Sunday, 17 March 2013

One for the Irish: Her name was Mary Devine

This one too is recycled from Multiply, but did not make it over here yet. 

One of the joys of being a Home Support Worker ( from 1987-2000) was getting to know a generation whose parents had been the first European settlers in this area. History is shallow here, apart from the First Nations which is a whole other story. The European history of Eastern North America is a bit older.

One of my most memorable clients was a gentleman from Quebec, who told me the story of his grandmother. 

Her name was Mary Devine. 

She was born somewhere in Ireland in 1834. At age 14 she and her family set sail for Canada, like so many fleeing the potato famine.

This is a small part of her story, as I heard it from a son of her youngest son.  It may not be completely accurate, since the narrator was old when he told it, and besides he enjoyed a good story and may have embellished a bit. But then, that is part of the Irish tradition too, isn't it?  I am certain of the last sentence.

Mary met a young Frenchman on the ship. Other than both being good Catholics and nubile they did not have a language in common.  But the times were desperate, her parents only too willing to have one less mouth to feed. The young couple were wed either on the ship or shortly after landing.  Mary lived the rest of her long life in Quebec, but never became entirely fluent in French.

They homesteaded a 200 acre island in the Ottawa River.  We are talking ultimate pioneering here. Think of it this way: if you want a sweater, you have to start by cutting the trees to clear the land to make room for sheep. 

Mary bore 24 children,  4 girls and 20 boys.  On Sundays the family crossed the river to go to church in 2 large rowboats. World War 1, that great insanity, claimed 18 sons. Her youngest 2 were too young to go. 

The wife of her youngest son died young, leaving behind five children, one a six months old baby. Mary was 80 by this time, but she raised her grandson from babyhood till he was 6 and his father remarried.
That is a juicy tragi-comic story too, but not mine to tell.

The grandson resented being torn away from his grandmother, to go live with a stepmother who was bitter for good reasons and took some of her resentment out on the young boy. I knew him as an old man, when he was a Home Support client.  He is long gone now and I am long retired, but let's respect the rules of confidentiality.
I won't say more about him other than that he was a colourful character, it was a privilege to know him and I loved his stories. 

Mary lived to be a hundred. Her grandson said that even in extreme old age, her back was ramrod straight and seen from the back she looked like a young girl. He mentioned her often. This sentence stuck in my mind: 

"Everything worthwhile I learned in life, I learned from my grandmother."

Her name was Mary Devine.


  1. What a beautiful story, Ien! I love the stories of the old folk and of times gone by. And we think our lives are challenging, huh? Lovely blog. Thanks for digging it up for us :)

  2. Thanks, I wish I were in touch with some members of the family to share it with.

  3. What a wonderful bittersweet family history. I live in a part of Ontario with the most French Canadian families. I am just a generation or two away from families with very large numbers of children. I have several friends who were raised in families with 8 to 15 children. 24 is exceptional given that 21 is considered the maximum fecundity rate for single births. To loose so many to the war is a national tragedy.

    My son married into a large French Canadian clan. The original settlers who came here from Quebec had 18 children. 2 went to the church, a priest and a nun. The other 16 had families of 6 to 10 children. My son's inlaws generation had three or four and my son had three. I went to a family reunion with them and 700 of their closest relative showed up, many lived in the area having married into almost all the other French clans in the area. As you may know there are a lot of Irish in Quebec. When some became orphans due to the dreadful immigration situation from the famine in Ireland, French Canadian families took them in and they were allowed to keep their Irish names. The French and the Irish shared not only a common religion and a largely rural lifestyle they both disliked the English.

    1. Thanks for that extra historical input. Yes, I learned about the Irish/French thing through CBC, like so much else.


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