Waterford: Ireland's Canada County
WATERFORD: Ireland's Canada County
updated 19 April 2017
The chief heritage link for both city and county is with Newfoundland, through the migrant fishery. The connection began in the mid-18th century, with young men from the region contracting to work as fishermen through the summer season, with some remaining on the island. In 1765, at least 50 ships cleared the port of Waterford heading for Newfoundland, and by 1771, the figure was 85. Many of these originated in ports in the west of England, calling at Waterford to load cheap provisions and recruit local labour. (Some only came up river as far as Passage.) Because Newfoundland was barren and cold, almost all supplies had to be imported, and local pork (especially brought downriver from nearby south Kilkenny) and biscuits were highly regarded. The city's broad quays were ideal for loading cargoes. The wide river Suir provided plenty of anchorages and its tributaries gave extensive access to the city's hinterland. Local merchants depended upon and profited by the Newfoundland trade. It was the foundation of Jacob's Biscuits (subsequently moved to Dublin) and provided capital for crystal manufacture.
Fishermen were recruited from the city and its hinterland (including adjoining areas of the counties of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Wexford). Estimates suggest that as many as 5,000 people, mainly young men, crossed the Atlantic each summer season in the late 18th century. Possibly as much as ten percent of the local adult male population took part in the Newfoundland fishery each year, and the total numbers who made at least one trip would have been larger. Their life was hard. Major storms devastated the fishing fleet in 1775, and an estimated 1500 men were drowned. One newspaper reported of the city, 'The voice of lamentation is heard in every street.' Analysis of a sample of over 1500 Irish arriving in the Newfoundland capital, St John's, between 1807 and 1810 found that four-fifths came from County Waterford. Many stayed. The distinctive Waterford surname of 'Power' is very widely to be found in Newfoundland.
The direct link with Waterford declined in the middle of the 19th century as the fishery came under the control of settlers on the island itself.
There is a plaque commemorating the City's links with Newfoundland on the Quays near Reginald's Tower, at Bailey's New Street.
James Louis O'Donel, first Bishop of Newfoundland.
James O'Donel was born in Co. Tipperary in 1737 but spent much of his career in Waterford. In 1784 he was sent as Prefect Apostolic to minister to Irish fishermen in Newfoundland. In 1795 he became the island's first Catholic bishop. This was the era of the French Revolution of 1789, France was at war with most of Europe and the Atlantic ocean was a dangerous place. The new bishop travelled to Quebec for his consecration in 1796. On his return journey to Newfoundland, the vessel he was sailing on was intercepted by a French warship and he was taken prisoner, losing all his baggage in the experience.
Bishop O'Donel worked with the British authorities in Newfoundland who welcomed a Catholic bishop as an ally against the spread of revolutionary ideas among the fishermen. In 1800, a group of United Irishmen tried to capture St John's and revive the 1798 uprisings that had so recently shaken the south-east of Ireland. The leaders were hanged, and O'Donel had the solemn duty of accompanying them to the gallows. However, he was proud to have secured official acceptance for the Catholic Church in Newfoundland. 'Priests before my arrival were liable to imprisonment, transportation, & death itself if they in a refractory manner lurked anywhere in the Island,' he wrote with some pride.
Bishop O'Donel stayed in Newfoundland until 1806 when he retired to Waterford after suffering a slight stroke. (He would have preferred to spend his last years in the warmer climate of France or Italy or Portugal, but war on the continent prevented that.) In March 1811, while he was living in a house in John Street, Waterford, he was badly burned in a fire caused by an overturned candle, and died soon afterwards.
Other Waterford-Newfoundland connections.
Thomas Meagher arrived in St John's in the 1780s and became an apprentice to a local tailor, whose widow he later married. He later branched out to become a general merchant, and by 1809 was exporting cod to Waterford. In 1818 he moved back to Waterford, living first in a country house near the city and later with his son, also Thomas, on the Mall. Thanks to their Newfoundland investments, the Meaghers were one of the richest families in the city. In the third generation, Thomas Francis Meagher was one of the leaders of the failed nationalist uprising of 1848.
Patrick Morris was probably born in Waterford City about 1798. He went to work for Luke Maddock, another Waterford man, in St John's in 1804. Morris became a leader in the campaign for elected institutions in Newfoundland, helping to secure a municipal council for St John's in 1824. For some years after 1826 he lived in Waterford, buying a 100-acre estate near the Suir downstream from Waterford. But by 1833, he had returned to St John's, and in 1840 he was appointed Newfoundland's Colonial Treasurer (minister of finance). Alas, when he died in 1849, both his personal affairs and the Newfoundland treasury were found to be in chaos, with £6,000 missing.
Sir John Thompson, prime minister of Canada 1892-94.
Sir John Thompson's father emigrated from Waterford to Halifax in Nova Scotia in 1827. He never forgot his home town and it is said that his eyes filled with tears of nostalgia whenever Waterford was mentioned.
His son, Sir John Thompson, was a remarkable man although his tragically short period as prime minister means that he is not as well remembered today as he should be. His rise to the top in Canadian politics represented the triumph of outstanding personal ability. First, he came from the small province of Nova Scotia at a time when real political power in Canada was controlled by the large provinces of Ontario and Quebec. But he had to overcome another barrier. Although reared as a Protestant, Thompson had as a young man converted to Catholicism. In an era when religion could be controversial, he was distrusted by some Protestants - while the majority of Canada's Catholics lived in the French-speaking province of Quebec and supported politicians of their own. Thompson's appointment as prime minister in 1892 was a triumphant recognition of his ability and his hard work.
Thompson was a workaholic who spent long hours at his desk and took little exercise. In 1894 he made an official visit to England which included a meeting with Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. He must have found this formal occasion stressful, for he suffered a fatal heart attack in the middle of lunch. On learning that the prime minister of Canada was a Catholic, the Queen had word sent to the Catholic priest in the town of Windsor to hurry to the Castle and perform the Last Rites. It is believed that Thompson was planning to round off his European trip with a private visit to Waterford, but sadly it never happened. He was 49 when he died.
Waterford City is twinned with the Newfoundland capital, St John's (noted on welcome signs at the city limits). Waterford Institute of Technology has a Centre for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, and shares a number of exchange programmes with Memorial University at its St John's and Corner Brook campuses.
Fishing boats also headed for Newfoundland from the pleasant town of Passage East (locally known as 'Passage') 7 kilometres east of Waterford City. The Waterford poet Donnchadh Rua Mac Conmara began his Newfoundland journey from here.
Waterford Museum of Treasures has an excellent Newfoundland section.
There is a fine monument to Bishop O'Donel in the Catholic cathedral in Barronstrand Street, Waterford City, erected by the Catholics in Newfoundland in 1984 to mark the 200th anniversary of his mission.
T.F. Meagher is commemorated by the statue at Reginald's Tower and the plaque at the Granville Hotel. These do not mention any Newfoundland connection.
George Thompson was born in Portlaw in 1826, and he died in Portlaw in 1911. Nothing very Canadian about that, you might think, except that they were two different places. George Thompson was born in Portlaw, County Waterford, in 1828. He was baptised at the old Protestant church of Guilcagh in 1828 by the Reverend George Stanley Monck, who is believed to have been a cousin of the County Wicklow landowner, Lord Monck, the governor-general of Canada from 1861 to 1867 who helped bring about the Dominion of Canada. In 1854, George Thompson emigrated to Canada. On board the emigrant ship, he met Mary Thomson (no relation) and the long transatlantic voyage gave them time for courtship: they married immediately and headed for Grey County, still a frontier area 120 kilometres north-west of Toronto. There they would raise eight children.
The Thompsons founded a settlement in Artemesia County. Their decision to call it 'Portlaw' is evidence of the deep affection Waterford people felt for their home county even when forced to emigrate. George Thompson became the village postmaster at Portlaw. In pioneer times, it was usual for the post master and his family to take in the local schoolteacher as their lodger. One newly arrived teacher unpacked his bags and then announced that he would like to go for a stroll and visit Portlaw's port. Portlaw, County Waterford takes its name from a landing place where the small and attractive Clodiagh river flows into the broad river Suir. But at the Canadian Portlaw, the Thompsons had to break the news that they lived miles inland! Portlaw, Ontario may have seemed a backwater, but one of the Thompsons' neighbours, Agnes MacPhail, was one of Canada's pioneer feminists and the country's first woman MP. (See http://www.nosracines.ca/e/page.aspx?id=4194822).
Donnchad Rua Mac Conmara died at Kilmacthomas in 1810. A renowned Irish-language poet, he wrote movingly of the harshness and horrors of working in the Newfoundland fishery in a poem titled in English 'The Adventures of a Luckless Fellow'. It is not clear whether Donnchad Rua himself travelled to Newfoundland. The Irish language was still widely spoken in County Waterford in the days of the Newfoundland connection, and the island itself was known as Talamh an Eisc. This has long been translated as 'land of the fish', but some think that 'talamh' conveys the idea of 'ground' or 'area', and that the alternative word for 'country', 'tír', would have been used if the island of Newfoundland itself were meant. Thus Talamh an Eisc may simply mean 'the fishing grounds'.
Patrick Power was born in Kilmacthomas in 1815, but left with his parents for Nova Scotia at the age of 8. He became a prominent merchant in Halifax, and his involvement in trade with the United States led him to oppose the plan for Confederation, by which Nova Scotia became part of the Dominion of Canada. Elected in 1867 for Halifax as an opponent of the scheme, he at first refused to take his seat in the central parliament, only reluctantly travelling to Ottawa the following year when it became clear that Nova Scotia could not get out of the union. In 1876 he was offered but refused a seat in the cabinet. At his death in 1890, a cautious obituary commented that he was 'never what is known as a thick-and-thin supporter of his political leaders.' He was active in Catholic charities in Halifax and Pope Pius IX made him a Knight of the Order of St Gregory.
Donnchad Rua's grave at Newtown, two kilometres east of Kilmacthomas, is marked by a memorial headstone but this is difficult to find.
Killrossanty, 2 kilometres north of Lemybrien.
John Palliser was a landowner who lived at Comeragh House (not open) where he was born in 1807. Although often referred to as 'Captain Palliser', his military service seems to have been confined to short periods of service with the local militia. He was a restless individual who obviously had enough money to travel. After helping with relief work in Ireland's terrible Famine, in 1847-48 he went buffalo hunting in North America, travelling as far west as the Rocky Mountains before heading south for New Orleans. A decade later he persuaded the British government to finance him on a second journey, this time under the guise of an exploring expedition.
It seems hard to believe but a century and a half ago, very little was known about the vast territories that now constitute the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Thinly inhabited by native peoples ('Indians'), the prairies were home to massive herds of buffalo. Known as the Hudson Bay Company Territories, this vast area was lightly ruled (if at all) by a fur-trading company based in London. To the west, beyond the massive barrier of the Rocky Mountains, the tiny colony of British Columbia could only be reached from Europe by a voyage around Cape Horn - making it more distant by sea even than Australia. The British government wanted to know if the prairies could support agriculture, and they were also keen to find an overland route through the Rocky Mountains to British Columbia.
Palliser's three-year expedition, between 1857 and 1860, was a brilliant success. Palliser established the existence of a 'fertile belt' stretching roughly north-north-west from the Red River in what is now Manitoba. Essentially, it is defined on the map today by the cities of Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton. This strip of land, hundreds of kilometres in length, Palliser was sure could be opened to wheat farming. But he warned that the country to the south was too dry for settlement. This area, which became known as 'Palliser's Triangle', became cattle country. In later decades, Palliser's warning was disregarded, and wheat farmers moved into his triangle. Eventually, he was proved right when the Triangle became the notorious Dust Bowl of the 1930s and much of its soil literally blew away.
One of Palliser's lieutenants, a tough Scotsman called James Hector, was despatched to find a way through the mountains. He discovered a pass, but it was so narrow and dangerous that even his patient pack-horses panicked at the terrain. One of them reared and kicked Hector in the chest, knocking him unconscious. Years later, Hector embroidered the story, claiming that he was given up for dead and about to be buried when he managed to wink at the men who were laying him in his grave. The incident was a memorable one and the defile became known the Kicking Horse Pass. Thirty years later, it became part of the route of Canada's first transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific - despite the fact that its lowest point is 1.6 kilometres above sea level.
It took many years for Palliser to receive the recognition that his achievements deserved. This was partly because the cost of his expedition wildly exceeded the government budget. After further adventures, Palliser retired to his home under Waterford's Comeragh mountains (they must have seemed tame after the Rockies). He died of a heart attack walking in the Comeraghs in 1887, and is buried in the graveyard of Killrossanty Protestant church, a beautiful place in Briska Upper townland.
In 1977, the Government of Alberta placed a memorial plaque on the family grave, which is to be found on the south side of the graveyard behind trees. Itrecites his career in some detail, noting that 'Palliser's explorations are regarded as a significant contribution to the development and settlement of the province of Alberta.' In fact, anybody living in Canada's four western provinces owes John Palliser a debt of gratitude.
Palliser's grave is to be found among trees on the south side of the graveyard of Killrossanty churchyard. There are fine views of the Comeragh mountains and surrounding countryside. Killrossanty church still has a congregation and is sometimes open to visitors. The east window commemorates John Palliser's parents.
James Vincent Cleary was born in Dungarvan in 1828. His family was not wealthy, but it soon became clear that the boy was exceptionally intelligent and merited a special education. He was not only trained for the priesthood but sent to study in Rome and at Salamanca in Spain. In 1873 he returned to Ireland with a reputation as a skilled theologian. He became president of St John's College, the Catholic seminary in Waterford City, and three years later parish priest of his native Dungarvan.
Cleary was not just a theologian but an organiser. In 1880 he rebuilt Dungarvan's Catholic parish church, turning it into a very large hall with fourteen stained-glass windows. One of these, in the north aisle, gives us a clue to a very masterful character. It was erected by the farmers of Dungarvan to give thanks for the bountiful harvest of 1880. 1880 was right in the middle of Ireland's Land War, when tenant farmers were pleading poverty after the bad harvest of 1879 and refusing to pay rents to their landlords. In September 1880, Ireland's national leader Charles Stewart Parnell publicly endorsed the tactics that were soon called 'boycotting', calling upon his followers to shun anybody who rented a farm where a tenant had been evicted for resisting payment of rent. It is unlikely that the farmers of Dungarvan welcomed the idea of celebrating the harvest. Left to themselves, they might well have engaged in some classic poor-mouthing to play up their poverty. It must have been the authoritarian Cleary who hustled them into erecting their grateful window.
In October 1880, Cleary was named as the Catholic bishop of Kingston in Ontario, with the impressive title of Bishop of Regiopolis. He hurried to Rome for his consecration and arrived in Canada in April 1881. He soon found that his new diocese cried out for his administrative skills. He consolidated its debts, raised loans - and still managed to build forty new churches. He also enlarged the cathedral in Kingston and, in an echo of Dungarvan, installed a fine series of stained glass windows which he had designed himself. (One of the donors to the windows in Kingston's cathedral was a Dungarvan man resident in Baltimore, USA.)
Cleary valued education. The Kingston diocese had tried to establish a university to serve the Catholic population of eastern Ontario, but it had closed for lack of funds. He reactivated its charter and reopened the institution in 1896, this time at second level. Regiopolis College became one of the leading high schools in Kingston.
An outspoken man who expected to be obeyed, Cleary became a controversial figure in Canadian politics. The Liberal party supported Catholic schools, while the Conservatives, many of them Orangemen, were much less enthusiastic. Cleary openly backed the Liberals. During the 1886 Ontario general election, he ordered prayers to be said in churches across his diocese calling for divine intervention to prevent a Conservative victory. Cleary was said to have had a robust sense of humour, and to have hugely enjoyed the furore that his interventions caused.
His open support for the Liberal party brought him into conflict with Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's Conservative prime minister and a Kingston man himself. In 1888, Macdonald lobbied as high as the Vatican to prevent Cleary's translation to the archbishopric of Toronto, which would have made him head of the Catholic Church in Ontario. Despite his brilliance and his organisation skills, Cleary was passed over - but, no doubt as a consolation, in 1889, Kingston was made an archdiocese with Cleary as the first archbishop. At the time, Cleary was front-runner to become bishop of Waterford, but he discouraged the idea, believing that his work in Kingston was more important.
When he died in 1898, a Kingston newspaper said of Cleary that 'he had some of the drawbacks as well as advantages of genius', and predicted (probably with some relief) that it would be a very long time before they saw his like again.
A plaque on the stone gateposts of Dungarvan parish church records that it was 'altered 1880 by the Rev J.V. Cleary PP.'
Father Michael O'Donel was parish priest of Clashmore, County Waterford from 1815 until his death in 1832. During his time, the Clashmore parish church was constructed. He also built a church at nearby Piltown, but this was demolished and replaced by a modern building some years ago. Fr O'Donel is buried outside the north door of Clashmore's Catholic church, at the east end of the village. His headstone records that he was 'nephew to the first Bishop of Newfoundland'. The inscription does not tell the full story of an adventurous life which included seven years spent in Quebec and Newfoundland.
Michael O'Donel was born in County Tipperary in 1777. He was left an orphan at the age of 12 and his education entrusted to his uncle, the bishop, who had him trained for the priesthood in Waterford City and at the seminary at Maynooth, where his teachers gave 'very good accounts of his moral conduct & abilities'. In 1799, at the age of 22, Michael O'Donel followed his uncle in Newfoundland, and was sent on to the famous Laval seminary in Quebec City to complete his training for the priesthood. In the summer of 1800, the young man fell seriously ill. Ingeniously, Bishop O'Donel used his nephew's illness as an argument to speed up his ordination, arguing that he would recover rapidly once he was working in Newfoundland's 'healthy climate' - a bizarre description of the island's weather.
Now Father Michael O'Donel, the young man arrived in St John's in 1802, and his uncle took charge of furthering his education in theology and Church history. 'He is neither dull, nor witty, but has a good memory,' wrote the bishop, adding on another occasion that Fr Michael was 'neither a bright wit nor a blockhead.' In fact, Michael O'Donel probably knew five languages. He would have grown up speaking both English and Irish, he had a good reading knowledge of Latin and Greek from his clerical studies, and he could hardly have survived three years at Laval unless he could speak French.
In the summer of 1803, Fr Michael was sent on an important and hazardous assignment. 'My nephew is this month past on a mission about 80 leagues to the north of this Harbour', the bishop reported from St John's. The distance and direction suggest that Fr Michael O'Donel had been sent to Harbour Grace, the most important fishing port on Conception Bay in north-eastern Newfoundland. This would make him the second Catholic priest to minister in that important centre: the first had been drowned.
When Bishop O'Donel decided to retire, he decided that his nephew was 'too young to be left alone here'. It seems that Michael O'Donel tried to transfer back to Quebec, but communications to Rome were very slow (and so was ecclesiastical bureaucracy) and in December 1806 he enterprisingly hitched a lift back to Ireland on board the last British warship to leave that year before the icebergs made Newfoundland waters too dangerous. His appointment in 1815 as parish priest at Clashmore (which included nearby Piltown) made sense as the area had also produced many fishermen, and his Newfoundland experience would have been a useful asset in his ministry.
Laurence O'Brien, born in Clashmore in 1792, left for Newfoundland about 1810. He became one of the most successful merchants in 19th-century St John's (because, his enemies said, he was one of the most ruthless). He was later said to have come 'from the lowest levels of society', confirming that it was the grinding poverty of rural Ireland that drove young men to the harsh and dangerous life of the Newfoundland fishery. O'Brien served as President of the island's Legislative Council, the equivalent of Ireland's Seanad.
Fr Michael O'Donel is buried in the graveyard of the Catholic parish church at Clashmore. His headstone stands close to the north door, and has recently been repaired.
The town of Lismore is dominated by Lismore Castle, stately home of the dukes of Devonshire, which has a magnificent setting overlooking the River Blackwater. The dukes of Devonshire were among Britain's aristocrats, owning several large estates in England. Unlike many English landlords in Ireland, they managed to retain ownership of their Waterford estates, and the family still plays a role in the local community.
Richard L. Power (known as "Dick") was born in Lismore in 1841. At the age of fifteen, he was apprenticed as a gardener at Lismore Castle. It was a good time to work there. The Castle was being renovated: the foundation stone of the Carlisle Tower, set in 1855, speaks optimistically of better times in Ireland after the horrors of the Famine. (The foundation stone can be seen outside the Castle's art gallery.) Joseph Paxton, the Duke of Devonshire's gardener from his English estate, Chatsworth, was involved in replanning the Castle and gardens. Paxton had built the Crystal Palace, the massive glasshouse that contained the 1851 Great Exhibition in London's Hyde Park. It is possible that Paxton created the greenhouses that still serve the gardens at Lismore. Dick Power eventually took charge of plant propagation, taking slips to create new plants.
The restoration programme faltered after the death of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, and Dick Power decided to emigrate. William Chearnley of nearby Salterbridge House had served as an army officer in Nova Scotia, and helped him emigrate to Halifax in 1864. With the exception of a short period around 1866, when he worked on the development of New York's Central Park, Dick Power remained in Halifax until his death in 1934.
In 1872, he was appointed Keeper of Halifax Common, but his new responsibilities initially overwhelmed him. He became convinced that Nicholas Shea, his predecessor in the job (literally, for Shea's death had made his appointment possible) was haunting him, his ghost prowling the Common at night, carrying a stick and accompanied by a phantom dog. Dick Power was hospitalised, but recovered, and in 1873 he began work laying ou the Halifax Public Gardens. The 16-acre site is today one of the finest public gardens in North America. Textbooks generally report that Power laid out the Halifax Public Gardens on "English" lines, but the inspiration was from Lismore. He revisited Ireland and Britain on a study tour in 1884, and probably returned to Lismore. (Dick also insisted on emphasising native trees and shrubs over exotic species, probably a good strategy in a city that never operated on a large budget.)
Dick Power retired on a pension of $1,000 a year in 1917. He was allowed to remain living in a gate lodge, where he could continue to enjoy his own achievement. Two of his sons later succeeded him as Superintendent.
The 9th duke of Devonshire was governor-general of Canada between 1916 and 1921. The post was part ceremonial, to represent King George V on formal occasions, and part diplomatic, for until 1927 the governor-general acted as the channel of communication between the British and Canadian governments.
It has to be said that the duke of Devonshire does not feature very prominently in the Canadian history books. But this is probably because he successfully achieved the first aim of any governor-general, to keep out of trouble. The duke regarded travelling around the vast Dominion of Canada as an important part of his job, believing that the governor-general had to be visible to the people as a symbol of unity.
Canada endured two severe crises during his term of office. In 1917, there was a dangerous split over conscription, the use of the 'draft' to send men to fight in the First World War. This issue divided Quebec from the rest of the country and constituted one of the most serious crises in Canada's history. (The same issue exploded in Ireland in 1918.) Then, amidst post-war turmoil, came the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which some feared would be a prelude to a Soviet-style revolution in Canada.
But there were some positive developments too. In 1919 Canada signed the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War, and joined the new League of Nations - both important steps towards an independent role on the world stage for a country that was still technically a British colony.
At his official residence in Ottawa, Rideau Hall, the governor-general entertained politicians and other prominent people. Although Government House had a reputation for starchy formality, invitations were eagerly sought after: the province of Ontario was experimenting with prohibition, but the ban on alcohol could not legally extend to the residence of the King's representative.
The grounds of Lismore Castle are open throughout the summer months, but no specific connection with the 9th duke has been identified. There is a plaque to Tim Healy in the Main Street.
Untraced connections. There is a Tramore, Ontario (in the Ottawa valley, west of Pembroke) and an Ardmore in northern Alberta. These places are very small and it has not been possible to establish heritage connections to their Waterford namesakes, although they were probably named from the towns here. North Saanich in British Columbia has an Ardmore Golf Course.
Part of St John's Newfoundland is called Waterford Valley. There are small towns called Waterford in Ontario and New Waterford in Nova Scotia.