Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Book of Daniel

"Fear not, O man of desires, peace be to thee: take courage and be strong."
Daniel 10:19

Daniel O’Connor is the hero of my next novel. They look a bit careworn, Daniel and Brigit O'Connor, my great-great-great grandparents, but then building a farm in the Canadian wilderness in the mid-19th century required ceaseless toil. The photo of them is iconic, for they are staring beyond the present world, into eternity. Eternity was something that Daniel O'Connor kept ever before him, as was typical of the old Irish, and can be seen in this excerpt of a letter to his grandchildren: “Farewell, my grandchildren, God bless you all, and keep you in his love and fear of offending Him, as my prayer for you all big and little, young and old." (from November 8,1884 letter to Lena and Etta Flood)

Daniel was born in 1796 at Togher parish in Dunmanway, County Cork, Ireland, the son of Michael and Joanna Ronan O'Connor, one of nine children. Descended from the High Kings of Ireland and the Lords of Connaught, they were a branch of the O’Connor clan known as the “Kerry-O’Connors.” In the high middle ages they migrated from Roscommon to Kerry; some went on to Cork to aid the McCarthys, then the Lords of Munster, in their perpetual fight with the Normans. Cork was known as the "rebel county" and, at the time Daniel was born, was the site of many insurrections against the tyranny of English rule, which forbade the Irish Catholics the open practice of their religion. Due to the harsh penal laws imposed in 1695, Catholics could not own land, hold a public office, or receive an education. The O’Connors defied the laws to the best of their ability, and, according to Daniel’s daughter Ellen, he and all of his siblings received “a liberal education” in spite of the prohibitions.

The O’Connor family lived about a stone’s throw from an old tower called “Togher castle.” It had officially belonged to the McCarthy clan but according to family tradition the O’Connors lived in the castle at one point. Perhaps they held the old keep in fealty to the original owners, or perhaps resided there as in-laws, since there was a great deal of intermarrying between the two clans. At any rate, they were all thrown out of the castle by the English in 1688 and reduced to a state of servitude. Daniel was trained as a blacksmith, and since it was the blacksmiths who set broken bones in those days, I wonder if it was his skill at mending injured limbs that led him to want to be a doctor. He studied medicine under a physician in Cork City, but alas he was never certified, probably due to lack of money. There was a series of potato crop failings and famines throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, culminating in the Great Famine of the 1840’s. Many Irish Catholics found it impossible to ever get ahead.

Daniel migrated to Canada in the spring of 1821. He worked and saved his money until he was able to purchase land in Leeds County, Ontario, which he called Long Point Farm. In January of 1831 he married fifteen-year-old Brigit Trainor of County Westmeath, who had recently arrived in Kitley Township with her family. Together they faced the grueling hardship of clearing the land, building a cabin, and having babies in the wilderness. There was also a great deal of prejudice against Catholics in the new world. According to Glenn J. Lockwood in Leeds and Lansdowne: “O’Connor was rare as an Irish Catholic settler in Leeds and Lansdowne Rear, and the reason why was no mystery. He found that local settlers were very prejudiced against anyone professing the Catholic religion, and more especially if that person happened to be an Irishman.” (pp148-149, Lockwood) As one of Daniel’s daughters wrote to her niece Madeline O’Connor: “When father came to Delta one of the first salutes he got was ‘for the love of God do not tell that you are a Catholic or you will not succeed.’ He said, ’Never will I deny my faith,’ and he fought valiantly for it.”

There were few priests and Daniel often had to walk fifty miles or more in order to make his Easter duty, fending off wolves. As the children were born (they had nine) he and Brigit sought to raise them in the faith. According to the letter to Madeline:
Mother and he used to take a child a piece on horseback…when a priest had a station in Kitley which was very seldom, they rode on horseback to have their children christened….By good examples, good books, and constant admonishing to their family they kept the light of faith burning in their children. How often Protestant ministers were invited to come partake of father and mother’s hospitality in order to discuss religious questions to point out to his family the truths of our holy religion. No church, no school to send us for instruction, that, my dear, is the faith of our dear old Irish parents.
Daniel believed that a Christian was required to live as Christian, no matter what. As he wrote to his daughters Ellen and Mary:
My dear children, it is superfluous for me to admonish you as respects your moral and religious duty. For, thanks be to God, you did not neglect your instruction under your paternal roof. I pray to God to shed His grace unto your hearts to practice faithfully the duties of His religion. You will be saved not only because you are Catholic but when you are a true and pious one. Let not weak and silly minds persuade you that that this is an unnecessary thing to engage in exercise of piety….
Education as well as faith was paramount to Daniel. Donald Harman Akenson writes in his study, The Irish in Ontario: “in the rear of the township on Long Point, Daniel O’Connor, a large Catholic landholder who was recognized as the squire of the area, built a first-class stone school which became part of the common school network.” (Akenson, p.276) Daniel eventually gained the respect of his neighbors and was appointed the first Irish Catholic magistrate in the County of Leeds. While serving as juryman in Brockville, the county seat, he was responsible for abolishing customs which were prejudicial to Catholics.

Daniel died on December 8, 1886, two years after his beloved wife Brigit, of whom it was said in her obituary “her death was calm as her life had been.” According to Daniel’s obituary in the Brockville Reporter, March 1887:
Of the deceased it may be truly said that his faults were few and his virtues many….Upright and honest, a true-hearted Irishman, he leaves behind him memories which link his name to the true and trusted who have gone before. His death was more the result of the natural decay of old age more than actual sickness. And he died fortified by the sacraments of the church, in peace with himself, in peace with his fellowmen and in peace with his God.


elena maria vidal said...

Here is the 1824 letter of Joanna Ronan O'Connor of Dunmanway, County Cork to her son Daniel, who had been in Canada for three years.

Dear Daniel:

I received your letter on the 20 Dec. last which found us all in good health-Thanks be to God- as we are at present- only Michael's wife died on the 24th June 1823.

Patrick and John moved to town in the harvest after you left them and follow the sawing (?sewing?) business, where they have good employment and I remain with Michael, and Owen remains where you left him. I generally hear good accounts of that place you are in, and if you encourage John, he is desirous to go, as he was prepared to go last may were it not for the want of money as no one would be carried less than 4 pounds and he required you send him an account of the wages he could earn, and also what kind of clothing and utensils would be most useful for him to carry, and though they would have continued business, their earnings is no more than 4 shillings a day without meat and drink.

The time you lest us, everything relative to disturbances ceased and no injury befall any of our neighbors but what you were aware of. The approaching summer after you left us was very scarce having a failure in potatoes the harvest before wheat did not exceed 20 shillings per bag. Still for want of employment the Irish in general would perish, were it not for the kindness of England who upon application being made they remitted 160 thousand pounds both by government and private subscription to be lain out in public improvement, which was laid out in roads to give employment to people and many subscriptions by the Irish gentlemen from our town and County is much improved by it. We had a plentiful harvest following. We have had plenty since. Out present harvest is very favorable and the corn nearly ripe at present and all sorts of people employed, but their wages low, and no prospect of any prices, as it is strongly reported our wheat will not exceed 15 shillings per bag, and oats in proportion. Therefore we cannot expect a demand for man's labor.

I intended letting you know I sent an answer to your letter soon as it arrived and received no answer. Therefore I take this opportunity of sending this by Dan Donovan who is now going to sail to Quebec to put it in the office there. Charles is bound to Dan to be a tailor and Timothy is bound to Michael Sullivan, Dunmanway.

Nothing is giving me more trouble than your absence and the few accounts I receive from you. Therefore soon as this arrives send me an account of the place and our friends in general.

I remain,

Your dutiful mother,

Joanna O'Connor

Anonymous said...

I love old photographs, I have a very few from my fathers family and some from my mothers. My personal collection is of people I do not know and who anonymously peer out at me. The difference between say a painting, and a photo is that the painting might take some days or weeks to produce, while those in a photo got up and moved away. They probably spoke to the photgrapher and while they were alive could show the photo around but did they consider that the photo would go on to posterity?

de Brantigny

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, I love old photographs, too! I just remembered at tomorrow, January 14, is Daniel and Brigit's wedding anniversary. They were married on that date in 1831 at what became Saint Philip Neri parish in Toledo, Ontario.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read the book!



Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this post. What a saintly man your great (x 3) grandfather was! God rest his soul.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Georgette. And what is interesting is that Daniel lived in a time and place when it would have been easier for him not to have been such a staunch Catholic, but he persevered in spite of everything....

Anonymous said...

What an awesome man, and Brigit too. You must be proud to have descended from such a man. Building a school yet! Remember, my mother had a school during the war so the children in the neighborhood would not fall behind in their education. She always said, an education is something no one can take away from you.