Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’


November 24, 2015

Polly Of Bridgewater Farm  An Unknown Irish Story

Chapter XVII

Londonderry, May 1847

Polly and the children had never seen such a city as Derry.  They spent hours clambering over the high stone walls that held so much history of siege and saint, of oak groves and daring young apprentice boys.  Even at night most of the streets were bright with the new gaslight.  By day, Ships Quay was a thronging mass of shouting sailors, baggage handlers, ticket sellers, fish mongers, and hucksters, all clamoring for the attention of passengers desperate to find passage.  It was an exciting place to be if you were young and held a ticket on one of the sailing ships floating at anchor in the safest harbour in Ireland.

The Sesostris was one of these.  A magnificent three-masted vessel built on the coast of Scotland, chartered by J. & J. Cooke, with an experienced captain, Mr Dand, in charge.  William could hardly contain his excitement.  At last, his dream of sailing in a real ship towards who knew what adventures had come true.  And perhaps one day ha would own his own farm.  the youngest children, Robert, little Maggie and the bouncy two-year-old twins Isabella and Rebecca all caught his excitement.  Young Joseph spent the whole day exploring the port with his father.

Polly and her mother soon retreated back to the shops of the upper town, looking wistfully at provisions they could neither afford nor take on board.

others were worse off; some families had long ago given up hope of passage anywhere.  Famine had hit hard and early in this most northern part of Ireland.  The population of the Inishowen Peninsula had been devastated, the workhouse in Derry overwhelmed by the number of applicants.

That night, Polly returned reluctantly to their dismal lodging that was so unbearably different fro the farm they had left.  She felt as though her inmost spirit was cramped up by the narrow walls, the smells, and the suffering she had seen in the eyes of children all day long.

She stood for a long time at the window of the tenement house looking out over the roof tops with the sun setting slowly in the far western horizon.  Then, to her amazement, she heard a familiar song, faint at first, then growing stronger, vibrant in the clear air.  There was a solitary blackbird perched jauntily on the nearby soot-blackened rooftop, singing his heart out with his special evening song, almost as though he had deliberately chosen her for an audience.  For nearly an hour she listened entranced, beckoning her mother and Eliza to joint her.  Through all that followed, she would never forget the blackbird’s song.


What a splendid book … What a delightful story … I could feel the slushy peat field … I could smell the rain coming.”

M. O’Gallagher

Available here: click here

McKenty Books Selection: Polly of Bridgewater Farm

March 8, 2015

Polly of Bridgewater Farm – an unknown Irish story

by Catharine Fleming McKenty

What a splendid book … what a delightful story. The bibliography and illustrations give it the right air of authenticity. The book is very educational – all those who read it will hardly notice they are being taught … the author is a superb storyteller! I could feel the slushy peat field … I could smell the rain coming.

Marianna O’Gallagher
Authority on Grosse Île and its preservation as an Irish monument, Quebec City, Canada

Novel outline

How in the world did Polly Noble, a bubbly little girl with freckles, born just outside Dromore in January 1837, live to become the subject of a biography more than a century later in Toronto?

Little Polly steps out - illustration from the book

Little Polly steps out – illustration from the book

This is the story of an idylic irish childhood torn asunder by the famine of 1847, and the trials of emigration to a new life in Canada. It was on her father’s farm, on the old Coach Road between Dromore and Enniskillen, that Polly spent an idyllic two years with her parents, George and Jane Noble. Then Disaster struck. On January 6, 1839, the infamous ‘Big Wind’ rose out of the sea and swept across Ireland, wailing like a thousand banshees. It flattened whole villages, burned down farm houses, and finally killed her father. It changed Polly’s life forever. Two years later, Polly’s mother, Jane, married William Fleming, the handsome widower across the road at Bridgewater Farm. Soon Polly began to walk back and forth the mile or so to the one-room school run by the Kildare Society in Dromore. But she found time to plant potatoes, milk the cows, look after the goats, pull flax, chase the hens and run bare-foot in the meadows. Then disaster struck again, this time the potato crop failed and famine and typhus threatened Bridgewater Farm. Like thousands of Irish people, the Flemings decided they must escape. They packed what they could, travelling by horse and cart to Londonderry/Derry, and drinking in their last views of the green fields and hills of Ireland. On May 14, 1847, along with 418 other passengers, they boarded the three-masted sailing ship ‘Sesostris’. Only 10 years old, Polly was on her way to a new life in Canada. After an appalling voyage, during which some of the passengers, including Polly’s darling little brother and sister died, they docked at Grosse-Île, the quarantine station on the St. Lawrence River, about an hour from Quebec. After three years in Montreal, where she met her future husband, Polly was now ready for her next adventure in a vast unknown land called Canada. Her destiny would be linked with a dozen children who had lost their mothers, one of them a future mayor of Toronto.


To purchase a copy of the limited colour edition of Polly of Bridgewater Farm, click on the Buy Now button below (Canadian customers only)

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To purchase a copy of Polly of Bridgewater Farm, b & w edition

click here.


To hear the author Catharine Fleming McKenty on BBC Northern Ireland click below.


AA CM Scrapbook

The author at her childhood home – Donlands near Toronto.


Some Irish Connections

August 8, 2014

Click below to hear my cousin Bob Fleming discuss how he rediscovered our family’s irish roots.

Writing and Ireland

Working on the biography of John Main with Neil and going to Ireland with him earlier ( a first for both of us) must somehow had an encouraging effect on my own interest in writing.

Neil had been asked to write the biography of a remarkable Benedictine Monk, John Main, who had been invited by Bishop Crowley to found a monastery right in the heart of Montreal, based on an ancient tradition of silent meditation found in early Christianity. This, at a time when many English-speaking Montrealers were leaving the city in the wake of the FLQ crisis.

Going to Ireland sparked Neil’s interest in his own O’Shea ancestors (on his mother’s side) and my determination to find the farm that our Fleming family (on my mother’s side) had left in 1847, in the midst of the famine. Neil’s family were Catholic, O’Sheas from the south and McKentys from the Glens of Antrim in the far north. My family were Northern Irish Protestant, from the Dromore/Omagh area, not all that far from the Glens of Antrim as I realised later.

Those visits to Ireland with Neil strengthened my awareness of the riches of Irish history, far deeper than sectarian differences that in many cases had economic and political causes.

The long-term result was that the book I eventually wrote, Polly of Bridgewater Farm – an unknown Irish story – was reviewed in both Catholic and Protestant newspapers and accepted into Catholic, Protestant, and integrated schools in the North.

A Dublin broadcaster told me he had never realised that Protestants suffered along with Catholics during the Famine,” the Great Hunger” as it has been called. I was asked to read from the book by the mayor of Monaghan at the first ever memorial in their city of the Irish Famine. And an Omagh school principal wrote me that “we need more books like this, that speak of hope in the midst of adversity.”

All the above experiences have shown me the power of each of our stories, to build connection with other people, and to bridge differences of outlook, age and background. Also the importance of making sure these stories don’t get lost.

Catharine McKenty

How the Sheas (and Neil) arrived in Canada

June 13, 2012

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.

Coolcappa graveyard.

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


July 30, 2011

Relations between Ireland and the Vatican are at their lowest ebb in history. In the latest move  a group of septuagarian male celibates in Rome decided that the Vatican’s  ambassador to Ireland should be called home.

Now that’s a real laugher.  Let me explain why.

In 1996 the Irish bishops signed an agreement to turn sexual abusers over to the police.  In January 1997, a secret letter went out from Rome to the Irish bishos (via the papalo nuncio)  warning them that canon law trumped civil law when it came to reporting sex cases.

When this subterfuge became public the Irish government went ballistic.  Enda Kennedy, the Prime Minister, charged the Vatican was narcisstic, triumphalist, dysfunctional, elitist.

Clearly Ireland was the injured party.  Normally the injured party would jump in and recall its envoy.  But guess what.  A coterie of septuagarian male celibates in the Vatican quickly recalled their own ambassador thus giving the signal that Rome was the injured party and this was the way to recapture the high road.

What a bunch of game-playing.

Does the Vatican get it?

Is the Vatican the victim?

What do you think?


July 22, 2011

Not since Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Cathedral door, has such a broadside hit the Vatican.  A broadside launched by the catholic Prime Minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny, on the floor of the Irish Parliament.

Here is the context.

In 1996 the Irish Catholic  bishops signed an agreement to begin reporting suspected cases of child abuse to the police..

The following year the Papal Nuncio to Ireland wrote a confidential letter to all the bishops pointing  Roman canon  law trumped Irish state law.

When a further investigation  published last week showing multiple cases of preistly sex abuse in County Cork, the Irish government was outraged.

In full-throated anger, Prime Minister Kenny told Parliament, “This  is not Rome.  This is he Republic of Ireland, 2011,  a republic of laws.”  Kenny was just getting started:  He denounced what he called “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism — and the narcissism – that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”

He said the church’s leaders had repeatedly sought to defend heir instiutions at the expense of children and “to parse and analyze” every revelation of church cover-up of crimes “with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.”

Kenny said canon law had “neither legitimacy nor a place in the affairs of this country

Ireland’s foreign minister called in the pope’s ambassador and demanded an official response from the Vatican.  So far none has been forthcoming.This is the toughest  attack on theVatican from another sovereign state   in my lifetime.

Was it deserved?

What do you think?