Vernon & District Family History Society

SHARING GENEALOGY KNOWLEDGE SINCE 1982

The St. Colomban Irish by C. A. Brown

My paternal great-grandparents lived in a tiny hamlet north of Montreal called St. Colomban. St. Colomban is located in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains about forty miles north of Montreal, between St. Jerome and St. Scholastique. According to an article in the Montreal Gazette, "The land there is stony and far from ideal for farming" (1), yet many Irish immigrants found their way to St. Colomban in the 1820's.

It is strange where family history research will lead you. I was attempting to trace my Walsh family back to Ireland. I figured they probably came to Canada from Ireland during the Irish potato famine migration, but no one in my family actually knew when our ancestors arrived in Canada. As I was doing my research, I kept finding references to my relatives living in St. Colomban, Quebec, far earlier than I had anticipated. I began to wonder how and when they had ended up there. My curiosity was piqued, and I had to know more about St. Colomban. This line of questioning took me on an unexpected but very interesting detour.

For a small and relatively unknown town, there is a wealth of information published on St. Colomban. It turns out there is a website devoted exclusively to the St. Colomban Irish (www/stcolumban-irish.com). Who knew? This website is full of articles written about the Irish residents; details of family births, death, and marriages; a history of the settlement of the area; photographs; and Facebook blogs. As well, a man named Claude Bourguignon undertook an extensive research project on the St. Colomban Irish, and has written a book about them (2). The only catch, it is written in French.

On the website is an article written on September 30, 1955 by Brother Jerome Hart (3) that is a fascinating depiction of the early settlement of St. Colomban. The priest indicated that the first mention of the Irish was in Montreal was in 1817. This small group of people used to attend Mass at the French-speaking Bonsecours Church. They would have immigrated to Canada due to the partial famine of 1817. A second, more widespread, famine in 1822 led to an increased number of Irish settling in Canada with the promise of land and independence. Brother Hart says that "The Irish who immigrated to Canada around 1823 were mainly farmers who had been ruined by the fall in price of produce resulting from the slump following the Napoleonic Wars." (3) A priest noticed the Irish faces among the congregation, and took them under his wing. He opened a school for them in 1824, and then restored the old Recollect Church for them the next year. This became the original church of the Irish. In 1829 Reverend Father Phelan was named pastor of the Irish parish.

But life in the city was squalid, and the Irish immigrants missed their homeland. After Father Phelan was ordained in 1825, he was interested in establishing a township and surrounding settlement in the vicinity of Montreal where Irish immigrants of the farming class could go after their arrival in Montreal. Since the northern part of the County of Two Mountains was still unsettled, Father Phelan directed the immigrants to this section of the county. The first colonists traveled by stagecoach, which went at the rate of six miles an hour. At St. Scholastique the pioneers took a horse wagon to the North River, which they crossed by means of a raft. (3)

According to Brother Jerome Hart, life in St. Colomban was severe. The pioneers would have had to build homes; clear fields; plant crops; and gather wood to heat their homes, all before winter set in. The government supplied the colonists with farm implements, blankets, and utensils for setting up house, but little else. The settlers were isolated, since the roads were poor; and communication with the city was difficult. However, the Irish immigrants were no strangers to strenuous physical labour, and they persevered.

From 1825 to 1835 the number of families in the settlement increased, and in the latter year there were about one hundred. On October 14, 1835 the parish of St. Colomban was officially established. Towards 1850 there were two hundred families and at least three schools.

St. Colomban was largely a farming and logging community that never got rich. At its peak it had 200 families working the land, the forests, stone quarries, and five saw mills. The decline of St. Colomban correlates with the growth of Montreal. Due to the difficulty of farming poor land, bad roads, the lack of reforestation, the small financial returns, the younger folk of St. Colomban became dissatisfied, and started to migrate all over North America. Many drifted to Montreal, where working conditions were better and relatively good wages were paid. According to Brother Jerome Hart, "The descendants of St. Colomban who came to Montreal did very well in all walks of life. By their energy, ability, and perseverance, some of them reached to top positions in the business world." (3) Fergus Keyes, a descendant of an early St. Colomban Irish family says: "Many of the people of Irish heritage in Montreal today are descendants of the first group of St. Colomban settlers and from others arriving there later in famine times." (4)

In my family, the Walshes intermarried with other St. Colomban settlers, like the Gaffneys and the Doomsdays. Great-great grandfather George Walsh was born in Ireland in 1817, but died in St Colomban in 1883. I haven't traced his family's immigration to Canada yet. That will be my next task. Some of the early Walsh descendants did drift down to Montreal. Great-grandfather Patrick Henry Walsh was born in Montreal, although the family parcel of land remained in the family. My grandfather George James Walsh was also born in Montreal, but lived in St. Colomban after he retired. Our tract of land in St. Colomban was in the family for five generations until it was sold in 1977, following the death of my grandfather. Sadly, it was the end of an era.