Written by Neil – originally published in Nuacht September 2006
You might think the name Coolcappa describes one of those iced coffee drinks we enjoyed during the summer. In fact it is a small village on the border of Limerick from where my Irish ancestors, the Sheas, set out for the New World in June 1825. (Coolcappa comes from the Irish Cuil Cheapach meaning “corner of the village plots.”) This spring, my wife, Catharine, and I spent a morning there mucking around the parish graveyard in the warm rain, looking for names on the weathered gravestones that might give us a clue about who was left behind. We also chatted with the lovely woman who keeps the grocery store-post office as clean as a whistle and filled with laughter from her wonderful Irish stories.
Of course the Sheas (also called the O’Sheas) are one of those storied Irish families that came from a long lineage working its way back through hill and dale, war and peace to the early bogs and mists of ancient Ireland. Here we catch up with them early in the nineteenth-century when the Sheas had long been farmers in County Limerick. Unfortunately, the economic situation in the early eighteen-twenties was grim. In 1821 the potato crop failed, causing great distress among the lower classes who subsisted mainly on a diet of potatoes and buttermilk.
To deal with this situation the British government decided to underwrite the costs of sending carefully selected families from the south of Ireland to Upper Canada, giving them free land (70 acres) and supplying them with tools and a year’s supply of rations. At one stroke this policy would reduce suffering in Ireland and provide more men for the militia in Upper Canada, still nervous after the war of 1812.
To get this scheme off the ground, the British government contacted the Attorney General of Upper Canada, Sir John Robinson, who turned to his elder brother, the Hon. Peter Robinson, at that time the Member of Parliament for York. Quickly, Peter Robinson travelled to Ireland and began lining up volunteers to leave for the New World. Although only a limited number could be accommodated, many thousands applied, sick of their poverty and lack of prospects at home. And this despite the fact Robinson was peppered with questions concerning the presence of bears, wolves and marauding Indians.
By the summer of 1823, the first group of emigrants sailed from Cork, arriving in Quebec City after a voyage of eight weeks. These settlers then travelled to the Bathurst District, made up of the present day counties of Lanark, Renfrew and Carleton. Many of them settled in Ramsay Township close to the modern towns of Almonte and Carleton Place. The second phase of Peter Robinson’s emigration plan began two years later, in the spring and summer of 1825. It was this group (2,024) that included my ancestors, the Sheas, who were booked on the good ship John Barry with a total passenger list of 253.
Along with Michael 16 (my great-grandfather) there were eight other Sheas in the family. These included Michael’s parents, Thomas (born in Coolcappa 1781) his wife, Bridget (1786), and his siblings Jeremiah (1806), Michael (1808), John (1810), Mary (1813), Thomas (1815), Johanna (1819) and baby Dennis, who was just two years old when the ship salied at the end of May at 10 a.m., the “morning fine and almost calm.”
Each ship in the flotilla (there were nine others beside the John Barry) included a ship’s surgeon, ours being Mr. William Burnie, a Scot, who had graduated from the University of Edinburgh medical school seven years earlier. Almost as important as the medical care he dispensed was the fact that Mr. Burnie kept a diary which gives a vivid account of life on the John Barry.
The voyage was not an easy one. Soon after boarding, the passengers began to experience two discomforts that were to plague them throughout, seasickness and inadequate sanitary facilities. Mr. Burnie wrote: “Two days at sea all the men were up and they sprinkled and scraped the decks. Women generally sick. Up all the beds and every person off the berths deck. Had the decks swept and the under berths cleaned. Washed clothes.” That evening at seven there was a welcome diversion, “music and dancing.”
On Monday morning “Timothy Callaghan was detected taking another man’s flour cake, and punished after being found guilty by twelve of his peers by cleaning the water closet for two days.” Many days the seas were rough and the passengers bilious. “Strong gales with thick fog. At times heavy rain. Heavy sea from S.W. … many sickly. Mrs. Slattery, Callaghan, Groves seasickness. Tim Reagan fever. Sullivan constipation … lime juice to those who wish it.”
Sometimes the nausea boiled over into a quarrel. “A violent fight with much scurrilous gab between Mrs. Owens and Mrs. Blackwell. The former is a noisy, quarrelsome woman, Blackwell little better. Well matched at tongues.” There were several miscarriages: “Another abortion – Dennis Mahoney jaundice, Pat Regan fever, Mrs. Condon bowels … Mrs. Grave and Baragy seasick.”
Mr. Burnie quickly established a routine whereby the men scrubbed the decks and “All woman washed clothes and hung them on the proper lines.” Meals soon became a problem because some items were foreign to the settlers (like the Sheas) “ who threw the cheese and plum cake over board or complained they were being poisoned. Cocoa was provided for the men, who rejected it. They preferred tea, which was only doled out to the women.” Several of the men (Michael Shea perhaps) disguised themselves in female clothing in order to get tea for themselves when rations were given out.
Tea was not the only problem. So, apparently, was the cook. On June 8, Mr. Burnie wrote in his journal: “at 1 p.m. Dinner people wrangling with the cook. They say he boils their provisions too much for the sake of the liquid. He denies it, but says they put it in so irregularly that some of it will be overdone. He threatens giving up the cooking. I settled the dispute by allowing everyone to take out his meat when he likes.”
Indeed, with no refrigeration, the diet was barely tolerated and sickness was endemic. As the weather worsened, the male passengers were obliged to take their turn at pumping out the ship several times a day. A number of passengers developed fever. Sanitary conditions were also deteriorating. The latrines were so inadequate that people took to creeping up on deck to relieve themselves at night. The weather worsened. On June 12, the surgeon writes: “Heavy gales and thick with rain. People between decks, some praying, some crying out murder, some swearing. A few believe the sailors to be getting out boats and leaving them.”
After making Newfoundland on June 19, the surgeon made a list of the ill including “Mrs. Regan who brought forth a daughter in the 7th month” and, ominously, “the baby Dennis Shea.” On June 27, the surgeon listed his patients as “10 sick, 2 very ill (Dennis being one) … People dined on deck. Weather fine and clear.” It was not fine for “baby Dennis.” His parents and eight siblings surrounded his cot, telling their beads long into the night. It was less than ten days from the sight of Quebec when Surgeon Burnie wrote in his journal: “Midnight departed this life Dennis Shea, aged 17 months 9 days.” Little did his grieving mother, Bridget, know that within a few weeks she would lose another member of her family.
Two days later the John Barry struck a sand bar, began to take on heavy water, many of the passengers panicked and some of the crew threatened mutiny before the officers managed to put things right. On July 7, six weeks after it left Cork harbour, the John Barry docked in Quebec and was boarded by the Harbour Master.
The next day Tom and Bridget Shea and their brood, along with the other passengers boarded the Steam Packet, Swiftsure, for the trip to Montreal. The ship sailed at eight in the morning the temperature being 88 degrees. The next day the emigrants from one of the other ships arrived in eight bateaux. “I consider his people more unruly than mine,” Mr. Burnie wrote with satisfaction. Beyond Three Rivers they “reached The Cedars where we buried the [Mahoney] child in the church yard. Indians very troublesome, wanting money for drink. Others tossing the luggage about and squabbling with the people.”
That was the surgeon’s last entry. The Sheas and the rest then made their way overland to Lachine where the bateaux were waiting to transport them to Prescott and on to Kingston.
Meanwhile Peter Robinson himself had gone to the Newcastle District (later renamed Peterborough after himself but then known as Scotts Plains) to reconnoitre a travel route before returning to Prescott to pick up his charges. “On the eleventh of August, I embarked 500 on board a Steamboat and landed them the next day at Cobourg, a distance of one hundred miles; the remainder of the settlers were brought up the same way, the boat making a trip each week.”
The route from Cobourg to Rice Lake (and then on to Scotts Plains at the head of the Otonabee river) was a thick wasteland of rocks and trees, an almost impenetrable forest. We can only try to imagine how Thomas and Bridget Shea and their six children would view this forbidding wilderness, most of it unknown except to native people. I find it hard to imagine myself although it is in this very area that I and many other descendants of Thomas and Bridget grew up. We went to Cobourg for school picnics, swam in Rice Lake and at least once a year excitedly looked forward to seeing the races at the Peterborough Exhibition.
Meanwhile, as he recounted, the resourceful Peter Robinson had “two scows” made, which were “transported on wheels from Lake Ontario to the Rice Lake.” No wonder Robinson found it difficult to recruit the manpower necessary to trundle these scows, each 56 feet long, on wheels over twelve miles of makeshift road laboriously cut out of the wilderness.
At last after much huffing and puffing, everyone arrived at Scott’s Plains, now downtown Peterborough. Lots were chosen and it is my understanding that Tom and Bridget and their children settled some miles from Peterborough in Asphodel township on what later was called the Shea line running between Norwood and Hastings on the Trent River, a road that Catharine and I discovered again on a sunny August day this summer.
Sady, in 1826, not long after they arrived in Asphodel, another tragedy struck the family. Bridget, who had lost her baby, Dennis, almost within sight of Quebec City a few months before, now lost her husband Tom who was drowned in Rice Lake at the young age of 45, leaving her a widow, aged 40, with six children.
Fortunately, Bridget’s eldest don “Darby” (Jeremiah) was old enough to qualify for land. Bridget, now listed by the authorities as the “Widow Shea” received one cow, two blankets, three axes, meat, flour and other necessities. At the time of his father’s death, Michael, my great-grandfather was 17. He would have worked with his brothers clearing the forest and caring for his mother. About 10 years later, he married Ann Myles, 20, from Cork, the daughter of Thomas Myles and Honorah Connell. Not quite two years later their first child, Catherine, was born. Michael and Ann went on to have ten more children including William born in 1850 and Jeremiah in 1856.
William Shea was my grandfather. He grew up on a farm in Asphodel Township not far from where I later lived in the village of Hastings. He was a spare man over six feet tall with a trim white moustache who for many years had been a motorman on the street cars in Peterborough before returning to Asphodel to take up farming in earnest, living in one of those impressive solid red brick houses just outside Norwood at the western end of the Shea line. He had married Bridget McCarthy, born in 1856, and they had two children, my mother, Irene and her sister, Geraldine.
My grandfather, who spent many happy hours fishing for pickerel in the Trent River, died at the age of 89 in Hastings just as war was breaking out in 1939. His father, Michael, died at the age of 83 in Asphodel in 1891. It was just over 60 years since he had left Coolcappa to board the John Barry at the city of Cork for the wilds of Asphodel.
Originally published in Nuacht September 2006