Contributed by Patrick M. Shea
With the given name “Patrick” and the surname “Shea”, I have been told hundreds of times that I must be Irish, and I have been asked almost as many times from where in Ireland did my ancestors come. For a sixth- generation Canadian such as myself to answer such a question, however, is a bit complicated, because my ancestors all emigrated from Ireland to Canada at various times between the 1820s to the 1860s from at least a dozen different Irish counties and they settled in three different areas: Montreal, Hastings County in what is now the Province of Ontario, and the Ottawa Valley. My geographically diverse Irish lineage and the diverse Canadian settlement pattern of my forbearers is very typical among the millions of other Canadians whose Irish ancestors arrived on these shores 150 to 200 years ago.
The Sheas of Montreal
My great-great-great-grandmother Hanora (Harrington) Shea and her sons Denis (aged 17) and Daniel (aged 9) emigrated from Kenmare, County Kerry and arrived in Montreal in 1851. Her husband Daniel (and possibly one or more of their children) must have died either in Ireland or while travelling across the Atlantic. Montreal, which was Canada’s largest and most important city during most of the 19th and 20th Centuries, had a population of about 57,000 in the early 1850s, just over half of which was English-speaking, and the balance of which was French-speaking. Of the English-speaking majority, the Irish were the largest ethnic group, outnumbering the English and the Scots. Hanora’s first recorded address in her new city in 1852 indicated that she lived on the corner of McCord Street and William Street, in the densely populated and soon-to-be highly industrialized Griffintown neighbourhood of Montreal, where she worked as a laundress. Hanora’s life in Montreal was fairly short-lived because she died on 27 December 1863.
My great-great-grandfather Daniel Shea thereafter grew up in Griffintown and became a labourer. In 1864, the year after his mother died, he married County Longford- native Bridget Casey at St. Patrick’s Church in Montreal, which had been built for the rapidly growing Irish- Catholic population in 1847, the year in which tens of thousands of desperate Great Famine refugees arrived in Montreal, many of whom settled in the city. In 1897, their son Denis married his Griffintown neighbour Mary Cowie, the daughter of John Cowie, a County Tyrone-born Methodist, who had served in a Montreal militia which was formed to protect Canada from the 1866 armed and violent cross-border invasions of Irish-American Fenians, and Elizabeth Lawlor, an Irish-Catholic who was born in Montreal in the 1830s. After getting married, my great-grandparents Denis and Mary Shea moved about half a mile west to the St. Henri neighbourhood, where Denis worked in various factories and stores and, for a time, for the Montreal Street Railway Company.
After Denis’s death in 1911 at the age of 46, Mary and her five children moved above a mile further west to the new middle-class neighbourhood of Notre Dame de Grâce (known as NDG), where her son Patrick (who went by Percy) attended Loyola College, which had been founded by the Jesuits in 1848 as the bilingual (French- English) St. Mary’s College and was subsequently spun out in 1896 as a stand-alone English-language Loyola College, where Irish-Catholic students were in the majority for many decades thereafter.
My grandfather Percy Shea met my grandmother Hilda Tierney in NDG in the 1930s. Hilda was, like Percy, the grandchild and great-grandchild of Irish immigrants. Hilda’s father, John Tierney – the son of James Tierney and Ann Holden who emigrated from Redhills, County Cavan in the 1860s after getting married, making them the very last of my ancestors to leave Ireland – served overseas during the First World War with the Montreal-raised 199th Battalion, Irish Canadian Rangers, whose patron was the Duchess of Connaught. Hilda’s mother, Ellen Donnelly, was the seventh child of William Donnelly of Ahoghill, County Antrim, whose family bible remains in our family to this day, and Alice McCormick, of Country Tyrone, who each emigrated to Montreal in the late 1840s or early 1850s. Four generations of the Donnelly-McCormick family lived in the bilingual working-class St. Henri neighbourhood, including over seventy-five years at the same address at 95 Turgeon Street.
Percy and Hilda Shea raised their sons, John and Peter, in the NDG neighbourhood of Montreal. Both boys attended Loyola High School and Loyola College. My father, Peter Shea, met my mother, Margaret McIninch, in NDG, and have lived in Percy and Hilda’s former home since 1974. I followed in my father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to Loyola and, after five years of studies in Massachusetts and New Jersey and five years of working in Manhattan, I’m back living less than a mile away from my parents with my wife, Laurie Birbilas (who is able to boast of being 1/32 Irish), and my four sons Liam, Hugo, Griffin, and Elias (with a fifth son due to arrive in April 2021). Liam is the first fourth-generation-family student in the long and storied history of Irish-founded Loyola.
My sons are the members of the seventh generation of my family to live in Canada. Despite the passage of almost two hundred years since my ancestors first started emigrating from Ireland, Irish tradition still runs very deeply in our family. My sisters, Kathleen and Brigid, did Irish dancing for many years when they were young, as did my son, Hugo. My father was honoured as Montreal’s Irishman of the Year in 2001 and was the president of St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal, which was founded in 1834 by Catholic and Protestant Irishmen, from 2000 to 2002. I also served as president of the Society from 2010 to 2012. My parents, my brother Kevin, my sisters, and I travel to Ireland on vacation and on business as often as we are able.
The McIninches of Ontario
Whereas the Sheas and my other paternal ancestors experienced Canada for generations in or just adjacent to the dense city centre of Montreal, my mother’s family’s Canadian experience was very different. Although the timeline of their emigration – from the 1820s to the 1850s – was roughly the same as that of my paternal ancestors, their emigration destination was not. They settled in what was once known as Upper Canada, later called Canada West, and now called Ontario.
My great-great-great-grandparents, Robert McIninch and Elizabeth Colgon, were born in Ireland circa 1792 and farmed in the townland of Dunseverick Mill in County Antrim, near the Giant’s Causeway. In 1854, after each had reached the age of 60, they emigrated to Canada together with at least five of their adult and teenaged children. They settled on a 200-acre lot near Stirling, in Rawdon Township, Hastings County in what is now Ontario, where they farmed until their deaths at the advanced ages of 87 and 90.
Their son, Henry McIninch, my great-great-grandfather, left the family farm in the late 1850s or early 1860s to join his older brother William’s successful carriage and blacksmith business in Belleville, a large, thriving town on Lake Ontario, about 15 miles south of Stirling. In 1862, the McIninch brothers opened a brand new store. But only two short years after the opening of the new premises, William died after suffering a kick to his lower abdomen by a young horse behind which he stood. Henry, who was Anglican, took over his brother’s business and married my great- great-grandmother, Margaret McDonough, an Irish-born Catholic who had emigrated to Canada in 1850. Henry had a prominent local political career. Henry served as a Belleville city councillor from 1878 to 1886 and was elected as mayor of Belleville in 1886. Like his father Robert, he was a freemason, and he served as the master of Eureka Lodge in Belleville. Family oral history recounts that Henry was also a social acquaintance and occasional (or perhaps frequent) drinking companion of another Ontario politician, Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.
My great-great-grandparents, Henry and Margaret McIninch, had four children. Their second child, William, married my great-grandmother, Teresa Meagher, in 1902 in Belleville. Teresa grew up about 15 miles east of Belleville on a farm in Tyendinaga Township, Hastings County. Teresa’s parents were the Irish-born James Meagher and the Canadian-born Mary Shaughnessy. The Shaughnessys and the Meaghers were among the very earliest pioneer settlers of Tyendinaga Township. My great-great- great-grandfather, John Shaughnessy, emigrated from Pallaskenry, Country Limerick in the early- to mid-1820s and married fellow Limerick native Hanora Fitzgerald in 1832 – they had twelve children. A letter dated 1 March 1828 that was mailed from Pallaskenry and addressed to John in Upper Canada sits framed on my mantelpiece today. They settled on and cleared a 100-acre lot through brutally cold winters and hot summers, and built a farmhouse that is still lived in to this day. John was a member of the Hastings County militia in 1834. My great-great-grandfather, James Meagher, emigrated from Country Tipperary as an infant in 1830 with his parents, William Meagher and Ellen Sweeney, and they also settled on and cleared a 100-acre lot in order to transform it into productive farmland. Today, their farmhouse is still inhabited and their land is still being farmed. James Meagher and Mary Shaughnessy had thirteen children, including my great-grandmother, Teresa.
When their four children were still young, my great- grandparents William and Teresa McIninch, moved to Ottawa in 1908. That is where my grandfather, John McIninch, met my grandmother, Dorothy Grimes, sometime in the 1930s. The Grimes family was well known in local Ottawa sporting circles. Dorothy’s mother, Margaret Byrnes (the daughter of Irish-born Mary Lannan, who emigrated to Ottawa around 1830, and Irish-born Patrick Byrnes), married John Grimes. John, who was born hundreds of miles up the Ottawa River from Ottawa in the small town of Mattawa, Ontario in 1872, was the son of Irish-born Thomas Grimes and Bridget O’Kelly. John was a very talented player of lacrosse, one of Canada’s two national sports and far-and-away the most popular sport in Canada at the turn of the 20th century. After his own playing days ended, he travelled down to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for several months each year during most of the 1910s to coach the Lehigh University lacrosse team, which team he led to national university championships in 1914, 1916, and 1917. John died of Spanish influenza in October 1918 at the age of 46.
In 1941, my grandparents, John and Dorothy McIninch, fourth-generation Irish-Ontarians, moved from Ottawa, Ontario in order to get married in and settle in Montreal, a city which John’s doctor had promised him would be better than Ottawa for his asthma. They lived in the Montreal neighbourhood of NDG, very near to where the Sheas lived, and had six children. Two of the boys would attend Loyola and were classmates and teammates of my father, Peter Shea. My father met my mother, Margaret McIninch, through such neighbourhood and Loyola connections.
My parents’ marriage, which took place fifty years ago, in February 1971, united an urban Montreal-Irish settler tradition with a mostly rural Ontario-Irish settler tradition, in each case reaching back to emigration that began in the 1820s.
Patrick M. Shea