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Remembering Family Stories

Remembering Family Stories is the exhibit’s final theme. It brings together the living descendants of Famine emigrants such as Bridget Ann Treacy, Margaret Conlon, Sarah Kaveney, and Rose and Barney Murphy who survived shipwrecks on board the Carricks and Hannah to start new lives in Canada and Ontario. It emphasizes issues of ancestry, memory, and the importance of migrant belongings, keepsakes and mementos brought to Canada by Famine emigrants from which their descendants help create their own sense of belonging. They share precious family heirlooms that have been passed down through generations and create a living link with the past. Their family stories and memories also provide an example of how important it is for migrant groups to remember where they have come from, especially when they arrive under traumatic circumstances. Famine Irish ancestors are also recalled through dramatic performance, Gaelic language speech and song, tattoos emblazoned on the skin, and endeavours to find emigrant graves. Ultimately, they symbolize the perseverance of Famine emigrants whose self-reliance provides a sense of inspiration for their descendants. Indeed, they mark an inheritance of ancestral female resilience.

Black and white portrait of young woman with piercing brown eyes, wearing a dark dress with a broach and white sleeves, as well as head covering.
Bridget Ann Treacy, “The Belle of Whitby”

Inspiring Ancestors:
“The Belle of Whitby”

Terry Smith recalls her ancestor Bridget Ann Treacy, “The Belle of Whitby” and the Gold Creamer Family Heirloom she brought with her from Ireland to Canada in 1847.

Bridget Ann Treacy sailed with her aunt and sister on the Jane Black from Limerick to Quebec in 1847. They settled in Whitby, Ontario, where she became a nurse. Bridget was known as the “Belle of Whitby”. Her great granddaughter Terry Smith treasures her portrait of her ancestor and the gold creamer jug that Bridget brought with her to Canada “as a memory of Ireland”. “For me, it holds our heritage, it holds our history,” Smith declares, “and it holds the strength of what families go through when they emigrate, and is probably a good reflection of where our heritage and history has come from”. Bridget Ann Treacy survived the Famine voyage, but left behind a brother John who “got lost in the crush getting on board the ships”. The only documented trace of him is a baptismal certificate on St. Patrick’s Day in 1842. It corroborates ancestral memory and family stories of the little boy who was lost on the Limerick docks, yet who lives on in the loving remembrance of his sister’s descendants.

Bridget Ann Treacy herself is buried in St Michael’s Cemetery in downtown Toronto. It is a tranquil place that is rarely open to the public. Standing beside her tombstone, Terry Smith reflects: “Bridget Ann is a symbol of our family, and our strength and devotion to love and family. And, to me, she represents everything that a woman could possibly be. I think of her often when I come across hardship or difficulties in my life. I think about what it might have been like for her. So she has a very special place in my heart, and in the hearts of all of the members of our family, and we very lucky to be able to see her tombstone and be here today”. Terry Smith endows Bridget Ann Treacy’s portrait and family heirloom gold creamer jug with meaning as conduits for the transmission of familial memory. She also finds inspiration in difficult times in the figure of her ancestor and the legacy created by the “Belle of Whitby”.

Terry Smith in St Michael’s Cemetery Toronto at the grave of her ancestor Bridget Ann Treacy who sailed from Limerick to Canada on the Jane Black in 1847.

Inspiring Ancestors:
Famine Orphan Margaret Conlon

White text on blue surface with reflection of tree branches visible on it. Names are inscribed on surface including Mary Conlan (Blair)
Inscription of Mary Blair Conlon (mother) on the Glass Wall Memorial, Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site

Brenda Sissons pays tribute to the resilience of her ancestor, Irish Famine orphan Margaret Conlon (also spelled Conlan) who was brought from the Grosse Île quarantine station to Montreal and then taken to by her uncle in Toronto

Brenda Sissons reads a letter written by her ancestor Mary Conlon on board the Famine ship Achilles approaching Grosse Île in Quebec in May, 1847. “My dear Brother,” she writes, “with a sore heart I now address you, a widow with three small children and likely before your receive this I may give birth to another orphan. I do not know how to unfold my melancholy talk. About 10 o’clock on the first of May my dear John went up to the head of the ship. A wave came up which left my children fatherless. I am now destitute”. Shortly after she wrote her letter, Mary Conlon and her other children had died. Her daughter Margaret was left an orphan and alone on Grosse Île. She was taken into the care of Montreal’s Bishop Ignace Bourget in July when her condition was described as “delicate”.

She was then moved to the city’s Protestant Orphan Asylum where she remained until October 21st when she was taken by her uncle – to whom her mother’s letter was addressed – to Toronto, and then Hamilton. Brenda Sissons pays tribute to her great grandmother: “I think what I find so poignant about this story is that that little five year old girl – the daughter of the woman who wrote this letter – is the beginning of my mother line in this country. And she was a little girl who had not only left the country that she knew and was raised in so far, but had lost her whole family, but somehow survived, and grew up, and became a mother herself – and is my ancestor... She was obviously a survivor”.

Professor Mark McGowan describes the suffering of Famine orphan children such as Margaret Conlon at the Celtic Cross Famine Memorial on Grosse Île, Quebec.

Surviving the Carricks Shipwreck:
Sarah Kaveney

Close up of document held in hand. The document is dated Cap des Rosiers 27th, April 1947. It is handwritten. The document reads: One hundred years have gone by since the arrival of the first Kavanagh in this land. Love God and your neighbour and go on your way. Follow your path. Arthur Kavanagh. Mayor.
A precious Kavanagh Family Heirloom. “One hundred years have gone by since the arrival of the first Kavanagh in this land,” wrote Arthur Kavanagh in 1947, one hundred years after the wreck of the Carricks on the Gaspé coast. “Follow your path”, he writes.

Rose Marie Kilbride Stanley recalls her ancestors Patrick and Sarah Kaveney who survived the wreck of the Carricks off the Gaspé coast in 1847, but lost all five of their daughters who drowned.

On 28 April, 1847, Patrick and Sarah Kaveney (later Kavanagh) and their son Martin survived the wreck of the Carricks Famine ship off the Gaspé coast. Their five daughters Mary, Margaret, Bridget Elizabeth, Catharine, and Sarah all drowned. Their descendant Rose Marie Kilbride Stanley cherishes a family autograph written by Patrick and Sarah’s grandson Arthur on the one hundredth anniversary of the Carricks tragedy that brought their family to Canada. “One hundred years have gone by since the arrival of the first Kavanagh in this land,” he writes. “Follow your path.” In doing so, Stanley was inspired by her ancestors’ resilience in the face of unimaginable loss to write a play entitled Emigrants. “This story is one that really can tell you the strength and the courage that our ancestors lived,” she contends. She plays the role of Sarah Kaveney grieving the loss of her five daughters “who perished in a watery grave”. It is a poignant scene that she performs in the Caves of Keash in County Sligo, where her ancestors lived.

Close up of document held in hand. The document is dated Cap des Rosiers 27th, April 1947. It is handwritten in French.
A precious Kavanagh Family Heirloom. French language version of Arthur Kavanagh’s note to future generations.

Excerpt from Rose Marie Kilbride Stanley’s play Emigrant

I am the wife of Patrick Kavanagh. Mother of Martin. Mother of Mary, deceased. Mother of Margaret, deceased. Mother of Bridget Elizabeth, deceased. Mother of Catharine, deceased. Mother of Sarah, deceased.
Each morning I wake, my first breath is one of joy, and then the horror of my life seeps in and takes hold. Were it not for Martin and Patrick, I would be content to drown in an everlasting embrace with my girls.
Patrick does not speak of their final resting place, or what he saw, or did not see, on the beach that day. Patrick speaks little. Martin has learned the obedience of silence.
I cannot return to the beach. Yet in my body’s memory, I visit that unhallowed place every hour, often every minute, of each day.
I stand numb, numb to the elements, numb to life itself.
This I do know. Our daughters are either buried in the shallow trench, or they have perished in a watery grave. That they could be buried in consecrated earth within the church grounds would grant them everlasting peace.

Rose Marie Kilbride Stanley performs the role of Sarah Kavanagh in her play Emigrant in the Caves of Keash, County Sligo. She pays tribute to her ancestor from whom she draws strength.

Surviving the Hannah Shipwreck:
Barney and Rose Murphy

Colour painting of two masted sailing ship with bow stricken on ice berg, and numerous people visible having left ship standing nearby on ice. A lifeboat with one person in it can be seen in the left foreground moving away from the ship in rough seas. Two ice flows in left and right foreground, with stormy sky in background.
The Wreck of the Hannah by Rodney Charman. Courtesy Rodney Charman and Knights of Columbus Museum, New Haven, Connecticut.

On 29 April, 1849, the brig Hannah from Warrenpoint in County Down was wrecked on an ice flow in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Its Captain Curry Shaw abandoned the sinking vessel in a life boat leaving the Irish emigrants on board to their fate. As the Hannah sank, many of them were able to escape on to the surrounding ice flows. In the hours that followed, parents struggled to keep their children alive and their families together, but many perished and floated away on the ice. The next day the survivors were rescued by Captain William Marshall on the barque Nicaragua. One hundred and twenty seven passengers survived the wreck of the Hannah and forty nine perished.

One of the survivors was Bernard (Barney) Murphy, who was plucked from the icy waters by Mrs Henry Grant: she rescued him thinking he was one of her own children, all four of whom were lost. Barney’s sister Rose also survived the tragedy, though she did not speak for several years afterwards. Many of the Hannah survivors settled in Westport, Ontario. One of them was Barney Murphy. His descendant Paddy Murphy married Jane Cawley in 1962, and together they sought to pass on the story of the Hannah to their children and future generations. After her husband Paddy passed away, Jane Cawley Murphy continues to honour his memory by recounting the tragedy of the Hannah. In her own words:

“Unfortunately, they hit an ice flow. The ship was sinking. They got off. John Murphy put his two sons on an ice flow, and they floated away, and he never saw them again.
Rose [Murphy] was so traumatized by this experience that she never spoke until she was three or four years old. Barney [Murphy] was two years old, and he was plucked out of the water by a lady called Mrs Henry Grant, a McEwen woman. She had lost all her four children, and thought that Barney was hers. She plucked him out, and saved his life.
Now ten or twelve of these families all settled here on the mountain in Westport, Ontario. There are some descendants still living here. Now this story we heard for the first time, my husband and I, the week of our wedding back in 1962, and we were very taken by it.
My husband had a burning desire to do research, to go to Ireland, to find out what was all this about. My husband Paddy wanted to pass this on to his children, and as a result they now know the story of their Irish ancestors on the Murphy side.

Jane Cawley Murphy recalls her late husband Paddy Murphy’s ancestors Bernard and Rose who survived the wreck of the Hannah and started new lives in Westport, Ontario.

Ottawa Valley Legacies

Colour photograph of a young man with short brown hair, moustache, and beard looking to camera. He is wearing a light blue tee-shirt and tattoos are visible on both of his arms below the sleeves. Behind him can be seen a silver chalice in a glass display case and a brown interpretive board.
Bytown Museum Collections and Exhibitions Manager Grant Vogl commemorates his Famine Irish ancestry and family history in his tattoos of the Potato plant and trans-Atlantic crossing on his arm.

Bytown Museum Collections and Exhibitions Manager Grant Vogl displays his tattoos which symbolize his Famine Irish ancestry and family history.

Grant Vogl is the Collections and Exhibitions Manager at the Bytown Museum in Ottawa. He is also a descendant of Famine emigrants. Grant notes that his personal connections with the Great Irish Famine are numerous. Most branches of his maternal family – and a handful of distant branches of his paternal family - have roots in Ireland. Nearly all of them fled their homes during the Great Hunger to settle in Canada. His Irish ancestors hailed mostly from the provinces of Ulster and Leinster, with his mother’s direct family line originating in the parish of Drumsnat, County Monaghan. Later relocating to the parish of Kildallan, County Cavan, the family farmed on a subsistence plot of one acre of rented land, raised their children, and spun flax into linen, until the worst of the famine years – Black ’47 – forced them from their home. They arrived at Grosse Île quarantine station, and then travelled on to York Township before settling in Hogg’s Hollow, then part of York Mills, in Canada West.

The family with seven children had made the perilous months-long voyage; their youngest daughter died aboard the coffin ship. Grant Vogl’s commemorates his Famine Irish ancestry with tattoos emblazoned on his skin. In his own words: “In remembrance of their hardships, determination, and honouring their drive to create something better for their family, I have over the years, acquired several tattoos: The first, on my chest [not pictured], reads: Cuimhnigh ar na daoine óna dtáinig tú / “Remember the people from whom you have come.” The second, on the back of my left arm, shows a severed right hand grasping a shamrock, an anchor, and a stylized wave representing: Ulster, the luck (although I prefer the ingenuity) of the Irish, the coffin ships, and the sea voyage, respectively. The third, on the inside of my left bicep, is a potato plant afflicted with blight. All of these works pay homage to my Irish ancestors.”

Mary Holmes on her ancestor Catherine Timlin.

Mary Holmes holds a portrait of her great grandmother Catherine Timlin, who emigrated from Ireland in 1847 and settled in the Ottawa Valley in Cantley, Quebec. Neither her husband Francis O’Boyle nor their children survived the voyage. She remarried William Holmes in 1848 and started a new life in Cantley on a farm that is still in the family. Mary attests how important it was for Catherine for “her descendants to know her story”. As she recounts: “I have always been inspired by Catherine and her story. You know, she came here on her own. By the time she got here, she had to go ahead. As one of my aunts says, she had to go ahead because she couldn’t go back. There was no way of going back to Ireland, and there was nothing to go back to. But nevertheless, she did persevere. She had hardship early in her life.”

“As well as surviving the Famine, she had survived her husband dying, her children dying, because of it. She married here, and two of her children died as young people. So her suffering didn’t stop. But nevertheless, she persevered. She really wanted her descendants to know her story. Because she talked about it, and she left evidence, written evidence. She wrote a list of the grandmothers and the great grandmothers back about five or six generations from her. She didn’t do the same thing for the men, but she did it for the women. It was just her strength of character, and she was very dedicated to her church and religion too. I am sure that gave her great strength to carry on through everything that she had to carry on through. So she has always been a really fine example for myself and for all of the other young women in the family of just doing what you have to do and getting on with life.”

The Galway Shawl:
Irish Music and the Gaelic Language

Eithne Dunbar from the Brockville Irish Cultural Society recalls the Irish Famine through the Irish folk song “The Galway Shawl”.

Eithne Dunbar honours her Famine Irish ancestors through the Gaelic language and song. She emigrated from Athlone in County Westmeath to Brockville where she founded the Brockville Irish Cultural Society. She is an accomplished singer and Irish language enthusiast. Indeed, she donates the profits from her album sales to help support the Gaeltacht Thuaisceart on Oileáin Úir, or Permanent North American Gaeltacht near Tamworth and Erinsville, Ontario, established in 2007. Eithne sings “The Galway Shawl” “in honour of the women from the Famine and the tough times that they went through”. She also declares both in English and in Gaelic that reviving the Irish language in Canada provides respect for the Famine dead.

In her own words: “I am very proud to be part of the Gaeltacht project where we are renewing our knowledge of the Irish language, given that a lot of the Irish language was lost during the time of the Famine when people’s attention was just to stay alive.

So if this is a way to say to all of the Famine victims: we have not forgotten the language, we have not forgotten you. Through our refreshment of our knowledge of the Irish language, we are paying honour to the Famine victims who did not survive to pass on the language to their offspring.”

Woman with dark hair, glasses, and green scarf staring into camera against a purple backdrop. Songs for Ireland is written above her, with the name Eithne Dunbar at the bottom of the image.
Eithne Dunbar’s Songs for Ireland.
Gaeltacht printed in black on rectangular white road sign mounted on two wooden posts. Forest visible in background.
Sign for Gaeltacht Thuaisceart on Oileáin Úir, or the North American Gaeltacht near Tamworth and Erinsville, Ontario

Eithne Dunbar from the Brockville Irish Cultural Society on the impact of the Famine on the Irish language and the establishment of Gaeltacht Thuaisceart on Oileáin Úir or the Permanent North American Gaeltacht – Irish speaking area – near Tamworth and Erinsville, Ontario.

Finding Emigrant Graves

Famine Irish monument and Plaque at Hospital Point in Peterborough. Courtesy of Barbara Dickson.
Illustrated painting in colour of hastily erected white tents on small peninsula jutting out from shoreline of marshy lake. One yellow tent and scrubland visible in background.
Hospital Point Peterborough Famine Irish Quarantine painted by George Elliott (2017). Courtesy of George Elliott.

Barbara and David Dickson on their search for Irish Famine emigrant graves in Ontario.

Barbara and David Dickson and Tony O’Loughlin commemorate Famine Irish ancestry in Ontario by finding and marking emigrant graves. Barbara and David have travelled across much of Canada and Ontario in search of these burial sites which they document and share. “We want to remember them”, claims Barbara. “We want to bring all this together and we want to share the incredible story of how not only the Irish lived, and how they immigrated, but where they died, and how we are remembering them, and are we doing a good job?” she adds. Tony O’Loughlin is the founder of the Kingston Irish Famine Commemoration Association which has established most of the Famine monuments in Kingston. He too seeks to ensure that Kington’s Famine Irish mass grave is acknowledged and commemorated in a dignified and respectful manner. In searching for and marking these emigrant graves, they honour their ancestors who fled from Famine Ireland.

In Remembering Family Stories, the descendants of Famine emigrants pay tribute and draw strength from their ancestors. Terry Smith’s haunting portrait of Bridget Ann Treacy and her gold creamer jug holds her heritage and her history. Brenda Sissons recounts the heart-breaking shipboard letter from Mary Ann Conlon shortly before she left her daughter Margaret an orphan. Rose Marie Kilbride Stanley cherishes her family autograph recalling Sarah Kaveney’s loss of her five daughters in the Carrick’s shipwreck. Jane Cawley Murphy tells her family story of the remarkable survival of Bernard and Rose Murphy from the wreck of the Hannah. Mary Holmes treasures her fading portrait of Catherine Timlin who “never stopped suffering” yet “wanted her descendants to know her story”. Grant Vogl displays the Famine tattoos emblazoned on his body. All of these artefacts, images, and migrant belongings attest to the perseverance of Famine emigrants who are recalled mainly as role models and figures of ancestral female resilience.

Large grey rock in foreground set in flowers and green grasse with 1847 – 1997 inscribed on, it beside a mounted plaque to its right that has gold text on a green background. Behind them can be seen body of water.
Monument and Plaque marking Famine Irish burial ground at “Hospital Point” in Peterborough, Ontario. Courtesy Barbara Dickson.
Photograph of plaque with gold inscription on dark background and flanked by Celtic Crosses on its upper right and left surface.
Kingston General Hospital Famine Irish plaque marking the site of the mass grave where up to 1,400 emigrants were buried. In 1966, many of their remains were reinterred in St. Mary’s Cemetery. View Transcript

Tony O’Loughlin on the work of the Kingston Irish Famine Commemoration Association

Grey Celtic Cross in snowy ground with several coniferous trees and river in background. Inscribed on its base: The Great Irish Famine. 1845-1848, with additional smaller inscriptions underneath.
Irish Famine Memorial Celtic Cross in Cornwall, Ontario.
Photograph of a white sculpture of an angelic woman holding an open book standing on plinth and facing viewer.
Kingston "Angel of Mercy" Famine Sculpture, St. Mary's Cemetery.
Large grey Celtic Cross with ornate patterning and inscription on plinth. The cross is positioned on a grey circular dais, with green grass and trees visible in background.
Celtic Cross Famine Memorial in Maidstone, Ontario (near Windsor). Courtesy of Christine Quinlin Gordon who helped establish it in 2000.