An O’Malley Journeys to the Home of His Father’s Father : Martindale

By MARTIN O’MALLEY

A thunderstorm woke me in hotel room in Ottawa. I had been dreaming; the storm must have started the dream. In the dream my father was telling about the night his father died.

It was last May (1991), when I was working for the Citizen’s Forum on Canada’s Future. Most of the winter I had been travelling with Keith Spicer, listening to Canadians tell their stories.

martin-omalley

Martin O’Malley

We covered Canada from coast to coast. We were coming to end of the adventure, preparing the final report, working 12 hour days. After the storm woke me, I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got out of bed, walked to the window and watched the rain splash the empty streets below.

The first time my father told me about the night his father died, I was 10 years old. It was a cold winter night, he said, and his father was sick with pneumonia. He was sitting by the bed when his father asked him to open the window because he wanted fresh air.

My father couldn’t, so he broke a small pane at the bottom and for doing this, his father thanked him. Later that night his father died.

I never think of him as my grandfather, only as my father’s father. I never knew him. I’ve never even seen a picture of him. He grew up in the Quebec countryside, in a place called Martindale.

My father told me he was a farmer who raised eight children, went to bed early, made potato pancakes on Sunday mornings, had some horses, and liked working with his hands. He died in 1917, when he was in his fifties. His name was Martin O’Malley.

My father used to say Martindale was named after him. It seemed a pretty grandiose notion; I’m not sure I fully believed him, but it gave me a good feeling to know there might be place in Canada named after my family name.

It always intrigued me that my father grew up in the Quebec countryside, in a place called Martindale, an Irish farming community. I couldn’t imagine him on a farm. He had raised me in Winnipeg, before that he had lived in Regina, and long before that he had started as a newspaperman in Ottawa.

To me, he had always been a city man. This intrigued me almost as much as my father’s growing up in Quebec. There was never anything about him remotely Quebecois, although, perhaps significantly, when he retired he enrolled in a French-immersion course. His accent was lamentable, worse even than John Diefenbaker’s, but he gave it a good try.

During the work on the Citizen’s Forum, I often thought it would be interesting to hold a group discussion in Martindale, bringing together English, French and Irish to talk about Canada’s future.

That’s what we were doing toward the end of the exercise, bringing different groups together from across the country, mixing and matching. Sometimes we did this with the latest communications technology, staging what we called “electronic town-hall meetings.”

They were not a successful as the real exchanges: group discussions on trains, between Toronto and Montreal, reciprocal visits among people from small towns in the Canadian West and Quebec countryside.

It was amazing how the large problems, and the politics and posturing faded into insignificance when people sat across from one another and spoke honestly.

A group discussion in Martindale might have allowed the Irish connection to bestride the two solitudes, perhaps provide perspective and leavening humour – the Irish are good at that.

But it was too late; we were writing the report. Still, I needed a little perspective from the 12-hour days, and all that indoor work. The next morning, I rented a car and drove into the Quebec countryside – heading home.

Martindale is about an hour’s drive north of Hull, Quebec, on the highway to Maniwaki. I veered off to a secondary highway, one that runs along the Gatineau River. What I remember of that drive were the logs floating down the river, the rolling hills, the lilac bushes, and the crackling sound of a may breeze through poplar trees. And Eddie McCrank.

It was late in the afternoon, as I was preparing to drive back to Ottawa. I was in the Martindale Pioneer Cemetery, standing beside a handsome stone monument adorned with shamrocks, fleurs-de-lys and a large Celtic cross.

For a long time I had been jotting down names from the monument – Mary O’Boyle, Bridget Deegan, Martin Mulvihill, Louisiana Machabee – marvelling at the felicity of the names, and wondering who their owners might have been.

The sun was near the horizon, casting long shadows in the cemetery, when I heard the shuffling sound of someone walking up behind me. I turned around, and a small man in his late sixties introduced himself as Eddie McCrank.

“Can I be of help to you?” he asked. His voice sounded raspy, mechanical. He had been operated on for cancer of the larynx and couldn’t speak through his mouth, only through his throat.

He lived in the white bungalow across the road from the cemetery. He had been watching me from the window.

I told him who I was, and the name meant something to him, but vaguely. He know of an O’Malley who had lived up the road a long time ago, on a farm across from the church, where the new cemetery is.

He thought the man might actually have donated the land for the church which is called St. Martin’s. Not many O’Malley’s though. He was much more interested in my grandmother’s name, which was Kealey.

“Oh, a Kealey. So you’re a Kealey? There’ve been lots of Kealeys around here.”

There had indeed been manner of Kealeys, judging from all the names on the monuments in the Pioneer Cemetery and the new cemetery – built soon after the turn of the century – up the road on the hillside that used to be part of my father’s father’s farm.

Lots of Kealeys: Thomas, Catherine, Martin, Elizabeth, another Elizabeth, Mary, Juliane, another Mary, William, Agatha, Joseph….

My grandmother’s name was Elizabeth Kealey. Earlier in the day I had found the family plot in the new cemetery. At the top of the hill was a limestone marker about four meters high, bleached and smoothed with age, with amber lichen stuck to the based like fossilized poppies: “In Loving Memory of Martin O’Malley.”

It gives you a chill to see your name on a tombstone.

My father’s father had died on March 3, 1917, aged 57. An inscription read: “Rest beloved one, I must leave you. I must breast the morning tide. Just a few more weary days will lay me by your side.”

Below the inscription was the name Elizabeth Kealey, who managed to breast the tide of weary days for another 18 years.

Standing in the grass at the top of the hill by the tombstones, I could see for miles. In Martindale there is no downtown, no general store, no service station, no coffee shop. My father used to say it was like a piece of Ireland, though he had never been to Ireland.

I tried to see things he might have seen: the sweep of the land; the hills, the church, for sure, with the two-storey rectory beside it, which would have been right across the road from his house; to the south, two houses in a glen.

An artist was sketching the glen in charcoal, standing at a tripod set up behind her station wagon in the church parking lot. To the north, just beyond the church, the two-lane highway becomes gravel road, which services several working farms spaced widely apart. One of the barns has a faded green shamrock above the doors.

There was another house and a barn beside the new cemetery across the road from the church. That house, white and green trim and a large front porch, was my father’s father’s house.

The O’Malley’s moved to Ottawa when my father was in elementary school, but they kept the house as a retreat for weekends and vacations. It had been spruced up, but it still looked like a house from the late 19th century.

There was dormer window on the second floor, above the front porch. Something about that window brought back the dream I’d had during the thunderstorm. There were found small panes of glass along each side of the main window. My father said he had broken a small pane of glass to let in some fresh air.

In a field across the road from my grandfather’s house lay the twisted remains of an old thresher. Was it a piece of equipment my father once rode on? Maybe my father and my father’s father, together on a brisk afternoon. A black cow the size of a Buick stood beside the wreck of the thresher, its eyes turned toward the road, staring at me.

Eddie McCrank was more interested in my work for the Citizen’s Forum; he’d learned of it from the business card I had given him.

“Do you think they’ll really listen to what people have to say?”

I told him about the group discussions and how we had reached nearly 400,000 Canadians.

“But can this Spicer fellow really tell the government what’s going on out here?”

I said he could and probably would. Eddie McCrank looked skeptical.

And then, as happened often at the group discussions, he described how much better it is when people are left alone to get along, without politics nudging them one way or the other.

For many years, he said, his next door neighbour had been a French-speaking blacksmith, and they had been the best of friends, which never surprised him because they hadn’t known any other way.

I returned on another day in October. It was sunny and brisk. The smell of lilacs was long gone, and the poplars had shed their chattering leaves.

Heading up the Martindale, I stopped by the side of the road at a diner for a soggy carton of poutine, the Quebec concoction of French fries, gravy and melted cheese. The newspaper I browsed through was The Low Down to Hull and Back News. It was an English weekly, purporting to be “the ONLY newspaper serving ONLY the Gatineau Hills since 1973.”

This time I knew a little more, having written to some of the Kealeys. Nobody seemed to know much about the O’Malleys other than, yet, there had been O’Malleys here once and there weren’t anymore.

No matter; Elizabeth Kealey was my grandfather’s mother, my grandmother. I never met her either – she died four years after I was born – but I have seen a picture of her. She was a stout, formidable-looking woman known around Martindale and Low Township as “Aunt Lizzie.”

The Kealeys of Low Township in Gatineau County, which encompasses Martindale, and the villages of Low, Fieldville, Brennan’s Hill, and Venosta, descended from an Irish immigrant who sailed to Canada in the early 1800s.

He married twice, producing three children from his first marriage and eight from his second. My grandmother, Elizabeth Kealey, descended from Darby Kealey’s second marriage.

It was a thriving community at one time. The Canada East Census of 1861 records 822 inhabitants of Low Township. Singing, fiddling, step-dancing, and storytelling were favourite activities.

There was a great deal of logging, the Gatineau River carrying the logs down to the mills in Hull. Most of the residents were Irish Catholic, though there were some French Catholics and Irish Protestants as well as a few Scottish, English and American settlers.

The permanent population has declined markedly, although many people from Ottawa and Hull maintain dwellings in Low Township as vacation and weekend escapes.

The Martindale Pioneer Cemetery honours the Irish immigrants who came over during the Great Famine of the 1840s. On the centre stone of the marble monument is an inscription in Gaelic with translations in French and English. “May the light of heaven shine on the souls of the Gaels who left Ireland in the years of the great famine to find eternal rest in this soil. The will be remembered as long as love and music lasts.”

The Irish and the French in Quebec have a peculiar shared history that should be an inspiration in a place like Canada. In the 19th century more immigrants came to Quebec from Ireland than from Britain, Scotland, Wales, and the United States combined.

The Irish worked in Quebec as loggers and subsistence farmers, the best they could on the thin, hilly soil around Martindale. Irish immigrants tended to be natural allies of the French in Quebec, being mostly Catholic, close to the earth and often sharing a mutual antipathy toward Britain.

The Irish of Martindale and the surrounding area tended not to assimilate and blend in as happened elsewhere in Quebec, probably because they arrived later, mainly in the mid-1800s.

Between my visit in May and my visit in October, I talked with Laurel Doucette, a folklorist trained at Memorial University in Newfoundland. She grew up in Venosta, a 10-minute drive from Martindale. She had once talked to my mother after charting a family tree of the Kealeys of Venosta, who happened to be the subject of Doucette’s master’s thesis (“Skill and Status: Traditional Expertise Within a Rural Canadian Family”).

Doucette said she had heard from Kealeys still living in Venosta that my grandfather and grandmother were known widely in the community as “Uncle Martin” and “Aunt Lizzie.”

Uncle Martin apparently was “good-natured and kind.” Aunt Lizzie could be “a bit demanding,” which is exactly how she looked in her picture. One relative remembered how Aunt Lizzie used to order Uncle Martin to massage her back and lace up her corset, and how he seldom, if ever, refused.

The Kealeys of Venosta often went by horse-drawn buggy or sleigh to church at Martindale and always dropped by for a visit with Uncle Martin and Aunt Lizzie. In winter they would go sledding down the hills by the church, them tromp up to the house, where Uncle Martin cooked potato pancakes in a large iron frying pan and butter.

Memories trickled back. In Winnipeg, my father used to cook a batch of potato pancakes on Sunday mornings, but only once or twice in winter. He used a large iron frying pan he kept in our uninsulated back porch, and I still have it in a compartment under our stove.

As I was preparing to leave Martindale, I found a sheet of paper with some names Laurel Doucette had given me. At the top of the list was Lima McLaughlin of Venosta.

I remembered what Doucette had said to me when I talked to her by phone at her home in St. John’s. “You really should look up Aunt Lima,” she had said, “she’s 91 but on her good days, she’s still sharp as a tack.”

Venosta is only a 10-minute drive from Martindale. I found Aunt Lima in her trailer home, steps from the general store. She remembered my father’s father well and some of my aunts, but she couldn’t remember my father, whose name was Fred. She tried, sitting there at the kitchen table, but she couldn’t.

We were talking for nearly an hour when Aunt Lima said, “Martin O’Malley made coffins.” I had never heard that before.

“Coffins?”

“Coffins, yes. He made them at the farm. He bought some too. And he sold them.”

As I started to get up to leave, I mentioned to Aunt Lima how we used to believe that Martindale was named after my grandfather. She looked across the table at me and, as if lecturing a slow pupil, said, “It was named after Martin O’Malley.”

“But, the church is St. Martin’s….”

“He was there before the church. He gave the land for the church.”

“So the church…”

“The church is named after your grandfather. Martindale is named after your grandfather.”

Heading back to Ottawa, I stopped for a coffee at a restaurant along the highway. I took Laurel Doucette’s thesis from my case and browsed through it as I sipped my coffee.

I hadn’t noticed before but in a passing reference to the pioneering development of Low Township, she wrote, “A smaller hamlet developed along the river road to the north, the route followed by the parties of shantymen hearing to the lumber camps.

“This general area became known as the Manitou, and the hamlet was called Martindale after the man who donated the land for the first chapel in the township, the site of which was used for the erection of a permanent church, St. Martin’s in 1892.”

Of course, Martindale….after Martin O’Malley, my father’s father….the farmer who used to make coffins.

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[This article was published in The Celtic Connection newspaper in May 1992 courtesy of the Imperial Oil Review.]