Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 45.

Gaels of the Gatineau Valley

by Danny Doyle

The 19th century saw the arrival of a large number of Irish immigrants in the Ottawa and Gatineau valleys, and with them, the Irish Gaelic language of their ancestors. Many Irish names are still found in this area, but what has become of their language? Scholar and Irish speaker Danny Doyle (Dónall Ó Dubhghaill) writes about the story of Irish Gaelic in the Gatineau Valley, since it first appeared in the early 1800s.

Considering the heavy Irish settlement of the Gatineau Valley, it is not surprising that a Celtic language was once spoken here. Having arrived as early as the 1540s, Irish Gaelic (an Ghaeilge) has existed in Canada for about 475 years, and speakers of the Celtic languages in Ireland and abroad are inheritors of nearly 3,000 years of cultural tradition. The majority of the Irish who came to Canada spoke Irish, many knowing no other language. Yet from earliest settlement, it was viewed as a secondary and foreign language, suffering a history of shame, decline and suppression.

Irish is one of six Celtic languages and one of three Gaelic languages (Irish, Scottish and Manx Gaelic) that survived into the modern period. Once widespread throughout Europe, the Celtic languages were almost entirely extinguished through centuries of invasions and conquests. The Celts now survive only in a fragment of their indigenous lands, with only a small number of people natively speaking Celtic languages (about 1.5 percent of the people in the Republic of Ireland claim to use the language daily). In the 2006 Canadian census, about 6,000 people listed themselves as Gaelic speakers, with around 2,000 of those speaking Irish Gaelic (0.005 percent of the population).

The English colonization of Ireland imposed centuries of harsh repression on the Irish people. Despite this, at the start of the 19th century Irish Gaelic remained the only language of about half the population of Ireland, with about 70 percent of the population able to understand it. The distinct language and culture of the Gaelic speakers in Canada set them apart, as one essayist noted in the late 1800s: “... go deimhin is ‘muintir fá-leath’ iad mar tá na Francaighe ...1 ” (… indeed they are a ‘distinct people’ as are the French …).

Gaels of the Gatineau Valley
The Irish would leave indelible marks on the Gatineau Valley landscape, including Martindale, possibly named for Martin O’Mally (Ó Maille), Brennan’s Hill (Cnoc Bhréanainn), Farrellton (Ó Fearghail), the Hogan (Ó hÓgáin) and Kealey (Ó Cadhla) settlements, McKale’s (Mac Céile) Corner, Ryanville (Ó Riain), and the Cuddihey (Ó Cuidighthigh) and O’Neill (Ó Néill) stopping places. Map source: Pathfinder Maps and Richard Blanchard. GVHS 02932.001/53.

In some communities, Irish was the dominant or only language spoken. Such was the case in Chelsea, in the Gatineau Valley. Through the early 1800s, Irish families settled along the Ridge Road (modern Gatineau Park Trail number 1) from the counties of Derry, Antrim, Fermanagh, Cavan, Roscommon, Mayo, Galway, Tipperary, Carlow, Wexford and Cork. The first parish priest, Father John O’Brady (Seán Ó Brádaigh), was himself an Irish speaker. He would surely have found use for his Irish in the canton, since in 1838 he described to his Bishop that the Catholic community he found in Chelsea consisted of 100 families, Irish for the most part, and those Irish speaking only the Irish language.

Farther north, by 1842 some 43 percent of families in the Wakefield District were of Irish ancestry. These included the Cahil (Ó Cathail), Carrol (Ó Cearbhaill), Casady (Ó Caiside), Conners (Ó Conchobhair), Kelly (Ó Ceallaigh), Mahony (Ó Mathghamhna), McGarry (Mac Fhearadhaigh), Morris (Ó Muiris), Mullen (Ó Maoláin), Plunket (Pluinceid), Rice (Ó Maolchraoibhe), Roney (Ó Ruanaidh) and Treacy (Ó Treasaigh) families.2

With the Irish came the highest of Gaelic arts. In Upper Wakefield (modern Farrellton), Father Thomas O’Boyle (Tómás Ua Baíghell) of Mayo arrived as the first parish priest in 1849. O’Boyle, a highly learned scholar and Irish-language poet, was named by Seán Ó Dálaigh, the head of the Dublin Ossianic Society, as one of the most important scholars of Irish living at the time. O’Boyle would compose several acclaimed Irish language poems under the pen name Éire go Bráth (Ireland Forever) before his tragically early death in South Gloucester (now a suburb of Ottawa) in 1866, at the age of 46. One such poem, Is Truagh Gan Mis’ In M’Aladh, alludes to the mythical exiled swan children of the Irish King Lear:

Is trua gan mis’ i m’eala,
Do ghluaisfinnse abhaile,
Ag snámh seal ar fuathscéith thar luascadh na dtonn;
Ba duan mo thriall thar muir,
Mar Fionn-ghualainn ní Lír,
Laoch ionmhain na hÉireann go rianú mo bhruinn!
Dá mbeinn féin faoi gheasa,
Ná ‘r bhféir fós a sheasadh
Is cónaí s’ ndúchas mo shinsear ‘s mo ghaol,
Ag iomlua gach srutha,
‘S ag ionladh mo chrutha,
I’ bhfíorthoibreacha suait’ ar feadh tíre na nGael!

It is a pity I am not a swan,
I would travel home,
Swimming on phantom wings over the rolling waves;
Severe would be my journey over the sea,
As Fionnuala daughter of Lear,
Beloved hero of Ireland that traces my dreams!
If I myself was under taboo
On the grass not to stand
I would live in the district of my ancestors and relations,
Travelling along every stream,
And washing my form,
In the true sweet springs throughout the land of the Gaels!


Gaels of the Gatineau Valley
Excerpt from the poem “Is Truagh Gan Mis’ In M’Aladh” by Father Thomas O’Boyle of Upper Wakefield (Farrellton), 1859, printed in the Gaelic script. GVHS 02932.002/53.

From 1845 to 1852, the Irish Famine (an Gorta Mór, “the Great Starvation”) decimated the population of Ireland. Forced onto the poorest lands and mostly limited to potato cultivation, monolingual Irish speakers were hit hardest by the injustices of the Famine. An estimated 1.5 million people died. Another 2 million fled Ireland, 60 percent of whom were monolingual Irish speakers. The emigration of so many Gaelic speakers from Ireland is recognized as a major factor in the language’s decline. The Irish language—and indeed the very population of Ireland— never recovered from the effects of the Famine.

The arrival of the beleaguered Famine Irish to the Gatineau Valley meant that by 1851 half the residents of Wakefield, Low and Masham had been born in Ireland.3 Reflecting the strong social divide among those affected by the Famine, only 5 percent of the newly arrived Irish were Protestant; the remainder were Roman Catholic. There is no question that a large number of these new arrivals spoke the Irish language—in many cases, it was likely the only language they knew. The large number of arriving Famine Irish meant that Gaelic4 grew into the third-largest European language group in the country, being spoken by one in ten Canadians.

Did you know?
The Ottawa River and one of its tributaries, the Gatineau River, were once the trade corridors for the Anishinaabe (Algonquian) peoples of this area. The sounds of the Indigenous words for “trade” (for example, “Odaawaa” in Ojibway) were used by European settlers in the naming of the region— “Outaouais” in French and “Ottawa” in English.
Similarly, Gaelic speakers from Ireland and Scotland, who arrived in the early 1800s, used the Algonquian sounds to form the Gaelic place name “Ath-aTuath” (pronounced Aw-uhToo-uh), meaning “the Northern Ford

While the number of Irish speakers in Canada was at its highest in the decades following the Famine, this was also the period of its greatest decline. As Irish activist Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh notes, “Perhaps, as in Ireland, the Famine had finally succeeded, where overt coercion had failed, to instill a sense of shame and inadequacy in Irish culture and language.”5 Irish became associated with poverty, backwardness and death. Many survivors of the Famine abandoned the language in its aftermath.

Despite a large number of Irish-Canadians understanding Irish, proportionally only one in five actively used their language. Remaining speakers of Irish would have felt immense pressure to give up their language, especially from those Irish who had already done so. Canadian oral histories contain stories both of the Irish who used their language and of the Anglo-Irish who ridiculed Gaelic speakers as backward. Raising Irish-speaking children, as had occurred before the Famine, almost entirely stopped.

Gaels of the Gatineau Valley
Irish-born Bridget (née McCarthy) Daly, seated, with her youngest daughter, Margaret Hayes, in an undated photo. Born in 1820, Daly is listed as an Irish speaker on the 1901 census, while her daughter’s mother tongue is recorded as English. Collection of Don Kealey. GVHS 02932.003/53.

Along with Ireland, Canada was part of a worldwide British system where education aimed at linguistically and culturally anglicizing the Empire’s minorities. Schools used corporal punishment to beat “foreign” languages and cultures out of children. Elders from Prince Edward Island still remembered in 1987 the forms of punishment that were used in their day against those found speaking Gaelic. This system found some of its worst extensions in the residential schooling of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit children.

Many factors contributed to the decline of the Gaelic languages in Canada. Governmental neglect, institutional abuse, indifference among speakers, and, above all, shame and the ingrained belief that English was a more useful language all contributed to the collapse of the Irish language by the closing of the 19th century. Globally, Irish was and remains a mere shadow of what it had been just a few decades prior.

Even before the census took place, the presence of Gaelic speakers (Scottish and Irish) was apparently significant enough to deserve explicit mention in the instructions. And both varieties of Gaelic were indeed among the most common responses to the new question.6

Gaels of the Gatineau Valley
The entry for Bridget Clary and her son Francis in the 1901 census. Born in rural Quebec in 1843, the 58-year-old Clary listed herself as one of the Valley’s Irish speakers. However, her adult son, only one generation down, lists English as his mother tongue. GVHS 02932.004/53.

Gaels of the Gatineau Valley
In the 1901 census, Catherine Holmes and her daughter Margaret list their mother tongue as Irish. However, the mother tongue of Catherine Holmes’s grandchildren, residing in the same household, is reported as English. GVHS 02932.005/53.

In this census, nine residents of Wakefield listed their mother tongue as “Irish.” Of those nine, three had been born in Quebec to Irish-speaking families: Bridget Clary (Bríd Ní Chléirigh, b. 1843), Ellen Morris (Eibhlín Ní Mhuiris, b. 1846) and Francis Tenpenny (Prionsias Mac an Tiompaigh, b. 1846). In all three cases, the census shows the active loss of the language, with all of their children being raised in English rather than Irish. As in other areas, including Ireland, the children would likely have hidden, out of shame, that their parent had spoken Gaelic. This part of their heritage would then be unknown to future Englishspeaking generations. While nonagenarian Mona Monette of Brennan’s Hill does not recollect any known speakers, she can understand why the language would have been hidden: “It was poor times, and they would try to hide that they were poor ... they couldn’t write and they would be shy of it.”7

In Wilson’s Corners, now part of Cantley, Catherine Timlin O’Boyle Holmes (Caitríona Nic Thoimlin) listed herself as an Irish speaker. Holmes had been born in Dumha Liag, County Mayo. Her great-grandson Bryan Daly recalls hearing from his mother that Holmes would speak Irish with other women in the area, and that her children continued to use certain Irish phrases and words. He was also told that his mother, Agatha, Catherine Holmes’ granddaughter, was teased by her siblings for being left-handed with the phrase the “ole ciotach” (ciotóg, a lefthanded, awkward person). Bryan Daly’s paternal side originated in County Offaly and, though he doubts they actively spoke much Irish, some phrasing and words were preserved. For example, Daly remembers his father, Frank, correcting his male children with the phrase “don’t be such a damn amadan” (amadán, a male fool).8

In the area of Low, the family of Samuel and Adell Stewart is of note. They had arrived in Canada two generations previously, with Samuel’s grandfather John born in Ireland c. 1791. Their surname, Irish ethnicity, and Presbyterian religion on the census indicates the family was likely from the north of Ireland. In 1901 the eldest Stewart son, Robert, was listed as an Irish speaker. The remaining four children, Sarah, Emmly, Roofes and Effey, are listed under this “Irish” entry as “same as above.” This is the only unambiguously recorded instance of the language continuing to be passed to a new generation by 1901. All other listed Irish speakers recorded English-speaking children. It is likely the language did not survive much longer.

It is possible that 23 other Irish speakers are listed in the 1901 census for the Low area, belonging to the Evans (Ó hEimhin), O’Leary (Ó Laoghaire), Moore (Ó Mórdha) and Needham (Ó Niadh) families. These are indicated as mother tongue Irish by being recorded “same as above” with ditto marks. It is standard practice in census studies to accept “same as above” or ditto marks as the full intention of the enumerator and not to assume error. However, this is less reliable than a direct statement of “Irish.” It is possible this was a recording error, but it is just as possible that the Irish-speaking families lived near to each other, accounting for their grouping on the census. Of these 23 people, none had been born in Ireland (14 born in Quebec, nine in Ontario) and only four (the O’Leary family) were Catholic.

Gaels of the Gatineau Valley
Gaels of the Gatineau Valley

Gaels of the Gatineau Valley

Echoes of the Irish language persist in the Valley, such as the inscription on the McLaughlin tombstone at the St. Martin Catholic Cemetery, which translates to “Peacefully in God’s country.” A colourful halfshamrock on the side of the stone highlights an enduring connection to Irish culture. Credit: Adrienne Herron. GVHS 02932.006/53, 02932.007/53 and 02932.008/53.

Gaels of the Gatineau Valley
Gaels of the Gatineau Valley
Catherine Holmes, circa 1910. Photography by J.B. Dorion, 569 Sussex Street, Ottawa. Courtesy of the Holmes family. GVHS 02862.002/53.

Catherine, known as Ketty, was born in County Mayo, Ireland, to tenant farmers. She experienced the horrors of the Great Irish Hunger of 1847 and the death of a husband and two children before immigrating to Canada. She embarked on the perilous Atlantic crossing with her sister, her brother-in-law, and their children. One by one, the family died, and Catherine, always a religious woman, bribed the sailors with biscuits to ensure they were allowed a small wake before being thrown into the sea. After making her way to Kingston, where she was quarantined, she joined a group of people who walked the nearly 200 kilometres to Bytown (Ottawa), where she found work as a maid

Through friends in Cantley, Catherine met and married another Irish immigrant, William Holmes. Thus began the second phase of Catherine’s life as a busy farm wife and mother of nine on an isolated farm in Wilson’s Corners. She worked the land, raised a large family, smoked a clay pipe, and never missed saying the rosary at night. Her faith saw her tramping through the bush with her twoweek-old daughter, ferrying across the Gatineau River, and continuing the journey to St. Stephen’s Church in Chelsea on foot to have her baby baptized.

Catherine and William worked their piece of farm land for 14 years before receiving their land grant, and the farm has remained in the family ever since. Although Catherine received letters from Ireland, she never returned to her homeland.

Excerpt from the 2018 exhibit “Notable Women of the Gatineau Valley” at the Fairbairn House Heritage Centre in Wakefield, and available online at www.fairbairn.ca/nwgv-intro/.

Even with “mother tongue Irish” census results appearing in the Gatineau Valley, the true number of Irish speakers is unknown. Due to cultural pressures, many Irish speakers would not have freely recorded themselves as such. Compounding this were the census enumerators themselves, who across the country erased the existence of minority languages through “corrections,” crossing out disliked responses and overwriting “English” in their place. Until the second half of the 20th century, the Official Canadian Census of Quebec classed all non-francophones as English speakers, leading to the Eastern Township phrase “les anglais qui ne parlent pas l’anglais9 (the English who do not speak English) to describe Gaelic speakers. These effects worked to heavily diminish the presence of Gaelic speakers across Canada. By the 1931 Census, only 834 of Vancouver’s estimated 10,000 Gaelic speakers were listed as such, and only 230 of Toronto’s estimated 20,000.

In 1957, Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke, with the support of the Smithsonian Institution, ventured north to find any remaining echoes of the language and culture. She met with O. J. Abbott, who as a boy had learned over one hundred songs from the third-generation Irish-Canadians of the Ottawa Valley and Northern Ontario lumber camps. The songs followed Irish verse style, and retained the seannós (old-style) singing tradition of flatly speaking the final line. One such song, which Abbott had learned from Owen McCann of Hull, is An Cruiscín Lán (The Full Little Jug):

Grá mo chroí mo chruiscín,
Sláinte gheal mo mhuirnín,
Éireann mo mhuirnín lán.
Grá mo chroí mo chruiscín,
Is sláinte gheal mo mhuirnín,
We’ll have another cruiscín
lán, lán, lán,
And we’ll have another cruiscín lán.10

Love of my heart my little jug,
Bright health my little darling
Ireland my full darling.
Love of my heart my little jug,
And bright health my little darling
We’ll have another jug that’s
full, full, full
And we’ll have another jug that’s full.

The song is a fragment, a reminder of a time when the Irish language had found a home in the Gatineau Valley. The earliest settlers had raised Irish-speaking children, and later the most desperate had found refuge from the horrors of the Famine. They brought their language to the Valley, and in it they created poetry and song. These collecting efforts came too late, and the songs and stories of the Gaelic Irish were mostly lost. Despite this loss, echoes of its history and a love for Irish culture still resound along the length of the Gatineau Valley.

Danny Doyle’s recent book, Míle Míle i gCéin: The Irish Language in Canada, gives a historical overview of the Irish language in Canada. Published in Ottawa by Borealis Press in 2015, it is available online through Amazon or the publisher. Any readers interested in sharing their stories or anecdotes about the Irish language are invited to contact Danny at donalldubh@gmail.com.

Selected Bibliography

Buchanan, J. G., “Gaelic Speech in Canada,” The Globe, April 25, 1935
Fowke, Edith, “Mr. Abbott’s Songbag,” Abbott, O. J., performer, Irish and British Songs from the Ottawa Valley. Produced by Edith Fowke, Folkways Records, 1961.
Koch, John T., Celtic Culture. California: ABC-CLIO, 2006.
MacDougall, Robert, The Emigrant’s Guide to North America. Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 1998.
McGee, Bill, “The Ridge Road Settlers in Gatineau Park 1834–1907+” Bytown or Bust, 2016. Accessed Feb. 11, 2019. http://www.bytown.net.
McMonagle, Sarah, “Finding the Irish Language in Canada,” New Hibernia Review. 16.1 (Spring 2012). Shaw, John, and Michael Kennedy, “Gaelic in Prince Edward Island: A Cultural Remnant,” Institute of Island Studies. University of Prince Edward Island, 2002. Online. Accessed May 10, 2012. http://projects.upei.ca/iis/files/2014/07/ GAELIC-IN-PRINCE-EDWARD-ISLAND.pdf.

1Ua Néill Ruiseul, Tomás, “Stáid na Gaedhilge agus Teangthadh Eile ins na Stáidibh Aontuighte agus i g-Canada,” Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge. 1.4, 1883, p. 170.
2Historical records usually contain spelling inaccuracies due to a combination of illiterate informants, enumerator interpretation of accents, and non-standardized English spelling of foreign language surnames.
3Newly arrived families in 1851 include Brian (), BurnsÓ Briain (Ó Broin), Cilloin (Ó Cilleáin), Coolen (Mac Giolla Chuille), Daly (Ó Dálaigh), Driscal (Ó hEidersceoil), Eagin (Mac Aodhagáin), Flin (Ó Floinn), Ganion (Mac Fhionnáin), Goggin, Hays (Ó hAodha), Lagen (Ó Lagain), Laundres, McCarty (Mac Carthaigh), McLaughing (McLaughlin) (Mac Lochlainn), Mealyer (Mac Laochdha), Morrin (Ó Móráin), Mullen (Ó Maoláin), Murphy (Ó Murchadha), Roak (de Róiste), Ronan (Ó Rónáin) and Sweny (Mac Suibhne).
4This means Scottish and Irish Gaelic combined, having similar numbers of speakers, and at the time considered to be dialects of one language.
5Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh. The Irish Language in Kingston Ontario, 2005.
6Bradford Gaunce, “A Case Study on Irish Language Survival in Gagetown, New Brunswick,” Diss. University of New Brunswick, 2013, p. 25.
7Mona Monette in a personal interview, Nov. 20, 2018.
8Don Kealey and Bryan Daly in a personal interview, Dec. 26, 2018.
9Margaret Bennett, “From the Quebec-Hebrideans to ‘les Écossais-Québécois,’” Transatlantic Scots, Celeste Ray, ed., Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005, p. 134.
10Edith Fowke, “Mr. Abbott’s Songbag,” Abbott, O. J., performer, Irish and British Songs from the Ottawa Valley. Produced by Edith Fowke, Folkways Records, 1961.

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