A Letter from Ireland:
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From Fairy-Gaul to the Irish in Montreal

The Irish in Montreal. The Irish Ancestry Trail stretches around the globe. One popular migration was to follow the timber ships of Canada back to their ports of call, after they made shipments to Ireland. One of Canada’s larger cities, Montreal, was to become the new home of many an Irish wanderer.

On Mont Royale, Monteal, Canada

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. How are things in your part of the world today? Just last night, we had a lovely dinner of poached salmon, new potatoes and green beans. The reason I mention this is because we celebrate the old feast of “Lughnasa” (pronounced Loo-nasa) about this time of year. It’s a traditional time in Ireland to mark the beginning of the harvest – and it certainly feels like a time of plenty both in our farmers markets and on the dinner plate, with some lovely produce around.

Maybe you have seen the play/film called “Dancing at Lughnasa” by Brian Friel? It concerns the siblings in a County Donegal house and was made into a movie a few years back. Here’s an excerpt featuring Meryl Streep and her film-sisters. There’s some nice music, toe-tapping, laughter and dancing!

I’m taking to a cup of Lyon’s Tea as I write – and I do hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter. Well, I mentioned Donegal above – and the subject of today’s letter started off in that part of Ireland – but went on to become the patriarch of a musical family in the City of Montreal.

From Fairy-Gaul to the Irish of Montreal.

“Fairy-Gaul, are you in there? Will your Mam let you out to play?”

That was the ten-year old me shouting across the fence to my neighbours. It was the usual way we communicated to resume our playtime following a quick ten minute dinner of a summer evening. My neighbours, the Ledwidges, seemed to have the most exotic names of any family I knew. There wasn’t a John or Mary among them!

There was “Fearghal” (the aforementioned Fairy-Gaul”) as well as “Fiachra” and “Muireann” – not to mention four or five older children with equally mysterious names. What I did not realise at the time, was that these were mostly older, pre-Christian Irish names. They had fallen into disuse over the centuries and it’s only in the last 50 years that they seem to be resuming their rightful places across Ireland and beyond. Do you have any old Irish given names like these in your family? Do leave your comments below and let me know.

Like many other early Irish given names, Fearghal worked it’s way into a number of Irish surnames from the turn of the first millennium. These were eventually anglicised in surnames such as O’Farrell, O’Farrelly, McCarrigle, McGirl and McGarrigle all with “son of Fearghal” or “descendant of Fearghal” at their core. Are any of these surnames in your Irish family tree?

Let’s take just one of these names as an example – McGarrigle (from son of Fearghal).  This particular anglicisation of the name comes from an area across Counties Donegal/Tyrone/Fermanagh/Sligo.

The Blackrock Irish Memorial, Montreal.

Francis McGarrigle was born in the city of St. John in New Brunswick, Canada in 1899. The port city had already been exporting the timber of the area for over a century to many places across the British Empire – including the island of Ireland. Of course, many families in Ireland were enticed to travel back on the returning ships – now empty of their wooden cargo – and start a new life in the maritime provinces of Canada and beyond. I don’t know when Francis’ family arrived in St. John, but it was likely that either his parents or grandparents were born in Ireland.

Francis must have shown a musical aptitude at an early age – he became a piano teacher and moved to the larger city of Montreal to make a living with his music. He then met and married Gabrielle Latremouille – and they had a number of children together before moving on to the town of St. Saveur – a little further north-west of Montreal.

I’m often struck by the small number of people of declared Irish ancestry in the province of Quebec (5.5% in 2006). Apparently this has to do with the large amount of intermarrying between the Irish and Canadians of French extraction – the Irish lineage often getting lost in the mix! Some Irish surnames were also translated/morphed into French – such as O’Brennan becoming Aubray in one case. How about you – do you have Irish ancestors who lived in Quebec at one stage? Do leave your comments below and let me know.

Two of Francis and Gabrielle’s daughters – Kate and Anna McGarrigle – went to to become famous folk singers, blending the folk music of north America, French Canada, the Maritimes – and I like to think northwest Ireland – with their beautiful voices and playing. Kate’s two children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, carry on the musical legacy of this family of the “Sons of Fearghal”. Here we have Kate and Anna with the Stephen Foster song “Gentle Annie”:

I do hope you enjoyed that lovely piece of music. Last September, Carina and myself travelled to St. John in New Brunswick and  Montreal in Quebec – as well as many other stops on the “Irish Ancestry Trail”. We so enjoyed following the stories of Irish families, like the McGarrigles, that arrived on those shores from the 1600s and made further progress to many other parts of the continent.

That’s it for this week – and we do look forward to you joining us again next week.

Slán for now,

Mike & Carina.

  • IrishG says:

    I was born in Tennessee in the U.S. My father, James, who was known as “the Big Irishman,” had a middle name of Aloysius. His father, James (coming from a family of Irish immigrants) and his mother (whose family was also from Ireland), thought it was a fine name. My father did not like it one bit. When he became an adult, he had it legally changed to an A, no period – similar to a former American President Harry S Truman.

  • John says:

    I was born in Montreal, My mother being a McQuillen Mary Madeline of Irish Ancestry But also born in Montreal Quebec. Great letter thanks for sharing.

  • Carina says:

    Delighted you enjoyed The letter from Ireland John and thanks for sharing your family ancestry with us.
    Slán , Carina.

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