HISTORY

1983 interview by  Sally Bishop of Skyline Cable in Calgary, Alberta with  Elaine Gannon McCay (Catholine Butler) . They are discussing the September 19, 1982 dedication of the Celtic cross located in the pioneer graveyard in Martindale Parish near Low, Quebec.

My fight to honour Canada’s Famine Irish
in Martindale Pioneer Cemetery, Quebec

By CATHOLINE BUTLER
(formerly Elaine Gannon)

WHY are the graves and final resting place of our ancestors in the Martindale Pioneer Cemetery not allowed to rest in peace?

On January 16, 2021, another shocking act of disrespect took place for the early settlers buried in the old graveyard at Martindale Pioneer Cemetery.

Early that morning I was dismayed to learn that someone driving an all-terrain vehicle decided to use this area to do wheel spins and vehicle acrobatics over a sacred burial ground.

I became involved in the project to establish this memorial after a heartbreaking incident that led to the destruction of the original cemetery in the mid-1960s.

Due to soil erosion, the cemetery was moved from the old location to a new one across from St. Martin’s Catholic Church – the parish church that my ancestors helped to build.

The abandoned graveyard had fallen into disrepair. Branches and bramble covered the headstones, farm animals were allowed to trample over the graves.

One early morning, under instructions from the local parish priest, a bulldozer was dispatched to dig a trench in the old cemetery.

As incomprehensible as it would seem, the headstones were smashed and buried in a pit, leaving just freshly turned earth behind on a barren field.

The reasons for this decision are complex, but I had already become committed to restoration of this burial site even prior to this event due to events in my own life.

Over a decade after this heartbreaking desecration four people – Martin Brown, Eddie McLaughlin, Bernice McSheffrey and myself, Elaine Gannon (Catholine Butler) – undertook the research to recover the names of those buried there.

"I am the only living survivor among the four of us

and I want to set the record straight

as there has been a lot of misinformation

over the years about the history of the site."

I am the only living survivor among the four of us and I want to set the record straight as there has been a lot of misinformation over the years about the history of the site.

At times, others who had little or nothing to do with the restoration have claimed credit for this work and the story behind it. I feel that it is vital that the truth be told.

The project was a long and tedious effort with a lot of unexpected setbacks and disappointments along the road – and sometimes with roadblock from the very people we expected would support our efforts.

But we persisted with our goal in mind, and in 1977 we finally created a monument engraved with the names of those buried here.

It gave us great satisfaction to finally establish a beautiful triple cenotaph engraved with the Quebec fleur-de-lys and a shamrock to reflect the two nations, and the names and dates etched on the monument to honour those early settlers. But our work was not yet complete. 

It was on September 19, 1982 when the beautiful 12-foot Celtic Cross was also unveiled. This remarkable monument was designed by Belfast-born artist Eithne O’Kane who was a personal friend.

The symbol in the circle at the top represents the voyage across the Atlantic on coffin ships by those fleeing their homeland in the time known as an Gorta Mór, Ireland's  Great Hunger. At the base of the cross is a mother and child, representing the families who left their homeland in search of a better future for their children.

On that day, the four of us had a lump in our throats and tears in our eyes as we were overjoyed to finally see the cenotaph and Celtic cross blessed by Father Tom O’Malley from the west of Ireland. 

What an honour it was to have those souls recognized by one of their fellow countrymen from Ireland who spoke the language of our ancestors.

At that time, we declined to put up a plaque and take credit with a list of those of us responsible for the restoration. We didn't want to detract from the names of our ancestors.

It wasn’t until I came across a book entitled Cemeteries in the Gatineau which contained completely inaccurate information about the Martindale Pioneer Cemetery that I had a change of heart.

As the last living one of the four of us who undertook the restoration, I decided that a plaque was needed to set the record straight.

On September 19, 2016, just over 30 years to the day, two plaques – one in English and one in French – were placed beside the cenotaph and Celtic Cross.

Father Larry McCormick, from St. Patrick's Basilica in Ottawa, Ontario, came to celebrate the mass at St. Martin’s Parish Church. Afterwards, everyone proceeded down the hill to the memorial site where he blessed the plaques in the Martindale Pioneer Cemetery.

The Irish Ambassador to Canada, Jim Kelly, was also on hand for the blessing of the plaques on that lovely autumn day.

There is still more work to do at the cemetery. A proper pathway needs to be installed — one that can accommodate seniors and people with disabilities to visit the cemetery.

There was more shock to come.....on the morning of my 87th birthday, January 16, 2020, I awoke to news that someone driving an all-terrain vehicle decided to once again desecrate this graveyard with wheel spins over the sacred ground at 12:45 AM.

Not only did that person disturb the peace of our ancestors but they trespassed onto property that belongs to St. Martin du Tours parish where the Pioneer Cemetery is located.

In addition, since there is an 8 PM curfew in Quebec because of the Covid-19  pandemic, several laws were broken.

For me, it’s hard to fathom this complete senseless and utter disrespect for the graves of our ancestors. Even the most barbaric cultures of the past honoured their dead.

As a result, we must put a barrier around the graveyard to protect the cenotaph and Celtic Cross. It was only by chance that the monument was not damaged.

Funds must be raised for this project and work is currently underway to start this process. Our ancestors graves deserve dignity and respect, but above all to rest in peace.

memorial-1fa.jpg

CATHOLINE BUTLER (Elaine Gannon) is pictured above with Father Larry McCormick of St. Patrick's Basilica in Ottawa and Jim Kelly the Ambassador of Ireland to Canada on September 19, 2016.

 

I came across the Martindale Pioneer Cemetery Facebook page just recently and was delighted to read about the event happening on September 18, 2016.

I have been living in Belfast since 1999, otherwise I would have been there. 

However, I pulled together some personal archive photos from the original blessing day in 1982 which I'd love to share with everyone.

It was a great honour to design the Cross, particularly as I was an Irish immigrant myself, and therefore understood its significance to the people of Martindale parish. 

And so this weekend I will be thinking of you all. I would like to extend my warmest wishes to those who attend on Sunday, and to all the people of the Gatineau Hills. 

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The 12-foot high Celtic Cross at Martindale Pioneer Cemetery was unveiled in 1982. It is the second largest in Canada outside of the Irish Memorial National Historic Site at Grosse Île in Quebec. For more about Grosse Île, view the section about from Irish Ambassador  to Canada on this website.

Message from Eithne O'Kane
the artist behind the Celtic Cross