Gathering Road Trip:
On the Whelan trail in eastern Ontario

Costello Hotel, Brudenell, Ontario. Photo courtesy Paul Politis.

Costello Hotel, Brudenell, Ontario. Photo courtesy Paul Politis.

Visiting the Ottawa Valley to find my Irish roots

This year, 2013, as Ireland celebrates The Gathering (a year of festivities to welcome back the Irish Diaspora), I am retracing my family’s history. I’m starting here in Canada now, and in September I will be visiting Ireland to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors and join the Whelan clan gathering. But my first step is a road trip to the Ottawa Valley, where wave upon wave of Irish immigrants settled in Canada in the 19th century, including my relatives. My first post in this series is The journey from Ireland … and back again

On this road trip, I’m also going to share with you how I’m using my new Scotiabank Gold American Express Card for booking travel and accumulating and using travel rewards points.

Growing up Irish

When I was growing up in the populous southern part of Ontario, my grandmother, Nana, lived with us. Nana was my mother’s mother, and she was born Monica (Mona) Whelan in a northern Ontario town largely populated by Irish miners. Nana is the reason I am a storyteller, and she is my strongest link to my Irish ancestors. It’s her family name, Whelan, that I am primarily tracing.

Whelan The Gathering Ontario Canada Ireland

My Nana, as a teenager in northern Ontario

Nana grew up in a northern Ontario town called Haileybury, among other Irish immigrants. She was a fifth generation Canadian, but Irish, through and through: and all of her Canadian ancestors were of Irish descent. Almost all were either from the Ottawa Valley, or from Ireland itself. Naturally, I heard a lot of stories from her about her growing-up-years – about summers on Round Lake; and losing her beloved sister, Elizabeth, to pneumonia when she was only 17; and the great Haileybury fire of 1922.

I always felt there was something very Irish about Nana, though she never actually set foot in the country. She mythologized life events, used colourful expressions – “there’s going to be wigs on the green!” – and insisted on an exacting routine for making tea. I loved sitting with her in her living room (she lived in a “granny flat” attached to our house) and listening to her stories and nursery rhymes. No doubt my love of story was born on her knee. Nana died in 1975, when she was 67 years old. In the early 1990s, a distant relative gave my mom a family history of the Whelans in Canada. It is that history I am using to trace my family roots.

The Gathering, Ireland 2013 The Gathering 2013

The Gathering is a year-long festival of events all across Ireland to entice and entertain visitors, especially the Irish diaspora. It’s a celebration of Irish culture, history, people and places. To learn more visit The Gathering website; The Gathering Facebook page; and check out the travel offers on the Ireland Tourism Canada site.


Back to the rugged land

My first family roots road trip, coming up soon in April, is to tour the Ottawa Valley in search of several early Whelan homesteads. The first stop on my road trip will be to stay overnight at my sister’s place in the Haliburton Highlands, a land of rolling hills strafed with ancient rock faces, stubby pine forests and hidden lakes. My sister, Victoria Ward, is a professional artist and writer. She paints stories of the rugged central Ontario countryside and the 100-year-old log cabin she lives in with her artist husband Gary Blundell. It’s fascinating to me that my sister decided to move back to the land and live so close to where our Irish-Canadian ancestors toiled. Victoria’s work and her blog can be found at Hotspur Studio.

Artist Victoria Ward Ontario Canada

This House is a Home by Victoria Ward.

Victoria and I will drive through the remote and sparsely inhabited areas of eastern Ontario and the Ottawa Valley. Our first stop will be the hamlet of Brudenell in Renfrew County to find the Whelan homestead and the grave marker of my first Irish ancestor to immigrate to Canada, Clara Carty Whelan (1785-1868). Brudenell had its hey-day back in the late 19th century when it was home to three active hotels and was the “most notorious ‘sin-bucket’ along the Opeongo” colonization road, but it’s now a ghost town.

Clara Carty Whelan lived in Brudenell and is buried in the local pioneer cemetery. I wrote about her in my previous post, The journey from Ireland … and back again. She married John Whelan (1758-1833), who is buried in Corkery, Ontario – our next stop.

From Brudenell, we will continue to drive south and east towards Corkery, a rural community in West Carleton-March, in the city of Ottawa. Corkery was founded by approximately 100 Irish families from County Cork who emigrated from Ireland in the early 19th century as part of the first wave of “Peter Robinson settlers.”

My ancestor Hannah Roche and her family arrived on one of the first Peter Robinson ships, “The Hebe,” in 1823. In 1833 she married Peter Whelan, and gave birth to my great-great grandfather John Whelan in 1836.

After these stops, Victoria and I will spend two fun days in Ottawa, discovering the Irish history of our nation’s capital. We will check out Irish pubs like the Heart and Crown, stop by Ottawa’s first English-speaking Catholic parish, St. Patrick’s Basilica, and perhaps link up with one of Ottawa’s Irish historical or cultural societies and visit a museum or two.

Whelan Family Brudenell Ontario

The Whelan family, Brudenell, Ontario

Posts in this series

  1. Going Home to Ireland
  2. The Journey from Ireland and Back
  3. On the Whelan Trail in Eastern Ontario
  4. In Search of My Ottawa Valley Irish Roots
  5. My link with Ireland: Nana
  6. Journey to Ireland for The Gathering: Part One 
  7. Journey to Ireland for The Gathering: Part Two

Genealogical Resources for finding your family history in Ireland

Mariellen Ward Whelan The Gathering Ireland road trip

Four generations: My mother (as a child), Nana, great and great-great grandmothers circa 1933.

[Note: This post was brought to you, in part, by the Scotiabank Gold American Express Card.]

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7 Responses to Gathering Road Trip:
On the Whelan trail in eastern Ontario

  1. Gurmukh April 1, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

    Nice one, Mariellen. I always love nostalgia pieces.

  2. Destination Infinity April 2, 2013 at 5:35 am #

    Our family history is practically concentrated in one village and it’s just a short bus-ride from here. But I am too lazy to take that bus! 🙂

    It’s good to see that you have decided to trace your roots in a different country. All the best to you! BTW, I have always wondered how these credit card companies actually make money? I will research on it shortly 😉

    Destination Infinity
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  3. Shalu Sharma April 3, 2013 at 5:20 am #

    Very interesting account of your family. As far as I know, many Irish family left for the American continent. Even Barack OBama has some Irish heritage. Very fascinating. Lovely pictures of your Nana, its amazing you still have them.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..How Indian Yoga Protects You From Obesity And Heart DiseaseMy Profile

  4. Raymond Izaak April 9, 2013 at 1:02 am #

    i love the color of old times and it’s stories

  5. Freeda Schlosser April 10, 2013 at 6:27 am #

    hey, didn’t know you have irish roots 🙂
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  6. Arianwen June 4, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    Loved reading this! I wish I knew more about my ancestors.
    Arianwen recently posted..Scared Britless: High-adrenaline New ZealandMy Profile

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