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.
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 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.
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.
Posts in this series
- Going Home to Ireland
- The Journey from Ireland and Back
- On the Whelan Trail in Eastern Ontario
- In Search of My Ottawa Valley Irish Roots
- My link with Ireland: Nana
- Journey to Ireland for The Gathering: Part One
- Journey to Ireland for The Gathering: Part Two
Genealogical Resources for finding your family history in Ireland
[Note: This post was brought to you, in part, by the Scotiabank Gold American Express Card.]
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