Many Newfoundlanders have Irish ancestors, including my mother's paternal family. The family names throughout the island and especially along the southern shore of the Avalon Peninsula, speak to the brave men and women who left their Irish homeland in search of a better life. Many arrived during the Great Famine, when potato blight destroyed the subsistence potato crop between 1845 and 1852. However, the Irish migrated to my homeland before and after the famine as well and such was the case for my great grandfather.
My knowledge of him comes from my mother, the story teller in our family. She loved her grandfather O'Brien who lived with her family when she was young. Her memories of him became mine and with them came the desire to find out more, which has proven difficult.
His name was Edward O'Brien but Mom called him Granda Brien. It is interesting that the O was omitted from O'Brien in the family's Newfoundland baptismal records. The old record books at the Archives at The Rooms in St. John's all had elaborate penmanship, but with each entry for her grandparents, the surname is Brien. Mom had difficulty getting a passport because her own birth records showed her as Mary Brien.
Edward moved to Newfoundland, possibly in the 1870s, but this is conjecture on my part. We believe his O'Brien line was not related to any other O'Briens in Newfoundland. At least that is what was told in the family. How had his family been affected by the famine? What circumstances led him to set out on his own to a new land? We will never know.
In Newfoundland, Edward was a fisherman and farmer. He married Bridget Ann Kielly in Petty Harbour in 1882, and they had ten children, one of whom was my grandfather, Augustine, called Gus. They settled in Maddox Cove, a mile away, where they built a home, and had enough land to grow vegetables and graze animals. Being able to own land was important to a man who only knew tenant farming in his homeland.
Something noticeable about his Newfoundland farmland was the various fields separated by a row of trees or a line of rock/stones. When my husband and I visited Ireland, one of the emotional things for me was seeing how the fields along many of the hillsides were separated the same way. Edward did the same with his land as he had known in his homeland.
I discovered in census records that he was born in August 1853. However I do not know where he was born. I did ask my grandfather once and he told me, but I did not record it, so his father's birthplace is a mystery.
There are stories about Edward. His namesake, my uncle, Ned, Mom's older brother was carrying on one day while Nan, my grandmother Monnie, was bent over a sack of flour in the pantry. Ned dropped something into the flour, causing it to drift upwards in a heavy cloud, covering my grandmother. When she looked up, Nan's face was white except for her eyes. She ran after Ned; he was laughing as she chased him. As they passed through the kitchen where Edward was sitting on the day bed, granda said, "Don't hurt him, Monnie. The world will treat him hard enough." Mom was there and never forgot what her grandfather said. His attitude towards children was one of kindness. Mom always spoke of how good he was to them.
Another story has my great grandfather, my grandfather and two other men entering Petty Harbour in their small fishing boat during a terrible lightning storm. Returning from a fishing trip, they were in the outer part of the harbour. Edward stood up in the boat and shook his fist, saying, "Come on old man, give us yer best."
The story goes that a bolt of lightning hit the boat and broke her in two, throwing the four men in the water. They were in the harbour and survived.
Mom referred to her grandfather as a man of great faith. Could the experience in the boat have had anything to do with it? When he retired from fishing, he attended Mass every day and drove to Church in his horse and carriage.
Edward lived to be eighty-six years old. He prayed to die saying, "I've been in this world long enough now, God. Take me home."
The morning he died, in December 1939, my mother was up and ready for school. However her father sent her to the Madden's house across the cove to phone for the priest to come to her dying grandfather. In her rush to get there, Mom fell as she crossed the river on that frosty morning and her hands stuck to the ice; she tore the skin from her hands when she jumped up. Mrs. Madden bandaged Mom's hands before she went home. Her grandfather was dead before the priest arrived.
Today I live in Prince Edward Island where potatoes are vital to the economy and potato blight could be devastating. Home gardeners grow tomatoes which can have the same blight, the spores of which can be carried on the breeze to the potato fields.
Last summer, our local garden center carried blight resistant tomato plants, so as to protect the local potato fields. Every time I picked the tomatoes, I thought of those Irish ancestors, lost in time, but not forgotten.
Tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day."Top o' da marnin' ta ya," she said in the Irish Newfoundland accent of the southern shore.