Sunday, 16 March 2014

What To Do About St Patrick's Day?

Growing up in rural southwestern Ontario in the 1960's, I was surrounded by Scots or Irish who had settled Moore Township in the 1830's and 1840's. Many of us lived on the original farms that our great grand parents had carved from the forest before Confederation. Unlike the US, with their Ulster Scot, or Scotch Irish concepts, we in Ontario knew from experience that Scots and Irish were distinctly different people, often having opposing views on religion and politics, and who rarely intermarried during their first 125 or so years in Canada. However we were only vaguely aware of the long history that created, defined and perpetuated these differences. By 1968, the Orange walk on July 12th was but a distant memory of our parents, having been replaced by the Orange Parade on New Year's Day. St. Patrick's Day enjoyed only slightly more significance, but other the green beer served at the local tavern, it was largely ignored in our community.

It was not until my late teens that I learned my first real lesson in Irish history. One summer evening in 1970 I set off to Lucan in nearby Biddulph Township with three friends to explore the scene of the notorious Donnelly massacre, in which five members of an Irish family had been murdered one snowy night in 1880. Like most teenage escapades, we did no prior research, but just naively rolled into Lucan in Buck Hystead's 1962 Ford Galaxy and started asking people how to find the Donnelly homestead. The responses ranged from polite indifference to outright hostility, but no one would tell us how to find the farm. We had obviously touched the third rail of Biddulph Township's history. We drove around on the back roads for several hours, but never found the scene of the crime, returning home empty handed. Only later, after reading several books on both the local history and that of Ireland, did I discover the feud was thought by some to have had its roots in an ancient feud between the Irish Whiteboys and the Scottish Orangemen dating back to the late 17th century. The "troubles" between the ethnic Scots and the Irish in Belfast and Londonderry were in full swing by the time I went off to university in 1971, but with a name like Brian, I was more than welcome to consume green beer on St. Patrick's Day with my Irish friends.

Until very recently, convinced that Brian was an Irish name, I had always thought I must be at least partially Irish descent. I grew up knowing that my mother's paternal ancestors, the Wray's had migrated from County Cavan, Ireland in the 1830's. It didn't strike me as odd at the time that the Wray's, with their French sounding name, were devout Methodists, not a common religion in Ireland. The Elliott's, from Roxburghshire, Scotland, were predictably Presbyterian.  I wasn't entirely sure when, or from where, my father's ancestors had arrived, but I was quite content to simply assume we had some connection to Ireland as most of the family seemed less than enthralled with England in general and the monarchy in particular.

We May Be Less Irish Than We Think

However after hunting down about 9,000 names in our family tree in the past three years, I have yet to find any significant number of confirmed Irish ancestors. All the so called Irish families have, upon further investigation, have all turned out to be either Scottish Presbyterians or French Huguenots who had passed through Ireland for varying lengths of time on their way to North America. The Hayes and Pole families, which I had thought might have Irish origins, turned out to be from Somerset, in southwest England, while the Bayly's and the Willoughby's were from England. The Mellon, Anderson, McMurphy, and McCollum families from Counties Tyrone and Antrim, spent several generations in Ireland, but were all lowland Scots from Ayr or Argyle. They all left Ireland en masse 30 years after the siege of Londonderry. Any status I had as being Irish was looking pretty weak.

 A similar pattern emerged in my wife's family, where I found the Dutch Kool family had assumed the Irish sounding surname Cole upon their arrival in Canada in 1783. The Minchin's, thought to be Irish, turned out to be English. The Huffman's, recorded their origin as Ireland, but only one generation was actually born in Ireland. Prior generations name the Palatine region of what is now south-west Germany, as their place of birth.

My last defeat was suffered last year at an office luncheon. We had hired a recent immigrant, a young woman from County Sligo, Ireland on a temporary contract. Asking me if I had ever been to Ireland, I said that I had not, but that I hoped to visit one day soon as I had many ancestors were from Ireland, including two families from Sligo. She asked  "what where their names"? " Milliken and Taylor" I answered. In her delightful Irish lilt, she replied " I have lived in County Sligo all my life but I have never heard of those names". I was tempted to throw out a few more names from nearby County Cavan such as Wray and Brownlee, but realizing they were all Methodists, and as I had doubted that they had left any one behind when they emmigrated in the 1830's, I just let the topic drop.

What To Do About St Patrick's Day?

This all leads me to my current dilemma; what should I do about St. Patrick's Day, having failed to find any definitive proof of being Irish?

Despite the results of my research, being too frugal too pay for DNA test, and desperate to establish a link to Ireland, I found the answer painted on a girder in the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

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