So, I’m Irish. More accurately, I’m about 25% Irish. My maternal grandparents’ last name was Lindsay. Although I’ve known this my whole life, it’s only been in the past year that I’ve become curious about my forefathers and mothers.
Through a popular genealogy website and some internet research, I’ve been able to learn some interesting history. The documents and history I’ve been able to uncover so far has sparked my writer’s mind.
The first Lindsays arrived in Upper Canada several years before the onset of the Irish Potato Famine that affected so many between 1845 and 1847. I continue to search for clues that may explain why, generations ago, they left their home for life in a new land.My three times great-grandparents, John and Martha Lindsay, sailed from Cootehill, County Cavan, Ireland in 1830. They brought three children, and Martha gave birth to a fourth only 6 weeks after landing in Bytown, now known as Ottawa Canada. I can only imagine the experience of being tossed about in the darkened hull of a ship for six weeks at sea so late in a pregnancy.
Not long after their arrival, they were joined by John’s parents, my four times great-grandparents. His father became ill on the crossing and died roughly six weeks after landing in Bytown. He was laid to rest under some rocks along The Grand River, later renamed the Ottawa River.
In the late 1830’s, the Lindsays lost their home to fire. An oral history, recorded by a distant cousin and historian, tells that John brought the family into a shed, and covered them with straw and blankets rescued from the fire. Martha became ill following the blaze, so John attended her through the night, giving her sips of whiskey and keeping her warm. By the next morning, her health returned.
Irish immigrants comprised a large part of the labour force required to dig out the entire 202 km length of the Rideau Canal system. The poorest workers lived in hovels dug into the muddy banks of the canal. My ancestors were lucky. According to the oral history, they worked in the burgeoning timber trade that Bytown and Hull Quebec are so famous for. Lumber men left home over the winter months to cut trees and pile them along the river. In the spring, the trees were lashed together and floated down the river to market. In the spring, when these men returned from the lumber camps, Bytown became something akin to the Wild West.
My Irish roots have become a source of inspiration in my writing. Over the past year, I’ve researched aspects of history that help paint a picture of my ancestry. These people have taken shape in my mind, and although I’ve never met them, they follow me and beg to be written about.
This past November, I walked along the Rideau Canal and imagined what my ancestors may have seen when they arrived in this new place. I looked at the larger rocks along the Ottawa River and wondered if John Lindsay’s father rests beneath one of them. I pictured Martha and her mother-in-law shedding tears of uncertainty, children standing with heads bowed, and John holding his hat over his heart.
One morning this past winter, I opened the front door of our house to a winter wonderland, and the neurons began firing. I saw a snowbound shanty on the outskirts of Bytown, axes and crosscut saws, and the faces of the people now living in my mind, gathered by the hearth. With pencil in hand, I told the story they as they revealed it.
Note: The photo at the top of the post was taken at the Corktown Footbridge, built to commemorate Bytown’s Irish immigrants whose hard work and sacrifice made the Rideau Canal possible. (Rideau Canal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.)