Martindale Pioneer Cemetery, Quebec
Honouring Our Ancestors Who Contributed to the History of the Irish in Canada
The dramatic story behind
the Martindale monument
CATHOLINE BUTLER who is now living in Vancouver, British Columbia, is a local woman who was born on the Martindale Road in Low Township, Quebec. Her birth name was Elaine Gannon.
Her ancestors came out from Ireland during the years of the Great Hunger [1845-1852] and settled in the area of Western Quebec known as the Gatineau Valley. It was here in this rural community where she was raised among her extended family.
The early settlers in this area overcame great hardship. Many had survived a voyage across the Atlantic on the infamous overcrowded coffin ships on which thousands died. Cholera and various other diseases were rampant among these weakened people and many ports were closed to the Irish during this terrible period.
Survivors of the Famine arrived at Grosse Île in Quebec which was the main port of entry to Canada during that period. It served as a quarantine station to ensure the sick and dying did not spread their illness. Thousands more Irish perished on Grosse Île which is now known as the Irish Memorial National Historic Site.
The settlers who arrived in the green hills Gatineau during this period were survivors and no doubt traumatized by these experiences. The horrors many had faced at home would remain with them despite finally finding this tranquil place to build a peaceful life.
Villages with names like Low, Martindale, Venosta, Fieldville, Brennan’s Hill and Farrellton were established in the area.
Desperation of a Young Mother
"My ancestors were buried in that graveyard and it had fallen into disrepair. Nothing was being done about it and in fact it was going to be lost if no action was taken. Brush was piled on top of the stones.
Cows were trampling through the burial grounds
and headstones were being knocked down."
It was the early 1960s when Elaine [whose married name during this period was Elaine McCay] became involved in a project to recognize these buried in the old graveyard. This would become a life-long undertaking.
She was a young mother of three small children and pregnant with her fourth child and feeling desperate. She knew her baby was unviable and she wondered if soon it would be her turn to join her family buried at Martindale.
Instead, she started spending time alone among the ruined headstones and began to appeal to her ancestors for help. She vowed that if she could survive this ordeal and see her children grow, she would put her strength into restoring their final resting place.
At the time she was very sick and after giving birth to a stillborn infant son, she became progressively weaker. She was frightened that soon she would also die and she was deeply troubled about the fate of her three young children who needed their mother.
Elaine explained, “my ancestors were buried in that graveyard and it had fallen into disrepair. Nothing was being done about it and in fact it was going to be lost if no action was taken. Brush was piled on top of the stones. Cows were trampling through the burial grounds and headstones were being knocked down.
“Many people at the time said ‘isn’t it a shame’, but nothing was done about the situation so I decided to do some research and record the names of those buried there.”
There were a number of ornately carved headstones. Others were very simple, just a single white cross or a small white headstone. Some were carved with images of shamrocks and harps, but time had worn away many of the names and dates carved into the stone.
She noticed a significant number of young women who had died in childbirth were buried in the graveyard along with infants who died at birth or shortly afterwards. Infant mortality was very prevalent in those early days.
This resonated deeply for Elaine. “At the time, I thought I was also going to die, and in fact, I came very close to dying,” she said.
“After the child was born, my health deteriorated even further and I knew I was very sick. Often, I would go to the graveyard and sit on the logs that had fallen among the headstones. I would speak to my ancestors and the people buried there and ask for their help.
“I told them the situation with my young children and how sick I was and said if I could survive this and get better to see my children grow up, I would do everything in my power to get this graveyard fixed up. I would put their names up to ensure their history would not be lost. I called it a pact with the ancestors that I made at that time.”
For a long time the doctors were unable to diagnose her illness and finally she became so sick and depleted she received emergency intervention to save her life. Surgery for a radical hysterectomy was a major turning point in her recovery.
Afterwards, she was still very weak but she began to recover. It took a year for her to fully regain her strength. She often said, “I was so sick for so long that when I finally got better, I put on my running shoes and never looked back.”
Struggle to Access Parish Records
ST. MARTIN'S PARISH in Martindale, Quebec.
As soon as she could, Elaine teemed up with Bernice McSheffrey, another local woman, and the two women started working together to research the parish records. They began at St. Camillus Catholic Church in Farrellton where the original records were kept. In the early days, this was the main parish before the church at Martindale was built.
Father Cauley was the priest in Farrelton in the 1960s, and he said, “yes, of course, the books are open for you to come down and take a look.” He was most welcoming and Elaine said, “Father Cauley was very good to us. He told us to take as much time as we needed. His mother, who worked as his housekeeper, was also very hospitable, making tea for us while we studied the records.”
When the women finished reviewing the books in Farrellton, they needed to continue their research at the parish in Martindale. Elaine explained, “I phoned Father O’Donnell, who was the parish priest there but it was a far different reception here.
"He was not happy about us coming in at all,” she said. “He claimed the books were the property of the parish and he was concerned about what we planned to do with this information, suggesting we might use it against other people.”
The women were astonished by this response. What information could possibly be held against anyone in church records? And more to the point, what would motivate them to use any information in those records against anyone? Their mission was simply to restore the graveyard.
“Both Bernice and I said this information is over 100 years old. What could we possibly use against anyone?” said Elaine. “We explained that we simply wanted to determine who was buried there so we could start to do something about the graveyard."
She continued, "At this point, he became pretty hostile when we told him we wanted to do something about restoring the graveyard. He said he didn’t believe either of us was qualified to undertake this work. He would bring someone up from Ottawa University who was better educated than either of us and more qualified to do this kind of research.”
At this stage, Bernice decided to leave the project since the parish priest had expressed such displeasure and it was not clear whether he would even permit access to the church records at Martindale.
Elaine was adamant. “I decided that regardless, I was going to continue with the work. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I had made a promise and I intended to keep it.”
She called Fr. Cauley in Farrellton and explained the situation. He wasn’t surprised at all with this development. He said, “leave it with me, I’ll give him a call.” Shortly afterwards, she received a telephone call from Fr. O’Donnell who said, “when do you want to come down to look at the books?”
“As soon as possible,” she answered. Fr. O’Donnell was emphatic: She would have three days and three days only. He said, “I’m not going to be in my office while you go through the books. I’ll give you three days and that’s it.”
With great relief, Elaine replied, “I’ll be there.” It wasn’t long however before she realized it was going to take much longer than three days to go through all the parish material. Once again she spoke to the priest explaining her dilemma and asking for more time.
“I think I can complete my work if I could have just one entire night,” she said.
After giving it some thought, Fr. O’Donnell said he was going away overnight to Ottawa and she could have access on this last one-time-only basis.
She started to work copying all the information longhand as she had no access to a typewriter or photocopier. All night long she wrote out the names of those buried in the old Martindale Parish cemetery, recording their date of birth and date of death.
During this night vigil, she made another interesting discovery. It was an old diary kept by the first resident parish priest at Martindale and it was filled with information about early days in the area.
She said, “All the records were kept in the safe and I came across a diary there which had been kept by Father Blondin. It held a fascinating account of the early settlers in the parish.
“Fr. Blondin wrote about his experiences and challenges and it was evident that he really loved the people of the parish. He describes their living conditions as very poor and how they brought him food to help him when he first arrived.
“Fr. Blondin began to raise his own livestock, including pigs, cows and chickens, so that he wouldn’t be taking food off the tables of the parish. There was a lot of information about the early settlers but unfortunately, I had no way to copy the information in that diary.”
Elaine knew she would not have enough time to read the diary in full, so she put everything back in the safe at the end of the night and left as instructed.
When she knew Fr. O’Donnell was back, she called once again to ask if she could have more time with the diary but he would go no further. The unequivocal response was “no.”
“The unfortunate part is that apparently nobody knows what happened to that diary,” said Elaine. “I felt so sad about the loss of that diary because I felt it was very valuable. It was like the history of the whole area. There was information in there about my grandparents, along with information relating to so many other families in the community.”
Not only did the diary and all the early records disappear, but shortly afterwards the entire graveyard was destroyed.
Destruction of the Old Graveyard
“I got a telephone call one morning about 7:30 AM from my husband who had passed by the graveyard on his way to work that morning. He said, ‘I think you should go down to the old graveyard,
there’s a bulldozer in there.’"
Elaine recalls that day saying, "It will remain forever etched in my memory. "
It began with an early morning telephone call. "My husband passed by the graveyard on his way to work at 7:30 that morning. He called me and said, ‘I think you should go down to the old graveyard, there’s a bulldozer in there.’
“I couldn’t believe it. I put my children in the car and raced down there to see for myself. The bulldozer had almost finished its work. A large trench had opened up in the centre of the graveyard and all the headstones had been pushed into this huge pit. They were all broken up in the hole. I remember standing there crying and thinking ‘this is the end, what will I do now?’
“I drove back up the hill to St. Martin’s Church to speak to the priest but I was told he was away in Ottawa. I went back down the hill to the graveyard and I could see that several of the headstones had been swept to the side of the road.
“I didn’t speak to the driver of the bulldozer but he could see how extremely distressed I was. He had put these few aside, but the majority of the headstones were destroyed in the trench.”
For days afterwards, Elaine waited to speak to the priest to ask him why he would do this, but he refused to see her. Finally, on Sunday morning she was still unable to speak to him directly but he spoke to the congregation during mass to explain his actions.
He said the reason he had destroyed the graveyard was that he had checked with Ottawa University and they told him that in order to begin any restoration work, it would need to be levelled since it was on a sloped incline.
Elaine said, “I was so infuriated with this explanation that I got right up in the middle of mass and walked out. I went around and waited in the rectory for him to leave the altar.
“I thought this is the worst thing I have ever heard. Levelling a graveyard in order to restore it. What kind of restoration is this? And what did Ottawa University know about the people of this area?”
As soon as he left the altar, she confronted him. "You know that graveyard belongs to the people here. It's their history. You can leave here tomorrow and it doesn’t matter to you. You can go to some other parish but that graveyard and those records belong to the people of this parish.”
Furiously, she continued, “You probably don’t realize the effort that went into putting up those headstones. Many people made tremendous sacrifices to put up those memorials.”
She noticed by this time there was fire coming out of Father O’Donnell’s eyes. He was not a man accustomed to being challenged and he did not want to hear another word from this woman who was causing him so much trouble. There would be no further discussion.
The community was embarrassed about this development and pressure was brought to bear upon Elaine to be quiet about the matter and put it behind her. Her mother and father, who were very well respected people in the community, prevailed upon her to let the issue go.
“I think people were beginning to realize that their history had been lost,” she said, “and it was embarrassing that nothing had ever been done about the graveyard. Unbeknownst to me, the one person I would have had in my corner was Martin Brown of Venosta, but at the time I didn’t know Martin and I didn’t feel like I had any allies, so I let the matter drop.”
But the matter was never forgotten in Elaine’s mind. It simmered there just beneath the surface for about 10 years until she received a fateful telephone call which brought it all back to the forefront once again.
Martin Brown Meets Elaine
MARTIN BROWN is pictured at the unveiling ceremony for the Celtic cross at Martindale Pioneer Cemetery on September 19, 1982. His support was instrumental in establishing the monument to honour the ancestors whose final resting place had been desecrated. Elaine is seen in the background giving an interview to Skyline Cablevision about the project.
It was now the mid-1970s and Elaine and her husband Tom had opened the Molly McGuire’s Pub in Ottawa. As Ottawa’s first Irish pub, it was a wild place with live entertainment every night.
There were line-ups to get in the door and eccentric characters around every post. It was a bohemian atmosphere with a swinging door of musicians and roadies coming and going in a dizzying haze of wine, music and song.
Every night Elaine would arrive to work on the door dressed in a long black shawl. She extended warm greetings to all the patrons as they arrived in droves. They called her Molly.
Gallons of draft beer were consumed as patrons sat at long rows of tables. As the night progressed, the room would literally vibrate with the music as patrons danced on chairs and tabletops. At night end, Elaine would direct the bouncers to throw out the stragglers so they could all show up again the next night.
It was Elaine who booked the bands. She became an entertainment agent recruiting Irish bands to tour North America. She booked gigs from one town to the next and handled a whole array of immigrations and border issues while bringing in musicians from Ireland.
In the midst of all this, there one constant and that was the Martindale Road. At every opportunity, Elaine would escape up to highway to Low to reconnect with her roots and her family.
It was while working at Molly McGuire’s that she received a telephone call from Martin Brown. He was an elderly farmer in Venosta and said he wanted to talk to her about the graveyard at Martindale.
For years Martin had been muttering about how upset he was over the desecration of the Martindale graveyard. He had also been advised to forget about it – to move on.
But Martin couldn’t forget about it and finally someone suggested he should speak to Elaine McCay who was now away in Ottawa.
She agreed to meet him at her mother’s home in Martindale. She suggested they should meet during the week as weekends were generally a busy time at the Gannon homestead with family gatherings and people arriving to visit.
Martin agreed and said he would bring along Eddie McLaughlin who was also interested. Elaine thought this was just another wild goose chase because over the years many people had privately suggested how outraged they were about the graveyard, but nobody was ever prepared to take any action and nothing was ever done.
Despite this, she decided to meet Martin and hear what he had to say. So up the Gatineau she went, accompanied by her oldest son Liam.
Elaine recalls that initial meeting as a very formal one set in her mother’s dining room with Martin Brown and Eddie McLaughlin on one side of the table and herself and Liam on the other side.
Martin asked her to speak about her involvement with the graveyard, so she said, “I thought I’m just going to let them have it, the way it is.” She told them what had happened, what led up to her work on the graveyard, and about her confrontations with Father O’Donnell.
She said, “I spoke for a long time and then there was complete silence. Then, I waited and still nothing from across the table. So I got up to leave saying, 'I’ve said my peace, that’s all I have to say.'"
Then, Martin asked, “Just a minute, where were you born?”
Elaine was confused saying, "I thought he must think I'm some kind of fanatical, off-the-wall person, so I said I was born right there and pointed to the sitting room behind me.”
Martin said, “I can’t believe it.” By this time, Elaine was feeling kind of embarrassed and wasn’t sure if he was mad. “Well, you can check with my mother,” said Elaine, “she’s right here and she’ll confirm that I was born right in that room over there.”
Martin said “I’m just flabbergasted at the way you speak about this graveyard. You tell me what we have to do to get that graveyard put right and I’ll be right there with you.”
“I couldn’t believe what was happening that day,” said Elaine. “After all these years, someone was finally going to help me. I told him that I had all the names along with the dates and what we had to do was put up a stone with all the names on it.”
Martin said, “Anything else?” “Well, a Celtic Cross would be good,” ventured Elaine, “but we’re looking at thousands of dollars.”
Martin said, “Right now, concentrate on what needs to be done. You concentrate on what needs to be done for that graveyard and Eddie and I are going to work with you.”
The first thing was to determine how much it would cost to raise a monument and Martin asked Elaine to make some inquiries. She contacted Laurin Monuments who handled gravestones for much of the area and presented all the names and dates for a quotation.
They assessed the information and said it was a big job and one slab wouldn’t do it. It was going to require three separate stones engraved front and back. At that time it was estimated that the monument would cost $2,300. This would include engraving the stones, transporting them from Ottawa to Martindale, and erecting the monument in the cemetery.
Elaine said, “I thought that was an insurmountable sum of money and I couldn’t imagine how we would raise these funds.” She spoke to Martin and he reassured her saying, “Don’t worry, the money will come. Never forget, no matter what happens or where you go, the wee ones will always be with us to protect us.”
They talked it over and finally, Elaine suggested, “Why don’t we run a dance at Farrellton Parish Hall. We could have a bar and that would help us to raise some money. We probably won’t make the money on the door but we’ll make it on the bar.”
It was agreed. Elaine would arrange the entertainment and Martin would take care of the liquor license. Elaine spoke to the Ottawa Gaels who had played at the Molly McGuire’s. When she explained the nature of the booking, the musicians headed by Don Cavanagh said this project was not just for the settlers at Martindale, this was a memorial for all Irish people and their descendants.
He said, “it won’t cost you a cent for our contribution.”
Elaine then received a telephone call from Martin who advised they had hit a snag with the liquor license. They needed a special permit license but when Martin spoke to the liquor control board, they advised that written consent from three hotels in the area was required in order to be granted a license.
Right away Martin spoke to three local hotels. The first two were run by French families and they had no problem whatsoever signing the consent. It was the third hotel where they ran into a problem.
The owner was of Irish descent and some of her ancestors were among those interred at Martindale cemetery. When approached by Martin, she said, “I can’t sign this. I’ve had a very bad year financially.”
Martin reasoned, “but it’s only for one night.” She was adamant, “No, I won’t sign the consent.” When Elaine heard about the situation, she said, “Well, that’s our profits out the window.”
They realized that they would be totally reliant on the door and really needed to get the word out. They put posters up everywhere and Martin got the word out around the community. On the night of the event, there was a full house and Elaine said, “I couldn't believe all the people who turned up. Some of them had obstructed us at every turn and yet, here they were.”
In order to work around the liquor issue, they brought in bottles of whiskey from Molly McGuire’s and it was poured under the table. Elaine would ask anyone who wanted to buy a coffee if they wanted a “little something special in that drink.”
As the band played and the room was in full swing, old farmers would stagger up to the food concession and say, “Elaine, pour me another shot of that coffee.”
It was a great night and people left satisfied they had contributed to a good cause and happy since they had lots of free drinks. The organizers grossed just over $1,000 on the door, far short of their goal but at least it was a downpayment on the monument.
Elaine took the cash to Laurin Monuments and explained they needed to figure out how to raise the rest of the money.
Shortly afterwards, Martin called and said, “don’t worry about the money. It’s all taken care of. Just go ahead and get the job started.” Elaine suspected that the balance of the funds came out of Martin’s pocket but nothing further was said on the matter.
They agreed that the stone would be decorated with fleur-de-lys and shamrocks and the dedication on the monument would be inscribed in three languages: Irish, English and French.
Elaine had studied Irish folklore and language with Professor Gordon McLelland, a visiting professor from Donegal, who was teaching Celtic Studies at Ottawa University. She consulted Professor McLelland to find the appropriate words in Irish.
He responded with the following inscription: “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 Dream of a Monument is Finally Realized
IT WAS a great day of celebration with music when the Celtic Cross was unveiled at the Martindale Pioneer Cemetery in 1982. Janet Egan is pictured above step dancing at the event.
Finally, there it was, after all those years, a triple cenotaph was finally erected in memory of those early settlers who were buried in Martindale Pioneer Cemetery.
By this time, Fr. Marois was the new parish priest at Martindale and he indicated that he would like to see his name placed on the monument as part of the dedication ceremony.
Although Father Marois had little or no involvement in the actual process, Elaine, Martin and Eddie agreed that they had no objection to his name being inscribed on the stone.
At the time, the three also declined to have their names engraved on the monument as they did not want to detract from those who were being commemorated with this memorial.
At the ceremony, descendants of those who were buried in the cemetery were invited to come and read off the names of their ancestors. Elaine read the names Martin Gannon and Mary Egan, her great-grandparents who had immigrated from Castlebar in County Mayo.
It was an emotional event to finally see the culmination of so many years of work, but it was far from complete. There was still the dream of seeing a Celtic Cross on the site, but it was hard to imagine how this could be accomplished.
Once again, Martin contacted Elaine. He had a plan regarding the Celtic Cross. He had been speaking to a number of people who preferred to remain anonymous but who wished to put forward the funding to assist with the erection of a cross.
He asked Elaine to once again contact Laurin Stonemasons to determine the cost of a Celtic Cross. They estimated the cost at $10,000 and Elaine reported the information back to Martin.
He told her that she had a green light to proceed. The donors had expressed satisfaction with her work on the monument and now they wanted her to come up with a unique design for the cross.
Elaine contacted her friend Eithne O’Kane, who was living in Kingston, Ontario. Eithne, a Belfast-born artist, had studied Celtic art and design in Ireland. She understood clearly Elaine’s vision for the cross and set to work.
In the wheel of the cross, a sailing vessel would represent the ordeal of crossing the Atlantic in coffin ships, while the women and children represented those who had died on the journey.
It was an enormous undertaking and Eithne had to lay paper out 12 feet long to prepare a scale drawing of the design. After working laboriously on the project, Eithne delivered a prototype to Elaine for approval.
She took it up to Martin for his review and said, “Martin had tears in his eyes when he saw it. He said that was exactly what he wanted.”
Laurin examined the design and said this would be the biggest piece of work they had ever undertaken.
It would have to done in Granby, Quebec, and it was going to take quite awhile. Elaine said, “we’ve waited all these years to get to this stage, so it really isn’t going to make much difference as long as it gets done.”
LIAM McCAY, Elaine's oldest son, died suddenly in a car accident outside Banff, Alberta on October 19, 1981.
In the meantime, life was moving on for both Elaine and Martin and events beyond their control were sweeping through both their lives.
There had been much turmoil in Elaine’s life and her marriage had sadly come to an end. There had been a bankruptcy in the family and they lost their business and their farm up the Gatineau.
Her children were scattered and there was a great deal of anguish during that period. Finally, Elaine moved out west to Alberta to re-establish her life.
But there was more to come. The greatest and most crushing loss occurred on October 19, 1981, when her son Liam was tragically killed in a car accident outside Banff, Alberta.
IN LOVING MEMORY
of Liam Christopher McCay
1959 - 1981
Despite everything, Elaine and Martin remained in contact and firmly committed to finishing the project.
Finally, Martin contacted Elaine with the news that the cross had been erected in Martindale Cemetery and what an impressive piece of work it was.
He said, “you must come back out to the Gatineau. We must have a dedication ceremony.” He impressed upon her the need to document these events saying, “this is a very important piece of history and it wouldn’t surprise me if in years to come people will arrive here from far away to see this cross.”
It was ironic, at this time Elaine would not have had any financial means to travel, except for the fact when Liam died he left behind an insurance policy. It was that money that allowed Elaine to return for the dedication of the Celtic Cross.
She said, “At that time, I had no money at all. It was Liam’s death that allowed me to travel back for the dedication. It was only because I received the life insurance payment that I had the funds to travel.”
“When I arrived in Ottawa, a young fellow by the name of Gerrard McMullen offered to help in any way he could.
“Also, Max Keeping of CJOH TV, a very good friend, made a car available to me for transportation. This allowed me to get around to the newspapers, the radio and television stations, and to get the word out about what we were doing.”
Conor O’Neill who was the co-ordinator at Skyline Cable in Ottawa and he was interested in covering the event. He arranged for a crew to travel the 56 kilometres up a the old winding highway which followed the Gatineau River up to Low, Quebec.
Martin felt it was important to have a priest who could speak the Irish language to commemorate the event and asked Elaine if she might be able to arrange for this.
She called her friend John Fitzgerald in New York City and explained what they needed.
She said, “John already know the situation. He knew what I had been through and he knew all about the graveyard and the Celtic Cross and he wanted to help. He was a writer for The Western People, a newspaper based in County Mayo and he had already written an article about this graveyard.”
When John informed Elaine that he had located an Irish priest from Connemara in the West of Ireland named Father O’Malley who was now located in Guelph, Ontario, she was delighted.
She now had some funds available, so she offered to pay for Fr. O’Malley’s travel costs to Ottawa and arranged to pick him up at the airport.
Elaine said, “I was astounded when I learned his name was O’Malley. In the new graveyard at Martindale there are a number of O’Malley’s buried there. They have a huge cross overlooking their burial site on which they had obviously spent a considerable amount of money. These people were originally from County Mayo.
"When I spoke to Fr. O’Malley, he told me that his father was from Westport, County Mayo. I was kind of blown away that he was answering this call as most of the people who were buried in the pioneer cemetery were originally from around the Westport area and County Mayo.
“Another strange coincidence that really left kind of amazed me was that it was the O’Malley family who had originally donated the land on which the pioneer graveyard is located.”
Perhaps Martin was right.....the wee ones will always be with us.
THE IMAGE on the base of the Celtic cross of mothers and children represent the families who died on the crossing from Ireland to Canada in the years of the Great Hunger.