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The Irish in the Artic: A Perspective on the Irish in Canada

by Donal Deiseach

The Irish could loll in the taverns, sing and brawl and engage at the ward level in the game of politocs and otherwise disport themselves with the religious bickering that so engrossed their time and energies. For the Scots, it was work, save and study; study, save and work. The Irish outnumbered them, as did the English, but the Scots ran the country. Though they formed only one fifteenth of the population they controlled the fur trade, the great banking and financial houses, the major educational institutions and to a considerable degree, the government. The CPR was built by Irish navvies and Irish contractors but it was the Scots who held the top jobs"

Pierre Berton, the Canadian apologist, is not partial to the Irish, as this rather invidious comparison shows. The implication is that the Scots, particularly those inspired by the Protestant work ethic, contributed more to the development of Canada than did the Irish. It is with this notion I take issue. Indeed, I think Berton's description draws its power from the seterotype rather than from the factual evidence available in biographies of individual Irishmen. He has attempted to invent a mythology rather than serve history.

This article considers the lives of two Irishmen who lived in the 19th century. The first is Michael McGowan, a Donegal man who made his fortune in the Klondike goldfields. The second is Joseph Keanry who lived out his life as an Oblate Brother at the Good Hope Mission on the MacKenzie River near Great Bear Lake.

Michael McGoawn was born in 1865 in a cabin in Cloghaneely, a small village at the foot of Crocknanneeve in the Gaelic speaking district of Donegal. He was the eldest boy in a family of 12 children. The families in the region were very poor and isolated by both language and geography from the rest of the country. The young Michael had practically no schooling. He attended a school at Magheraoarty for a brief period. Their teacher had no Gaelic and the children no English.

Michael made an early start on a life of toil. He was only eight when his mother brought him to the hiring fair at Letterkenny where farmers were looking for boys to do agricultural work. And place east of Magheraoarty was known as the Lagan and Michael spent seven years there, a period of "slavery, extortion and work from morning until night." At 15, he began to work for the summer in Scotland, in foundries and on farms. "The work was very hard (and) the men no better off for it. Nothing was thought of the Irish in Scotland those days and they certainly were not paid in any way commenurate with the work they did>" By the time he was 20, he was determined to go to North America.

Anyone going to America in those days, according to custom, would walk about the village for a few days shaking hands with the young and old for there was little certainty of their meeting again. On the eve of their departure, the whole village would congregate in the "convoy house" for a night of music, storytelling and merriment. The person leaving would be "keened" three times during the night. It was after one such night that Michael, his cousin Jimmy Anthony and another companion, walked the 50 miles to Derry for the ship to America.

The three men first went to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where they found lodgings with a couple from Cloghaneely. In all the big cities they journeyed through to that point, they were always able to find someone from their old parish. The found work unloading sand barges: hard labour and long hours for which they were paid a dollar a day. Michael and his companions thought no more of America as the land of opportunity than they did Scotland. After a year in Bethlehem, they set out for the western states, finding their way to Granite Mountain, a barren isolated spot not too distant from Bitter Root River, where Custer's last stand had taken place some 20 years before. Here they were taken on in the silver mine. There were six Donegal men in the mine, all Gaelic speakers and related in some way. Together they built a log cabin where they lived comfortably through the bitter winters and their one complaint was that they were unable to find the proper straw with which to thatch the cabin.

The Irish lads had great sympathy for the Indians who still roved about in small bands and used to leave out what food they could spare for the Indian women to collect under the cover of darkness. He tells how a band would settle in a remote valley, build small wooden houses and work the land till it was arable. When the American authorities would hear of this, "a large Army would drive these poor people into the remotest regions of the hills." The Indians were always outnumbered and "some greedy white man would then get the land for himself. The Indians that were left were in a bad way and we had a great deal of pity for them- the same thing happened to ourselves home in Ireland."

After seven years, the market for silver weakened and they were laid off. The Donegal lads set out for Mount Baldy, to prospect for gold. They discovered some but it was a poor grade ore. The next year, celebrating St. Patrick's Day at the Granite Mountains, they heard of the Klondike. Jimmy Anthony was sent with Michael McCarthy, a Corkman, as an advance party while the others spent the interim in a coppermine in Butte, Montana. Over a year later, in July 1898, he had a letter from Jimmy saying a fortune in gold awaited them.

A group of about ten set off for the Klondike, riding the break rods to Seattle. They embarked there and arrived near the mouth of the Yukon River, in mid-September. Another vessel, the Susie brought them upriver to Fort Yukon. It was now the beginning of October and the captain would go no further. Those who cold not afford, Michael included, were ordered off the ship. Abandoned with nothing, they walked the 300 miles to Klondike. The group was ill equipped for a winter trek. They met other groups who persuaded them to turn back. A Corkman, "Kangaroo" O'Kelly, who had a cabin, 60 miles from Circle City, encoraged them to go there and take what food and equipment they needed. This generous act was critical to their survival. It took two and a half months to reach Forty Mile on the Canadian side of the border and from there, it was but a day to Dawson.

On the first night in Dawson, Michael met Jimmy Anthony, sporting a beard to prevent frostbite. Jimmy, it turned out, was leaving the Klondike for good, having gathered as much gold as he wanted so he gave Micahel the right to work his claim at All Gold Creek. He found many Donegal and hundreds of Irish in the goldfields. Their cabins were close together and they wuld spend their nights together. One of the greatest hardships was the lack of a Priest in the goldfields. A Priest visited All Gold's Creek every six months. Saint Patrick's Day was always an occasion for celebration.

Michael spent four years in the goldfields and by the summer of 1901, the little claim was almost worked out. Satisfied he had enough gold to see him through his days, he and his companions decided to return to rejoin Jimmy in Seattle. When they reached Whitehorse, they met a few Irish lads and gave them the key to their cabin. Michael returned to Cloghaneely with Jimmy Anthony, to the village they left 16 years before. He settled down, married the daughter of a local shopkeeper, build a large house near Gortahork and raised eleven children. His book The Hard Road to Klnodike, translated from Gaelic, is an interesting and vivid account of his life.

Read Part Two of this article