Discovering my Irish family through an Irish Studies program during National Family History Month.

Throughout October, IrishCentral is celebrating National Family History Month. Today, Miles Murphy shares with us the story of his Irish family's journey to Canada and how his journey to discovering them parallels with that. 

In 1847 at the height of the Irish Famine (An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger), Andrew and Jane Buchanan, along with their eight grown children, (seven boys and one girl) boarded a ship outside of the City of Derry in the Country of Ireland, bound for Canada.  It was noted that they were able to pay for their own passage.   

Famine Journey, Ireland Park Toronto, Rowan Gillespie, Sculptor.

Famine Journey, Ireland Park Toronto, Rowan Gillespie, Sculptor.

Confession.  I love Ireland! But I don’t live in Ireland.  I’m in Montreal … in Canada.  Montreal is a fabulous place –  a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with a great mix of the old and the new.  French is the first language and the French culture is evident everywhere, but when you think of Montreal it probably doesn’t conjure up images of shamrocks and shillelaghs.  Maybe fleurs de lys and poutine (that’s french fries topped with cheese curds and soaked in gravy… yum!).  In fact, Montreal has a very long and enduring Irish history.  The first Irish landed in Canada (then called  New France) with French settlers in the 17th century, thousands more arrived during the Great Famine and, today, 20 percent of Montrealers claim Irish ancestry.

Read more: Horror as Irish Famine memorial desecrated in Providence, R.I.

After ten days at sea, a violent storm forced the ship to turn back.  Badly damaged, it was unable to continue until repairs were made and the ship re-fitted. On their second attempt,  after a six-week voyage, the shores of North America finally came into view.  Ship’s fever (typhus)  had broken out on the journey. Unable to dock at Grosse Île or Montreal (already overwhelmed by the thousands of Irish immigrants attempting to flee the famine), they pushed on up the St. Lawrence, landing at the village of Kingston, Ontario, where they were quarantined for several weeks.

My journey began a little over a year ago. I was living 2,000 miles west (that’s about the same distance as it is from Canada to Ireland) in the prairie city of Winnipeg.  I was born in Winnipeg and had returned to the city four years earlier to spend time with my aging parents.  I’m glad I did.  My step-father’s health was failing, and my mom, although she never complained, had her hands full providing for his care.  She’d raised seven boys, mostly as a single mother, so she wasn’t afraid of hard work. 

Read more: On this day in 1847, 12,500 passengers await entry to Grosse Île quarantine station; 3,000 Irish die

Over the years, my brothers had all moved away from the city and scattered across the country, married, raised families and lived out their lives. Though she had 17 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews, my mom never forgot a birthday.  I’m not sure how much help I was to her, but we loved to sit down to a simple, Sunday dinner and share a glass or two of wine.

  Sometimes she’d tell me stories about her life growing up on a farm and in a small town on the prairies before she grew up and moved to the city.  Until she suffered a sudden, unexpected and debilitating stroke and within months she was gone.  My step-father followed within the year.  And although I had an interesting job and good friends, the city felt strangely empty. 

Andrew, along with his son William’s baby daughter had succumbed to the fever aboard ship and died.  They were buried in Kingston. 

I've had a lifelong interest in Ireland.  The history, language, culture, music and literature was fascinating.  I’d traveled to Ireland a half-dozen times and I’d even had a chance to live there for a short time. As I began to take stock and to think seriously about the next stage in my life, I thought more and more about Ireland. 

Besides my love of Ireland, I had a huge passion for learning. I’d been involved in literacy and adult education throughout my working career and I also loved to write.  I’d also always had it in the back of my mind that if the opportunity afforded itself, I’d like to go back to school, but was it too late?  A more urgent question bubbled up:  Would there be another time?

Six thousand Irish famine victims died of typhus in the years 1847-1848 and were buried in a mass grave in Montreal.  (Many of the survivors settled in Griffintown and found work along the nearby Lachine Canal.) Another five thousand were buried at the quarantine clearing centre on Grosse Île. Some 1,400 died and were buried at Kingston.

Plaque commemorating Kingston Typhus Epidemic.

Plaque commemorating Kingston Typhus Epidemic.

An online search led me to discover the top Irish Studies programs in North America and one of them was in Canada, in Montreal at Concordia University.

Read more: Top Irish Studies Programs in North America

Even better, I had a connection.  My younger son was living in Montreal, pursuing a career in music and he had just graduated from Concordia University.  He encouraged me to apply.  

I thought of every reason why it couldn’t work, but I applied anyway.  And then a letter arrived … I’d been accepted!  I panicked.  Surely there was some mistake.  I called the School of Irish Studies, thinking they would never call me back.  They did!  An advisor shared her experience with me and provided me with details about the University, the School and the program. Did I know about the tuition remission program that might cover all or a part of my tuition costs?  Was I aware of possible opportunities to learn and study abroad? Concordia is one of the only institutions to offer a full undergraduate major in Irish Studies and also offers graduate degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies and the Humanities.  In addition to an excellent academic staff, each year the Irish Studies Department attracts prominent visiting scholars from abroad and hosts a series of expert guest speakers, focusing on such topics as 18thand 19thCentury Irish women authors, The Great Famine and the Troubles.

By the summer of 1848, Jane, and her eight children had settled in the wilderness around what was then called Donegal, Ontario (Now Elma Township in Perth County). Life was hard, but the Buchanans survived and gained a reputation for helping their fellow immigrants and neighbours. William and his wife, whose baby had been lost to the fever gave birth to another child, a girl, Margaret.  Around 1880 most of the family, including William moved West and settled in the Canadian prairies.

The Buchanans were my mother’s family.  What little I’ve been able to learn about them is based on stories shared by my mother and my grandmother and information collected by Buchanan family genealogists, Bill Buchanan and Patty Hopkinson. 

What Andrew and Jane’s life in Ireland was like we don’t know (even Jane’s family name is open to debate:  Young, Long, or McNeilands are some guesses).  Irish Studies provides me with a context in which to explore and understand the past, my own and my family’s, Ireland’s and Canada’s  but Ireland is also a lens through which to view so many issues that affect us today: famine, conflict, emigration,  immigration, colonization, civil war, sectarianism, peace and reconciliation, language, economics, religion, gender and identity, reproductive rights, sexual abuse and Brexit, to name just a few. 

The French and the Irish have a shared history that stretches back many generations, not only in Canada but in Europe and although Montreal is a bastion of French language and culture, I’ve found the French bienvenue to be as warm as the Irish céad mile fáilte and the Irish Studies staff and fellow students couldn’t be more friendly and accommodating.

Read more: National Family History Month: Irish Famine refugee's story of arrival in America

Concordia University Irish Studies Program Students. Courtesy: Concordia University Irish Studies Program

Concordia University Irish Studies Program Students. Courtesy: Concordia University Irish Studies Program

With famine and privation at his door,  Andrew Buchanan looked outward, buoyed up by the hope for a new and prosperous future for his wife and family.  Perhaps, in this new city, in my studies, I might come to understand more completely some of the other forces that pushed and pulled him to make that fatal and fateful journey. Looking back through the mists of time I can see Andrew Buchanan looking westward across the wide Atlantic Ocean and I smile. I’d like to imagine he’s smiling right back at me.

You can find out more about Concordia University's School of Irish Studies here.

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