Irish Ancestry Trail – Canada – Newfoundland

We start our trip along the Canadian-Irish ancestral trail - heading to the very Irish province of Newfoundland.

Now Reading:

Irish Ancestry Trail – Canada – Newfoundland

We landed in St. John’s, Newfoundland at 11.00am local time. Just 3.5 hours behind Ireland (Cork, actually) – and the 5 hour plane trip was quite a lot less than our ancestors had to endure. I must say (unlike the photo above – which was taken later in the week) – the environment looked quite familiar to an Irish person.

Lots of fog and drizzle! But, we quickly found that Newfoundlanders are some of the friendliest people on the planet!

We first met Donna Comerford in 2015 when she and her husband were on a trip around Ireland. She was one of our Green Room members, and shortly afterwards we did some research work on her Comerford line that came to Newfoundland in the early 1800s. So, long story short – Donna was our host for St. Johns (and a great job she did too!).

Donna Comerford, St. Johns, Newfoundland. Donna’s Comerford ancestors arrived in Newfoundland in the early 1800s. She has yet to find out for sure, but it appears that they originated in County Kilkenny in Ireland. You can find out more about Donna in our Newfoundland section of the Irish Ancestry Trail.

The names in her family are: Father’s side: Comerford, Gulliver (his mother), Voisey (maternal grandmother), Martin (maternal great-grandmother), Dalton (paternal grandmother), Cleary (paternal great-grandmother). Mother’s side: Brennan (don’t have a whole lot yet on this line), Eddicott (paternal grandmother), Hurley (her mother), Oliver (maternal grandmother), Power (maternal great-grandmother).

Donna very kindly met us from the airport and we started to make our plans at a local institution – Ches’s Fish and Chip Shop:

It’s only when you look at a map of Newfoundland (and Labrador) – you notice just how isolated it is. It’s a large island (about 20% larger than the island of Ireland), but the majority of the 528,000 population live by the coast and the majority of them on the Avalon peninsula to the extreme right of the map.

Newfoundland, Canada – St. John’s on the extreme right.

And it was that Avalon peninsula that was to be our home for the next four nights.

The Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland

We then headed to Cabot Hill just outside the city pf St. John’s – I spotted the following sign – photo opportunity! We just happened to be visiting Canada in 2017, the 150th anniversary of the founding of the modern country of Canada. However, Newfoundland did not join the other provinces in Canada until 1949.

I think we were getting the “orientation tour” from Donna – after all this is her home turf. The fog was down – as was the temperature, but the people and places are nice and warm. Next, Donna took us to a very specific place – where those ships over the centuries made landfall in St. Johns – and the New World. Here she is with a little more:

So, what was the connection between Ireland and Newfoundland down through the centuries? In 1497, John Cabot became the first European (since some Norse settlers) to arrive in Newfoundland. After Cabot, the next European visitors were Portuguese, Basque, Spanish, French and English migratory fishermen. By the late 17th century Irish fishermen started to arrive, who gave the Irish name of Talamh an Éisc to the island (pronounced Tall-uv 0n ayshk), meaning “the fishing grounds”.

Carina at the Irish exhibition at “The Rooms”, St. Johns

Many of the early – and later – Irish migratory fishermen came from the counties of Waterford, Wexford, Carlow, Tipperary, Kilkenny, West Kerry and East Cork – all close to the main ports of call in Ireland as Cornish fishermen and others made their way to Newfoundland for the season.

Thomas Nash, an Irish fisherman who  settled in Newfoundland established the fishing town of Branch. He and his cousin, a Father Patrick Power from County Kilkenny, worked to attract more permanent Irish immigrants to Newfoundland from the early 1700s. By the early 19th century permanent settlement had become the norm. It appears that Donna’s ancestors arrived with this later wave of Irish immigrants in the early 1800s. By the time of the 2006 census in Canada, 21.5% of Newfoundlanders claim Irish ancestry. However, right from our first day on St. John’s – we could hear a strong Waterford accent in the air. We spoke to a local lady – she asked us where we were from – we told her Ireland and she mentioned that her sister had recently returned from there. “How did she find it”, I asked – “Like Newfoundland on steroids”, was her reply. It’s hard to travel around the east part of Newfoundland and avoid the Irish lilt, Irish music – as well as many Irish surnames. Quite an introduction to our Irish ancestral trail!

The following video elaborates on the Irish-Newfoundland connection. I think it is especially fitting that the video is narrated in Irish (Gaelic) with subtitles in English. What do you think?

One Newfoundlanders Irish Family Tree.

While Carina and myself are “Come-from-awayers” in Newfoundland parlance, Donna Comerford is a Newfoundlander through and through. Although she now lives and works in Ottawa, you can see the affection she holds for her eastern homeland. I think she may be heading back this way permanently in years to come!

We asked Donna to tell us a little more about her Irish family tree – when did she start her research and what has she discovered so far:

My aunt started doing family research back in the 80’s and 90’s before she passed away.  I would talk to my other aunt from time to time about the research but about 2 or 3 years ago, I decided to jump in and really see what I could find.  My dad turned 85 this past year and I made it my mission to find out as much as I could about his direct line for him.  I’ve also been in contact with some “cousins” who had also tried their hand at finding information.  Turns out our great-grandfather married twice!  I just HAD to find out all those details!!  My mother died when she was only 48 (I was almost 22) and we didn’t really talk much about her family line – now I want to know all about it.

And the main Irish surnames in her family tree? 

The names in my family are: Father’s side – Comerford – Gulliver (his mother) – Voisey (maternal grandmother) – Martin (maternal great-grandmother); Dalton (paternal grandmother); Cleary (paternal great-grandmother). Mother’s side – Brennan (don’t have a whole lot yet on this line); Eddicott (paternal grandmother); Hurley (her mother); Oliver (maternal grandmother); Power (maternal great-grandmother).

We captured Donna’s direct Irish-Newfoundland line in the diagram below:

Donna Comerford’s Irish Newfoundland Family Tree

So, we cthe biggest questions that this family tree presents are:

  1. Where in Ireland did Michael Comerford and Catherine Cleary come from?
  2. They were born about 1820 – do any Irish records exist? This can be an early time to locate records in Ireland – and can be doubly difficult if we do not know the names of partents/siblings.
  3. Will DNA testing help us to discovering more about the homelands of the Comerfords and Clearys in Ireland? Notice that I leave this until last. I find that it’s most useful to discover as many records/documents/clues as possible to give us some good ideas BEFORE we get too distracted by the glamour of DNA results!

So, if you are interested in taking a deep-dive into how to approach each of these questions – and some answers/suggestions we uncovered – have a look here where we work through Donna Comerford’s Irish Family Tree, Records and DNA Results (note: this is only available to Green Room members).

Moving on around Newfoundland.

Donna next took us out  to Cape Spear – the most eastern point in North America. It was amazing just how similar the landscape was to the West of Ireland.

A walk to the point on Cape Spear

You can almost see Ireland from here! Over to you, Carina:

That evening saw a very nice meetup of readers and members in O’Reilly’s Bar in St. John’s. One of the reasons Carina may have been looking so nervous, is because she knew she had a date with a local fish after this photograph:

You see, we were due to be turned into honorary Newfoundlanders through a ceremony called “being screeched in”! I’ll let this video do the talking (and many thanks to Donna for arranging this emotional and lip-smacking event!):

The next day, we drove out into the Avalon Peninsula – around the small fishing villages that dot the coast south of St. Johns. One of our first ports of call was Petty Harbour – one of many villages that show their painted wooden houses and boats in all their glory.

Petty Harbour

While we were there, we came across Arthur O’Brien – a member of the Traditional Group called The Irish descendants. He treated us to many songs that we recognised from Ireland, including this Waterboys song that could have been written in Newfoundland:

We spent four wonderful days in Newfoundland – especially around the main town of St. John’s. Donna Comerford’s hospitality was second to none as she took us around the places that she considers special to herself and her family. The people that we met along the way were a wonderful mix of curious, independent, welcoming and friendly! Here is Mike on the quayside on our final morning with some thoughts before we pack up for the ferry to Nova Scotia:

Tom Donovan, another Newfoundlander and a member of our Green Room saw the above video and had the following to add:

Hi Mike/Carina

Love the post Mike. Beautiful video of St. John’s harbour this morning. It has been a few years since I last walked the waterfront. To add to your comments re the resemblance to Waterford, the main river flowing into St. John’s harbour is the Waterford River coming down the Waterford Valley and just up the valley is a place called Kilbride. Can’t get much more proof of the Irish connection! To add evidence to your reference to the accent, back in 2013 my wife and I did a self drive in the south of Ireland. We had stopped in a place called Stradbally and were chatting with a few locals. They were surprised to hear we were from Canada, because of our accent they thought we were from Waterford. Very small world!! Have a great trip to Cape Breton. On your way to Argentia to catch the ferry you will pass by a community called Placentia (the French capital in Newfoundland prior to 1763). The community was populated by Irish immigrants from that point on. Keep the photos and videos coming. Looking forward to the rest of your journey along the trail. Safe travels!

Tom Donovan.

So, Donna dropped us off at the ferry and we started on the next leg of our journey – an overnight boat-trip to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.

Donna and Friend in one of the many Irish Bars in St. Johns

Donna left the following note for us and all our readers:

I said my goodbyes to Mike and Carina as they headed off on the ferry to Nova Scotia.  Despite the rain and fog which greeted them (and hung around for a few days), the start of their journey gave them a lot to see and ponder on, I believe.

It was a great pleasure to spend the past few days with you both Mike and Carina and to be able to show you around wonderful St. John’s and surrounding areas and show you where my family lived and I’m happy that you got to meet some of my Comerford and Brennan relatives as well.  As was the case with many people who came from Ireland and stayed for a while, or were born in Newfoundland, some of my relatives also left St. John’s and moved to the USA.  I’ve found relatives in the Boston area (Comerford and Hurley so far).


As we pulled away from the port of Argentia in Newfoundland, we reflected on what a unique and wonderful place the province is! This is definitely a place that we would like to return to someday – and if you ever have an excuse to visit “The Rock” yourself, do jump at the opportunity!

Some final thoughts from Carina:

We’ll leave you with a list of Irish names that have been common in Newfoundland down through the years. Maybe you can find one or two of your own family names in the list?

Irish Surnames in Newfoundland:

According to Serry’s “Family Names of the island of Newfoundland”, there are about 1,339 Irish surnames found in Newfoundland today. They mostly arrived from the counties of Cork, Waterford, Wexford, Tipperary and Kilkenny in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Some of the most numerous Irish surnames are:

Aylward, Barrett, Breen, Brennan, Brett, Brown, Burke, Butler, Byrne, Cantwell, Carroll, Coady, Collins, Comerford, Connolly, Connors, Cuff, Dalton, Dillon, Dooley, Doyle, Duggan, Dunn, Dunphy, Dwyer, Fitzgerald, Fitzpatrick, Fleming, Flynn, Foley, French, Furlong, Gibbons, Greene, Griffin, Hanlon, Hayes, Healey, Hearn, Hickey, Higgins, Hogan, Howell, Hurley, Hussey, Hynes, Jennings,  Kavanagh, Kean, Kearley, Kelly, Kennedy, Keough, King, Lacey, Lambert, Lawlor, Lee, Long, Lynch, Maher, Malone, Maloney, Martin,  McCarthy,  McGrath, Meehan, Moore, Morrissey, Mullins, Mullowney, Murphy, Murray, Nolan, O’Brien, O’Keefe, O’Leary, O’Neill, O’Reilly, O’Toole, Philpott, Power, Purcell, Quigley, Quinlan, Quirk, Reardon, Reddy,  Ryall, Ryan, Sexton, Shea, Shortall,  Stapleton,  Sullivan, Tobin, Wall, Walsh, Welsh, Whalen, Whelan and White.

Do feel free to leave your comments and questions below.

Go to The Next Section: Nova Scotia.

Go Back to Main Table of Contents.

  • carolyn+hendry says:

    What a wonderful first chapter of your journey. Especially being screeched in!

  • Denise Everard says:

    This was lovely! Fascinating how similar we are to Ireland. I worked at a hospital in St John’s for years, and one day on the elevator, two residents got on. They were both from Dublin. They were discussing a trip they had taken to the southern shore of the Avalon, called rightly enough ” The Irish Loop “, and both said they thought they were back in Ireland! For so many years we were isolated from the rest of Canada and the US, but since Confederation, and exposure to Canadian and US TV, the younger generation is losing the accent and expressions unfortunately. My family ( Everard, Power, Stack, Grady) were all from Petty Harbour, so I am glad you got to see it. Arthur O’Brien is a cousin of mine! The next time you come I would like to meet you and perhaps take you ” UP the Southern Shore ” to Bay Bulls, Witless Bay, Cape Broyle etc., as well as a boat tour from Bay Bulls from O’Briens to see icebergs and whales.

    • Mike Collins says:

      Thanks Denise – what a great story! I think Petty Harbour should have been called Pretty Harbour on the day we visited. Might be a lot different in winter! Mike.

  • Marguerite Cole says:

    Also “McDonald”,my ancestors originally from Tipperary

  • Susan says:

    So glad I came across this post. I have not only enjoyed it but learned a little more about St John Newfoundland. My great grandfather Michael Fitzpatrick left Waterford Ireland sometime in the mid 1840s for St Johns and was married there and a family started. They left and found their way to Vermont USA.

  • Tom Donovan says:

    Mike & Carina you did a wonderful job of giving the reader a sense of just how Irish the eastern part of Newfoundland is. I have never seen the video of the Irish/Newfoundland connection. A real find! Brought a “tear to me eye”, living here in western Canada after a winter snowstorm. Encourages me to continue hunting for the Donovan townland in Ireland. Looking forward to the rest of the chapters.

  • Laura says:

    Hi, I thought this letter was both charming & informative. I very much enjoyed the short videos. I listened to the Irish subtitled one a couple of times.

    I never met my Donegal grandfather, who died when my father was young, but his first language was Irish Gaelic/ Erse?

    I’m not sure of the correct usage, since I’m Scottish born. And I don’t speak that Gaelic either, though I wanted my Latin teacher, a native speaker to teach me. Sadly her answer back in the Sixties was, “Don’t waste your time.”

    After your world travels any chance of more subtitled Irish language pieces from Eire? Perhaps with a transcription in Irish too?

  • Elaine Paul says:

    What a wonderful look at the Irish in Newfoundland. Looking forward to seeing your Nova Scotia experience.

  • Mary Moore says:

    I’ve been to Newfoundland on a road trip in 2014. So far from Australia. The accent and culture was amazing. I read the surname above – Fitzpatrick, Murphy, King, Power, Walsh, Moore are all closely connected to my family tree. I think I’ll have to go back and explore some more. Cheers Mary Moore – Australia (dad from County Kilkenny)

  • CAROL Kuzia says:

    Hi I just read this article and enjoyed so much. I am looking for a surname. My grandmother and her family born in Newfoundland. She was adamant that she wasn’t Irish but Newfie. The family name was/is Hartery and I do not find it in your list of surnames. Could you advise? So very appreciative for any info. Thank You very much.

  • Sandy Laferriere says:

    I so enjoyed viewing your journey to Newfoundland again…. I have been there twice, but I want to go back again to spend more time on the Eastern shore. It’s beautiful beyond words. The people of NFL are wonderful. Very friendly, very independent, and so creative. I see that Kennedy is a surname there…. my family perhaps? Maybe I will find out one of these days. Maybe I will see Donna Comerford there too! ????☘️☘️☘️☘️

  • victor mclaughlin says:

    so glad i came across this as i have irish connections in newfoundland st johns as my great grandfather was born in n f l his name john mclaughlin his father was henry mclaughlin who later came back to kent england yours victot robert patrick mclaughlin