In search of my Ottawa Valley Irish family roots

log cabin Ottawa

Victoria and Mariellen in front of Victoria’s 100-year-old log cabin home

A meaningful adventure travel experience to connect with my Irish ancestors

This year, I will be Going home to Ireland as part of a massive tourism initiative called The Gathering 2013. Read on to find out about the search for my Irish-Canadian family roots, and the Irish heritage of the Ottawa Valley.

Celtic Cross, OttawaI think it was the mosquito that did it. When I saw that mosquito, etched into the Celtic Cross at the mouth of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, I suddenly gained new insight into the harsh conditions Canada’s early settlers faced. The Celtic Cross stands at Ottawa’s most picturesque spot in honour of the 1,000 Irish workers and their families who died building the Rideau Canal (1826-32). Apparently, a significant percentage of them died from malaria. I had no idea. The other symbols on the cross include an explosion, a wheelbarrow, a pickaxe & shovel and in the centre of them all, a harp — the symbol for Ireland. Approximately one-third of Rideau Canal workers hailed from Ireland.

I recently drove to Ottawa to follow the Irish trail through eastern Ontario, which is where my ancestors settled when they emigrated from Ireland in the early 19th century. In fact, many of Canada’s Irish settlers ended up in the Ottawa Valley, and they have long been known as “Ottawa Valley Irish.” I’m retracing my roots this year, in anticipation of my September visit to Ireland as part of The Gathering 2013 – a tourism initiative to bring home the Irish Diaspora. My first blog in this series, The Journey from Ireland and back recounts the harrowing story of loss that drove my ancestors from Ireland to Canada, more than 200 years ago.

In the Ottawa Valley

In the Ottawa Valley

On the road to Ottawa

Victoria Ward and Mariellen Ward

Victoria and Mariellen

The first stop on the journey was to pick up my sister, artist and writer Victoria Ward, at her home in the Haliburton Highlands East. As I mentioned in my blog, On the Whelan trail in Eastern Ontario, Victoria lives in a 100-year-old log cabin in the forest on the edge of the Ottawa Valley. After one day’s delay due to a ferocious ice storm — in April! — we loaded the car and started driving south and east, towards Ottawa.

Victoria lives in a Canadian wilderness postcard of rolling, pine-covered hills and rugged, rocky outcroppings, but she promised me even more spectacular vistas as we drove towards the Ottawa Valley. And she was right: the hills grew higher, the rocks more jagged. It’s a beautiful area, but it felt distinctly remote and somewhat sombre under chilly, grey April skies. Add cold winters, buggy summers and thin soil to the picture, and you begin to sense the hardscrabble life our pioneer ancestors led.

We passed through places with names like Shamrock, stopped to take a photo of Whelan Road (spelled Whalen on one sign and Whelan on the other), and skirted the two places where our 19th century Whelan family homesteads are located on our way to Ottawa, Canada’s capital city.

Ottawa’s colourful past includes plenty of green

Exactly on schedule we pulled into the impressive drive of the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. This is the pre-eminent hotel of Ottawa, an historic site in its own right, ideally located on a bluff overlooking the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River, and with a million-dollar view of the magnificent Parliament Buildings. We loved the elegant wood-paneled lobby, our spacious room with iconic view of Parliament Hill and Gold Room service that included a separate check-in and lounge.

On a fun and entertaining iPad tour of the hotel, we learned that builder Charles Hays hired designers and architects to model it after chateaus he had seen in the Loire Valley, France; and that it was named after Canadian Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, who was present at the 1912 opening ceremonies — delayed by two months because Hays went down with the Titanic.

Fairmont Chateau Laurier

Fairmont Chateau Laurier

After touring the hotel, we were keen to find out more about Ottawa’s Irish heritage, and arranged to meet Craig MacDonald of Ottawa Walking Tours, in the lobby. A natural-born storyteller and history buff, Craig guided us around central Ottawa, bringing the city alive with his stories.

On a drizzly April afternoon, we walked with Craig past the War Memorial and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the popular pedestrian mall, Sparks Street. He told us it was named after Irish immigrant Nicholas Sparks, who played a key role in the development of Ottawa. By the early 1820s Sparks owned most of the land that downtown Ottawa sits on now. So, when the town boomed, thanks to the construction of the Rideau Canal in the late 1820s, Sparks’ fortune was made.

While still on Sparks Street, we walked past D’Arcy McGee’s pub and learned that the Irish-born Member of Parliament and Father of Confederation was assassinated at a nearby spot in 1868. We stood in the light rain at the exact place, marked by a plaque, where he was shot in the back of the head as he stood at the door of his boarding house (now a Subway restaurant).

D'Arcy McGees pub on Sparks Street Ottawa

D’Arcy McGees pub on Sparks Street, near the scene of the assassination.

As a young man in Ireland, McGee had been a Fenian sympathizer, but decided that moderation and “getting along” was a better strategy for the Irish in Canada. A fellow Irishman, who felt he had betrayed the extreme Fenian cause, apparently killed McGee. Patrick J. Whelan was convicted and hanged for the crime, though he maintained his innocence to the last.

We shivered as Craig told us this story, partly because of his storytelling abilities, partly because of the chill in the air and partly because we are descended from a family of Whelans in Canada — though none of my research indicates that we are related to this particular Whelan, who holds the dubious distinction of being the last man to be publicly hanged in Canada, in 1869.

Our tour took us to the first Catholic Church in Ottawa, the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, built between 1841-1885; and through the historic ByWard Market next door. This area was called Lowertown back in Ottawa’s rough early days, when it was home to the poor Irish and French Rideau Canal builders and their families. Colonel John By, who was charged with building the Rideau Canal, also built the ByWard Market in 1826. Today it serves the same function, to provide urbanites with fresh produce from the surrounding farms; and it’s also now a trendy hub filled with stores, cafes and restaurants.

Canada's majestic Parliament buildings. Ottawa

Canada’s majestic Parliament buildings: The view from our hotel window

Connecting to family and heritage

Back at our hotel, and out of time, our tour ended. But we continued our search for Irish Ottawa, and our own heritage, the next day at Afternoon Tea. Sun was pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows of Zoe’s Lounge, which occupies a prime corner spot on the ground floor of the majestic Fairmont Chateau Laurier.  Families of girls and women gathered in the sunny atrium, each table loaded with three-tiered plates of pastries and silver tea services. It’s obviously a popular Ottawa tradition as the room was full.

Zoe's, Fairmont Chateau Laurier, Ottawa

Victoria pouring tea at Zoe’s

At Zoe’s, we met four long lost relatives, all sisters, related to us through our great-grandfather Peter Whelan. The sisters Mary, Ann, Sheila and Jean are all descended from Peter’s brother, Andrew Whelan. I didn’t even know this branch of the family existed, so to meet them in person was very special; it made me feel connected to my past and to my mother and grandmother (Nana), who I continue to miss many years after losing them.

Finally, at the end of the day, at the end of our trip to Ottawa, and as the light was leaving the sky in streaks of gold and turquoise, Victoria and I walked along the Rideau Canal. We stopped at the Corktown Footbridge, which honours the Irish canal workers, and enjoyed seeing the locks, left by lovers.

Mariellen Ward at Celtic Cross, OttawaFrom there we walked to the mouth of the canal, where it meets the Ottawa River, and ended our walk at the Celtic Cross. And it was here that I felt that sense of connection to history, both personal and national, that I was looking for. And here the sight of a mosquito etched in stone made me realize that it was individuals who built my country, Canada — people like the uneducated Irish workers who dug out the Rideau Canal, who lived in caves in the side of Parliament Hill to stay warm in winter, and who died from malaria, malnutrition, exposure and accidents. It made me proud of them, and proud of Canada, to recognize their contributions.

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

car on the road to Ottawa

Me and my trusty rental car on the road to Ottawa


Where the Rideau Canal meets the Ottawa River

Where the Rideau Canal meets the Ottawa River

[Note: This post was brought to you, in part by the Scotiabank Gold American Express Card, and in part by Ottawa Tourism and the Fairmont Chateau Laurier.]

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6 Responses to In search of my Ottawa Valley Irish family roots

  1. Lisa Goodmurphy May 9, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    This sounds like such an interesting experience – my ancestors were also Irish immigrants and I would love to trace my family roots. I have visited Ottawa many times but I didn’t know about the history involving Irish immigrants and the building of the Rideau Canal – I plan to visit the Celtic Cross next time I’m in the city.

    Love the Fairmont Château Laurier too – it’s my favourite hotel in Ottawa. I’ve never had tea there though – my younger daughter would be thrilled to have that experience!
    Lisa Goodmurphy recently posted..The Man With Two Hats – A Monument to PeaceMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward May 10, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

      Hi Lisa, thanks for your comment. I know — I discovered a lot of history, both personal and national, on this short trip! I have to say that staying at the Chateau Laurier was divine … what an elegant hotel. Tea was fun too, lots of little girls in fancy party dresses there 🙂
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Gathering Road Trip: On the Whelan trail in eastern OntarioMy Profile

  2. Prasad Np May 10, 2013 at 9:13 am #

    This is going to be one interesting series. Meeting cousins from generations apart. Almost as if I was watching a movie… Looking forward for more.
    Prasad Np recently posted..A Photographer Treks To Valley Of Flowers & Hemkund SahibMy Profile

  3. Lesley Peterson May 12, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    Fascinating post, Mariellen. The images on the cross say it all about the challenges faced by those who settled here and built much of its infrastructure. The photos of the Valley and the Canal are really lovely.
    Lesley Peterson recently posted..ArtSmart Roundtable: the visual enigmas of René MagritteMy Profile

  4. Emer Duffy September 8, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    Dear Mariellen,I have really enjoyed reading your blog especially the bit about The Ottawa Valley.I am part of a community group called Navan2Navan which in 2012 made a visit to the wonderful Navan Fair where we were entertained royally by the good people of Navan Ont.and where some of our group,me included,manned a trade stand to tell people about our great country and especially the wonders of The Boyne Valley and Co. Meath.Since our return we have had lots of return visits from our new friends most recently a group of nearly40 lead byRosemary O Brien professor of Irish studies at Ottawa University.I forgot to say that we are from Navan Co.Meath!Be sure that if you come this way you will get a royal welcome. Best regards Emer

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