Martindale Pioneer Cemetery
‘We are at one with past, present and future’
By MAURA DE FREITAS
VANCOUVER – Nestled in the rolling hills of the Gatineau Valley in western Quebec, the little township of Low remains an enclave of Irish history entwined with French culture – forming a unique bond.
It was here where my mother Catholine Butler [nee Elaine Gannon] returned this past September, along with many friends and family members, for a deeply meaningful journey.
She was one of the main people who worked to put up a memorial in Martindale Pioneer Cemetery and the task was to put a plaque outlining the names of those individuals.
Martindale Pioneer Cemetery is the final resting place of many survivors of Ireland’s Great Hunger who settled in that area.
A very unfortunate incident took place there many years ago when the headstones marking the graves were destroyed by an errant priest.
Many of our readers will be familiar with this story from previous issues, but this trip was not one of recrimination but rather celebration.
It was an opportunity to remember the ancestors while acknowledging the people who came together to put a magnificent memorial in place to mark this burial site.
Two plaques were unveiled at the site on September 19, 2016 – almost 30 years to the day when a 12-foot Celtic cross with messages in Irish, English, and French was commemorated in 1982.
The bilingual plaques list the names of those responsible for the research, fund-raising, and design of both the triple cenotaph – engraved with names of all those buried in the cemetery – and the remarkable Celtic cross.
It was a day of heartfelt messages, of singing and laughter, of dancing and rain, and of solemn celebration. A truly Irish inspired event.
It was also a day to give thanks for this beautiful new homeland that gave sustenance and hope to a ravaged people.Many came from far and wide to be present for the ceremony and Jim Kelly, the new Irish Ambassador of Canada, along with wife Anne and their two daughters Orla and Ciara, were among the honoured guests.
In his short address, Ambassador Kelly noted that while he has been privileged to visit many Irish famine memorial sites in Ireland, in the United States and elsewhere, Martindale Pioneer Cemetery was one of the most impressive.
He remarked, “when we were coming out of the church above, my wife Anne said to me ‘Doesn’t this remind you of the church in Granagh?’ Which is Anne’s local church in Co. Limerick.”
He continued, “And indeed it does. When you look around at the beautiful Gatineau countryside here, that too reminds me of the hills in Limerick.
“It occurred to me that for those who survived the horrors of the Great Famine, there must perhaps have been some small comfort in the familiarity of this beautiful countryside in what many of them would have known before in their life in Ireland.”
Ambassador Kelly spoke about the threads of history and the importance of that connection, noting that there were names that were very familiar to him listed on the memorial, including some that correspond to his own family.
Earlier over 200 guests gathered for mass at St. Martin de Tours church, just up the hill from the old graveyard.
Somehow, after a morning of unrelenting downpours, the skies suddenly cleared and sunshine poured in through the stained glass windows.
There was a palpable sense of relief mixed with peace and serenity during the Mass.
Father Larry McCormick from St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa was the celebrant and choir music was provided by Janet Egan accompanied by Howard Hayes. The reading was by Liette Hickey who works with her husband Merrill as caretakers of the church.
Many people had tears in their eyes as the sweet sound of The Fields of Athenry filled the small country church. Closing hymn was Faith of Our Fathers which once again seemed so appropriate.
Father Larry graciously stepped in after Father Lomer Rooney, who had deep roots in Martindale, was unable to attend due to ill health [sadly Fr. Lomer passed away on November 4].
There were so many people who contributed to make this day such a wonderful success but special mention must go out to those who sponsored and assisted with organizing the event.
First of all, I must mention Liette and Merrill Hickey who worked directly with Catholine as liason preparing the cemetery in advance of the ceremony and assisted with so many details.
Another key sponsor was Pat McCay of ProCoat Coatings who arranged for fabrication of the custom made steel poles to hold the plaques, along with shipping them from Calgary to Ottawa.
Pat Kelly of Bradley Kelly Construction who received the material at their yard in Ottawa, and Lisa and Stephen Kelly of Venosta, Quebec, who arranged for pick-up and delivery to Martindale [Lisa also helped in so many ways with co-ordinating the event].Larry Bradley of the Heart & Crown Irish Pubs in Ottawa, Ontario generously sponsored the buffet at the reception following the ceremony at the Brennan’s Hill Inn.
Also, thank you to Billy Monette and his mother Mona who provided hospitality for everyone who attended the gathering afterwards in Brennan’s Hill.
Pat Kelly of Bradley Kelly Construction provided sponsorship for entertainment by Howard Hayes and the Country Drifters at Brennan’s Hill.
Special mention must go out as well to Janet Egan and her lovely dancers who provided a wonderful display of Gatineau Valley stepdancing. Thank you one and all.
Another key individual who stepped in to help out was Peter Mulrooney of Venosta, Quebec.
Peter helped to save the day when it looked like the site of the ceremony might be covered in mud. He provided a special tarp for walking around the area, along with a canopy to protect against the elements.
Any event such as this can never be accomplished without the support of innumerable volunteers who work quietly in the background to make it a success. We are deeply grateful to you each and every one.
The opening at the ceremony at the cemetery was prefaced by a beautiful rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann (the Irish national anthem) and O Canada, the Canadian national anthem.
A very special thank you to Mary Comerton for offering to sing these anthems. [Mary’s husband Austin recently launched Irish Radio Canada which will provide a cross-country check up of Irish communities across Canada.]
The day was particularly meaningful for my mother as she is the last survivor of the original four who worked together through some very difficult years to put the memorial in place.
During her emotional address, she said, “As the last surviving member of the four of us – Eddie McLaughlin, Martin Brown and Bernice McSheffrey – who originally started the research and restoration work here back in the early Seventies, I am overjoyed to see the blessing of plaques with the names of all those involved and the work they did finally etched in bronze and….most important to finally see the record set straight for posterity.
“Today marks the culmination for me of what had become a lifetime of knowing the work at the Martindale Pioneer Cemetery was not complete.
“With this now completed, I feel that at my stage in life it’s time to pass the torch on to the next generation….and I feel very confident that it is in capable hands.
“If I have any regrets, it’s that Martin, Eddie and Bernice are not here with me today, but I know they are here in spirit.”
It was a very poignant moment when Eddie McLaughlin’s son Mac spoke about his memories of his father’s participation in the monument project after he unveiled one of the plaques with his father’s name on it.
Kevin Morris spoke on behalf of the family of Martin Brown. He conveyed heartfelt thanks for the ceremony saying how meaningful this day was for the whole family.
Mary Morris also spoke on behalf of Martin Brown’s family.
During her talk, Mary noted the role of the French people and thanked the people of Quebec for allowing Irish orphans arriving in Quebec during the years of the Famine to keep their own names.
To finally see those plaques in place recognizing the people who worked on this memorial is a long cherished dream in my family and it is also a story that we have carried inside our heart and souls for a very long time.
Speaking on behalf of our family at the ceremony, I said, “This is a day to rejoice. Although there is great sorrow, hardship and loss in this narrative, it is also one of rebirth, of wisdom and strength gathered through fire.
“More than anything, I want to share this story as one of triumph over adversity, as one of rising from the ashes of destruction to one of joy and liberation.”
I felt it appropriate to close with a quote from the Anam Cara by the beloved Irish philosopher John O’Donoghue. It seemed fitting to reflect on soul and friendship from the chapter, “The Dead Bless Us,” which reads:
“In the eternal world, all is one. In spiritual space there is no distance. In eternal time there is no segmentation into today, yesterday, or tomorrow. In eternal time, all is now; time is presence.
“I believe that this is what eternal life means: it is a life where all that we seek – goodness, unity, beauty, trust and love – are no longer distant from us but are now completely present with us.”
In my closing, I said, “Here today, at Martindale Pioneer Cemetery, we are at one with past, present and future. Thank you all for being here.”
Finally, a special message from Belfast was shared with those assembled from Ethna (Eithne) O’Kane, the artist who designed the magnificent Celtic cross that stands over the graveyard.
Along with the Celtic artwork, the images on the cross represent the coffin ships that carried the famine survivors across the Atlantic and the numerous women and children who died on the voyage.
She wrote, “It was a great honour to design the Cross, particularly as I was an Irish immigrant myself, and therefore understood its significance to the people of Martindale parish.
“And so this weekend I will be thinking of you all. I would like to extend my warmest wishes to those who attend on Sunday, and to all the people of the Gatineau Hills. Beannacht libh,
[We would like to acknowledge media support for this project from the following people and organizations: Howard Hayes with Valley Radio; Ray O’Hanlon with the Irish Echo and IrishCentral in New York City; Nicole McCormick and Nikki Mantell of the Low Down to Hull in Wakefield, Quebec; and Austin Comerton of Irish Radio Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. And finally, of course, we are privileged to spread the word through this newspaper, The Celtic Connection.]
[POSTSCRIPT: Significant funding to put the triple cenataph, Celtic cross, and memorial plaques in place was made on an anonymous basis. Now, additional funding is necessary to maintain the site. Donations are gratefully accepted for ongoing work at Martindale Pioneer Cemetery including repairs to the walkway leading up to the cenotaph, a disabled ramp, a wrought iron fence, landscaping, grass cutting and general maintenance. Our ancestors deserve the best. Please make cheques or money orders payable to: Martindale Pioneer Cemetery, c/o Liette Hickey, 322 Martindale Road, Low, Quebec J0X 2C0].