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.