Hands across the Atlantic

By John Graham

The area around the Bay of Saint Laurence in Canada is one that has many far-flung connections and is an area that was the new home to tens of thousands of emigrants particularly from Ireland and Scotland in the last two hundred and fifty to three hundred years.

The fact that one part of the area is referred to as Nova Scotia is testament to its connection with Scotland but there is strong evidence too of an Irish presence over the centuries as in 1780 the name of the island of St. John was changed to that of New Ireland by an act of the Assembly. It had been generally believed that the Irish Diaspora to that part of the word was something relatively recent and in some ways had been planned but recent research would show that even references in the Algonquin Micmac legends support the belief that the Irish came to that region several centuries before they were even known to have been there. The fact that people may have travelled from Ireland to that part of the world was shown to have been possible when in 1977 Tim Severin and his crew brought a reconstructed medieval Irish curragh ashore in Newfoundland following a two-year journey from Ireland. More recently too studies of the 13th century Book of the Settlements show both a Norse and an Irish presence in that part of the world even as far back as then. “Some of the people in that ancient account are referred to as “papars” which is a word for monks, and accounts show that when they left people found Irish books, bells and croziers and many other things from which it could be discovered that they were Irish”. One account shows that the Norse settlement followed an earlier one made by Irish monks and explains how nearly all of the “Norse” Islands, islands settled by the Norseman, were known to the Irish before the Norse men arrived.

The monks of course were generally forced to move on as they did not wish to be with heathen men because of their grim experiences in Ireland at the hands of the Vikings. Other accounts of parts of that country and others areas of that country have references to people coming from various parts of Ireland but the big Monaghan presence particularly in Prince Edward Island is the one that has caused most interest of late. The first Irish arrived in Prince Edward Island in 1820 and took up residence in a part that was known as Lot 7. However of the several thousand emigrants from Ireland who came to that part of the word in the first half of the 19th-century and of the two dozen Irish counties known to have been represented, the largest group originated in County Monaghan mostly from the parishes of Donagh, Tydavnet, Clontibret and from the villages of Emyvale, Glaslough and Tyholland as well as some from Monaghan town.

The spread of the Monaghan connection in Nova Scotia can be explained by the fact that some of these emigrants and many of their descendants later moved on to Western Canada and even the United States but those who remained to make their life there found great similarities between their new home and their original county of Monaghan. The circumstances which led people to emigrate at that time included periodic crop failure, the decline in the linen industry and general poverty as a result of the original inhabitants having been dispossessed of their land. There is one other major factor however that influenced the Monaghan Diaspora to that part of the world was, organised migration.

There is evidence too however of more than a few individuals from Monaghan who came to Prince Edward Island even prior to the 1800’s as some of the names would suggest, a Thomas Duffy was listed in Lot 5 and Peter McMahon was listed in Lot 65 from the 1798 Census of the island.. However the Monaghan settlers who were to contribute most to the social progress of the island began to arrive in 1830 due to the work of the Reverend John MacDonald and it was his contact with the parish priest of Donagh, Fr. Moynagh, that led to the planned migration on the promise that the people would be able to lease land on the Revd. John MacDonald's estate. Later Father MacDonald sent his agent, a James Trainor, back to Ireland to recruit mainly Monaghan settlers and two ships arrived in May of 1839 with a total of six hundred and twenty two passengers on board, people who settled mainly in Fort Augustus and Johnston’s River areas of the island. Having picked their place to settle on the island these people then came to apply local place names from Monaghan to their new homes so that we have places like Kelly's Cross and Emyvale, the latter first introduced as a postal district on the island. The Irish presence may have been somewhat neglected in earlier times, something that is referred to by leading historian Doctor F. W. Bolger who maintained that “the Irish have been a neglected and neglectful minority on Prince Edward Island” and we can consequently assume that a similar situation applied in other parts of Canada at that time. Writing about this he maintains though that the Irish themselves have contributed to this state of affairs in that they have been “most uncharacteristically reticent about telling their own story”. However it must also be said that even with that reticence Monaghan people can claim to have played their part in the social and religious development of the areas they settled in and a major part in the development of Prince Edward Island from an inauspicious colony to a Province of Canada.

This whole area has now been addressed with the setting up in 1977 of the Prince Edward Island Irish Heritage Society. This movement has been to the forefront in counteracting such indifference by encouraging serious research, discussion and writing. That initiative produced a number of works by eminent historians particularly Brendan O’Grady who almost single-handedly re-established the connection between Prince Edward Island and North Monaghan and the Irish connection was the subject of three volumes of the Abegweit Review between 1983 and 1988.

It took some time however for things to filter through and it wasn't until 1990 that formal connections were established and the bond is growing stronger. News of this new development of course got through to other communities in Canada and it emerged that there were strong Monaghan connections in both Peterborough and Miramichi and they too have now become involved in the wider Monaghan twinning with those parts of Canada. Even a cursory look at place names in both of these communities suggests there are strong Monaghan influences with Monaghan place names and indeed the name Monaghan itself used extensively. The new-found connections with such far-flung places offers an ideal opportunity for communities on both sides to study the similarities and for people in Monaghan to assess the impact that their forefathers had in building up such strong communities in such far-flung places. The Irish and Monaghan influence does not end there as, generations later, some of these people left their new home and headed for new destinations in New England, Colorado, California and even as far away as South America and New Zealand so that the Monaghan Diaspora has a much wider influence. To date the connection has been kept alive only through regular contact via local authority delegations, the first of which travelled to Prince Edward Island in May 1990 with other visits and twinning ceremonies taking place between Peterborough and Miramichi in later years.

Representatives of those places have come on visits to Monaghan, Joe Gizz, the Premier of PEI the first such visitor and one delegation from Monaghan got headlines of a sort for the connection due to an incident on a plane that was taking the delegation back to Ireland. To realise the full potential of this historic link the Monaghan /Nova Scotia connection must be lifted to new heights and funding made available for cross community studies and cross community exchange visits as happens with groups from Monaghan who are twinned with communities on mainland Europe. Such exchanges would allow a more in-depth assessment to be carried out and by people who have a direct interest in and knowledge of this and related topics. Some of the literature and music of that part of Canada has a distinct Irish flavour and proper study would enable experts to separate myth-making from a genuine Irish and even Monaghan influence. Our literature tells us who we are and what we are. Monaghan has contributed substantially to Irish literature and it would be a great achievement to see the influence of that tradition assessed. The Monaghan/Nova Scotia connection can provide the base for something that could project Monaghan and her people onto an even bigger stage worlwide. Can we afford not to attempt that.

Taken from Monaghan's Match
December 2003