As we roll into March, there is a resounding sigh of relief in South Eastern Ontario as yet another winter ends up in our collective rear-view. The vanishing snow reveals the once buried grass, and soon enough, the iconic images of shamrocks and other green things mark the approach of Saint Patrick’s Day.
Saint Paddy’s Day is not all about funny hats, leprechauns or copious amounts of green beer. Don’t get me wrong, those are a staple element of the worldwide festivities, but there’s an age old saying that is repeated every March 17th: “On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish!”
Well, here in South Eastern Ontario (and much of Canada) you might be surprised to learn that for many of us the saying covers far more than a single day. By the end of the 1871 Census, two-thirds of Canada’s Irish (a whopping 559,442 people) resided in Ontario. Many of them settling in what is now The Great Waterway.
In light of the coming St. Patrick’s Day holiday, join me as I shed light on South Eastern Ontario’s important Celtic heritage. We’ll also take a look at some fun-filled cultural events and festivals, as well as a few suggestions for authentic Irish food.
A Piece of Our History
The famed Rideau Canal itself was built by thousands of Irish workers and Scottish stonemasons. They faced some of the most challenging working conditions imaginable; facing a gauntlet of dangers including deadly plagues, horrible work accidents, and unforgiving winters as they laboured tirelessly to build a crucial supply line for Upper Canada.
An estimated one thousand (or more) of these workers are buried along the Rideau Canal. Some of them in unmarked graves.
RIDEAU HERITAGE ROUTE
Chaffey’s Lock Cemetery
Located a short walk from Chaffey’s Lock on Opinicon Road is a small cemetery that is the final resting place of many unfortunate souls who met their end while building Chaffeys Lock.
The cemetery comprises a half-acre of space and marks one of several portions of the canal that was devastated by a terrible outbreak of malaria. In the late summers of 1828-1832, an estimated 95 percent of the workforce were infected with the disease.
The majority of Irish immigrants had no family in the area, and records in Ireland indicate that many who made the journey to Canada were never heard from again. Sadly, many of these perished souls lay in unmarked grave sites that span the entire canal.
RIDEAU HERITAGE ROUTE
McGuigan Cemetery, located near Merrickville was lovingly restored in 1981 by the Merrickville and District Historical Society and is situated in an area across the river from Clowes Lock.
The earliest known grave is that of Samuel McCrea who died on November 15, 1806. The cemetery operated until the early 1890’s before being left to the elements. It is among the earliest known cemeteries in South Eastern Ontario.
Few records exist today that identifies who is buried there. Despite the lack of information, it is believed that many buried here died of pestilence, (malaria), during the construction of the Rideau Canal.
KINGSTON, 1000 ISLANDS
For a short period (1841-1844) Kingston was the first Capital of the Province of Canada. Naturally, it was a major destination for immigrants. Driven away from their homeland by the Great Famine, an estimated 1.5 – 2 million desperate and starving Irish men, women and children came to British North America.
Kingston is home to a number of monuments and historic sites that honour the countless Irish-Canadians who never experienced the life they set out to build in a new world.
In memoriam of over 10,000 Irish and Scottish immigrants still buried beneath what is now a city park.
Commemorates over 1500 Irish immigrants who perished in the fever sheds of typhus infection.
An ornate water fountain located near City Hall, commemorating those who died while building the Rideau Canal.
An impressive edification to those who died in the extreme working conditions while constructing the Rideau Canal.
History thrives Through Song and Dance
While this story opened on a grim tone, it can be said with certainty that the massive influx of Irish and Scottish people to South Eastern Ontario; brought with it a vibrant and beautiful culture that thrives to this very day.
If I may be so bold, I’d say that Celtic culture does not focus on mourning the past. Rather, it’s a constant celebration of life in every way possible. It’s the only way to move forward in the face of great adversity.
Celtic heritage celebrations flourish throughout the Great Waterway at this time of year, with a brilliance and jubilation to be heard the world over.
Raise a glass
Throughout South Eastern Ontario you will find a bevy of fine establishments where one can raise a toast, and experience Celtic culinary fare at it’s finest.
Below is a collection of pubs and eateries where you can taste the classic comfort foods that put Ireland and Scotland on the map. I also hear that they serve the finest assortments of ales and whiskeys available on this side of the North Atlantic.
CORNWALL & THE COUNTIES
Nestled in the Heart of Historic St. Andrew’s West, Ontario is Quinn’s Inn.
Originally built by the province’s first premiere: John Sandfield MacDonald (1867-1871), this gorgeous house was later acquired in 1924 by Frank Quinn, followed by his sons Maynard, Alfred, and Ernest.
The site was operated as a general store until 1989 before being purchased and restored.
KEMPTVILLE & PRESCOTT
O’Heaphy’s Irish Pub
O’Heaphy’s Irish pub(s) bring an authentic Irish flare to the Great Waterway with two locations in Kemptville & Prescott.
Either of O’Heaphy’s locations makes for a fantastic stopover while exploring the Celtic heritage locales in the area.
Here you’ll find a good selection of craft beer, and a hearty menu of traditional Irish favourites with some interesting modern twists.
Take this sandwich for example. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I need it in my life.
GANANOQUE, 1000 ISLANDS
St. Patrick’s Beer Tasting Dinner at Muskie Jake’s
Remember to mark your calendars for this epic St. Patrick’s dinner and beer tasting event, featuring local craft brewing sensation: Perth Brewery! The event takes place at the Gananoque Inn & Spa on March 18th.
KINGSTON, 1000 ISLANDS
Tir Nan Og
Located beneath the historic Prince George Hotel is Tir nan Og; an iconic Irish pub in beautiful Downtown Kingston.
Visitors can expect a great menu consisting of fantastic Irish favourites (steak and Guinness pie!), live music each weekend, and a particularly famous Karaoke night every Thursday!
KINGSTON, 1000 ISLANDS
The Toucan & Kirkpatrick’s
Tucked away in Kingston’s historic Rochleau Court is a pair of bonnie pubs that are well known to both locals and travelers alike.
The Toucan and Kirkpatrick’s have been serving up delicious pub fare and crisp pints of ale since March 17, 1986.
Coincidence? Probably not.
There’s no right or wrong way to celebrate St. Patrick’s day and Celtic heritage.
So long as you spend it in good company with fine food and drink, you’re doing it right. I hope that this article has provided some inspiration to try something different this year.
I also hope that it in some way honours the countless Irish, Scottish and other brave souls who made the voyage here, to help build what would become the Canada we know today.
As always, thanks for reading and Céad míle fáilte! (Gaelic: “A thousand welcomes!”)
Explore a Rich Cultural Heritage!