To the editor,
With St. Patrick’s Day impending, I would like to share with you a memory of my mother.
She was six years old when she sailed across the ocean, a tiny girl with a pixie haircut, wearing a sailor dress and high button boots. Everything she had in the world, a change of clothes and a Bible, came with her in a small wooden chest.
She was born in Glasgow and for half her life believed herself to be a Scots. It wasn’t until the Second World War that her lineage was traced and the discovery made that her parents were Irish. Fleeing the starvation of the great Irish potato famine of the late 1800s, they had migrated to Scotland where her father had found work in the Glasgow shipyards. He met his untimely death there at the age of 39, leaving her mother with four young children. Far from her Irish home and family, in an age when women saw little work or government assistance, she had no choice. All four children were sent to an orphanage, which solved the problem of Jonathan Swift’s Irish babies by sending hundreds of them to Canada to find new parents and a new life.
This little girl, whose name was Mary, arrived in Canada in 1902 and was placed in an orphanage in Belleville, Ont. She was taken – not adopted, that wasn’t the practice back then – by a childless middle-aged couple whose request to the orphanage had been for a boy to help on the farm.
My mother loved bagpipes and in later years, the wearing of the green. She never again saw Scotland, the land of her birth, or Ireland, the land of her heritage. I doubt she ever knew that St. Patrick was a fifth-century Catholic missionary, I doubt she ever knew that St. Patrick’s Day is really the Feast of St. Patrick, a religious holiday in Ireland, or that the shamrock was chosen by St. Patrick to represent the Trinity.
She lived her life in Canada, one of the many Irish landed immigrants who swelled the population and contributed to the growth of this country. She always thought of herself as a Canadian but clung to her mixed heritage. It surfaced occasionally as she busied herself with some task, singing in a rich, contralto voice, I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen.
She died two months before her 89th birthday, leaving behind a dynasty – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
She also left behind the picture of a tiny girl with a pixie hair cut, wearing a sailor dress, high button boots and that infectious grin. It hangs on my bedroom wall and whenever I look at it, I know what St. Patrick’s Day means to me – my Irish mother.
Elgay Armstrong, Ladysmith
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