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Traumatized Survivors Mark McGowan transcript

Exterior shot of man standing in front of railing, wearing dark blue sweatshirt with “Canada” emblazoned on it in red, sunglasses above his head. Behind him can be seen Niagara’s Horseshoe falls with swirling plumes of mist rising in the background. The Niagara River is visible bottom left. The roaring sound of the falls can be heard.

I am Mark McGowan. I am a professor of history at the University of Toronto, and I am at Niagara Falls.

What I would like you to do is imagine yourself here one hundred and seventy years ago in the 1840s, in a place where there is pristine wilderness, and the sound that dominates everything is the sound of the thunder of the falls.

This is what faced Irish immigrants here as they arrived from famine-stricken Ireland in 1847 and 1848. Some of those who arrived in this part of the world were actually of Denis Mahon’s estate among the 1,490 assisted emigrants that left that estate in 1847, travelled across the Atlantic in four terrible ships, landed at Grosse Isle, were processed through Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto, and many ended up here. They had agency.

These were Irish people that knew there were already Irish settlers here. They knew that there was work on the Welland Canal that would effectively bypass these falls behind me, and link Lake Erie and the upper Great Lakes with Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence, and the Atlantic Ocean. They were to become a part of the most vibrant area of the Canadian economy of that era.

But not all the story of starting life anew, of building a new life for themselves here, was easy. Much of it was tragic.

Apart from the fact of the coffin ships, apart from the great loss of life of these Roscommon immigrants at Grosse Isle and in Montreal, many settled here, and tragedy occurred again.

Tragedy involved one family in particular – the O’Connor family, and the Brennan family, from County Roscommon in Kilmacnanny Townland. Thomas Brennan’s wife Bridget died at Grosse Isle. One of his two children died there, and he arrived here with his teenage daughter in 1847, perhaps early 1848, to take up residence with people he knew from County Roscommon: the O’Connors, the Hopkins, the Glessons, and others who had arrived here to make a new life for themselves.

Thomas Brennan though, having been seen in the company of Mary and Patrick O’Connor, became a prime suspect when this couple disappeared.

A large ship with many people standing on deck can be seen bottom left sailing up the Niagara River towards the falls.

And later, when their bodies were found at the bottom of this gorge on the Niagara River – Patrick O’Connor bludgeoned to death with his own hammer, and, Mary O’Connor, strangled and left naked.

Thomas Brennan was later arrested in Toronto trying to sell Mary O’Connor’s clothing, and being found with a large sum of money upon his person that allegedly belonged to Patrick O’Connor.

And, in fact, young John O’Connor – the O’Connor’s son – was later discovered after he had disappeared, allegedly having been tossed over the embankment here on the Niagara River, and left for dead.

What we know about this tragic incident in Irish and Canadian history is what the courts tell us. The names of the witnesses and those who testified in Thomas Brennan’s trial all came from the Strokestown estate – Daltons, Hopkins, O’Connors – which means that this community had agency in rebuilding itself in the new world.

But that wouldn’t be the fate of Thomas Brennan, whose fate was sealed when the jury decided that he was guilty, and he was hanged and buried not far from here, in the Canada West town of St. Catharines.

A tragic end to what would have been a very promising life for these Irish migrants on the Canadian frontier.

Camera pans left along Niagara River to show American Falls at Niagara Falls.

Final image of water with onscreen Ireland Park Foundation logo. Celtic style music playing.