Skip to main content

Traumatized Survivors in Niagara

Traumatized Survivors in Niagara provides the third exhibit theme. It traces a group of Irish emigrants who sailed on some of the worst coffin ships from the Strokestown estate of Major Denis Mahon in County Roscommon to the Niagara region of Ontario. Two of them were murderers. Thomas Brennan’s trial for murdering his fellow emigrants is recounted through newspaper accounts as well as the horrific conditions of the ocean voyage they endured. Visitors also follow in the footsteps of Major Mahon’s ostensible assassin, Andrew Connor, who fled from Roscommon and was last sighted in Port Robinson, Ontario.

Professor Mark McGowan recounts how Strokestown Famine Emigrant Thomas Brennan Murdered his Companions in Niagara

Major Denis Mahon’s
Strokestown Famine Emigrants

A large three storey white house with two wings, viewed from the front, in winter. Snow covers the ground in front of the house and several trees are visible.
Strokestown Park House winter, County Roscommon, Ireland.

The Strokestown Park Estate of Major Denis Mahon in County Roscommon was one of the worst afflicted during the Great Hunger in Ireland in 1847. In August 1846, Mahon’s tenants from the Cloonahee townland submitted a petition in which they lamented that: “Our families are really and truly suffering in our presence and we cannot much longer withstand their cries for food. We have no food for them, our potatoes are rotten and we have no grain”. Such petitions provide rare documents in which the voices of the most destitute can be heard in their own words. In order to help alleviate the suffering on his estate, Major Mahon paid for 1,490 of his tenants to emigrate to British North America in May. In reality, they had little choice. Major Mahon’s former tenants were escorted by his bailiff John Robinson over 165 kilometers to Dublin along the Royal Canal. From Dublin, they embarked on steamers for Liverpool and then sailed across the Atlantic on four ships – the Virginius, the Erin’s Quinn, the Naomi, and the John Munn.

The voyage of the 1,490 from Ireland to Canada was a harrowing one. Almost half of those on the Virginius and Naomi died aboard ship or in the “fever sheds” at Grosse Île when they arrived in Quebec. Many of the Strokestown emigrants who survived the trans-Atlantic crossing moved on to the Niagara region in search of work building the second Welland Canal. When news of the high death toll on board these vessels reached Strokestown, Major Mahon’s life was in danger. He was the first Irish landlord to be assassinated on 2 November, 1847. The 1,490 emigrants who were forced to emigrate from the Strokestown Park Estate are commemorated with a glass wall memorial. The National Famine Museum in Ireland is now housed in Major Mahon’s former home. In 2018, Frances Crowe weaved her tapestry entitled Displaced that was inspired by her visit to Ireland Park in Toronto and the National Famine Museum. It compares the plight of Strokestown’s Famine emigrants in 1847 with Twenty-First Century Syrian refugees.

Frances Crowe’s Tapestry Displaced (2018), Inspired By Her Visit To Ireland Park

Long rectangular tapestry with many stylized cartoonish figures. From left, a person walking holding a child can be seen with huddled group of five people below, against green background and 2018 written top left. Middle section features man in blue reclining with large group of people walking single file behind him, against a blue and grey background with a large red stripe winding across. Another group of five huddled people are featured to the right. On the far right, a woman in a red top and yellow trousers clasps a child to her chest, walking beside another woman in a veil also holding a child, with fruits and flowers above them and jagged stones below.
Frances Crowe’s Tapestry Displaced (2018) that compares the plight of Strokestown’s Famine emigrants in 1847 with Syrian refugees.
Weaving of four stylized, cartoonish faces of people walking forward against a green background.
Irish Famine victims in Frances Crowe’s tapestry Displaced (1847), represented with green Aran wool in background.
Image of partially completed tapestry being woven on a loom. It features a stylized, cartoonish figure of a woman in a grey top and light trousers carrying a child close to her chest and walking forward, against a green backdrop with a red stripe. Numerous spools of yarn and artist’s studio visible in background.
Frances Crowe’s tapestry Displaced (1847) being woven on the loom.

“The Black Hole of Calcutta Was a Mercy
Compared to the Holds of these Vessels”

The 1,490 emigrants from Strokestown suffered on some of the worst of the “coffin ships” to Canada in 1847. According to the London Times (17 September, 1847): “The Virginius sailed with 496 – 158 died on the passage, 186 were sick, and the remainder landed feeble and tottering – the captain, masters, and crew were all sick. The Black Hole of Calcutta was a mercy compared to the holds of those vessels.” An article widely republished from Kingston on 10 August, 1847 claimed that “of the crew of the Virginius but three are left, the captain and officers have died with the rest, and it is seriously contemplated to scuttle the ship and sink her for a while, as the only means of purifying her from the infection she has absorbed – it is said that everyone has abandoned her at Grosse Isle”. This was an overstatement, but conditions on board the Virginius were certainly horrific.

Over sixty children who had sailed from the Strokestown estate were left orphaned in Canada. Others were separated from their parents, like Patrick Cox, whose mother was transported to Canada West leaving him alone on Grosse Île. On 27 September, 1847, in the Hamilton Gazette, she wrote that she was “exceedingly anxious to hear from him, and any person who will be kind enough to communicate any intelligence regarding him, will confer a lasting favour”. It is uncertain if mother and child were ever reunited. There were, in fact, two Widow Cox’s with sons named Patrick who sailed from the Strokestown estate in 1847. One of those is listed as having died at Grosse Île; the other Patrick Cox is recorded living with his mother in Hamilton in the 1871 census. One can only hope that his “exceedingly anxious” mother found her son.

Professor Mark McGowan on the search for Patrick Cox

Professor Mark McGowan on Strokestown Coffin Ships

Famine Emigrant Murderer Thomas Brennan

Many of the emigrants from Strokestown settled in the Niagara region seeking work on the Welland Canal. They were often traumatized by the trans-Atlantic voyage. One of the most notorious of these Strokestown emigrants was Thomas Brennan. On 4 May, 1848, he murdered his fellow migrants Patrick and Mary O'Connor and threw their son John over the Niagara escarpment into the gorge below. He was later arrested in Toronto trying to sell Mary’s “plaid dress”. At Brennan’s trial, his daughter testified that “she went to the riverbank, and there saw a person lying dead, whom she believed to be Patrick O’Connor… On the same day, about two o’clock in the afternoon, the little boy four years of age, went to the house of Mrs Margaret Hopkin, in Queenston, in great distress of mind and suffering great pain of body; one of his little arms was broken between the elbow and the shoulder, and his face, head, hips and other parts of the body were much bruised and discoloured. The daughter of Brennan went the following day to entice the boy away, but he shrank from her, as if terrified by her appearance” (Globe, 27 September 1848). Thomas Brennan was convicted and hanged on 4 October, 1848. In murdering O'Connor’s parents, he left yet another orphan in Canada.

The child remained deeply traumatized throughout his life. In 1871, John O'Connor was desperate to make contact with his sisters whom he believed were left behind in Ireland. On 18 February, he published a letter in the New York Irish American newspaper seeking to find them: “In 1847 or 1848, Patrick O'Connor, with his wife Mary (maiden name unknown), and their son John, then a boy of about four years of age, came to Canada, settling near Niagara, where he obtained work, and saved what could be fairly spared of his earnings, with the view of sending for his two daughters, who were left in charge of their uncle and his brother – supposed to be named William O’Connor. This money, saved for the children’s passage, was the ruin of both father and mother: for to possess it, they were both cruelly murdered by a brutal assassin. The little boy, only, by God’s providence, miraculously escaped sharing the same barbarous fate. This boy, arrived at manhood, now resides in this city, and wishes most earnestly to obtain such information as will enable him to find or communicate with his sisters, whose Christian names, he thinks, are Margaret and Bridget, or Elizabeth. His father lived on Major Mahon’s estate.” Despite his “miraculous escape,” John O’Connor sought solace only in finding his sisters in Ireland. It is unclear if they were ever reunited.

Black and white print newspaper column beginning with On the 4th day of May.
Murder Trial of Thomas Brennan,
Globe, 27 September, 1848
View Transcript
Black and white print newspaper column under the heading Roscommon.
Newspaper article by John O'Connor seeking relations,
Irish American, February 18, 1871.
View Transcript
Niagara River from Queenston Heights. Philip John Bainbridge.
Niagara River from Queenston Heights. John Bainbridge, 1840. John O'Connor was thrown over the Niagara gorge at this site by Thomas Brennan on 4 May, 1848.

Chasing an Assassin

Illustrated map with Lake Ontario written on top and Niagara District and Welland written diagonally across the bottom. In the bottom right hand corner of the map a town is circled with Port Robinson written in small text

The assassination of Major Denis Mahon on 2 November, 1847, caused international headlines and led to reprisals on his estate. Many tenants were evicted in its immediate aftermath. Several people were charged, tried, and two were hanged for the murder. Yet the suspected ring leader, Andrew Connor, was not apprehended. By 1849, he had become a fugitive and was tracked to Canada. He is described by sub-inspector Makeney (August 10) as “a wild and strong person in appearance, [who] speaks mild and easy, is very shrewd and cunning, can read and write and rather intelligent”. On 18 July, Connor was spotted in Montreal by an informer, John Kearney, who requested his immediate arrest. Yet he escaped and moved on to Port Robinson on the Welland Canal. On 10 August, 1849, Edward Wheeler, Superintendent of Police, wrote that “Andrew Connor a labourer at this place” had evaded his would-be captors again. “His two brothers Martin & John Connor still reside at Port Robinson,” Wheeler added. “I shall keep a sharp look out, in case of his return, and let you hear instantly if I should get any information that will lead to his apprehension.”

Why would Andrew Connor flee to Port Robinson to become a labourer with his brothers on the Welland Canal? Because that was the destination of his fellow Strokestown emigrants amongst whom he could find shelter and support. The enlargement of the canal attracted many Irish labourers, especially from Connaught and Cork, who often fought each other in the early 1840s. It was also a site of sectarian clashes when Irish Catholics and Protestants came to blows, such as during the Battle of Slabtown on 12 July, 1849, that left at least two people dead. In this lawless environment with Irish labourers on the move, Andrew Connor could easily blend in. Between Montreal and Port Robinson, he eluded his captors and found refuge among his kindred. Missives from Dublin Castle, Government House in Montreal, the Niagara Sheriff’s Office, and Port Robinson proved futile in tracking him down. Ultimately, the Strokestown assassin remained one step ahead of the law. From Port Robinson, he disappeared without a trace. He was never caught.

Professor Mark McGowan on the manhunt for Major Denis Mahon’s assassin Andrew Connor from Strokestown in Ireland to Port Robinson on the Welland Canal, Ontario.

“Remember Your Soul and Your Liberty”

Not all of the Strokestown orphans were stricken by loss in later life. The orphaned brothers Patrick (12) and Thomas (6) Quinn were adopted from Grosse Île into a French-Canadian household in 1847. They were both well educated, entered the seminary, and served mixed French-Canadian and Irish Catholic congregations in turn. Decades later, Thomas Quinn was dismayed by Regulation 17 in Ontario (1912) which restricted French language education in the province’s schools. On 25 June, 1912, Father Quinn stood before the First Congress of the French Language in Canada, in Quebec City, to make common cause with Franco-Ontarians. Speaking in French, he recalled the exact moment sixty six years earlier he had become an orphan "on Grosse Île". In his own words:

“It was in 1847. A famine… threatened the Irish people with total extinction. The most astonishing part of the awful spectacle was, not to see the people die, but to see them live through such great distress… escaping death, [taking] the road of exile from their native country. Like walking skeletons they went, in tears, seeking hospitality from more favoured lands”. “I still remember,” he added, “one of those admirable clergymen who led us to the bedside of my dying father. As he saw us, my father with his failing voice repeated the old Irish adage, ‘Remember your soul and your liberty’”. In honouring his father’s dying wish, Quinn defended the freedom of Franco-Ontarians. His testimony remains the only eyewitness account of Strokestown’s surviving emigrants.
Black and white upper portrait of man wearing glasses with dark hair. He is wearing a dark jacket, vest, and  a priest’s collar. T. Quinn. Priest handwritten at bottom of photograph. J.E. Livernois. Photo. Quebec printed below photograph.
Portrait of Strokestown Famine Orphan Thomas Quinn.