Last month, I related the story of my own surprising genealogical connection to Glenbow. The link was the half-brother of my great-grandfather Harry. In validating the relationship between these half-brothers, I became immersed in the saga of my Irish ancestors. As I dug further, I found that Harry’s father had immigrated to Canada as a child of eight and that his birth family was part of a select group of Irish immigrants — the Peter Robinson Settlers.
The Irish populous had suffered under British rule for centuries by the time my great-great-grandfather, William, was born in 1815. Most native Irish were Roman Catholics and faced additional discrimination at the hands of the Protestant ruling class. They were barred from certain professions and were not allowed an education unless they converted. Additionally, their land was divided into increasingly smaller plots over time, since they were forced to split their land between descendants, as opposed to leaving the farm to the eldest son.
With the end of the Napoleonic wars, returning troops contributed to increasing unemployment. There was an economic slump as cheaper goods from Europe flooded the British market. The population increased. Then came a famine brought on by a disease of the dietary staple, potatoes. This presaged the well-known potato blight of the 1840s and the ensuing mass exodus of Irish to the Americas.
Life in Ireland in the 1820s was grim; thousands were impoverished and starving. Unrest grew as the poor fought back against heavy taxes and discriminatory policies that blocked not only their education and social advancement, but their very survival. The British government decided they could kill two birds with one stone if they moved some of the Irish poor to Canada, where there was a shortage of British subjects to protect the land should there be another attempt at American invasion, such as that in the recent war of 1812-15.
A government official from Canada, Peter Robinson, was selected to go to County Cork, Ireland and arrange a small migration as a test case. Only paupers under the age of 45 years qualified. After advertising the plan for only two weeks in Ireland, 5000 people applied to move. Robinson chose about 600 and they set off in two ships in 1823. My ancestors’ family was aboard: Thomas and his heavily pregnant wife Mary, their two little boys William and Charles, and their two little girls Mary and Esther, as well as Thomas’ nineteen-year-old brother Henry. After a two-month ocean voyage, the group was transported up the Ottawa River valley by barge and on foot. On this journey to their new farm, Mary gave birth. Each family was allotted 70 acres (with an option to buy 30 more in the future), as well as tools, a little log house, and food for a year.
While this was an amazingly good deal for the Irish immigrants, the transition to life in the backwoods of Canada was still very difficult. The men did not even know how to chop down trees, since Ireland had been denuded many years previously. The people were not adequately provided with blankets and suffered through the bitter winter cold. The lots that some families, like mine, were given were located on the Canadian Shield and the immigrants did not realize that they could not grow enough crops, until they cleared the forest and made a heavy investment of labour. However, the pioneers learned to cope with their new environment, worked hard, and many eventually prospered. The 1823 settlement scheme was deemed a success and another transport from Ireland was organized in 1825, this time for over 2000 people.
In my search for my Irish immigrant ancestors, I was fortunate because the Peter Robinson settlers are well-documented. In addition to summary articles, I found ship passenger list transcriptions online. I even read Robinson’s actual reports to the government, and deciphered the hand-writing on petitions for land made by Thomas, Henry, and Charles. The best document I found was a scan of an 1828 survey in Thomas’ own hand. He indicated that despite having been a carpenter in Ireland, in the five years since his arrival in Canada, he had moved to another lot, cleared and fenced 19 acres, acquired six cattle and eight pigs, and built a house and a barn. It also records that he had lost two children since arriving and that his family subsisted on “flour batter and all kind of vegetables.” Despite the trials he had faced, he stated that his comforts had been increased by coming to Canada and he would advise his friends to come to Canada as well.
How privileged I am that great-great-great-grandfather Thomas was among the chosen Irish paupers who were given a better life in Canada. How fortunate I am that his son William was one of the children who survived the harsh life of a Canadian pioneer in the 1800s. How lucky I am that great-grandfather Harry was able to succeed and prosper in the new lands to the West. I’m so thankful to have inherited a bit of the Luck ‘o the Irish.
This article was originally printed in the BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.