St. PATRICK’S DAY: SOME IRISH FACT &TRIVIA (March 16/06)

We were just below Blarney Castle in Cork and on our way to see the famous blarney stone when we encountered a man selling poems. He was sitting beside a stone walkway near the castle and as we approached he shouted something about offering the work of an “authentic Irish poet.”

I still have the poem I bought that morning, for the equivalent of one Canadian dollar, and frankly, it’s a piece of drivel. But the chat I had with the self-styled “Irish poet” was interesting. When I mentioned that one of my ancestors had emigrated from Cork he told me that Coleman was a common surname in the area. “My surname is not all that common,” he added. “It’s one of the oldest surnames in Irish history.”

Intrigued, I said, “Oh, really?”

“Aw,” he said with a smirk, “you’re not even close.”

I hope that with St. Patrick’s day upon us you appreciate this bit of Irish humour. We did meet a would-be Irish poet at the foot of Blarney Castle and just as I said, I bought one of his poems. However, his surname was Kidney, as un-Irish a name you can find even though his family had been in Ireland for generations.

Anyway, like I said, St Paddies Day is here and you can expect the usual Irish stories, Irish suppers and the odd Irish musical this Friday. Rightfully we should celebrate St. Patrick’s Day here in Kings County since there is an Irish element. Folklore has it, for example, that an old burial ground in Centreville was originally an Irish cemetery. Supporting this folktale is the fact that burial records indicate most of the early burials in this cemetery have Irish surnames.

There’s a local folktale as well that there was a tiny Irish settlement near Centreville, or possibly near Hillaton or Atlanta. This is said to have been the first Irish settlement in the Valley but there are no known historical documents that confirm this.

Here’s an Irish fact. One of the first settlers in Kentville and one of its earliest and most successful merchants was out of northern Ireland. This was Henry Magee who first settled in the States and came to Nova Scotia as a Loyalist. Magee became a prosperous merchant in Kentville, building and operating a mill and one of the largest general stores at the time (1788) in the Annapolis Valley. He died a wealthy man in 1806 and is buried in Kentville’s Oak Grove cemetery.

It was an Irish element that almost brought what was to become the Dominion Atlantic Railway to a standstill when it was being constructed. In her D.A.R. history, Marguerite Woodworth writes about the “Railway Riots of 1856,” a series of clashes between disgruntled Irish railway workers and their Protestant counterparts. The most serious battle took place on the Windsor branch, at a place with the Irish sounding name of Gurlay’s Shanty. The Irish workers apparently got the better of their Protestant fellow workers, inflicting such terrific damage that construction was held up for almost a week.

More Irish trivia. Nova Scotia was almost New Ireland, rather than New Scotland, and it would have been had one Col A. McNutt had his way. McNutt received a large grant in Nova Scotia circa 1759 and planned to re-name the province New Ireland.

Why corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day I once asked a Tipperary native. The cabbage because it’s green, the Irish national colour, I was told. As for the corned beef, the Tipperary man said it was a North American addition. “In Ireland,” he said, “it’s more likely to be a ham and cabbage dinner on St. Patrick’s Day.” The Tipperary man added that while we celebrate the day here with drinking, in Ireland it’s more of a religious event.

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