FATHER O'MALLEY

The O’Malley Connection: 
From County Mayo to 
the Green Hills of the Gatineau

By FATHER TOM O’MALLEY
St. Michael’s College, Dublin

A MAGNIFICENT limestone Celtic Cross stands in Pioneer Cemetery, overlooking the rolling countryside of Martindale village, 56 kilometres north of Ottawa in Gatineau County, Quebec.

It is inscribed in Irish, English and French with these words: “May the light of heaven shine on the souls of the Gaels who left Ireland in the years of the Great Famine to find eternal rest in this soil. They will be remembered as long as love and music last.”

The inscription memorializes the Irish who came to Martindale in the 1847-50 Famine era, surviving the rigours of their ocean voyage, sickness and the many burdens and difficulties associated with establishing a new life in a strange country. 

At Pioneer Cemetery (so named as it was the first buying ground for that era), a triple cenotaph on which 72 names and dates of death of the original immigrants are fully recorded now stands to their memory.

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FATHER O'Malley, an Irish priest and a fluent Irish speaker from Connemara in the west of Ireland is pictured dancing to the music at the commemoration ceremony for new Celtic Cross on September 19, 1982.

On September 18, 1982, I blessed that Celtic Cross and this came about as follows. The organizers of this event, Elaine Gannon (Catholine Butler), phoned her friend John Fitzgerald in New York asking him to find an Irish speaking priest for the blessing, as this would be appropriate for the pioneers who spoke Irish.
 

“Would that these words of mine were written down, inscribed on some monument with iron chisel and engraving tool,
cut into the rock forever.....”

John contacted Father Sean Hourigan, a Holy Ghost priest of my ordination year, who informed him that I was a fluent Irish speaker already in Canada.

In 1981, I had arrived in Canada and was now associated pastor in the parish of Guelph, Ontario. Needless to say, I was contacted immediately.


I agreed to go and this was followed by a frantic search for the mass text. It arrived from New York two hours before I flew out from Toronto en route to Ottawa.

In Ottawa, I was met by Elaine. She is of Castlebar lineage and her ancestors, the Gannons, had settled in the Gatineau Valley.

She is a vibrant woman, student of the Gaelic language and culture at Ottawa University and the chief promoter and fund canvasser for the erection of the memorial Cross.


 

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THE CELTIC CROSS was designed by Belfast-born artist Eithne O'Kane. She created the iconic images that tell the story of the Famine Irish and the rigours of their ocean crossing to find a new life here in the Gatineau Hills.

She was delighted to learn that I was from the West of Ireland and of the name O’Malley because the land for Pioneer Cemetery was given by the O’Malley family. Most of the pioneers came from County Mayo and County Galway.

Soon we go underway, speeding north for 50 miles through the beautiful Gatineau hills, tinted golden by the onset of the fall. Darkness came down but sufficient light lingered to see the mountains loom up on even side of our ribbon-like twisting road. Up hill and down dale we plunged, coasting along the Gatineau River, a slate of silver in the gathering dusk.

Along this river came the pioneers of old, from distant Quebec City over 450 miles away, portaging their canoes over wild stretches of country. They had availed themselves of government grants to reclaim land through clearance and drainage and make farms. Most of the Irish opted to pioneer the Gatineau valley.

Our first stop was the home of Gladys Gannon, Elaine’s mother, a gentle, refined woman, fussing in Irish fashion over her daughter as if she was still a teenager. She is a sturdy woman, of sturdy stock. She is well read, a teacher, a farmer’s wife, and a repository of wisdom born of experience.

Her log house was snug and unpretentious. She sat me in unusual rocking chair – all moving wooden parts with an adjustable footstool. Promptly, she thrust a drop of the “craythur” into my hand, no protestations accepted. I was home!

It was late when Elaine and I set off in the darkness to meet my host for the night, Martin Patrick Brown, who has roots in Ballina, County Mayo.

We sped off over dirt brown roads, not signposted until at last, we turned into a long unlit winding lane which led us to a large white log house, Martin’s ancient family home. A few yards away was a modern small bungalow. Here I was to stay. First to greet us was the friendly collie dog Monday.

Next appeared my host Martin, tall, lean, with a thousand welcomes sparking from his eyes. His youthfulness belied his 72 years. His handshake was firm, sincere. I felt at home. I was made at home.

His house bore the marks of contented bachelorhood. Out came the welcoming bottle. It had the makings of a long night! Conversation rolled on through the night, anecdotal humorous, new Ireland was meeting old Ireland, hands across the sea.

The next day was a beautiful day in this beautiful setting. I was in a green oasis valley, surrounded on all sides by tree-lined mountains. Martin explained that we were on the edge of the great Canadian wilderness that stretches north to the arctic circle.

I asked him, “how do we get out of here?” for I could see no obvious exit. My question brought gales of laughter from him. I had hit the nail on the head – the wilderness is beautiful but it can be a claustrophobic prison.

At noon, it was time to on our way to Martindale for the memorial Mass in the little church of St. Martin. In the first years of the pioneers, residents of Martindale had to walk 12 miles to Farrelltown for Mass.

Today, their descendants gathered to hear Mass said in Irish, the language of their forefathers. Only a few could understand. Present was Professor McLelland of Celtic Studies at Ottawa University, a Scot formerly of Dublin.

My co-celebrant of the Mass was another Holy Ghost Father and Parish Priest, Father Leo Le Blanc. After Mass, a happy-go-lucky jumble of people proceeded in glorious sunshine to the nearby cemetery for the blessing of the Celtic Cross.

The professor opened the proceedings with a brief history of the early pioneers. He was followed by the designer of the Cross, Eithne O’Kane from Belfast, who explained the symbols of the Cross.

The Celtic design on the Cross includes a ship and a man and woman holding a child. This ship depicts the Famine ships and the family unit is symbolic of the number of family members that died on the 450-mike trek from Quebec City to Martindale.

I then blessed the Cross, taking my theme from the Book of Job 19:23:26.“Would that these words of mine were written down, inscribed on some monument with iron chisel and engraving tool, cut into the rock forever. This I know that my Redeemer lives, and he that last will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God.”

I likened the pioneers to Job, who, bereft of all worldly goods, with rock-like faith, placed unwavering hope that God would see them through to the end. On that day, we “with iron chisel and engraving tool” carved on that Cross a poignant reminder.

The ceremony concluded with an exhibition of Irish dancing and fiddle playing. We all then retired to Martin’s for food and drinks.

Next day dawned glorious, so I postponed my trip back to Guelph to Wednesday. My day began with a visit to Martin’s ancestral log cabin. It was quite big, with ample loft space to accommodate a large family. Two things struck me as I entered the centre of the room.

The sheet-iron stove pipe after mounting a few feet was carried through the house before exiting, thus spreading heat round. In a corner stood a three to four foot-high pump shaft which supplied water, thus ensuring no freeze up in the harsh winters.

Along one wall lay a huge old fashioned dresser, still carrying the delph ware. A steep ladder in a corner led to the left where the boys slept in summer time. In winter, they moved down to the warmth of the kitchen.

For the pioneers, the first snows of October were a warning to get down to the task of laying the winter’s store of wood. Beyond the field lay the forest where there was an abundant supply of dead trees – cypress, spruce, and birch. These were loaded onto a big wood sleigh, hauled to the house to be cut into logs and corded in the shed for the winter.

Fire was constantly tended during the long winter. Cypress was best for the morning start, spruce throughout the day, and in the evening, birch.

Elaine told me, “my father told us that his father had often told him that the Irish in the Gatineau Valley participated in building bees. Neighbours gathered to build houses and barns and help each other to clear the land and sow crops.”

In Ireland we called such a gathering a “meitheal” in Gaelic. It happened, I recall, at home when neighbours helped in ricking in the hay or thrashing the corn. Alas, this is now history.

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ELAINE and Martin Brown on Roger Mountain in 1982.

Elaine joined us as we set off through the forest, on a long climb to the mountain top, a favourite haunt for Martin, a haven of solitude and peace. On our way up, following a path blazoned by axe cuts on trees, Martin drew my attention to a small clearing with a deep depression.

There,” he said, “was Paudeen Murphy’s house. He was the soothsayer and his farm was here.” “But,” I said, “I can see only trees.”

“Trees soon grow like grass here unless you keep them at bay,” replied Martin. Paudeen is long dead.

Finally, we crested the mountain and there beneath us was a wonderful view over Roger’s Lake.
 

For two hours, we sat in the clearing absorbing the fabulous scenery spread out before us, allowing the silence and solitude to seep into our tired limbs. We spoke quietly to each other, half afraid to dispel the magic by too loud a tone. On a tree was a box. Here Martin placed a visitor’s book. I signed it and am told it is still there.

Reluctantly, we made our way home in the fading light. Autumnal tints were heralding the approach of the glorious fall. The sky had taken on softer hues above the forest’s dark edge.

On our way down, Martin stopped at a small unnamed lake. Turning to me suddenly, he said, “In your honour and in gratitude for coming to us, I name this lake O’Malley Lake.

I have a cartographer friend who will insert it on the map.” And he did. The following day, Martin took me to see logging being done on his land.

Three lumberjacks were busy logging a half acre of trees in no time. One logger axed a tree. Another on a monster machine, with each huge wheel controlled independently, hitched onto a tree and crawled down the mountain like a giant crab, overcoming all obstacles on route. The third logger cut into logs with a powerful saw there and then.

This scene gave Martin the change to tell me about logging in the old days. From October to April was the lumbering season. Then, the most able bodies men headed for the forest to make that extra cash so badly needed. They lodged in makeshift houses called shanties. All through the winter, the axes never ceased falling, while horses pulled the logs down to the river.

Piled high there, they awaited the spring thaw. It was then the river drivers came into their own as they guided the logs down the river. Very dangerous work requiring great skill and nimbleness as they made their way across the floating timber, breaking jams with axe and pike-poles. It was a rough, harsh life.

That afternoon, we visited Venosta, a small village in the same parish as Martindale and met some friends of Martin. That night we dined again at Elaine’s mother’s. The next day, Elaine collected me at Martin’s for the trip home.

It was a sad parting from Martin. In Ottawa, we called to the TV studio to see the documentary on the blessing of the Celtic Cross. It was shown on TV in Ottawa and New York. I received a copy as a present. Another sad goodbye and I was airborne for Toronto. An unforgettable episode had ended.

POSTSCRIPT BY FATHER O'MALLEY

 

How happy are the wild birds,
they can go where they will,
now to the sea, now to the mountain,
and come home without rebuke.

– Welsh Seventeenth Century

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In March 1984, I returned to Ireland as Bursar at St. Michael’s College. On March 8, 1985, Martin Patrick Brown, died aged 74 years. His last letter to me reads:

Hello Father O’Malley:
You may well think I have long departed from this planet considering I am six months or more behind in replying to your very welcome letters and cards. 1983 was not such a good year, at least for me, and a person does get down betimes. Had even hoped to get this to you before Paddy’s Day but not likely now.

Had a visit from Elaine a few weeks ago and she looks very well. The world seems to be going very well for her now. She also said you might be posted to Blackrock in Dublin this year. So I hope you make it back to the Gatineau before leaving Canada. My old shack is, if anything, more dusty now than when you were here in 1982. But, dusty and all, you will always be welcome here for as long as you wish to stay.

We still have solid winter here with 30 below in the mornings but a few weeks more it is sure to be milder and O’Malley Lake will be open again. Passed that way early winter and everything was silent as a grave.

Hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely yours,
Martin Brown

[Father Tom O’Malley, passed away peacefully on June 11, 2009
in Marian House, Kimmage, Ireland.]