Out of Ireland

Several solitudes: This city's divided Irish

        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
         Southern Ireland.

         Mr. Murphy believes these are ancestors of nearly all the several thousand
         ethnic Irish who made up the tightly knit neighbourhood around Broadview
         Avenue - which continued as a neighbourhood until urban redevelopment
         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
         own children.

         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 field."

         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 Catholic community.

         "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 Peninsula.

         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.
         Murphy said.

         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
         County Cork.

         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."