Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Emerald City: the Irish in early Halifax


i wrote a little irish history of halifax article for bedford/southender magazine. happy st patrick's day - enjoy! 

The Emerald City: the Irish in early Halifax




Thousands of Irish and Irish-ish Nova Scotians will paint the town green this month celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.
From free-speech heroes to the soldier who set fire to the White House, Irish-Nova Scotians have had a huge impact on the province. I spoke to some of Halifax’s leading Irish lights for a tour of our own Emerald City.
St. Patrick’s Church 
While a few Irish moved to Nova Scotia in its early days, the real influx started with the founding of Halifax in 1749.
By 1752, at least six per cent of the city’s population was Irish. “It is clear that there were significant numbers of Catholic Irish here in spite of discriminatory measures in place against Catholics,” says local historian (and councillor) Bob Harvey.
In a Protestant British colony more or less permanently at war with Catholic France, Irish Catholics found little outside help and so the community made their own institutions. First, well-to-do Irish-Nova Scotians founded the Charitable Irish Society in 1786 to assist the needy.
“Life was pretty rough for the early Irish settlers,” says Pat Brownlow, the group’s historian.
The Irish initially held mass in a stable on Gerrish and Gottingen streets before building Saint Patrick’s church in 1843. The church has a broad membership today, but remains close to its Irish roots.
The Charitable Irish Society is still going strong and counts among its past members Joseph Howe, the journalist and free-speech politician, and Robert Ross, the general who burned down the White House in 1812. Howe is buried in Camp Hill Cemetery. Ross rests in the Old Burying Grounds.
The Shubenacadie Canal
Nova Scotia got a lot greener in the mid-1800s. The Shubenacadie waterway was an ancient route from Chebucto Harbour to the Bay of Fundy. Mi’kmaq navigators were well-versed in portaging its 115 rivers and lakes on their canoes.
The British also saw its commercial importance and pushed the Mi’kmaq off the waterway in a series of bloody battles and counter-attacks. By 1824, Halifax began to dream of connecting all those lakes and rivers into one massive canal.
The Shubenacadie Canal needed people to build the locks and dig the trenches. Ireland supplied many of the masons and labourers. In fact, so many settled near Sullivan’s Pond that the area became known as Irish Town. It’s believed that the little house at 133 Ochterloney Street is an original Irish house.
A few decades after the canal opened in about 1856, the railway arrived and made it irrelevant.
Holy Cross Cemetery
Sitting at the foot of Fenwick Tower, Holy Cross Cemetery is the ramshackle final resting place of some 25,000 Irish-Nova Scotian citizens, including Charles Robinson, a Nova Scotian who won the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honour during the Civil War, and Sir John Sparrow David Thompson, prime minister of Canada from 1892-1894.
It also the burying ground for a host of key players in the founding of Saint Mary’s University.
For years, it suffered at the hands of vandals who slipped under the chain fence and knocked over the old tombs. The cash-strapped Catholic diocese was unable to fix it up. It sat as a near-ruin until a few years ago, when retired ophthalmologist Brian O’Brien decided it was time to resurrect the graveyard.
O’Brien has Irish roots and his own ancestors are buried in Holy Cross. For the past few summers, he has been gathering volunteers to build an iron fence around the graveyard and restore vandalized tombstones. They’re about halfway through the work.
“It’s a big, big job. My gracious, it’s much bigger than I ever thought it would be, God help us,” O’Brien says. “If anybody is interested, we would welcome them with open arms.”
O’Brien is also happy to show people around the site, share its history and help trace family roots. “It’s really a gem of the history of the Irish contribution to Nova Scotia,” he says.
Holy Cross also boasts the only church in Canada that was built in a day – a little white sanctuary constructed on Aug. 31, 1843.
“1,800 people, mostly Irish, met at Saint Mary’s (cathedral) and walked up Spring Garden Road carrying their tools, and they put that building together in one day,” O’Brien marvels.
Pat Brownlow certainly appreciates the accomplishment. His son-in-law recently painted the little church. “It took him a week,” he laughs. “Well, of course there weren’t 1,000 people helping them out.”
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