Kiss me, I’m Irish

With a last name of Dunnigan people ask me all the time, “Is that Irish?” Sure is! But have you ever wondered where or why your ancestors came here? Well, I went to my amazing aunt that does all our family history to tell me our story and I thought I would share it with you, being that it’s St Patricks Day.

Even before the terrible potato famine of the late 1840’s, conditions were harsh for Irish Catholics. To be a Catholic in Ireland in those days meant to be almost a slave to the English Protestants who had forced their way onto Irish land and who were trying to force their way into Irish tradition and religion, too. But try as they would, the English could not defeat the indomitable Irish spirit. It is a battle that is still going on today.

To be a Catholic in Ireland in those days meant that you could not own land, even the land your family had lived on for generations, you could seldom receive formal education and you could not hold a good job. So even before the potato famine, the Irish were leaving by the thousands for the bright promises of the New World. It is said that the greatest export from Ireland was her people. James Dunnigan and Mary Loughney were among these refugees.

My Dunnigan ancestors came from County Mayo and County Sligo about 1830, so before the big potato famine of the 1840’s. They went to the Buckingham area of Quebec.

Each settler was given a 200 acre plot, an axe and a shovel. They got off the ships, walked into the untouched forest and began cutting down trees to make a life for themselves. Doesn’t sound too fun, does it?

On April 8th, 1840 Father Brady wrote another letter, this time to Bishop Bourget who was to the visit the missions during the following summer. This gives some interesting insights into the lives of the people and the difficulties of traveling from one community to another.

“The people are busy building houses and preparing a bell for the reception of Your Lordship this summer. They have hauled the wood for the presbytery, but they are poor. Since I have been working in these missions (along the Ottawa River) the people of Buckingham have given me 15 pounds of sterling (about $60.00) (This would have represented his income for the past 2 years at least.)
Your Lordship will follow the following route: from La Petite Nation to Buckingham by steamboat; there you will have five miles to go in a cart before reaching the village. From Buckingham to Templeton 6 leagues (18 miles) by steamboat, or, if the weather permits, by canoe.”

Industrious and talented, the pioneers of Mayo had to learn about life on their own. Women would work in the fields and often help out in the construction of the house and other buildings even while carrying their new born on their backs. Like their husbands, they work from morning to night and often even later.

Carding, spinning, weaving, knitting and sewing gave the look that every house is a beehive. The children pick fruit, nuts, wild berries and medicinal herbs. The colleens (Irish young women) were so good with their hands that even today’s men would be proud to wear the nice panamas plaited by them from unripe foot straw. They also made mittens, moccasins and boots. Sewing machines and steel needles were non-existent. They moulded an animal bone to give it the shape and use of a needle that they used to sew tissue, wool and leather from calf or deer to clothe their families.

The exchange of goods could also be transacted at the general store. The wood industry was very active. The men from Mayo built roads, sleighs and wagons so they could dash to Buckingham or Thurso to sell their products. They had to resign themselves to burning down hundreds of acres and then gather the ashes to be marketed and sold in Bytown (Ottawa) for eight dollars a barrel. The only time of the year where men would make good wages was when the logs were floating. Some companies were operating iron mines, affording little money used to mill wheat and grain.

I guess you could say that this explains where my hard work and drive comes from, but also my love for handmade moccasins. How grateful I am for my Irish ancestry and how hard my family worked to get to where we are today.

Today I will wear my green proudly and telling my wife to kiss me, I’m Irish.