Brenda Sissons pays tribute to the resilience of her ancestor, Irish Famine orphan Margaret Conlon who was brought from the Grosse Île quarantine station to Montreal and then taken to by her uncle in Toronto.
Interior shot. Close up of copy of handwritten letter in dark ink on yellowing paper. The text reads: “Ship Achilles My dear Brother, 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. all efforts were made but he went to meet his God.”
Camera pans back to reveal woman sitting with short grey hair in a green shirt, wearing silver earrings and a green, blue, and purple scarf. Bookshelves are visible in background. She looks into camera.
My name is Brenda Sissons. I live in Terrace, which is in northwest British Columbia.
I am about to read the letter written by Margaret [Mary] Conlon, who was my great, great grandmother. She was travelling with her husband and her three children aboard the ship Achilles from – originally from County Armagh – but they sailed out of Liverpool towards Canada.
Brenda Sissons puts on a pair of reading glasses.
And she wrote this letter – I think around the first of May, in 1847.
She reads from letter she is holding.
My dear Brother. 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 tale. 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. All efforts were made but he went to meet his God.
I am now destitute if you do not meet me at Mr. Geo. H. White Architect, Yonge Street, Toronto who is to forward this letter to you. I do not intend stopping any place until I reach Toronto and if you meet me there neither I nor the children will be any burden on you. Little Benny is with a cough complaint but is mending. There was a deal of sickness on the ship today 19th May / the 19th person was committed to the deep and God only knows what will be the consequence before we reach Quebec which we expect to reach on Sunday the first. Nancy Hughes is also with us and has had bad health during the passage. I can tell you no more of my thoughts at present. I remain your affectionate sister-in-law. M. Conlan
Brenda Sissons looks up and into camera. She says:
And at the bottom she writes:
I do not know my brother’s directions. I have no address.
Brenda Sissons looks down, takes a deep breath, takes off her reading glasses and looks into camera holding back tears.
So this letter was written by my great, great grandmother anticipating her arrival in Quebec, and she did arrive in Quebec around the twenty fourth of May, we think, shortly after she wrote that letter.
But she and two of her other children did not survive beyond Grosse Isle, Quebec, where they landed.
The son, Benny, we think died of typhoid while he was still on the ship. There was a delay, I think, of about two weeks before the family was allowed to get off the ship from records that we have been able to find.
During that time span, Mary Ann Conlon, who was the oldest daughter in the family, became sick. The mother I think was admitted to the hospital to give birth, but either died in childbirth, or she and the new born baby died of typhoid very shortly after, which left only one little five year old girl of the original family of five – soon to become six – who had left Ireland in May, or April, of 1847.
So that little girl – between the time that the ship arrived and July 21st – became an orphan, and was discharged into the care of the Lord Bishop on Montreal on July 21st, at five years of age being described as “in delicate condition”.
That is the last record that we have of her until family history picks up the story and tells us that she was raised by a family called Mulholland in Hamilton, and grew up with the Mulholland family. Eventually at the age of twenty six [she] married Hiram DeWitt, and became my great grandmother – that little girl.
She and Hiram had five children altogether: four daughters and one son. One of those daughters became my grandmother: Samine Rose DeWitt. Then one of her daughters, of course, became my mother.
So that is what I know of my mother line. 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, and yet somehow survived, and grew up, and became a mother herself – and is my ancestor, whom I don’t know very much about, but am looking forward to learning more about, because she was obviously a survivor.
Final image of water with onscreen Ireland Park Foundation logo. Celtic style music playing.