Queries, Stories

Where did John Lahey Go?

Or; Margaret Jane Killeen, the Widow who Wasn’t

There are a couple of notable scandals to be found in the annals of my Lahey ancestors, but I think I’ll leave the manslaughter cases for a later entry. For now, just a little story of family desertion and family reunion.

John Lahey of March

John Lahey was born at March township (Carleton Co., Ontario, Canada) in March 1837, the first and only child of James Lahey, originally of Ballymacegan, Lorrha, Co. Tipperary, and Ann Armstrong, originally of Co. Cavan. He was baptized 2 April 1837 (Notre Dame, Ottawa), with James Armstrong (his mother’s brother) and Mary [Lahey] Hourigan (his father’s sister) serving as godparents. His mother died 17 Dec 1839, when he was not yet two years old, at which point his father was apparently in legal custody in connection with one of the above-mentioned scandals (of which more to follow in a later entry…). So it’s not exactly clear who raised him, but presumably his paternal aunt Mary Lahey, aka the Widow Hourigan, played a part, as did his paternal uncle John Lahey, a lifelong bachelor whose land (at Concession III, Lot 14, March township) he was to eventually inherit.

In the 1851 census for March township, John Lahey (here spelled Lahy) is found living with his widowed father James and his bachelor uncle John (sometimes known as John Lahy the Elder), and also a Margaret Gollahar (Gallagher?), born Ireland about 1800, who is apparently not related (or so she was enumerated in the 1851 census, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find some sort of family connection). John Lahy Jr. is listed as a Labourer, born March [township], religion “C. Rome” (Church of Rome, i.e., Roman Catholic), age 14 years, and is marked as “attending school.” The census taker describes their dwelling as a “Shanty,” and, under the heading of “Places of Worship,” notes the presence of a “C. Rome” building on their property– a reference to the wooden chapel which stood on the two acres of land that John Lahy the Elder donated to the Church in 1848 and which would be replaced by a stone building in the 1880s.
Household of James Lahy [Lahey]. From the Census of 1851, Canada West (Ontario), Carleton (county), District Number 4, March township, Subdistrict Number 29, Schedule A, p. 1d, 2a (3) and p. 2d, 2c (4). Library and Archives Canada.
John Lahey, Husband and Father
On 12 January 1858, John Lahey married Margaret Jane Killeen (1835-1913), the tenth known child and youngest daughter of Denis Killeen and Mary Ahearn. The witnesses to this event were James Killeen and Margaret Lahey, and the marriage is the first to be recorded in the parish register for St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa (however, the Basilica did not yet physically exist at the time, and it’s likely the couple were actually married in March township).
John Lahey and Margaret Jane Killeen had five known children: John James (1859-1932); William Henry (1860-1941); Mary Ann (1862-1940); Thomas Alexander (1864-1945); and Denis Benjamin (1867-1945). And for much of their childhood years, these five children believed themselves to be (and effectively were) fatherless.
Margaret J. Lahy, Widow
At some point between about 1867 and 1871, John Lahey left his family for a destination unknown (well, unknown to me, of course, but apparently also unknown to his wife Margaret Jane Killeen).
In the 1871 census for March township, the enumerator lists Margaret J. [Killeen] Lahy as head of the household, and notes in the margins that “Husband left.”
Household of Margaret J. [Jane] [Killeen] Lahy, with five children, and also her (missing) husband’s paternal aunt and godmother, Mary [Lahey] Hourican [Hourigan]. From the Census of 1871, Ontario, Carleton, District 
Number 78, Subdistrict F, township of March, pp. 42-43. Library and Archives Canada.

A few years later, John Lahey was apparently presumed dead, and Margaret Killeen Lahey was acknowledged to be a widow. In Belden’s Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Carleton, for example, lahey_belden_inset_1879.jpg the 98 acre lot at Concession III, Lot 14, Township of March is listed as the property not of John Lahey but of “Mrs Lahey” (i.e., Margaret Jane Killeen). Note the presence of a church building on the two acres which John Lahy the Elder had donated to the RC Church. And in the 1881 census of March township, John Lahey is no longer even mentioned: Margaret Lahy is listed as a widow, and the head of a household which includes her five children as well as her niece Bridget Loreto Killeen (listed as an “Orphant,” though her father Patrick Killeen was still living).

The Prodigal Husband Returns
So far, we have a tale of desertion which, while not all that common, is not exactly unusual. What makes this story interesting, however, is that, at some point in the early 1880s, John Lahey returned from the grave and returned to his family. This after an absence of at least ten years (he is missing from two census returns: 1871 and 1881), and it’s a good thing the “widowed” Margaret Killeen Lahey hadn’t decided to remarry in the interim! So, in the 1891 census for March township, Margaret Lahey is no longer a “widow” but is once again a “wife,” with John Lahey restored to his position as head of the household.

Several records indicate his presence in March township before the 1891 census enumeration. On 20 May 1890, he served as a witness to the burial of his brother-in-law Patrick Killeen at St. Michael’s R.C. Cemetery in Corkery (burial record in the parish register for St. Isidore, March township). And speaking of St. Isidore, he was also involved in the construction of the stone buidling which replaced the wooden chapel in 1887, and which still stands to this day. The Catholic Community of St. Isidore (a parish history produced in 1987 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the consecration of the stone church) records that in 1884, the parish bought another acre of land from John Lahey, and that “John Lahey started quarrying and delivering the stone in 1885,” for which he was paid “$3.50 to 4.00 for each ‘toise’ of stone.” He can also be found at Lot 14, Concession 3, March township in several county directories from 1885 (in Lovell’s Counties of Carleton, Lanark, Prescott, Russell and Ottawa Directory of 1884, however, the two names listed at Lot 14, Con 3 are John Lahey f.s. [farmer’s son] and Wm Lahey f.s. [farmer’s son]).
Where did John Lahey Go?
When my father was a boy, his mother told him that her grandfather had gone “out West,” where he had been a “railway builder.” The humour in this story, as my father tells it, lies in his childhood self hearing the term “railway builder” and then forming a mental impression of his great-grandfather as some sort of railway tycoon, a wildly improbable image to say the least. But I do have to wonder if there might not be a kernel of truth to this story after all. Given the post-Confederation period of railway building in Canada, it’s not all that improbable to imagine John Lahey going out west to work as a labourer, and then, for whatever reason or combination of reasons, delaying and deferring his return home until about a dozen years had passed. In any case, he must have gone somewhere, but I’ve yet to find him in either the Canadian or U.S. census returns for the period covering his absence.
John Lahey died at March township on 9 July 1899, and was buried (without a headstone) at St. Isidore RC Cemetery in South March (now Kanata). Margaret Jane Killeen died 6 December 1913, and was also buried (without a headstone) at St. Isidore.
Note: I first read about John Lahey’s absence in D.T. Lahey’s meticulously researched The Laheys of March Ontario (Guelph, Ontario: 1991)].

3 thoughts on “Where did John Lahey Go?”

  1. Robin Lahey says:

    My grandfather is Gordon Lahey of Richmond.He told me one time that the church in March was built on land donated by one of our relatives so i know we’re talking about the same people.His grandfather left March to work out west on the railroads as a constable.My grandfather still has the pistol that he used.I’ll get
    his name to confirm.

  2. Was your grandfather (Gordon Lahey) a son of Daniel Ernest Lahey?

  3. Robin lahey says:

    Here it is [I think].My grandfather,Gordon.His father, Daniel[wife Mona].His father Daniel[wifeMarie]. His father John[wife Florence].This is the man from my line that went out west,my grandfather says, with several cousins.Apparently a couple of them came back after a few years and a couple stayed out there and became farmers in Saskatchewan.Sorry I wasn’t more help.

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