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DUCHESS OF DIRT: To Irish roots and a lesson learned

Last month I honoured Robbie Burns in recognition of my paternal heritage. This month I celebrate my maternal Irish heritage.
The Oxalis tetraphylla ‘Iron Cross’… more commonly called the ‘Good Luck’ plant or four-leaf clover… is commonly associated with all things Irish. Photo supplied

Last month I honoured Robbie Burns in recognition of my paternal heritage. This month I celebrate my maternal Irish heritage.

I have yet to discover when my great-great-grandfather left his birthplace in Cork, Ireland but he must have eventually made his way to London, England prior to the end of May 1862. I know this because he arrived in Victoria, B.C. aboard the Tynemouth on Sept. 18, 1862.

Organized by the Columbia Emigration Society and under the auspices of the Anglican Church of England, the Tynemouth was chartered to carry 60 single women between the ages of 14 and 20 from London to Victoria as potential wives for the many British Columbia “lovesick bachelors.”

(The Tynemouth was dubbed the “bride ship” in the Victoria newspaper, British Colonist, as the current Times Colonist was then known. I also found an article on the website, Canada’s History, with a story headline that “labeled” the young women as Crinoline Cargo.)

Obviously, my great-great-grandfather was not one of the brides on the ship, but I imagine he probably worked his way across the ocean and up the West Coast as a seaman labourer.

But what were the reasons why my ancestor came to Canada in the first place?

Ever hear of the great famine? Or the potato famine? And yes, it all started with the potato.

Not to overwhelm you with too much history, but must disclose that most of the population in Ireland was extremely poor, especially in the western part of Ireland. Much of the land was owned by English landlords and rented out in allotments to Irish farmers who grew cereal crops for the English.

For their own sustenance, the Irish came to rely almost exclusively on the potato for its hardiness, its caloric density and nutrition. (I found one reference which claimed each Irish tenant farmer and their cottiers - landless labourers - consumed an estimated 3.5 kg of potatoes per day.) Unfortunately, they also relied on only growing one or two potato varieties.

Irish newspapers began running articles in 1844 - reports about a disease that had been attacking American potato crops over the previous two years. Identified as phytophthora infestans, or late blight, it was thought to have originated in the Toluca Valley in Mexico and subsequently spread north into the United States before winding up in the food supplies for the passengers sailing on clipper ships out of New York, bound for the United Kingdom and Europe.

The strain of phytophthora infestans that started the 1845 catastrophe overseas was identified as HERB-1 and it spread quickly. Ireland, southern England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and much of Central Europe were all infected with the crippling pathogen by mid-August 1845.

In Ireland alone, an estimated one million people died from famine, or famine-related diseases such as typhus. And it is calculated that as many as two million Irish people emigrated to North America in search of a better life. Certainly, by the time Ireland gained its independence in 1921, the population numbers were barely half those noted in records dated the early 1840s.

So, a lesson from the Irish to all growers; be sure you grow a range of vegetable varieties for the health of your garden and yourself.

As for me, I have been blessed with the luck of two Irish immigrants from Cork who just happened to land in the ‘Gardening Capital of Canada’ - one working his passage across the ocean and my great-great-grandmother, a young bride-to-be, who were both on the ship, Tynemouth. They met, married, raised five children and farmed a section of land next to what is now known as Ross Bay Cemetery. And that is no blarney.

Leslie Cox co-owns Growing Concern Cottage Garden in Black Creek.