Can I learn anything about my great great great grandmother Mary Willard, despite having only a name, a birthplace and a rough idea of where she lived as she raised her children?
That challenge led me to a fascinating thesis about the Irish Protestant Identity in Ontario written in 2010 by Brenda Hooper-Goranson. Hooper-Goranson’s research describes how many Irish women of Mary Willard’s time ensured a lasting Irish identity in Canada that differed from that in the homeland.
Thanks to Ms. Hooper-Goranson, I have been able to imagine the life of women like my ancestor in general terms even if her actual life and personality remain obscure.
An Irish Protestant identity was transferred to Canada as solidly intact as any Irish Catholic identity was and it can even be argued that the former outlasted the latter with regard to late nineteenth-early twentieth century Canadianizing influences,” wrote Hopper-Goranson in the introduction of her thesis. “That distinctive presence was changed or softened in only one regard. In time, with the space and distance that Canada afforded, abrading homeland identities might be abridged, and Irish Protestant and Irish Catholic on new soil found opportunities to simply be ‘Irish’.1
People like Mary maintained connections to family in Ireland, helped foster relationships with neighbours, brought recipes, seeds, textiles and furniture from their home country to their new communities and fostered religious practices and apprenticeships in their children.
Whether Mary herself did such things isn’t certain. We do know that she was born in Ireland, thanks to the 1932 death certificate of her daughter.2 That same document mentions her husband’s Scottish roots, the family religion of Brethren, their daughter’s 1856 birth in Orangeville, Canada West and her death in Weston, Ontario.
Those facts allowed me to make several assumptions about my great great grandmother’s life that enabled me to read Hooper-Goranson’s thesis with an eye to imagining more. We know for sure that Mary Willard travelled from Ireland to Canada West at some point, and the decision probably wasn’t hers. A father, a husband—in those days, women didn’t often get to set their own destinies.
Where she lived in Ireland, whether she lived in other places too, whether she married her Scottish husband in Europe or elsewhere, whether they met on a specific journey or after separately travelling to North America isn’t clear. All I know for sure is that Mary Willard identified as Irish; her faith was Protestant; and she and her husband lived in Canada West when her daughter was born. Given that her daughter died in the Grand River region not far from her birth, it’s likely that her parents lived in the same region for most of their lives.
We do know that in the 1800’s, Canada attracted more migrants from Ireland than any other country in the world. When possible, these migrants tended to settle together with others of the same religion, many in Canada West, which became Ontario.
Irish hostilities between Protestants and Catholics became prevalent late in that century. Fenians raided Canada West from Irish communities in the northern states beginning in 1866. Riots broke out in Toronto in 1875, during the Jubilee March and in 1878, when O’Donavon Rossa visited the city to give a speech.
In most Canada West communities, however, Hooper-Goranson argues that the challenges of felling forests, building homes, subsistence farming and mourning the losses from fevers and disease blurred the lines between groups. Often, a general homesickness for Ireland linked Catholic and Protestant settlers together into a common identity.
Class structures brought to the New World from Europe when Mary Willard lived fell apart in a matter of months, primarily to the amount of work required just to stay alive. Women of all stations did everything required to run a household, including helping grow crops for food, making candles, producing soap, grinding sugar, baking bread, milking cows, knitting or spinning clothes and preparing flour or wool. People offering domestic assistance had so many possible positions, they could be choosy.
…the observations of lrish Protestant immigrant James Reford show that he too, took note of a change in the social climate in America when he complained that even Irish Catholic servants “from the bogs of Connoght” expected certain comforts and conveniences far different from Home. “If you want a girl to do housework the first question is have you got hot and cold water in the house, stationary wash tubs, wringer? Is my bedroom carpeted [with] bureau table wash stand and chairs … and what privileges and the wages? … The writer makes the charge that such girls are too ambitious, and deceitful about their previously humble origins.3
Despite the amount of hard work, Irish women in Upper Canada worked hard to match the fashion trends back in Ireland.
After joining her husband in Canada in 1836, Margaret Carrothers wrote severalyears later from London, Upper Canada, encouraging her mother to make the journey herself with the remittance pay she sent home. Part of her enticement was the reassurance that her mother could look the part of the Irish lady even on the frontier. Although Margaret requested her mother bring the latest patterns of capes, sleeves, cloaks, and bonnets she delighted that ” … Dress of every kind is worn the same here as with you only much richer and gayer …… this has become a very fashionable place you would see more silks worn here in one day than you would see in Maguires bridge in your lifetime and could not tell the difference between the Lady and the Servant Girl as it is not uncommon for her to wear a Silk Cloak and Boa and Muff on her hands and her Bonnet ornamented with artificial flowers and vail.4
Whether hostilities arose or not often depended on whether communities included nationalities beyond Catholic and Protestant Irish. In those cases, rather than differentiating between themselves, Irish settlers saw themselves as a common group against the others.
There were many occasions where Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics found cause with one another enough to march together in support or defiance of Tenants Leagues, Famine Relief, Confederation, Fenianism, Irish politics and personages, and of course, St. Patrick’s Day was held sacred to both.5
Generations of women built up and maintained national communities as religious differences diminished. They married Irish men, stayed in contact with family members in Ireland, collected Irish recipes, crafted Irish patterns onto clothing and household items, learned Irish Dancing and celebrated holidays with neighbours.
Traditionally, Irish families make their plum pudding on the last Sunday in November before the beginning of Advent. Everyone in the household is supposed to stir the mixture, which contains 13 ingredients to represent Christ and his Disciples.
My great granny Charlotte used to make one every year. I remember it being blacker than fruit cake and with a yummy rum topping.
Sadly, her recipe either was never written down or, if it was, it has since been lost. I’ve been trying to duplicate the flavour ever since.
Haven’t managed to get it right yet, but here’s my closest guess so far.
Christmas Plum Pudding
- 1 cup (250g) brown sugar
- Grated zest and juice of 2 oranges
- 1 cup (250g) dried currants
- 2 cups (500g) raisins, ideally different colours
- 1/2 cup (125g) candied cherries
- 1 can (350ml) stout (I use Buckwheat beer because I can’t eat gluten)
- 2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 2 tsps nutmeg
- ground cloves
- 1 cup (250g) butter, softened
- 4 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 small apple, peeled, cored, and shredded
- Grease and line three pudding bowls or the cooking vessels of your choice.
- Mix everything together except for the eggs and the stout.
- Beat the eggs and slowly add them to the mixture.
- Pour the stout in slowly, mixing the whole time. This is a good time to get the family involved.
- Cover with a clean tea towel and leave overnight.
- The next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (130C).
- Pour the mixture into the pudding bowls.
- Place deeper pans full of water in the oven. Put the bowls into the water so that they are about 2/3rds covered.
- Steam for 6 hours.
- Set aside in a cool dark place to dry.
- On Christmas day, steam the puddings for about 3 hours or until cooked through.
- Cut and serve with rum topping.
- 1/ cup softened butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 3/4 cup rum, brandy or sherry
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- Combine the sugar and butter with a hand mixer until fluffy and light.
- Beat in eggs.
- Add rum, brandy or sherry and nutmeg.
- Cook over boil water for 5 minutes or so, stirring constantly past the curdling point until the sauce looks smooth.
- Pour over the Christmas pudding.
1Hooper-Goranson, Brenda C. 2012. “No Earthly Distinctions : Irishness and Identity in Nineteenth Century Ontario, 1823-1900.” Dissertation, Library and Archives Canada = Bibliothèque et Archives Canada. McMaster University.
2 “Ontario Deaths, 1869-1937 and Overseas Deaths, 1939-1947,” database with images, FamilySearch (Ontario Deaths, 1869-1937), Deaths > 1932 > no 3918-5556 > image 1593 of 1748; citing Registrar General. Archives of Ontario, Toronto.
4Linen Hall Library, Belfast, Edward N. Carrothers, “Irish Emigrants Letters From Canada, 1839-1870”,
(Belfast Northern Ireland, 1951), pp.4-5. Margaret Carrothers, London, U.C. to Mrs. Kirk [Patrick?]
Maguiresbridge, Ireland, December 25, 1839.