Archives with Voices

Archives with Voices

Posted on August 22 by Lucille H. Campey in Non-fiction
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Now that I have completed Atlantic Canada’s Irish Immigrants, my first book on the Irish exodus to Canada, I can look back on the journey. The hunt for suitable documentary material brought me to archives on both sides of the Atlantic. I never cease to be amazed at how much help I get from serendipity.

That is probably because my sights are always fixed on immigrant letters and diaries. They are the voices which speak of what it was really like being a settler in Canada’s pioneering period. The descriptions offered by early immigrants of what they saw and experienced are to me the essence of their story. Their information poses questions which I seek to answer. As a result my books have a strong immigrant focus that often challenges the received wisdom of commentators both past and present.

Documents come in many shapes and sizes. While in the New Brunswick Archives I stumbled across the papers of Michael Whelan, a school teacher of Irish descent who grew up in the Miramichi region. Caring desperately about his Irish heritage he sought to preserve knowledge of it by writing poems and songs but nobody in his day was interested. Having died in 1937 a drunkard and buried in a pauper’s grave, Whelan was discovered many years later by a complete stranger who had his poems and songs published. Whelan was at last given a voice and God bless the stranger. 


Of course, the most emotive accounts were written in 1847, the year of the Great Famine, when Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Saint John, New Brunswick, were deluged by the starving Irish.


However, a sense of perspective is needed since most of the Irish had arrived long before this. While newspapers and government officials reported the many harrowing scenes, the immigrants themselves, when they did write home, continued to speak of practicalities like finding jobs and places to live where they would be welcome. The latter was a particular problem for Irish Catholics who suffered blatant discrimination at the time.


It was tough being an Irish Catholic in early Canada. The bigotry was bad enough but being too concerned about Irish sovereignty had its perils as well. When, in 1800, Irish soldiers, serving in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, rebelled against British rule in Ireland, they paid with their lives. Caught in the act, the ringleaders were hanged. A plaque at the site, now a street in St. John’s, gives details of their mutinous behaviour. However, thanks to an oak tree, brought from County Wexford, which was planted in 2000 next to the plaque by members of the Irish Newfoundland Association, the soldiers’ bravery has been acknowledged.  


On a similar but happier note, a Celtic cross memorial at Charlottetown’s harbour speaks volumes about the pride felt in a shared Irish ancestry. Because of its central location in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Prince Edward Island attracted Irish settlers from across Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, thus giving it a very varied Irish intake. The memorial’s 32 flagstones, commemorating each county in Ireland, tell the world that the first settlers will never be forgotten.  

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Lucille H. Campey

Posted by Kendra on October 30, 2014

Lucille H. Campey

Lucille H. Campey was born in Ottawa. A professional researcher and historian, she has a master’s degree in medieval history from Leeds University and a Ph.D. from Aberdeen University in emigration history. She is the author of fourteen books on early Scottish, English, and Irish emigration to Canada. She was the recipient of the 2016 Prix du Québec for her work researching Irish emigration to Canada.