Stories of Irish Islanders in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

·6 min read
The 1917 cast of the annual St. Patrick's Day play at the Benevolent Irish Society, a Charlottetown group that helped Irish immigrants, and now educates Islanders about Irish heritage.  (Sara Fraser/CBC - image credit)
The 1917 cast of the annual St. Patrick's Day play at the Benevolent Irish Society, a Charlottetown group that helped Irish immigrants, and now educates Islanders about Irish heritage. (Sara Fraser/CBC - image credit)

Reginald (Dutch) Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past.

St. Patrick's Day is coming up March 17 — the time of year when many shake the family tree in search of any Irish roots.

Many of Prince Edward Island's early immigrants were from Ireland, so finding those connections doesn't take long for some Islanders.

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days.
Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days.(Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

One of those Irish descendants was Dorothy Palmer, born Dorothy McKenna in 1904. Like many other Irish immigrants who came to P.E.I. in the 1840s seeking a better life, her ancestors arrived on a crowded boat.

According to the P.E.I. Ships Database, the ship Margaret Pollock arrived in port in Charlottetown in May, 1841, after a journey from Belfast, Ireland, of about five weeks. Of the approximately 685 passengers on board, 26 people had died of measles — all young children.

"They all had a very happy crossing, they had danced. The only sickness on board the vessel apparently was measles some of the children had, and they were put in quarantine when they arrived," Palmer told Dutch — this is all backed up by newspaper articles of the day.

A few hours earlier another ship, the Thomas Gelston, had also arrived from Belfast carrying 123 people.

Courting on horseback

Imagine 700 Irish immigrants arriving in Charlottetown at once! The population of the entire Island at the time was just over 47,000, according to census records.

Dorothy Palmer was born Dorothy McKenna in 1904. Her grandparents came to P.E.I. from Ireland in the 1840s.
Dorothy Palmer was born Dorothy McKenna in 1904. Her grandparents came to P.E.I. from Ireland in the 1840s. (Dutch Thompson)

A few years later, many Irish peasants fleeing poverty endured harsh conditions aboard what were called "coffin ships" to North America, but the McKennas were not so hard done by.

"That was before the famine, you see," Palmer said. "They had means, and they brought things with them. Because the famine didn't start till '45."

The settlers were all given land, she said, much of it in eastern P.E.I. in the Iona area. Her ancestors however settled in Tracadie, on land bordering on St. Peters Road, which was handy for getting their farm produce to town.

James McKenna was a farmer, and his son Bernard worked with him and eventually inherited the family farm in Tracadie. Bernard was Dorothy's grandfather, and married into another well-known Irish family.

"He married Bridget Duffy, who was on ... the same ship, the Margaret Pollock," Palmer said, acknowledging there were some in the family who disputed that fact.

"That Duffy family settled in Rustico. And the story goes that grandfather travelled through the woods many kilometres courting Bridget on horseback."

Bernard and Bridget were married at St. Augustine's Church in Rustico in 1848. Palmer recalled visiting the church and seeing her grandparents' names in the church register. They settled down on the farm in Tracadie.

'He was quite a goat'

"I remember going out to see my grandparents — we used to drive out [from Charlottetown] in a horse and wagon of course — and they both smoked clay pipes. And I can remember grandmother lighting a pipe for grandpa and giving it to him, then lighting a pipe for herself," Palmer said. Her grandmother told her she smoked the pipe to alleviate heartburn symptoms.

Dorothy Palmer's father John McKenna was water commissioner and then mayor of Charlottetown, and a successful grocery store owner.
Dorothy Palmer's father John McKenna was water commissioner and then mayor of Charlottetown, and a successful grocery store owner. (PARO)

Dorothy recalled a visit from her grandmother on a fall day when she was seven or eight and the family lived on Dorchester Street. Her father instructed Dorothy's older brother Leo to start the furnace to keep grandma warm.

He lit the furnace in the basement, but was a lad of only 14 or 15 and didn't notice there was a problem with one of the pipes. Smoke poured out of the basement into the kitchen, and the fire department had to be called.

"We had a phone in those days. I can remember the number: 246 was our telephone number," Palmer said. Neighbours came to see what was happening, and tried to carry water to the basement to put out the fire, as grandma Bridget helped.

Bridget's father John McKenna was a prominent businessman, and owned a grocery store on the corner of Queen and Dorchester streets, in the building known as the Owen Connolly Building. He became mayor of Charlottetown, serving from 1924 to '26. The McKennas loved to have fun, Dorothy said.

The family had built a large house on Dorchester Street, with room in the backyard for two horses and some chickens. The family also had a small pet goat that lived in the house, and Palmer recalled putting the goat on top of the family's phonograph and winding it up, then watching it spin the goat around.

"The goat would go round and round, and then he'd stagger. Oh he was quite a goat," she said. She also remembered the family receiving two baby chicks, because one of her brothers loved chickens.

St. Augustine's Church in South Rustico is one of the oldest Catholic churches on P.E.I., built in 1838. Dorothy Palmer said her grandparents, Bernard and Bridget (Duffy) McKenna, were married there.
St. Augustine's Church in South Rustico is one of the oldest Catholic churches on P.E.I., built in 1838. Dorothy Palmer said her grandparents, Bernard and Bridget (Duffy) McKenna, were married there. (PARO)

"And the goat brought those chickens up! The chickens used to sit on its back until they were feathered hens. And one of them, the rooster, became a pet," she said.

In 1917, Mr. McKenna bought one of the first cars in the neighbourhood, a soft-top Model-T Ford. The rooster would sit on the car's hood and the goat on the running board.

"And dad would fill the car up with five or six kids and take us out to Dalvay to swim ... and the goat would never fall off!" Palmer said with a laugh.

The Palmers were well off, especially after their grocery store became one of the city's licensed liquor vendors in the 1920s. Two of Dorothy's brothers became physicians, and she and one of her sisters chose nursing.

In the late 1920s Dorothy attended the prestigious St. Michael's Hospital School of Nursing in Toronto. For more on her long nursing career across P.E.I., read the attached memoir by Dorothy Palmer published in The Island Magazine at the end of this article.

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