By Anne Burgess and Joseph Kenny
In his book, Surplus People, Jim Rees has described the program of assisted
emigration that Lord Fitzwilliam initiated in the late 1840s to reduce the
number of tenants on his estate in southwest Wicklow. Most of these emigrants
sailed from New Ross, County Wexford, to Quebec City, but few of them stayed in Quebec, where
the population was for the most part French-speaking. Instead, they continued
on up the St. Lawrence River to the province of Ontario (then called Upper Canada)
and became part of Irish communities there. The following details the chain
migration that drew them to two such communities.
The British government’s creation of the Rideau Canal in eastern Ontario
(1826-1832) was accomplished with the labour (and in some cases, the lives)
of many Irish workers from the Fitzwilliam estate in southwest County Wicklow.
We know at least some of their names, recorded in an 1829 petition (the McCabe List)[i]
to have family members join them: John Byrnes, ML# 142 of Ballynultagh (family at
Knockatomcoyle); James Byrnes (family at Muskeagh); William Hopkins, ML# 233 (Coolkenna);
Thomas Hawkins (Kiltegan); Charles Dowgard (?) (Tinahely); Daniel Murphy
(Coolbeg (Killabeg?); Lancelot Jackson, ML# 662 (Tullow, Aghowle); Matthew Dunn
The Canal, intended to provide a navigable link between the Ottawa River and the
town of Kingston, Ontario to the west, provided wage work for the labourers. It
also provided them with an opportunity, at the time of the Canal’s completion,
to acquire grants of land along the route.
Thus, in the 1840s when Lord Fitzwilliam’s tenants began arriving in Canada, the
Rideau Canal labourers from southwest Wicklow, now settlers, were the source of
new Canadian homes for many of the emigrés.
The 1851, 1861, and 1881 Canadian censuses document [ii]
the presence of these new immigrants and their families, from Ottawa to Smiths Falls to Brockville to the Kingston area.