Tuesday Writing Conversation: Grosse Île, Londonderry/Derry and Cabbagetown.

Catharine writes:

Today I sat in the window of a local restaurant, sipping apple juice as our local heat-wave increased in intensity. A father with his three children sat at a small table on the sidewalk just outside.

I could watch the adorable expressions on the faces of the two little boys facing me as they played their way through the quiet meal.

Then I found myself thinking of the suffering of children all over the world – why, oh why, I asked myself – why does this suffering continue?

It’s as though we are caught up in an ongoing cosmic battle with evil that can flare up at any time. And, in these circumstances, why is it that the words “Father, forgive them – they know not what they do,” seems the farthest thing from our minds? I found the tears welling up as I sat there, as though some old pain were healing itself without my being aware.

Those words would be a good mantra for me to cling to. Even when coping with the everyday frustrations that occur living within a close-knit community.

I think of my great-grandmother Jane Fleming who lost two small children and her baby girl on a terrible 31-day voyage from Ireland to Canada. Their twelve-year old daughter died at the Grosse-Ile quarantine on the Saint Lawrence river an hour downstream from Quebec city. My great-grandparents had fled in 1847 in the midst of that terrible famine that killed over a million starving Irish.

When I was in Ireland a month ago, a woman at the Peace and Reconciliation Centre in Londonderry/Derry told me ‘people still find it hard to talk about that period.’

And at the Centre were copies of ‘Polly of Bridgewater Farm’ laid out and now being used as part of the healing process after the community tensions of the last century in Northern Ireland.

In a way that is still mysterious to me that our family story is being used to bring hope in adversity. As I was writing, I had the sense that the story was coming through me, and onto the paper without my conscious control.

I was writing at a level I had never come close to earlier in my life.

And then the people who turned up at every stage of the writing to help me in whatever way was most needed.

Without Carol Moore-Ede’s help as my editor the book would never been completed in its present form, if ever. She brought all of her 40-year experience at the CBC, and as founder of the Cabbagetown-Regent Park Museum to bear, during a summer none of us will ever forget, along with her colleague Sally Gibson, the writer of books about the early days of Toronto.

Catharine Fleming McKenty


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