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The Celtic Family in Feudal Gaspé

by Aldo Brochet

Canadians too often approach our East Coast heritage with little expectation of discoevering anything significant. Certainly, a great deal of investigation must be made before we become effecient in emperical method and evaluation but in the Maritimes, standards of scholarship and the resources of resaerch archives are beginning to improve in quality, even in the Gaspé, which for too long, has been written of only in terms of travelogue.In the period 1790-1850, Gaspé found itself on the major shipping lane of Canadian trade, at the entrance to the R. St. Lawrence, and a calling port for ships destined for or departing from Quebec. The Irish, saling from southern Ireland to Halifax or St. John's, sometimes continued on to Quebec- the gateway to the Canadas from the 1790's to the famine years. The city, therefore, took on the role of Atlantic terminus and entrance point to the hinterland; on its grid of communications were the other ports, Halifax and St. John's, and lesser ports such as Arichat and the Gaspé towns of Paspebiac and Percé.

In the Gaspé District. Irish settlers found plentiful cod and a flourishing trade, and land which might be purchased or cleared with little regard to registration of title. Many Irish appeared to have remained there temporarily, or for a generation, moving eventually to Upper Canada. The motive for remaining might have been the promise of land and religious tolerance. The sparsely settled Gapsé welcomed the Irish, manpower being in short supply during the summer fishing; in time, the Irish Gaspians were integrated into the economic infrastructure of the District. The nature of the family was altered for those emigrants whose children and grandchildren remained in the area. We may well ask: what economic features are salient to and what evidence of transformation do we possess of the Celtic family in a small Gaspé town such as Percé.

In her doctoral dissertation, "From Outpost to OUtport: the Jersey Merchant Triangle of the 19th Century", Rosemary Ommer documented the growth of an empire of middlemen-traders, setting up a network of cod producing stations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, marketing stations in the Mediterranean, as well as Carribean rum and sugar distribution and an infrastructural supply industry located at Jersey. The Jersey enterprise involved the migration of administartive staff- largely single young men- to points of local production in the new world. These men were selected for indentured employment according to the directives of the founder of the largest such corporation, Charles Robin, who believed that "country lads" with the strong back and Protestant virtues of the Channel Islanders might well serve the interests of the Charles Robin Co. or the C.R.C. These apprentices were trained to become clerks and take charge of the accounting and credit policies of the "Truck System" employed by the C.R.C. in its dealings with the fishermen.

According to observers, the economy of the Gaspé at this tine was rich in consumer goods and yet currency poor. Wemight say that liquid capital was in short supply, a situation that continued well into the 20th century in the region. After a seven or more year apprenticeship, a Jerseyman clerk might choose to remain "on the coast" and probably marry a daughter of a local fishermen, who invariably would be a migrant from Ireland or the Quebec City region. He might purchase a plot near his in-laws and begin to raise a family. At retirement, he might seek matrimonial partners for his unmarried sons and devise a way of transmitting the tenure of his land to one of his sons.

The social customs and legal institutions relating to the transmissions of landed tenure was somewhat different for the Jersey-Gaspesian planter or fisherman than for a member of the Quebecois or Irish communities. The possibilities for a new Gaspesian were:

  • A form of intermarriage for his children, such as a sister exchange, either simple or complex, selection of a cousin or even some type of serial polygamy. Such marriages often required legal contract because of the complex interelationships and changes in religion.
  • An inheritance system which abandoned or downplayed the division of the estate in favour of a strict settlement.

We might consider the economic, social and political system described above as feudal. As a complex, configuration or Gestalt, we might think of these insitutions as forming a blend of the Norman customs with those of the Irish.

I have chosen two deeds from the Gaspé County land office concerning Irishmen at Percé, each illustrating the gradual integration of the Irish at Percé with their neighbours from 1820 to 1847.

Document Number 1 is the Testament of William Driscoll, a shopkeeper of about 73 years, likely a widower. His wife Elenor O'Brien and himself were formerly of the parish of Clonmult, east Cork. The testator has a son Timothy who resides at a 200 acre farm two miles from his father's home. Sarah Healy, a beneficiary, is likely a widowed sister of the testator. All the other parties are male and the witnesses include James Lenfesty, a Guernesy born Anglican.

Driscoll's connections with Halifax demonstrate how fluid the frontier of settlement was from a major few Atlantic depots to small villages in the Canadas.