, his curiosity is almost a torture.  When he sees the birds cover the tree so thickly that the tree can barely be seen, he was so tormented for an explanation about them that tears flowed down his cheeks in a rare humanizing vignette: ‘God, who knows the unknown and reveals all that is secret, you know the tortures of my heart, I implore your majesty to have pity and revel to me, a sinner, through your great mercy your secret that I now look upon with my eyes.’[11] 

Above all, the Brendan voyage is a Christian tale, told as fiction based on threads of real events and snippets from real places, but ultimately an allegory about the path to God.  “Brendan’s battlefield in within himself.  Heroic struggle in the Middle Ages, while cosmic in its conventional trappings, is essentially a personal quest for knowledge or enlightenment, a psychological conflict, a psychomachia.”[12]  It is a Christian tale for a society infused with zealous religious fervour.  This was so intense that it changed their social mores to adopt monogamy and primogenitor as a rule of political succession.  It generated the corpus of values that became chivalry and stirred literary imaginations to create romantic literature. It propelled all ranks of society to join in long and dangerous pilgrimages to the Holy Land and the sometimes map-cap journeys that were the crusades. 

Reading the tale of St Brendan is like watching a clockwork diorama.  The boat circulates and arrives on its liturgical schedule, scenes unfold, patterns repeat, numbers freighted with meaning like 3, 7, and 40 recur, time becomes timeless, all unfolds as it must. “Almost every episode in the Navigatio Brandani revolves around a unit of time pregnant with religious meaning, resonant with symbolic import, rich with biblical reminiscence.”[13]

The prize that Brendan sought, salvation, appears to differ markedly from the very material wealth and status that the Normans sought.  Yet in reality, the Normans were, too, prepared to invest heavily in salvation, endowing and building abbeys, churches and cathedrals.  They funded in large part the great renaissance of the early Middle Ages expressed in such soaring triumphs as Chartres Cathedral and Mont St Michel. For the warrior elite, how to resolve the contradiction of being killers and good Christians was a conundrum, the easing of which gave the Church its great political leverage.  That leverage forged a partnership between the church and kings that was fundamental to the creation of the centralised nation states emerging in Western Europe from the 11th and 12th centuries onwards.

For though St Brendan’s ultimate goal was unity with God and paradise, he reached this, at least allegorically, through a search for an earthly paradise, the Promised Island of the Saints, an actual place where no one dies, no seasons change (once thought a consequence of the Original Sin and the Fall[14]), and light shines perpetually independent of the sun and moon since paradise is beyond time.  Certainly, one had to pass a portal of fog to access it, a liminal entry point between the real and the perfect, but enter it one could.

Like El Dorado or even the Maltese Falcon, it is what dreams are made of: “Christians believed that there might be an earthly paradise, although they debated about its nature and location. For some, it was the Garden of Eden, lost in the east. For others, there was a paradise under the Caucasus Mountains in Central Asia….many more came to see it as being hidden in the ocean to the west.”[15]  This notion was but a short step from seeing St Brendan landing in North America as an early European claimant to the landmass, divinely ordained.

For all its combination of biblical and classical tropes, the Brendan voyage is very recognisably Irish with its roots in the immrama genre.  Journeys to and adventures in otherworldly places.  Islands that appear and disappear like Hy Brasil.  Fogs as liminal entry points.  Talking animals that are guides, lost souls, or tricksters.  Not surprisingly there are no deer turning into beautiful women or beautiful women disappearing into the mist but there are evouring monsters bearing names.  Places of eternal youth too, recalling like Tír na nÓg.  The hero’s return home and his death.  All echo through Brendan’s voyage. 

The other strong Irish element is the ascetic ideal of the monks.  Towards the end of the eight-century asceticism enjoyed a strong revival in Ireland, just as the Brendan voyage was being written.  Derived from Egypt and Syria, notably in the example of St Anthony, and influenced by the teachings of British saints like St Gildas and St David, the ascetic ideal appealed strongly to many in early Christian Ireland.  Asceticism became deeply inculcated in its monastic life, a movement led by the Célí Dé, or companions of God.  The culdees, as they were know, were rigorous ascetics though now they formed groups, unlike the anchorites of previous times.  “It is surely reasonable to apply the words ‘reform’ or, better, ‘religious revival’ to these developments”, writes the indispensable Kathleen Hughes in her classic The Church in Early Irish Society.[16]

One of the culdee leaders was Máel ruain, founder of Tallaght and it is probably no coincidence that the first reference to Brendan’s adventures is associated with Tallaght.  In this context, the Brendan Voyage serves to rally the troops in rejection of the laxities of the ‘old church’.  The culdees rejected meddling in the real world, such as missionary trips to Europe, and saw great dangers in exposure to women.  Voyaging in the Atlantic in search of inspiring fellow-travellers was a feasible alternative to simply staying put.  Cross-vigils (arms outstretched), vigils in water, flagellation by another monk, and long fasts from food and water, rote learning and long recitations,  were some of the rigors the culdees put themselves through. Like them, Brendan and his monks fast regularly, often only eating every second or third day.  Like them, Brendan and his monks only ease their routines for liturgical celebrations.

For all the devotions and asceticism of Irish monasteries, Ireland in the 9th century was a place of violence and turmoil.  The first Viking attack on Ireland occurred in 795 and they continued to plunder the monasteries, interrupting its Golden Age for decades.  They were out for plunder which they found in the monasteries and for slaves, which they found in the populations which had settled around the monasteries. What people they did not take as slaves, they slaughtered and then burned the monastery.  This was a new type of warfare, unfamiliar to the Gaelic Irish where heretofore warfare was a largely aristocratic activity focused on cattle-raiding.  Quite how much turmoil the Vikings sowed in Ireland is hard to judge.  Certainly it was significant since the Viking focus was on the monasteries that provided the urban hubs for Gaelic Ireland as centres of worship, learning, craft, culture and trade.[17] 

Gaelic Irish kings like Feidlimid, king of Munster, raided and burn monasteries, though less frequently than Vikings.  Paradoxically he was regarded as a leading ascetic, scriba et ancorita. Monasteries themselves fought each other, with even St Brendan’s at Clonfert engaged in pitched battles.  For protection, monasteries often were led by abbot-kings, the better to afford them protection.  Families controlled monasteries through inheritance and their integration into Gaelic society inevitably meant they were embroiled in its regnal wars.  Writes Hughes: “So the old practices went on, and while one anchorite dwelt alone in his hermit’s cell, renouncing this wretched world, another who held a kingdom, assumed abbacies, burned churches beyond his own borders, and slew their inhabitants.”[18]  Amidst all this turmoil, no wonder that the Navigatio Brendani was needed to hold up an ideal of the monastic life.

All of this would seem to point to weakness of the monastic system, a lack of centralised authority and hierarchy that the ascetic revival was by nature not equipped to mitigate or repair.  As Ó Croinín points on in his Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200, now the standard historical survey of the period, the ‘new orthodoxy’ about the Irish church at this time is that there was no organization.  This is not a view that Ó Croinín shares and he points the fact that there were no disagreements about dogma and doctrine and, moreover, the regular synods of church leaders were capable of concerted disciplinary action, such as the censuring of St Columba and exile to Iona.[19]  This debate centres on the nature of political control, whether a society or political entity can be organized without being centralized. It is central to later debates around political organisation in Ireland prior to colonization.  Colonizers justified their conquests and destruction of Indigenous societies for their lack of centralization even if the evidence of organisation is all round them.  

Ironically enough, just as Queen Matilda was commissioning a translation of the Navigatio Brandani three centuries later, the Irish church was undergoing a period of serious reform, an attempt to strengthen the diocesan structure that has failed to take root, with increased communication with Rome and the introduction of the Benedictine rule.  Ireland’s reputation in Europe as a place of moral laxity in the church was doing its reputation real damage. This was used by English Churchmen to argue for an invasion of Ireland later in the century.

“Monastic and clerical life were thus drawn into the continental pattern as never before, and liturgical customs were revived. Twelfth-century architecture and sculpture bear the imprint of these fundamental changes”, writes Hughes, citing the example of Cormac’s chapel on the Rock of Cashel, consecrated in 1134, with its continental Romanesque influences (and to my mind redolent of Jerusalem in its use of bright sandstone, not grey granite).[20]

The new orthodoxy turned a critical eye to pre-reform literature and a provoked a caustic dismissal of the Brendan Voyage as an insult to the saint. Hughes sums up the scholar’s distain: “Are we to believe that Brendan, for the sake of a rumour, irresponsibly abandoned the three thousand brethren whom God had committed to his direction; that he wandered for seven years, celebrating Easter on a whale’s back, seeking on the seas what is promised in heaven?  The whole story is condemned as silly, crazy, and hostile to the faith.”[21]

Crazy it may have seemed even in twelfth-century Ireland but the allure of the Navigatio Brandani was enduring, precisely because seeking heaven on earth might was not be crazy if you could get there without paying the normal price of admission, namely death.  Brendan’s Island was a mainstay of medieval and renaissance cartography as Johnson notes, placed variously off the coast of Africa, just north of the Canaries, or in the Atlantic.  “Between 1526 and 1721 four naval expeditions left the Canaries in search of the promised land of St Brendan.”[22]  As Anderson writes: “Columbus mentioned Brendan’s Island, the Earthly Paradise, in his diary. It remained on navigational charts into the eighteenth century.”[23]  This despite the tale’s own location of the island to the east and near Ireland.

If it is unlikely that St Brendan did reach Newfoundland, that is not to say that a monk or monks did not set out across the unknown and make landfall on the North American continent. The hardy ascetic monks of Ireland were more than able for the rigors of such a journey.  More importantly, they had the ideology to attempt such a feat, an act of zealous devotion to their beliefs.  At the outer edge of the world they would have expected to meet and challenge demons, testing their spiritual valour as soldiers of Christ.  They would have emulated Christ’s exile from heaven while on earth saving mankind.  To truly emulate Christ, one had to embrace exile. For those with an expectation of return, such a journey would have been a pilgrimage.  More universally, such a venture would been a response to innate human curiosity to look beyond the horizon, a powerful drive in our nature that humans as a species have exhibited throughout their existence.

Finding any traces of Irish monks beyond Iceland is hard to imagine but possible. Until then, we must leave the honours to the Vikings who managed the journey in 1000 AD, the first time that humans finally closed the loop by travelling completely around the world. Along the way, they had destroyed the monastic settlements in the remote islands of the north North Atlantic and ended the wanderings of the monks in search of ideal locations to live their ideal life on earth.

In global terms, the Vikings’ achievement was less impressive than at first appears.  The already established sea route from the Persian Gulf to Guangzhou in China would remain the longest until the sixteenth century, as least twice as far as Columbus. Nonetheless the Viking journey of Leif Ericson was epic, putting in place the final link in a global trade route that arguably was the starting point of globalisation:

“In 1000, Viking explorers closed the global loop.  For the first time an object or a message could have travelled across the entire world.  True, we do not know – yet!- of any item that did so.  But because the Viking voyages to Canada in the year 1000 opened up a route from Europe to the Americas, it is fact – not supposition – that a network of global pathways took shape in that year.”[24] 

That the Vikings were hunting for monastic settlements and their riches means that indeed Irish monks like St Brendan played an inadvertent part in stimulating globalization.

Eamonn McKee


26 March 2022

[1] Dáibhí Ó Croinín, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Routledge, 2017), 2nd Edition.  Ó’Croinín notes that there is little solid evidence to support one contending author, Israel Scottus. P. 242.

[2] John D. Anderson, The Navigatio Brandani: A Medieval Best Seller, The Classical Journal, Apr-May 1988, Vol 83 pp 315-322.  This is an excellent account and analysis.  While the earliest text is from Germany in the tenth century, there is a reference to the voyage in the Martyrology of Tallaght from around 800, as he notes.

[3] Rev. John Ryan, SJ, Irish Monasticism, Origins and Early Development, (Talbot Press, 1931), p 249.  This is a learned, charming and detailed account of its subject matter told from the perspective of unshaken belief.

[4] Similarly in the animal kingdom.  Female orcas are fertile from ten years to forty but live to eighty and scientists believe their role is to preserve and pass on culture and knowledge to the rest of the pod.  “Scientists currently believe that the presence of healthy older females, not depleted by pregnancies or distracted by nursing, has a knowledge-transmitting function: they can, in effect, serve as the group’s resident professors!”  Martha S. Nussbaum, What We Owe Our Fellow Animals, NYRB, March 10, 2022, vol. LXIX, 4, p 36.

[5] Manchester University Press, 2003, p 36.  Johns is doing fantastic work excavating the role of the woman, so often buried and ignored by contemporary chroniclers and subsequent historians alike. See also John’s Gender, Nation and Conquest in the High Middle Ages, Nest of Deheubarth (Manchester University Press, 2013) for the life of a woman hugely consequential in the history of Ireland but barely known in Ireland.

[6] Ibid, p 37.

[7] The Voyage of St Brendan, Journey to the Promised Land, translated by John J O’Meara, Dolman Texts 1 (Dolman Press).

[8] See Elva Johnson, The Voyage of St Brendan, Landscape and Paradise is Early Medieval, Brathair 19 (1), 2019.

[9] Michael Richter, Medieval Ireland, The Enduring Tradition (Gill and MacMillan, 1988), p 51.

[10] Ibid, p 40 and p 41.

[11] O’Meara, p 20.

[12] Anderson, p 317.

[13] Ibid, p 321.

[14] Johnson, p 48.

[15] Johnson, p 37.

[16] Methuen, 1966, p 174.

[17] Kathleen Huges, The Irish Church, 800-1050, NHI, I, pp 636-639.

[18] Hughes, p 193.

[19] Pp 167-168.

[20] Ibid, p 271.

[21] Ibid, p 273

[22] Johnson, p 50.

[23] Anderson, p 316.

[24] Valerie Hansen, The Year 1000, When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalisation Began (Scribner, 2020), p 23 and p 25.

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

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

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


Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

Ottawa, 9 January

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Canada is the Future that Ireland Never Had

You will find below the text of an article recently published by iPolitics, widely read in Parliament, with thanks to editor Heather Bakken at iPolitics for the opportunity.   The formation of Canada’s constitution and politics was determined by three sources of influence; Britain (as sovereign), Ireland (as an example of misrule to be shunned or occasionally followed in the case of the RIC as a model for the RCMP, for example), and the United States whose civil war horrified Canadians. Irish emigrants to Canada made an enormous contribution here including in state building, largely unacknowledged (we have plans to change that.) Those familiar with Irish history and Irish historiography will note the emphasis I put on 1800 and the abolition of our parliamentary democracy. For many historians, the narrative divide is the Great Famine but in recent years I have come to the conclusion that in fact the greatest damage was done by the 1800 abolition by London of what is fondly known as Grattan’s Parliament. That triggered a decline enabling the Great Famine but its disastrous effects were many and long lasting. The impact of that most destructive act, I would argue, can still be felt today in Ireland. (I have wondered lately whether the loss of the parliament and the decline that set in encourage Protestant emigration since two-thirds who came to Canada between 1800 and the Great Famine were Protestant?) I posit Canada as a counter-narrative or what-might-have been in Ireland had our parliament endured. True it was an all-Protestant parliament but by the 1830s or the 1840s it would certainly have had to admit Catholics given political demands in Ireland and the pace of franchise reform in England. I allude to the fresh usefulness of Canada as we in Ireland envisage our future as a shared island. Exploring these rich dimensions to our bilateral relations has been an exciting adventure since my arrival here.

Ireland and Canada: Our complex past points to a bright future

All diplomats work within a bilateral environment defined by politics. Those political narratives tend to have a long narrative arc. What’s fascinating about the Irish-Canadian relationship is that we’re living through a shift in that narrative. That shift points to a bright future.

Since it’s my job to promote good relations, your response might be, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he.” I have a strong case, however, and can point to three specific events that shifted our narrative, namely 1867, 1916, and 2011.

Read my full opinion piece here

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Canada’s Exploring Irish

Every Irish emigrant was and is an explorer of sorts. However, the Irish as significant explorers into lands unknown (at least to Europeans) is not often highlighted.

With temperatures dropping and snow on the ground, think of the Irish explorers of the Canadian Arctic.  I asked John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, for his take on the Irish contribution to Canadian exploration.  Immense, he said, and immediately suggested four figures.

Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier: While he is not profiled yet in the excellent Canadian Dictionary of Biography (free online), you can find his story in Wikipedia. He was born in Banbridge, Co. Down (which erected a fine statue to him), joined the British Navy at age thirteen, and explored the Arctic and Antarctic six times.  Fatefully, he joined the Franklin Expedition in 1845 to navigate the Northwest Passage: ‘Crozier was considered to lead this expedition, but his Irish ancestry and humble birth counted against him.’  Icebound for a year, with its leader Franklin dead, Crozier led the survivors in hope of reaching the Canadian mainland.  They were never found.  Public opinion demanded a search for the lost expedition.  The fate of the expedition fate became a national obsession in Britain.

Francis McClintock from Dundalk joined the Franklin search parties between 1848 and 1859.  He developed a system for using human-pulled sledges; ‘McClintock’s system would revolutionize polar exploration by allowing seaborne expeditions to extend their range by thousands of miles’, notes the CDB. Finally in command of his own search party paid for by Franklin’s wife, McClintock found relics and skeletons proving conclusively that Franklin and his men died on King William Island.  So the man from Dundalk found the man from nearby Banbridge. McClintock returned a hero, having solved the mystery.

Robert McClure was born in Wexford in 1807.  He is profiled in the CDB as the man who not only was the first to circumnavigate the Americas but was also the first to traverse the famed Northwest Passage, the first indeed to cross Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  His voyage as commander of the Investigator is an epic of Arctic travels, again begun to find the Franklin Expedition.  He and his crew spent four winters there and though he was court-martialled for losing his ship, parliament rewarded him after his acquittal and he was knighted. Interestingly, McClure survived by employing an Inuit interpreter and guide, finding better places to winter, and use of cairns as message stations (which led directly to his rescue).  Had Franklin done this, he and his expedition might have survived.

John Pallister was born in Dublin.  The CDB notes that ‘the devoutly Protestant Pallisers combined social eminence and a lively social, artistic, and intellectual life with a tradition of public service and conservative politics. They travelled extensively, living not only in Ireland at Derryluskan House, County Tipperary, at Comragh House, and in Dublin, but also in London, Rome, Florence, Paris, and Heidelberg.’  Explorer, big game hunter, and passionate traveller, Palliser began an exploration and survey of the Canadian Northwest between 1857 and 1859, opening it up to colonial settlement. After a life of adventures that eventually bankrupted him, Pallister retired to Comragh House where he died in 1887 and was buried in nearby Kilrossanty.

After Palliser’s survey, and to support the settlement of the Northwest, Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. McDonald, wanted an armed, mounted gendarmerie. He instructed that it be modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary.  This new organisation would evolve into one of the most iconic of Canadian institutions, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

It was not all men of course. I searched for Murphy in the CDB and found the story of Dubliner and popular 19th century traveller writer Anna Murphy.  She became an object of fascination to Canadians for her explorations in Upper Canada which she published as Winter Studies and summer rambles in Canada in 1838. She was less impressed with Toronto but was dazzled by Canada’s unspoilt natural environment.  The CDB concludes that ‘In Canada, Winter studies and summer rambles has remained a classic among our travel journals.’

Season’s greetings,


Eamonn McKee


Ottawa, 21 December 2021

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Atlantic Mythos: Of Titans, Tricksters and Irish Saints

What better place to start with the story of the Irish in Canada than the great North Atlantic Ocean that separates and unites us. Our relationship has been define by the crossings of the North Atlantic, or more accurately the north-North Atlantic. The shortest distance between Europe and Canada is between Ireland’s south western County Kerry and Newfoundland.  It is a storied place, the Atlantic. 

What’s in a name?  Quite a lot actually when it comes to the Atlantic Ocean. Though often crossed, few know off-hand the origin of its title.   The story of how the Titan Atlas gave the ocean its name takes us deep in humanity’s earliest culture, linking ancient Greece with the trickster Coyote, rabbit and raven of First Nations’ origin stories, with the heroes of Irish mythology and the saints of early Christian Ireland.

Atlantic means the sea of Atlas, a Titan from Greek mythology. The Titans were an early race of gods.  The Titan Cronus had deposed his father, the sky god Uranus, at the urging of his mother, the earth goddess Gaia. Uranus was an intolerant father, to put it mildly, and as soon as his children were born he imprisoned them in their mother’s womb.  This, naturally, annoyed Gaia.

Cronus was the last and only one of Gaia’s twelve children to take up her challenge to overthrow her despotic husband by castrating him with a diamond sickle. He had his chance when Uranus came to lie with Gaia (such a Freudian image of a sickle bearing son in the womb would give the stoutest man pause). Uranus’s severed genitals were cast in the sea. From the sea foam of semen and blood Aphrodite appeared.

Cronus ruled heaven and earth with his sister Rhea. The fallen Uranus had cursed Cronus to suffer too an overthrow by his children so Cronos took the precaution of eating them.  Rhea, with help from her mother Gaia, saved Zeus from this fate through trickery, so that Zeus could in turn overthrow Cronos. While Atlas, a grandchild of Cronus, sided with his grandfather, Atlas’s brother Prometheus joined with Zeus. Instead of condemning Atlas to the abyss of Tartarus, however, the victorious Zeus commanded Atlas to hold up the sky from the far west.  The Greek world view explains this choice.

Up to the time of Homer, the Greeks believed that the earth was a flat disc, surrounded by a circular river, Oceanus, a primordial soup from which all things came. The Mediterranean was an internal sea to the Greeks and Oceanus lay beyond the Pillars of Heracles, the straits of Gibraltar. Hades, the world of the dead, lay on the banks of Oceanus. Helios, the sun god, drove his chariot each day from beneath Oceanus in the east over the earth and descended in the west, where day met night and the sky the sea.

In all this, Oceanus was a cold and forbidding place outside the Greek world. It was a fitting location for the banishment of a Titan.  So that part of Oceanus then came to bear Atlas’s name, the sea of Atlas. Atlas’s connection with the sea was established early since his mother was an Oceanid or sea-nymph named Clymene and his father lapetus or Japetus (later appropriated as a son of Noah, Japhet).

The Titans were intimately bound up in the story of the human race, succoring them even at great cost to themselves.  Atlas’s brother, Prometheus, gifted humanity fire stolen from Mount Olympus, along with knowledge of metallurgy, architecture, mathematics, medicine, and much more.  He was also said to have given man a portion of the gifts of each animal.  In punishment, Zeus condemned Prometheus to be chained to a rock and his liver eaten every day by an eagle.  In further punishment, Zeus gave Pandora as a wife to another brother of Atlas, Epimetheus.  She had been created by the Olympians on Zeus’s instruction with all the qualities of beauty and cunning. Prometheus, who had the power of foresight, had warned Epimetheus not to accept any gift from Zeus, but he ignored the advice and accepted Pandora.  Epimetheus had a box or jar in his house which he had been told never to open.  Pandora however could not resist the temptation and opened it, just enough time to release disease on mankind but not long enough to release hope.  In his wisdom, Prometheus took foreknowledge from mankind but gifted it hope.

Since Prometheus had the gift of foresight, he knew the forthcoming punishment for helping humanity.  His affinity with humans may be explained by one legend that he was in fact their creator.  He moulded them from mud and water while Athene blow life in them with the wind. In another telling, Zeus decided to destroy humanity but Prometheus saved his son Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha by telling them to build a ship to withstand the coming flood. When the flood receded, their ship was perched on Mount Parnassus. Their son Hellen was the progenitor of all the Hellenes, hence the term Hellenistic. Another version has Zeus ordering Prometheus and Athene to recreate mankind after the flood.

That the role of the Titans in the Western creation myth has been lost to the public narrative is largely due to its appropriation by Christianity.  Like all successful religions, Christianity built on existing belief systems and world views, reshaping them to its own ends.  You can see Eve, man’s fall, the great flood, and motif of saviours crucified in the Greek stories. Focused on the Holy Land, Egypt and Rome, Christianity had no place for the Atlantic.

You can see too the resonances with origin story of the First Nations and the creation of Turtle Island.  The avatar of the trickster that is Prometheus was not original to ancient Greece. As Joseph Campbell recorded in his landmark analysis of global mythologies, The Masks of God, the trickster was common throughout the creation myths of the world.  He was an archetype of the world maker from the Palaeolithic era, a common cultural pool from which societies continued to draw even as they spread around the world and created distinct civilizations.

The trickster in North America, variously the Coyote and Crow in the prairies, the Master Hare in the woodlands of the North and East, and the Raven in British Colombia, can be both noble and malevolent.  Where Algonquin Wisakedjak causes the great flood, Coyote is the fire stealer. The Raven is a guide.  They make the world from soil scooped by a lowly but heroic creature from the ocean depths, make humans from the mud too.  These world-makers bring fire and knowledge to mankind, lift us from the caves and burrows.  Like the Titans, they suffer and gain shamanistic knowledge, earn wisdom and foresight, allowing them endure because they know what is coming, the end of times and even of the gods themselves.

In Irish mythology, Lugh is the closest approximation to Prometheus with much the same qualities; warrior, trickster, master craftsman, skilled in the arts, saviour and bringer of knowledge, full of defiance and guile.  He is the grandson of the one-eyed Fomorian god, Balor.  Like the Titans, the Fomorians were earlier primitive gods, emergent from nature, the earth and the sea.  Lugh is one of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, a new race on the rise like the Olympians.  As in Greek mythology, the Fomorians and Tuatha Dé Dannan inter-marry but ultimately it is a competition for supremacy which the Fomorians lose. 

Fosterage was characteristic of Gaelic society and Lugh was fostered to Manannán Mac Lir, the god of the sea. No surprise of course that Ireland has a rich mythology of the sea, from Hy-Brasil, the phantom island off the west coast, to Tír na nÓg, also across the sea to the west, where the Tuatha Dé Dennan live in eternal youth and feasting.  Irish tales tell of men taking mermaids in human form as wives.  The half-god, half-man hero Cú Chulainn is a close approximation to the Greek Heracles.

Over time, Atlas was seen as holding up not just the heavens but the earth from his domain in the far west (which actually does not make much sense; what is he standing on?) His name translates as ‘he who endures’ and strength and fortitude were his main attributes.  Not surprisingly, Atlas was a useful motif in architecture so that Atlantids were the male version of Caryatids. In medicine, a pain in the neck might well start in the atlas vertebra that joins the spine to the cranium.

With the expansion of knowledge in the Medieval period, Atlas was seen as a sage and the weight of knowledge his burden.  Atlas’s place between the earth and sky meant he came to be seen as father of geography and astronomy.  During the Renaissance, his burden was that of government and statecraft. That Atlas could act as a conduit between celestial forces and events on the ground meant that he was associated with astrology too.  Nostradamus accordingly used an image of Atlas on the frontispiece of his prophecies in 1568. Mercator named his collection of maps in 1578 ‘Atlas’ which then passed into common usage for collations of maps and indeed compilations of other kinds of guides.

On a clear day, the view of the Atlantic from Mount Brandon on the Dingle Peninsula is breath-taking.  There, in the sixth century, St Brendan and his fellow monks must have looked up from their boat-building to the vast sweep of ocean that they were planning to cross. It was literally a journey into the unknown.  They would certainly have been aware of the Irish tales of heroic travels to mystical islands.  They might well have been acquainted with Plato’s description of Atlantis, the utopian island lost beneath the waves. They may not have been the only ones to attempt it but we know that they returned, at least according to saga the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, the Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot. Like the Titans and the Tricksters, the monks believed that on the far side of suffering, at the end of dangerous journeys, lay the spiritual knowledge they sought.  That’s a story for another day.


Ottawa, 17 November 2021

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Confluence, Divergence, and Convergence: the Irish Window at St Bart’s Church, Ottawa.

Remarks at the Remembrance Service

7 November 2021

Thanks to Rob and Joanne Nelson and Rev Canon David Clunie for bringing this masterpiece to my attention.  Thanks to Tim Piper, the church’s musical director, for allowing Mary and I to see it. We walked by one day and Tim very kindly let us in to see it. We had seen pictures of it but nothing prepares for its presence, illuminated by the sun. It is stunning, such a dramatic narrative, impossible to capture its beauty in reproductions.

This extraordinary masterpiece by an Irish woman artist, Wilhelmina Geddes, is a product of a confluence of influences and connections in Ireland at the opening of the twentieth century.

Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Connaught Prince Arthur, scion of the British royal family, turned to friends in Ireland to commission a commemoration of those dear to him lost in the war, many fighting for Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry, names in honour of his immensely popular daughter.  It was 1916, the bloodiest year yet in the Great War.

Ireland had earned a world reputation for stained glass thanks to Sarah Purser’s studio, An Túr Gloine, the glass tower.  Purser had recruited Wilhelmina Geddes to the studio after she’d seen her work as an art student in Belfast. Geddes herself was born in Leitrim, raised in Belfast, and worked there and in London and Dublin. Purser recommended Geddes for the commission.  Geddes was an inspired choice. The window was installed here in 1919, one of the first Great War commemorations erected in Canada.

Those years between 1916 and 1919 were ones of profound change in Ireland. Frustrated at the lack of Home Rule for the past four decades – arguably the past one hundred – and inspired by the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force to resist Home Rule, the rebels of 1916 created a new reality, what Yeats called ‘a terrible beauty.’  By that he meant, in part, the beauty of simplicity, the ditching of complexity. A singular Irish identity was forged by the 1916 Rising. Ireland was transformed politically, the execution of the rebel leaders adding tremendous force to that process.

The Irish soldiers who fought in the British Army, at the behest of moderate nationalist leaders in Ireland, believed they were advancing the cause of Home Rule in Ireland.

This belief was widespread in Canada too among the Irish Catholic community here. In Canada, the Irish Catholics who flocked to the Canadian Expeditionary Force also fought for King and Country, believing that Ireland deserved home rule so Ireland too could become like Canada.  They believed, and they were not wrong in this, that only self-government could provide the political accommodation of diversity that was key to a stable and prosperous nation state. They came home heroes, their loses and sacrifices contributing powerfully to the evolution of modern Canadian identity. The Irish soldiers came home to a new Ireland in which their heroism and sacrifices had no place in the new narrative.

Since the 1990s, Ireland has been recovering the diversity of Irish identity, including those from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, those who fought in the British armed services, and those who hold to the unionist tradition and identity. Like Canada, Ireland embraces diversity and inclusiveness, sees richness in those values, and believes that they are the signposts to a better future.

This is the great narrative of the convergence in Ireland today, a process recovering the rich tapestry that is our history and is the reality of Ireland today. It has been energized by the Northern Ireland Peace Process.  Our rapprochement with the British crown was tangibly expressed by the visit of the British monarch and Queen of Canada, Elizabeth II, to Ireland in 2011 and the official visit of our President, Michael D. Higgins, to Britain in 2014.

I want to pay tribute to General John de Chastelain who is with us today. As chairman of the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning, his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process was critical. Without the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, a return to normality, acceptable policing and democratic politics would simply not have been possible.

This window is not simply a masterpiece of Irish art.  It is a symbol of the extraordinary journey of Ireland in the twentieth century.  More than that, it is a signpost to a future of British Irish relations in the twenty first century. Notwithstanding Brexit, we will build a new bilateral relationship with Britain. It will the work of a generation.

That this ‘Irish Window’ is here in Canada is particularly significant given the challenges and promise of what lies ahead in the next chapter in the peace process in Ireland and our relations with Britain. Canada’s story provides Ireland with an inspiration for what our futures can be in an island of Ireland finally at peace with itself and with its neighbour.

Thank you.


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Reasons to Read the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

What a lovely volume, from its easy grip and illustrated cover, to the clarity of its structure and font. Contents, from articles to reviews, are delivered by fine minds and fine writers, under the astute eyes of its editorial team led by Editor Director Professor Jane McGaughey of the Canadian School of Irish Studies at Concordia University. Michelle Holmgren of Mount Royal University, Alberta, now takes over that role and we can look forward to her upcoming issue.  I learned a lot from this volume. If there was a theme I picked up, it was that of identity: as a complex and evolving motivating force for good and bad.  The contributors share a common fearlessness in exploring this.

The cover illustration takes its cue from the transatlantic cable that was laid in 1858 (and again more successfully in 1866) between Valentia Island in Co Kerry to Heart’s Content in Newfoundland.  Chris Morash of TCD thrillingly anatomizes its significance, contrasting the hyperbole at the time about how the revolutionary technology collapsed space and time, with the desperate poverty in the surrounding areas of both terminal stations. His is an eloquent plea for ethical remembering about the gap between progress and lives lived, about the need to temper hyperbole with more grounded perspectives. There’s a beautiful and informative visual essay to accompany it.  Check out too the website of the project, supported by the Embassy, to have the cable and its terminal stations declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site

On the theme of identity, Jackson Tait’s article on the Canadian AOH reminds us that the Irish of Canada were proud of their nationalism, religion, contribution to building (settler) Canada and loyalty to the crown, a combination squeezed out of our national narrative at home because of the duration and intensity of the struggle for independence against an imperial centre that offered little but resistance. 

Natasha Casey deftly explores how Irishness in the United States has been stealthily used to advance white supremacy and the alt-right.  She reminds us of the dangerous and profoundly wrong notion that the Irish American experience was equivalent to the African American. 

Both Tait and Casey testify to the complexity of the Irish Diaspora.  To be sure Irish emigrants were the exiled colonized while in many instances too colonizers in the new lands in which they found themselves. Much of their success lay in their deftness in moving between divergent worlds, something of a survival skill in conquered Ireland. We have to be careful in drawing parallels with other experiences, such as the indigenous.  There are certainly resonances over the long arc of history but complexity and contentions too.

At the same time, their contributions in the volume capture too some of the excitement in Ireland’s national intellectual life as we recover this complexity of roles and identities in our own history.  As we face into debates of profound import like the prospect of Irish unity, the emergence of a diverse and tolerant post-Christian Ireland, and the challenge of forging a new bilateral relationship with Brexit Britain, this conversation is of the utmost value.  To navigate the future, we can no longer afford the simplification demanded by past national struggles and ethnic assertions.  Complexity, self-awareness, and empathy are our essential allies.

Andrew Sanders and F. Stuart Ross name-check the high-level contribution of Canadians Hoyt, de Chastelain and Cory to the Northern Ireland peace process but the focus of their work is at the activist level of support to both the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries emanating from Canada in the 1970s and 1980s. I look forward to more research on high-level support because I indirectly got Hoyt involved by writing the Irish Government’s Assessment of the New Material on Bloody Sunday (which made the case for the new inquiry*)  and directly engaged Justice Cory to investigate allegations of collusion which was a commitment under the Weston Park Agreement. Peter Cory was a wonderful person and Canadian hero, a rare combination of gentleness, determination, absolute integrity, and passion for true justice.  I was honoured to know him.

Joanna Bourke looks at another aspect of identity, namely gender and the history of sexual violence in Ireland from the 1830s to the 1890s.  This is a much-neglected aspect of our history only now being being seriously examined, with a few rare exceptions. Bourke explores her themes through specific cases that from the victim’s point of view must have had a nightmarish quality from the uproarious laughter in court, the use of euphemisms, and the allegation that rape accusations were merely means to leverage marriage. Washed through all of this is the influence of Ireland’s colonial status and its needful stereotypes.

In terms of the book reviews, I was very taken with Eimear Rosato’s review of Mark McGovern’s Counterinsurgency and Collusion in Northern Ireland.  As a traveller (DFA officers who travelled to the North and reported back) and eventually Director of the Justice and Security Section of Anglo-Irish Division, I was heavily involved in this aspect of the NIPP so I look forward to getting a copy of the book itself.

There is so much more in this volume, including articles on poetry, drama and literature generally, not to mention nineteen reviews of recent publications all of which I look forward to reading, preferably beside a fire with a Jameson to hand.  I cannot recommend it highly enough as a volume to snuggle down with as the winter draws in. 


Eamonn McKee


Ottawa, 6 October

*Legend has it that Tony Blair gave Cheri, who had just taken silk, a copy of the Assessment and asked her to read it with her barrister’s eye to see if she thought he could still stand over Widgery.  Oh, were that true!

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Canada’s Capital and the Rideau Canal: The Irish Connection

My remarks for the Annual Commemoration at the Rideau Canal for those whose labours created this wonderful feat of engineering and the many hundreds of Irish and other emigrants who died in its construction. The commemoration is held on the first Monday of August, organized by the Irish Society of the National Capital Region in association with the Bytown Museum. Lieutenant-Colonel John By was the military engineer in charge of construction. It was an engineering masterpiece, as can be seen to this day. However allegations of budget overruns unfairly cost him his reputation. His legacy and that of all of those who helped build it is not only the canal. Without the canal there would be no Ottawa. He constructed a town for the workers which became Bytown. When Queen Victoria had to chose a capital for the Province of Canada in 1857 she faced a tricky choice. The provincial capital had since the creation of the Province in 1841 bounced from Kingston to Montreal, to Toronto, to Quebec, reflecting the inherent political turbulence of relations between the English and the French of Canada. The Province was split between the Anglophone and Francophone worlds. The great and good of Canada had deadlocked on a choice for the capital and with it the building of a parliament. It was left to the ‘Queen’s choice’. To the dismay of many, she boldly but wisely chose Ottawa, a small and rough town dominated by the lumber trade. Far from the threat of a US invasion, defensible and connected to much of the Province via the four valleys of the Ottawa, Gatineau, Rideau and St Lawrence, Ottawa was half-way between Anglo Toronto and French Quebec. John By certainly deserves the various landmarks in Ottawa called after him, most notably the lively Byward Market. In honoring him, we remember those who laboured in the mud and rock to turn his engineering expertise into reality. Canada owes them all their capital city.

A dhaoine uaisle, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dia dhaoibh go leir.

I am pleased to be with you all today for this important annual commemoration of those Irish workers and their families who tragically lost their lives during the construction of the Rideau Canal.

I would like to thank all those involved in organising this event today, particularly Sean Kealey, President of the Irish Society of the National Capital Region.  Thanks too to our MC Clare O’Connell Noon and piper Bethany Basillion.

I would like to welcome  Sean McKenny, President of the Ottawa & District Labour Council: and Robin Etherington, Executive Director of Musée Bytown Museum.

As we can see here today, the Rideau Canal is a wonderful piece of civil engineering.  We marvel at its ingenuity, at the harnessing of the power of water.  Looking at the locks lifting and lowering boats is almost hypnotic.

Today it is used for pleasure craft.  But when it was conceived and constructed it was designed as a strategic part of the defence of Canada against an attack from the United States.

The canal also formed a key link in Ottawa’s economic life, enabling the transportation of heavy goods from the Ottawa catchment to Lake Ontario, the St Lawrence and from there to the wider world.

If we were to build it today, we could all imagine the massive machinery involved, the heavy equipment, and the safety standards to protect workers.

It is virtually impossible for us to imagine constructing this with human labour alone.  Yet every load of soil, every stone hoisted, was moved by human energy and muscle at some point in its journey.

That energy and muscle was provided by emigrants and many of those were from Ireland. 

They came to Canada from an impoverished Ireland.  They came to build better lives for themselves and their families. 

Often too they sent money home.  These remittances sometimes made the difference between life and death.

They earned that money anyway that they could, often working in the most brutal and dangerous of environments. 

In many ways, their story is a timeless one.  It is, too often, still the story of immigrants today around the world. 

When work began on the Rideau Canal in 1826, it provided employment for thousands of Irish immigrants for the following six years.

The death rate here was high, as those workers succumbed to illnesses such as malaria and cholera.  Work-place accidents took a heavy toll.   

For those families left behind, such a death would be a disaster in a society that did not provide much if anything by way of support.

This Celtic Cross is a symbol of Ireland.  Its form dates back to the early Christian period beginning when St Patrick came to Ireland in the fifth century.

These crosses have always told stories, carved in stone.  This cross tells the story of the hundreds of people who died building this wonderful canal.

In helping to build it, they helped too to build Canada as a free, strong, and prosperous country.

It is right that we enjoy the canal today.  It is right too that we recall the price paid in human toil and toll in its construction.

Many more Irish would come to Canada and find shelter here and a new life.  Today, some 7 million Canadians have Irish ancestry, 14% of the population overall.  Some 40% of Quebecers have Irish ancestry. This cross reminds us of one part of that epic story. 

May all those who died here rest in peace.

Go n-eirí libh go leir.

Thank you.

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