Essential story of the week
IRISH HISTORICAL SNIPPET OF THE WEEK:
A collection of Stephen McPhilemy’s favourite Irish history short-stories for you to further research and immerse yourself in!
Irish Brigade at Gettysburg
The Irish played a major role in the American Civil War. On both sides, but particularly in the victorious Union Army. An estimated 130,000 Irish born men fought in the Blue of ‘The North’, 13,000* of the same fought for the Confederacy in their various shades of grey, from rag-tag mix-mash to the flamboyant uniforms of various Southern ‘Irish regiments’.
These Irish-born men fought for a variety of different reasons – on both sides many men were recent immigrants, fresh off-the-boat and doubtless joined up and fought out of economic necessity. On the Union side I would think it fair to suggest many Irishmen joined the Irish Brigades to fight the horrors of slavery, and others to show loyalty to their new adopted home. The latter point applying also to Irishmen in the Confederate Army. Many Irish Confederates fought for the principle of State’s Rights and of course one of those rights was the right to own slaves, a fact that horrifies modern Irish people, and indeed many Irish of the era – Daniel O’Connell, one of the dominant characters in 19th Century Ireland was a passionate supporter of the Abolitionist cause.
* It should be noted also that a sizeable amount of Confederate soldiers were of Scots-Irish ancestry and heritage; their states like Virginia, the Carolinas, Mississippi, Tennessee being the prime locations of settlement for Ulster (Northern Irish and predominantly Presbyterian) emigration to the American colonies in the early 1700’s. Stonewall Jackson’s Dad was from Coleraine, an hour from Derry and my very own home. Jackson is regarded by many as the finest Confederate commander of them all.
As a child in the 1980’s I was obsessed with movies and tv series about the US Civil war and that was a great era to be so because there was lots of great productions to enjoy. I watched ‘North & South’ fervently on the TV and rented ‘Gods & Generals’ on VHS to watch and re-watch in our small family home in County Donegal
- Ned Kelly – the Irish “Australian national icon”
- WATCH the 2001 Hollywood movie ‘Ned Kelly’ with Heath Ledger playing Ned complete with an Irish accent and a hipster beard that bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Ned. Orlando bloom plays his little brother along with an all-star cast (yet 9/110 Americans have never heard of this movie)
- WATCH, for a laugh, the 1972 movie, also named – you guessed it – Ned Kelly, starring Mick Jagger of all people as Irish-Aussie folk-hero, Ned!
- READ ‘The true history of the Kelly gang’ by Peter Carey, which won the 2001 Booker prize, and is famous (and challenging) for its use of 19th Australian slang and no punctuation! For some reason the word ‘true’ in the title misled me and It broke my heart halfway through to discover the plot contains a lot of fiction. As a Ned Kelly fanatic I was reading and also thinking ‘I didnt know this part of Ned’s story’, which prompted me to research and realise that this was because it was make-believe and artistic-license on the part of Carey.
Ned Kelly is the most famous person in Australian history. I think its fair to say he is their national icon, after all a huge 20 feet tall Ned Kelly puppet was first into the stadium at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. What did he do? Well to put it simply, he robbed banks in 1870’s Australia, in the state of Victoria to be precise. ‘Is that all he did?’ I imagine your asking. He actually robbed banks in a suit of armour, that in the end was the main thing that made him famous.
Many would say he’s the Aussie ‘national hero’ but as you might expect in Australia the story of this bank-robber and police-killer is controversial enough to ensure he is not universally loved.
What has this to do with Ireland you might ask? Well if you’re asking that question, you are obviously not an Irish-Australian because The Ned Kelly story is inextricably linked to 19th century Ireland and its experience of political unrest, discrimination and poverty, anti-catholicism, crime and ultimately transportation to Australia as convicts.
Ned Kelly’s parents were Irish you see, both born and raised in County Tipperary, not far from the iconic Rock of Cashel, now one of Irelands most-visited sites by tourists. Both were convicted of theft and their punishment was transportation to Australia, which was then Britain’s toughest penal colony. This arduous and horrific journey took 9 months. The ships would head south-west across the Atlantic and stop in Rio De Janeiro before taking on the dangerous Cape Horn. As the old sea-shanty goes “as you wallop around Cape Horn, you wish to God you’d never been born”!
Once they eventually got their freedom it was unusual for convicts to ever return to Ireland or Britain. Ned Kelly’s parents met and married in Victoria and raised their family their in poverty and under the suspicious eye of the local police.
It wasn’t long before young Ned fell foul of the law, although his supporters will rightly remind that he did win a coveted prize for bravery as a youngster for jumping into a creek and saving another child from drowning. After an incident in the Kelly family home in which his sister was inappropriately approached and touched by a police officer and a shot was discharged, the Kelly boys went on he run and formed the now legendary and infamous ‘Kelly Gang’.
After robbing banks the length and breadth of Victoria, the law finally caught up with the Kelly gang and they were captured at the Glenrowan Hotel after shootout that would rival anything the American wild-west.
Grosse Ille – Canada’s ‘Ellis Island’.
Grosse Isle – Canada’s Ellis island
If every able-bodied Muslim must make the Hajj to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, then every Irish person must make the journey to Grosse-Isle once in theirs.
“That’s how I’ll explain it back home when they ask about my trip to Quebec” I thought, beaming with pride, in the shade of the huge Celtic-cross that dominates this deserted craggy island in the middle of the mighty St. Lawrence.
The early-summer sun in Canada is blissful – my forehead and arms were beginning to look like the Pink Panther and occasionally my mind drifted to thoughts of the great holiday I was presently enjoying in a place no friend of mine would ever contemplate visiting despite the fact I knew they’d love it. Mostly though, I was reflecting on an emotional day-trip to ‘Les Memorials Irlandais’. Only hours earlier I savoured one of the profound travel experiences of my life, one where I sensed the spirits of my ancestors: men and women from my tribe who had passed this way before long before I finally did.
We were one of the first groups of the year to go out. Thick ice joins the island to both banks of the river for the winter. As one of his sons steered us safely across the awesome river and another politely sold us affordable snacks, the affable Captain of the Island-ferry, kitted out in full nautical regalia, sat on deck, microphone in hand and eloquently delivered a welcoming monologue and impromptu one-man comedy to his captive audience. Despite feigning laughter at the jokes, as I didn’t understand his heavily accented French, the whole episode just smacked of great customer service – for the life of me I simply cannot imagine the staff on any ferry to the Aran Islands being bothered to provide visitors with such a travel ‘wow-moment’ as they bounce merrily across Galway Bay!
The Quebecois Captain Birdseye enquired as to our origins. Most tourists today were Francophones from all over Quebec. I noticed subtle gasps of appreciation when the Nova Scotian visitor raised her hand and murmured: ‘Je viens de Novelle Ecosse’. But it was the group’s reaction when he sheepishly asked was anyone on board from abroad that re-affirmed my belief I was on a voyage to somewhere special. “Je suis Irlandais” I blurted out self-consciously. I can’t recall his response because the other passengers instantly erupted into a sincere and prolonged standing-ovation; I was mortified with embarrassment but moreso I felt intense pride, relieved the other passengers couldn’t see the hair on my neck stand to attention: here I was getting clapped, hugged and patted by strangers on a ferry-boat across one of the great rivers of the world, 48 Kilometres downstream of Quebec City .
Quebecers are a gregarious lot and slogan on the province’s car registration plates sums up nicely their collective memory as a people: ‘Je me souviens’… I will remember. They had no idea who I was but they were honoured an Irish person was among them and had made the journey to this evocative and spiritual place; for me it was a true hair-standing experience. Grosse Isle may well be Canada’s Ellis Island and the main immigration entry-point for numerous peoples into this vast country until World War 1, but among French-Canadians – who’s ancestors selflessly adopted Irish orphans fresh off the boats during The Great Famine – there is no confusion; the painful story behind this beautiful Island is an Irish one.
I was an adolescent history-nerd when I first vowed to make the trip to Grosse Isle. I serendipitously came upon old poster dated June 1847, advertising passage to Quebec from Derry Quay aboard a ship named the ‘Superior’. I was mesmerised. I discovered that large numbers of my ancestors had gone through Canada as a way of seeking entry to the United States due to an increase in passenger-taxes on emigrant ships docking in the land of the free after 1847.
In the 19th Century Grosse Isle was the major quarantine station for boats from Ireland, a place where would-be emigrants were stripped, scrubbed clean, inspected and eventually passed fit to enter Canada or buried, if Cholera or worse still, Thyphus had their way. I read of the mass grave containing 5000 bodies from my Island, Doctors and Priests included, who quickly perished due to the Typhus epidemic on the Island in 1847. I vowed to go and find it one day. Fascinated, an intrigue took root and I vowed to one day see this once inward-looking and mysterious part of North America.
It often amazes me that Canada’s French speaking province is not on the ‘must-see’ list of most Irish people’s North American Travel itinerary. History buffs, culture vultures, political junkies, people watchers, fashionistas, festival-lovers, outdoors types, Celine Dion fans and those of you who simply just adore fine food, great wine and a certain ‘joie de vivre’ among friendly, party-loving people are all in for a huge treat.
‘La Belle Province’, or ‘The Beautiful Province’ as even those with merely a vague recollection of their Leaving-cert French will doubtless be able to translate, has a double seasonal hook to hang your holidays on. In Winter Mt. Tremblant, the Whistler of the East, offers a ski resort that combines old-world European ambience with no-nonsense top-class North American standards of service. In summer it’s a sizzling 35 degrees as Tommy Tiernan et al take the stage during Montreal’s ‘Just for Laughs Festival’, can Kilkenny say the same?
Quebec was once the major destination for ships from Derry Quay
poster advertising the pending departure of the ‘superior’ June 28, 1847
Today that mystery has lessened; the ‘quiet revolution’ of the 1960’s has seen the Catholic Church lose its once all-encompassing influence on society and a no-longer inward-looking ‘La belle province’ or ‘the beautiful province’ – which even those of you without so much as a smattering of French will surely have been able to translate – is quite simply an essential stop on any avid travellers North American itinerary; or indeed on its own as a week- long getaway destination. Quebec’s 7 million francophone population boasts up to 40% with Irish Ancestry, they are as friendly a people as anywhere back home in Ireland.
Up close and personal with the locals in Quebec
because an electrifying, heavily accented form of French is the mother tongue of over 70% of its proud ‘habitants’, in fact it’s the perfect place to practise your Leaving-cert French and not be afraid of sounding daft, as the local accent is far from Parisian, though you can dispel any language barrier concerns immediately, remarkably almost everyone has a refreshing and inspiring grasp of both French and English, a wonderful lesson in bilingualism, among regular everyday people, that surely we Irish could learn from?
As one might expect, the cuisine in the restaurants is simply fantastic; and long, relaxed meals of many courses in good company with copious amounts of imported French red wine and the sweet local ice-wine, are the norm here; that being said this is still North America and the most popular local dish is ‘poutine’, a generous helping of greasy fries, lavished with thick gravy and topped off with a sprinkling of yummy cheese curds. And for those of you with a sweet tooth, many Quebecers live for their sugar shacks and maple syrup, one of their biggest exports, which they tap from the Maple trees every spring just as the First Nation tribes taught their French-colonist ancestors five centuries before.
This may well have been the last time everything was rosy between the two however, tension is sometimes tangible between the Mowhawk (who were historical allies of the British red-coats and are today Anglophone) and the French-Canadian and as with everywhere else on the continent, the native population in Quebec have been reduced to a shadow of its former self, however there are some very interesting Mohawk and other Iroquois First Nation reserves, cultural centres and archaeological sites within close proximity that are well worth the visit for any discerning traveller.
Accommodation-wise there’s a massive selection of fine Hostels and hotels to chose from in both of Quebec’s big cities, everything from the homely ‘Hostelling International’ to the sleek ‘Jazz in Montreal’. For those wishing to splurge a little, the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ Hotel downtown is worth checking out, you might be lucky enough to get suite 1738, scene of John Lennon and Yoko’s ‘bed-in for peace’ in 1969 and where ‘Give peace a chance’ was performed for the first time. Should you wish to break from the urban, Mt. Tremblant resort is 1.5 hours away by car. Tremblant is quintessential ski playground of the stars – albeit in a very non-pretentious manner – perhaps best exemplified by the tragic fatal accident of our own Liam Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson. Mt. Tremblant is Canada’s mirror image of the more famous Whistler resort, way out west; and its fine winter ski slopes become excellent hiking and biking trails come summer.
Names of Irish cholera victims buried at Grosse Isle
Personally, the immediate striking feature of Quebec – aside from the refreshing and inspiring high-levels of bilingualism among regular everyday people – was that despite being quintessentially Canadian in some ways, my eyes were opened by just how unlike the rest of Canada it is, in fact literally so, for as recently as 1995, 49.4% of the population voted ‘Yes’ (or rather ‘Oui’) in a referendum, to break-away from Canada altogether and to form their own completely independent country! This writer – a former political science student -recently enjoyed quite the buzz as I roamed on foot through the lively and hip St. Denis area of downtown Montreal; passing architecturally unique urban town-houses, most of which have their sun-drenched balconies identically adorned with the blue and white Fleur de Lys ‘National’ Flag of Quebec and the wistful banner proclaiming ‘Quebec, un nouveau payee pour le monde’ – Quebec, a new country for the world! Nationalist politics is never far from the surface; however if truth be told, most street conversations I encountered were focused more on the most prevalent burning issue – Ice Hockey – and the performance, or lack thereof, of their adored Montreal Canadiens, the most successful franchise ever in the NHL and founded by an Irishman John Ambrose O’Brien!
The friendly Quebecers live for Ice-Hockey and their beloved Montreal Canadiens
Another excellent day tour you should consider, though fully deserving of an overnight stay, is the historic and smaller capital – Quebec City. Drive North for 2 hours along the awesome St. Lawrence river and you’ll find that this little gem has it all, it’s summer festivals are bettered only by its world famous Winter Carnival which really is evocative of a fairytale. Quebec City is super romantic, hyper-historic and celebrated its 400th birthday to much patriotic fanfare in 2008. It was here on the Plains of Abraham that the colony of ‘New France’ fell into British hands in 1759, the same year that Arthur Guinness opened his brewery at St. James Gate. Unusually for the perennial conquerors, the British, they allowed their new subjects to keep their language and religion (to prevent them from siding with the 13 other British colonies just down the road who were giving birth to the American Revolution) and thus French-Canadian culture continues to thrive, particularly in its heartland of Quebec City. It’s a great base to plan whale-watching trips and its’ historic city fortifications are – as hopefully the Walls of Derry will one day be – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a joy to behold; though the much more recent Chateau Frontenac, a luxury hotel that has gloriously dominated the skyline for just over a century, is the hands down winner of the ‘most photographed by awe-struck tourists’ award .
Hotel Chateau Frontenac, Qubec City
Spend an afternoon blissfully meandering through the evocative cobble-stoned streets of ‘Old Quebec’ passing by mouth-watering boulangeries, patisseries, creperies and savour the scent of history. A short drive away are the colossal Montmorency Falls, a true ‘must-see’, standing at a whopping 90 metres taller than that other little Canadian pretender – Niagra! Nearby is the famous Grosse Isle – Canada’s equivalent of Ellis Island, and a pleasant ferry ride away in the middle of the St. Lawrence – containing a not-so pleasant mass grave from the Irish Famine with the bodies of 5000 cholera victims interred. It is said every able-bodied Muslim must make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in his lifetime, likewise every Irish person passing this way on holiday should spare half a day’s ‘Hajj’ at the sobering beauty of Grosse Isle. As you read down through the family names inscribed into the impressive glass monument , you would be forgiven for mistaking it for any telephone book or school register in any town in the Ireland – O’Neill, O’Reilly, Murtagh, Murray… I chanced to wonder did many of those from the poster I saw in Clarendon Street end up on this sepulchral tally. Grosse Isle is now a protected Canadian National Park officially named ‘Les Memorial Irlandais’ – due in no small part to its championing by a Quebec born historian, Sr. Marianna O’Gallagher – and pays homage to one chapter in the story of this immigrant Nation.
Grosse Isle – Stephen at the 1847 mass grave containing 5000 Irish famine victims
There has never been a better time for a trip to French-Canada with Air Transat flying direct from Dublin during the summer season. The province of Quebec is a land of big beauty, deep culture and a proud history, it’s outdoor action will have you enthralled, its cuisine is quite possibly the best on an entire continent and it’s people are welcoming and experts when it comes to celebrating, partying and enjoying their unique interpretation of the good life – la belle vie! You should consider experiencing some of it for yourself. It is quite literally, like nowhere else in North America!
- The Quebecois celebrate their National day annually on June 25th – Le Fete de St. Jean Baptiste – There are colourful parades, street parties and humongous concerts by French-Canadian trad-rock bands. A day of unbridled and joyous cultural nationalism; If you like, a St. Patricks day without the rain and the binge drinking
Steve McPhilemy is a North-West based travel writer who has been circumnavigating the globe for a decade in search of adventure and learning. He can be contacted at his website www.irishexperience.ie
From May-September Air Transat fly non-stop direct from Dublin to Montreal, check www.airtransat.com. There are direct flights from London with www. BA.com
For more info
www.bonjourquebec.com – official site of the Quebec Tourist Board
Less than 6 hours drive North of New York City and East of Toronto is the equally cosmopolitan Montreal, largest city of Quebec, host to the ‘76 Olympics and the first to almost go bankrupt as a result! The capital city of summer festivals, including the world famous Jazz festival and the biggest comedy festival on earth ‘Juste Pour Rire’ or ‘Just For Laughs’ which attracts the world’s top stand-ups including many notable Irish performers.
Montreal has massive Irish connections including the Shamrock on the city’s flag and the city’s first Ice Hockey Team, the Montreal Shamrocks, who won the Stanley Cup in 1899 & 1900!
This bustling metropolis of over 3 million with a smart underground metro system, looks North American, it feels North American but it certainly doesn’t sound North American,
tastefully maintained by the Canadian National Parks Service on a heavily forested little Island only 2 km’s long and less than half a kilometre across
The landscape of Grosse Ile is scarred by the suffering of those for whom the island was not only their first footfall in the New World but also, for all too many, their last. At the western end of the island, between Cholera Bay and the Celtic Cross on Telegraph Hill, is a long meadow, corrugated by a regular series of ridges, which inevitably remind the visitor of lazy beds, the old Irish ridge-and-trench potato fields, labour-intensive but enormously productive. On Grosse Ile, too, the ridges are man-made, for they mark the mass graves where the Irish Famine victims of 1847 were buried, “stacked like cordwood.” (4)
Montreal is truly one the world’s great cities, although still pouting from recently losing its status on the Formula 1 Grand prix circuit; one can’t help but be seduced by the sheer charm of this rough diamond and its motley mix of architecture which can include everything standing side-by-side from avant-garde skyscrapers, to neo-classical French Basilicas, to rough and ready diners, neon-lit strip joints, pool halls and artsy coffee houses; the latter being the type of places I can visualise the young Leonard Cohen writing classics like Hallelujah’ here in his home-town! Needless to say Cohen isn’t the only example of this city’s thriving arts scene, Montreal is also home to rising names such as Arcade Fire and the Wainwright siblings, Rufus and Martha; not to mention the world famous Cirque de Soleil and U2’s producer extraordinaire, Daniel Lanois.
Unlike most North-American cities, the mid-week social-scene in Montreal does not resemble City-Morgue and you’ll find a plethora of lively places to hang out with the locals, go clubbing or find great music. Like most places on earth the weekends rock! Check-out ultra-chic spots like former Formula 1 driver Jacques Villeneuve’s ‘Newton’ bar and also enjoy a familiar pub scene – some authentic Irish and many more quite similar Quebecois Taverns like ‘Aux Deux Pierrot’ – particularly in the historic ‘Old Montreal Quarter’, which are as brimming with live folk/rock music and dancing throngs as any I’ve ever witnessed in Dublin.