Tag Archives: Fifty Irish Lives in 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 http://www.biographi.ca

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: https://www.ancestry.ca/search/collections/2177/

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