It was a chance meeting on a street in Toronto which brought us together. I had arrived in the Canadian city the previous evening and was out early in the morning with a map in hand to find my bearings as the city folk went about their business. A bystander’s offer of help was received with gratitude and was soon followed by the oft asked question ‘what part of Ireland are you from?’ Generally the questioner’s knowledge of our island extends no further than the political division between Northern Ireland and the South, but in this case the young man who asked the question seemed to know our country quite well. My usual answer is to indicate that I come from ‘a small town south of Dublin’, a reply which usually satisfies most enquirers, but to my amazement my good samaritan was able to identify with Athy. His mother I discovered was from the South Kildare town, having emigrated to Toronto with her sister in 1954.
What an amazing coincidence on talking to the first person I met on the streets of Toronto to find that he was a son of Brigid Maher who left No. 2 Minch’s Terrace almost 60 years ago. George Geddes was on his way to work and we stepped on to the same trolley car and continued our conversation for a short while as I scribbled notes and names on my transit map. It was a great pleasure to meet the young man whose knowledge of Athy was far greater than one might expect and was apparently based on his mother’s memories of her home town.
His mother Brigid Maher was daughter of Ellen and James Maher, formerly of Higginsons Lane, who following the slum clearance programmes of the early 1930s moved into their new home at Minch’s Terrace. James Maher who had served overseas during World War 1 died aged 49 years in 1937 and was survived by his widow Ellen and six children, only one of whom, Jim, would continue to live in the town of his birth. Jim worked in the local Asbestos factory and died unmarried in 1975, aged 47 years. His sisters Brigid and Margaret emigrated to Canada in 1954 where both eventually married and settled down in Toronto city. Brigid died some years ago while her sister Margaret is still living in the Canadian city. Another sister, Mollie, also emigrated and she spent some years in London and Toronto before returning to her home town of Athy where she lived for a while in the gate lodge of Ardreigh House. Mollie died in 1997, aged 67 years. Her siblings, Lowry and Nellie, also emigrated, both taking the emigrant boat to England and both took up residence in Manchester where Lowry still lives. The Torontonian George Geddes was able to talk to me with affection of No. 2 Minch’s Terrace which he had visited during his Granny’s lifetime and where John Shaughnessy, son of his Aunt Nellie, is now living.
The emigrant story of the Maher family is typical of many Athy families of the past. The current recession has awakened memories of the mass emigration of the 1950s as I found when later on my short visit to Canada I was served by Stephanie Dargan Moore of Newbridge in Earls Restaurant next door to Vancouver’s Supreme Court. Stephanie left Newbridge two years ago and in her own words ‘loves Vancouver’ where two of her friends are Sinead Howe and Emmet Doyle from Athy.
Canada has received many Irish emigrants over the years including those who survived the dangerous Atlantic sea crossing during and after the Great Famine. During the worst years of the Famine 365,000 Irish men, women and children arrived in Canada. Between May and October 1847 38,000 starving Irish arrived on Toronto’s Lake Ontario shore and more than 1,000 of the new arrivals died before the summer had ended.
On the 150th anniversary of ‘Black ‘47’ President McAleese opened a waterfront park in Toronto dedicated to Irish Famine victims. The Ireland Park houses a wall made of Irish limestone, with the names of the dead Irish emigrants who could be identified, carved on it. It also contains five bronze figures sculpted by Rowan Gillespie depicting Famine victims to mirror the Famine figures he sculpted for the Famine memorial at Dublin Port. The park, funded by the Irish and Canadian Governments with some private donations, unfortunately has been closed since 2010 due to building and road works on the waterfront. Nevertheless the impressive memorial wall was just about visible when I tried to access the park.
In this year of the Gathering I have received an increasing number of enquiries from abroad relating to Athy families of the past. With each enquiry generally comes a good deal of family information which is proving useful in documenting the town’s story. The unexpected meeting with George Geddes on a Toronto street has afforded me a unique opportunity to document the emigrant story of one Athy family.