17 Years of Cheers, and No Green Beers

Paddy's Day brew pub sign

Paddy’s Day brew pub sign

Meant to post this on the 6 September (my Dad’s birthday), but got busy and distracted….

My dad spent the last few months of his life at an assisted living facility above a brew pub.

Yes, only Johnny Moran would agree to not go gentle into that good night above a damn brew pub. It was a pretty good pub, though: tasty chips, and the beer not half bad.

My father died on 14 March 2013.

On 17 March 2013, on a day when we were waking our Dad, a cousin and a sister of mine “borrowed” (some might say “stole,” but why quibble?) this sign, which I now have in my possession.

Here’s to you, Dad, and, as always, no green beers.


Marriage of Edmund Conroy and Margo Jemmison

book cover areyoumymotherIf, as promised in December 2014, the National Library of Ireland launches a website with digitized images of its Roman Catholic parish register microfilms, this will be a game changer for Irish genealogy and family history research.1 As John Grenham puts it:

These records are – by a long way – the single most important source of historical Irish family information, one of the greatest legacies of the Catholic Church to Ireland.

The idea that someone in Ottawa or Boston (or anywhere in the world, really) will now have free, online access to a set of records (the single most important set of records for Irish genealogy, given the loss of the 19th-century census records) that, until recently, had seemed to lie hidden inside an Irish family history mysterium … well, this is a great idea, is it not?

To be sure, there will be challenges. Some of the records are in Latin, with seemingly bizarre latinized renderings of Irish forenames (Diarmuid [anglicized as Dermot] becomes Jeremiah; Sheila becomes Cecilia; and so on). Pages torn or ripped out just at the point where you think your great-great-grandmother’s marriage record might be. Cramped, spidery writing, with ink splotches all over the page. These records will not present themselves to Irish family history researchers as something warm and friendly, easy-going and easy to use.

They will not be “user-friendly,” I suspect (they will not be indexed by name, for example).

And yet. And yet. Make no mistake: this is a game changer. For anyone who cares to slog through page after page of sometimes poorly-photographed images of sometimes indecipherable handwriting, this is it: this is the key that unlocks the door to the Irish family history mysterium.

And the records will no doubt be crowd-sourced: before too long after their release (not overnight, but sooner than you might expect), we will see local genealogy societies coming out with indexes; we will see random people on the Internet offering their own transcriptions of the records for this parish or that. (And caveat emptor, needless to say.)

Transcriptions are Good, but …

… they’re not as good as the originals.

The thing is, I just don’t entirely trust somebody else’s transcription of an original record. I want to see the original (or a photograph of the original) for myself, and make my own interpretation, and draw my own conclusions. And just as importantly, I want to view the record in context, which means I want see the surrounding records. I want access to la vraie chose, in other words.

Do I sound too demanding (I want this, and I’d also like that)? I guess online access to the digitized Drouin records (Catholic parish registers for the province of Québec and for parts of the province of Ontario) has spoiled me, has raised my expectations for online access to (photographs of) the original records. By the way, the Drouin records are available at FamilySearch, and also at

I used to complain about (Irish Family History Foundation) because their former pay-per-view system was simply too expensive. In fact, there was a period a few years ago when I actually banned myself from visiting their site, because the temptation to spend more money on more views was too overwhelming. I mean, it was a bit ridiculous: how much money are you willing to spend in pursuit of a Patrick Ryan, a man with one of the ten most common surnames in Ireland, and with one of the most common male forenames too? Well, too much money, in my case, whenever I visited that site. And so I banned myself.

I no longer complain about RootsIreland, now that they have 1). replaced the pay-per-view system with a subscription service; and 2). added RC parish records from the Catholic Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly (and hello, Patrick Ryan: no, not those other Patrick Ryans, but the Patrick Ryan that I was actually looking for). I now find RootsIreland to be an incredibly useful site.

So this isn’t a complaint, exactly. It’s just that what you get at Rootsireland are somebody else’s transcriptions, and transcriptions are not as good as the originals.

Are You my 3x-Great-Grandmother?

conroy edmond jameson marg 1may1815 mountmellick queensAs I’ve mentioned before, the family lore surrounding my 3x-great-grandparents James Moran and Margaret Jamieson strikes me as so romantic, so improbable, that I often refer to the story of their elopement to Canada as “the Ballad of James and Margaret.”

And it’s a great story: a young lady of quality (of “the Quality,” as they called it at the time) falls in love with the coachman, a handsome young rogue of a fellow, who is working for her family. And because her family would never agree to the match, the two star-crossed young lovers determine to elope to Upper Canada.

Well, of course I am sceptical. As I have also already mentioned before, if you grew up as the descendant of Irish emigrants, you will no doubt have grown up hearing all sorts of stories about how we were once the Kings and Queens of Ireland. And then you look into the records, and discover that we were once the agrarian underclass of County Tipperary!

But for all my scepticism, I have never been inclined to dismiss outright the oral family history claim that, before she married James Moran, the young Margaret Jamieson had married a man by the name of Conroy, in the Queen’s County (Co. Laois).

Which is why the record above (a transcription of an actual record) is of interest to me. The county fits; the date fits; and the names (more or less) also fit (“Margo”? I’d like to know how many “Margos” were running about Queen’s County ca. 1815: I suspect not too many, though there must have been a lot of “Margarets”).

Is this Margo Jemisson my Margaret Jamieson? Well, she might be, but then again, she might not be, I just don’t know. The only way to possibly crack this nut is to dig deep into the parish registers, and to view all relevant surrounding records in context.

Which is why I am so looking forward to the NLI’s release of the digitized images of its Roman Catholic parish registers. I want the key that unlocks the door to the Irish family history mysterium.

  1.  And I shouldn’t say if, I should say when (the NLI’s Parish Registers Digitisation Project is currently scheduled to launch “by summer 2015”): it’s just that this project is so monumentally awesome that I still can’t quite believe they will pull it off.

The Ballad of James and Margaret

The family lore surrounding my 3x-great-grandparents James Moran and Margaret Jamieson is so romantic (and I have to say, so seemingly improbable) that I sometimes refer to the story of their elopement to Canada as “The Ballad of James and Margaret.”

The story goes something like this:

Margaret Jamieson came from a family of quality, and was the daughter of a doctor, and the granddaughter of a landed gentleman, even; whereas James Moran, of much humbler origin, worked for her family as a coachman. Margaret suffered a tragic loss at an early age with the untimely death of her first husband, a Mr. Conroy. The young widow and her family’s coachman then fell in love; and, her family being opposed to the match, James and Margaret eloped to Canada.

Doesn’t the above story make my 3x-great-grandfather sound like “The Gypsy Rover”? (He whistled and he sang til the green woods rang/And he won the heart of a lady…). Except that James Moran didn’t end up as “lord of these lands all over.” Instead, he ended up as a yeoman of Huntley Township, Carleton County, with 200 acres of land to divide between his two surviving sons Thomas and Alexander Michael.1 Not exactly “lordly,” but not bad for an Irish Catholic emigrant who was likely the landless son of a landless tenant farmer back in Ireland.

But back in Ireland where?

  1. Another son, James, born about 1824 in Huntley township, died in 1851. There is a notation of his death in the 1851 census, with the cause of death listed as “collara” (cholera).

Research Tip of the Day (Oral History Interviews)

If you read genealogy ‘how-to’ books, ‘researching your family history’ guidebooks, advice for oral historians, and so on and so forth, you’ve no doubt already come across this very obvious, but very important, piece of advice. But the advice (or admonition) is so important, I believe (and I speak from bitter, regretful experience), that I think it bears repeating:

Don’t wait.

Don’t wait too long; don’t save it for a rainy day; don’t wait until it’s too late to conduct an oral history interview with an elderly relation who might (and who almost certainly will, if you listen carefully) supply valuable information; colourful anecdotes; or just a sense of the ‘pastness’ of your family’s past. Do it now. Or, if you cannot do it now, do it tomorrow. And perhaps you should have done it the day before yesterday? (Believe you me, I speak from bitter, regret-filled experience).

Do not wait.

Don’t think, ‘Well, I really should interview Aunt Mildred one of these days,’ and then put it off until some point in the distant, seemingly infinite and limitless future. Yes, Aunt Mildred at age 86 seems as hale and hearty as a woman half her age, and has been known to drink a much younger man under the table. She’s a real force of nature, is Aunt Mildred, and such a character! I really should try to interview her one of these days.

Don’t wait. Do not wait until “one of these days” is a day late, and a dollar short.

Your elderly aunt, however impressively sturdy and young for her age, is but mortal, after all, and her time on this earth is finite and limited. Call Aunt Mildred today, or at least tomorrow morning, to set up an interview. Don’t risk depriving yourself (and your family) of the information and the insights that your aunt might have to offer; don’t risk depriving Aunt Mildred of the chance to reminisce, and to regale you with stories of times past, or perhaps to finally set the record straight. Do not wait to talk to Aunt Mildred. Talk to her now, or tomorrow morning, or perhaps the day before yesterday.

(The above example of “Aunt Mildred” is almost [almost!] entirely fictional, and devised for illustrative purposes only [or almost only, at any rate]. When I get a chance, I will post about an actual, real-world example of the ‘don’t wait’ approach to oral history interviews. In this, I will speak from experience).


The best damn fiddler…

Reading Peter Behrens’ The O’Briens, I was reminded (because of the novel’s character of Mick Heaney, a drunkard and a degenerate, and an Ottawa Valley fiddler) of a film I watched many years ago: The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar.

Not that Emery Prometer (the main character of the film, and also a hard-drinking Ottawa Valley fiddler) is anywhere near as awful as the lecherous and child-molesting Mick Heaney. Prometer is not awful at all, really (or not like that, not like Heaney), though he’s certainly an irresponsible husband and father. The film depicts him as a lovable ne’er-do-well, a sympathetic, though obviously flawed, character.

The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar by Peter Pearson, National Film Board of Canada.

Bishop Guigues on John Lahey’s Donation

As a followup to my post on John Lahey the Elder, here is Bishop Guigue’s account of John Lahey’s donation of two acres to the mission of March (later the parish of St. Isidore, Kanata). The following (which I discovered through google books) is taken from Alexis de Barbezieux, Histoire de la province ecclésiastique d’Ottawa et de la colonisation de la vallée de l’Ottawa (Ottawa, 1897), which cites Guigue’s notes on his visit to March township in September 1848:

The Queen vs Kelly: Part IV

Continued from The Queen vs. Kelly: Part III.

Hard Times, Hard Labour

As reported in Part III, John Kelly entered the Dominion Penitentiary at Kingston on 15 May 1841, to serve a one-year sentence for the manslaughter of his brother-in-law Michael Hourigan.

Dickens described the penitentiary as ‘well and wisely governed’…

While we don’t have any details specific to Kelly’s one-year confinement in the penitentiary, we can assume it was a harsh, if not hellish experience. Though touted as a model of the new, and more humane approach to punishment and rehabilitation — when Charles Dickens visited the Dominion Penitentiary in the 1840s, he described it as “an admirable jail,…well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated, in every respect” 1 — the new prison at Kingston was in fact “a place of violence and oppression.” From an online history at Correctional Service Canada:

At the root of its problems in the early years was its first warden, Henry Smith. Smith’s use of flogging, even in an age when it was an accepted form of discipline, was flagrant. In 1847, inmates were given 6,063 floggings, an average of 12 per inmate. Women, and children as young as eight were flogged. As well, Smith punished inmates with shackling, solitary confinement, bread-and-water diets, darkened cells, submersion in water, 35-pound yokes, and imprisonment in the “box,” an upright coffin. His son ran the kitchen, profiteering by diverting food and serving rotten meat. In his spare time, he tortured inmates, once putting out a prisoner’s eye at archery practice.

Even by the severe standards of the day, Smith’s treatment of the prisoners was considered outrageous, and he was removed from his post as warden after an investigation into his abuses in 1848.

  1. Charles Dickens, American Notes (London: Chapman and Hall: 1874), etext edition, University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center 1996, pp. 240-241.

Emmett and Donny: A Remembrance

Emmett and his brother Donny served with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. Donny’s plane was shot down; and he spent time as a POW in a camp in Germany.

[When my dad was a kid, he heard tales of cousin Donny having been forced to eat “black bread,” presumably pumpernickel or something like that, which my grandparents, in all innocence, took as the highest refinement of military torture.]

When the war was over, Emmett went from hospital to hospital in the UK, looking for his brother. He finally found Donny in a military hospital on the outskirts of London, and stayed with him until he was ready to travel (but from some of his war injuries, including a broken bone that did not heal properly, he never quite recovered).

When Donny was deemed fit to return home, the two brothers took the train up to Edinburgh for the weekend to celebrate, and then shipped out to Canada.

(As told to me by Emmett Patrick Sloan, Ottawa, January 2007).


The Queen vs. Kelly: Part II

Continued from The Queen vs. Kelly: Part I.

The Queen vs. Kelly

Bathurst Courier, 16 April 1841

“We are informed it was committed whilst in a state of intoxication,” wrote the Bathurst Courier (16 April 1841) of John Kelly’s fatal stabbing of his brother-in-law Michael Hourigan.

Not surprisingly, the Courier took a lively interest in the case, publishing three brief notices of Kelly’s arrest and detention, along with a lengthy account of his trial. A case like Kelly’s offered the newspaper a chance to entertain its readers with the lurid details of a brutal act of violence, while moralizing on the theme of peace, order, and good government. The fact that “the unfortunate man Kelly” was the only person arraigned at the Assizes for a crime, opined the editors at the Courier, “[said] much for the otherwise peaceable and orderly condition of the Districts.”