CLOSE TIES: Neighbourhoods bickered among themselves
here, just as their inhabitants
had done in Ireland, says a genealogist who has
studied Saint John families.
By MAC TRUEMAN - Times Globe
SAINT JOHN - There was Kate Devine, the upstart.
The daughter of a Lower Cove widow who worked
at the Ganong chocolate
factory, she had married a young man from one of
the lace-curtain homes of
snobbish Cathedral Parish.
One day, her mother-in-law sent her an icy
note inviting her to a party, adding,
"Would you be good enough to come up and sing."
"You tell Mrs. Quinn," the bride replied to
the messenger, "I'm too damned
good to go up and sing!"
This story of his great-grandmother is one
of thousands of anecdotes gathered
by genealogist Peter Murphy in more than a decade
of research into South End
Saint John's Irish settlers.
His 1990 book Together In Exile chronicles
the immigration to Saint John's
Lower Cove of some 250 families who all came from
the same village in
Mr. Murphy believes these are ancestors of
nearly all the several thousand
ethnic Irish who made up the tightly knit neighbourhood
Avenue - which continued as a neighbourhood until
flattened it in the early 1960s.
The book lays out the genealogy of these families
and their descendants,
presenting biographical sketches of some 2,000
people, and listing thousands of
others. He set their 39 surnames to the tune of
an Irish folk song, so he could
remember them all.
His stories illustrate the unique colour and
the us-against-them clannishness of
Saint John communities so true to the character
of Famine-era Ireland that they
became frozen in time, until they were eventually
left behind by the mother
Mr. Murphy, likens this to the survival among
New Brunswick Acadians of
17th-century French dialects which linguists now
come here from Paris to study.
Before the 1960s, Irish Catholic Saint Johners
were very different from the
modern-day image of Irish Catholics as a people
united in love of nation and
their opposition to British rule, he said.
Instead, these communities were at one anothers'
throats. Lower Cove families
complained loudly of any preference shown by Cathedral-area
schools to their
Mr. Murphy argued that the Saint John Irish-Canadian
Cultural Association and
its success in generating local interest in Irish
heritage over the last decade
"would not have been possible before urban renewal.
Identity was too strongly
associated with neighbourhood."
The parochial character of Saint John's Irish
communities stems from the days of
subsistence living in rural Ireland, he said.
"When your livelihood depended on whether
your potatoes grew or not, that
extra potato might be the one that kept you alive.
"If your cousin John had that potato, and
he owed it to you, it was important
that he knew that."
Existence near the edge of life and death
bound families into tightly knit clans,
and clans into communities rigidly defined by unwritten
rules for every situation.
"If somebody died and left children, and his
brothers and sisters didn't have the
means to take them, their first cousins would be
expected to take them.
"No matter what it was, there was an unwritten
law that covered it - who paid
for somebody's funeral, who you let use a certain
These close ties within any given community
automatically brought suspicion and
hostility toward outsiders in neighbouring villages,
in what Mr. Murphy
describes as "an us-and-them phenomenon."
Isolation added to this. Until they got on
the ship that brought them here, most
of these people had never traveled more than 15
miles beyond their own village,
he said. Few were literate.
"Their world went as far as they could see.
It went only as far as the horizon."
In Saint John, the tiny immigrant communities
were made even more cohesive
by their small numbers. "There is evidence they
made every effort to stay
together as a distinct group, even within the Irish
"Where there was opportunity for marriage
[within the neighbourhood], they did
it. This strengthened the community. I may not
know my second cousin, but if
he's my double-second cousin and he lives in the
same community, the chances
are I'm going to think of him as family. It was
like a web of inter-relationships."
By the turn of the century, "the practical
implications [of parochialism] had
faded, but they still had ingrained in them the
tradition of presenting a united
front to outsiders," he said.
An example of this parochialism was the Saint
John woman burned out of her
St. Andrew's Street home in the Great Saint John
Fire of 1877. She rented a
comfortable room on Germain Street, but moved right
out again when she
discovered the family had come from the Cooley
Her parents had come from a rival parish 15
miles away, and "I couldn't stand
to live among the Cooleys," she explained to her
daughter 25 years later.
The Young Men's Catholic Institute - later
the CYO - was shrugged off by
South Enders as "just for the Sheehans and Nugents,"
the wealthy city-centre
families who had money and time for basketball
and swimming, Mr. Murphy
The Waterloo and Peter Street Irish had preceded
Lower Cove settlers, and
had some 25 years of establishment and prosperity
up on the newcomers. They
saw the Cooleys as upstarts, "much as the British
viewed their colonials," Mr.
The Irish settlements in Saint John each came
from a separate community of the
motherland, he said. Those in the Waterloo Street
area came from a village in
what is now Northern Ireland. In York Point, where
several people were killed
in Orangeman's Day riots in the 1840s, a large
portion of Irish had come from
Some local families might not have been overjoyed
to see their long-forgotten
pockets of history laid bare in Mr. Murphy's book.
He mentions Biddy
McCrink, for example, whose frequent arrests along
the red light district of
Sheffield Street led a judge to comment that her
fines had helped furnish the
More patrons were seen walking into the entrance
of Spud Miller's infamous
bar in Lower Cove than ever came out. Many of them
woke up on the high
seas. Mr. Murphy interviewed a man who watched
a press gang carry a
drunken seaman-to-be out the back door.
Many years passed before Kate Devine got to
climb into the undertaker's
limousine for her mother-in-law's funeral procession.
She gave a sympathetic
nudge to her bereaved husband, who had all his
life been the epitome of a
faithful son. Then she reached ahead and tapped
the driver on the shoulder.
"Hurry up," she told him. "This is one parade
I'm going to lead."