Back to her roots: An affectionate history of Griffintown

Par Alan Hustak le 25 mars 2010


How a small Irish Community Shaped Canada.

Sharon Doyle Driedger

Harper Collins, 404 pp, $34.99


Brave is the writer who tackles a history of Griffintown;  braver still the writer who would weigh in on the storied Montreal slum neighbourhood  from her  vantage point in Toronto.  There is much to admire in Sharon Doyle Driedger’s  enthusiastic,  if  somewhat  disjointed history of the Irish experience in Canada.  But  for a book with the subtitle:  How a Small Immigrant Community Shaped Canada ,  often the story she tells  doesn’t have all that much to do with “The Griff.”   Driedger holds forth  with authority in some chapters, especially her telling of  the 1842 canal workers strike at Beauharnois,  the floods and on the Christian brothers influence on the  neighbourhood.   “We all have our own private  Griffintown’s,”  Driedger wrote in her 2003 Macleans article.  This book, she says, is her tribute to its people .  She  bravely   plumbs the depths of waters already explored, but  for other chapters,  instead of diving into the pool where need be,  she  merely  skins the surface of the deep.   

The book grew out of an article that Driedger wrote for Macleans  seven years ago.  An Irish Heart is, without a doubt a welcome reference,  the research is certainly exhaustive.  But  there  is no chronological order to the narrative.  It takes 60 pages before you actually arrive at Griffintown .  The first chapter, Leaving Ireland, is a rehash of Edward Laxton’s   The Famine Ships,   and the account of the sorrowful summer of 1847 relies heavily on Marianna O’Gallagher’s histories of Grosse Isle.  Not much of it  relates  directly  to Montreal.   For example, while  Driedger  writes about the famine ship, Avon, that was quarantined at Grosse Isle,  she doesn’t even  mention the Queen, Rowland Hill and Quebec,  the  three ships that brought Typhus to Montreal and played a much more pertinent role in Griffintown’s history.   She refers to the Irish who “lived on the fine homes on the slopes of Mont Royal;”   those fine homes actually were in Little Dublin, not on the slopes of the mountain, but in the area immediately around St. Patrick’s church. Irish Catholics were not welcome within the confines of the Square Mile.   

She tells us that Montreal  foundress  Jeanne  Mance was the first person to hold the title to what became  Griffintown, but doesn’t tell us why.  (The land was collateral for a loan she made to Montreal’s founder, Paul Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve.) Driedger  states that  Mary Griffin sketched out the first street plan of Griffintown;  in fact it was British magistrate Thomas McCord who laid out the first streets and named them after himself and members of his family, William and Eleanor.  The author claims that violent crime in Griffintown  was rare, ignoring the evidence of the often  brutal mayhem  caused by  19th century street gangs  The Irish Catholic Union and the Orange Young Brothers. There is nothing, for example  about the gang wars that ended in  the murder of James  Coligan in 1878.  The book  Includes  the notorious story of Mary Gallagher, the prostitute who had her head chopped off by Susan Kennedy in 1879. Curiously, the author doesn’t mention the fate of Kennedy’s accomplice, Michael Flanagan, and how the bizarre circumstances of his death  gave rise to the legend of the Ghost of Griffintown.  (Incidentally, Susan Kennedy died in 1890, not  1916 as the book states)  There are other sloppy errors; The Shamrock did not appear on the city flag in the 1830s - Montreal  did not have a flag until 1939; Jean Le Ber is not a saint.  Driedger’s  account of “Banjo” Frank Hanley is fanciful in the extreme; anyone who knew Frank knew that he tailored his stories to suit the person he was telling them too; Driedger obviously takes his tales  at face value without checking their authenticity.  Readers will be better served by Hanley’s profile  in the Shamrock and The Shield by Patricia Burns, which  offers a much more flavourful  account of life in Griffintown.  

 One wishes Dreidger had been as expansive about other  equally colourful  ward-heeling  politicians such as ‘The people’s’  Jimmy McShane and  Dr. James Guerin, equally noisy show-offs  who are as pertinent to  Griffintown’s  history ..  Irritatingly, she often equates   Griffintown   with Point St Charles, ignoring the rivalry between the two districts.  Obviously, no book can cover everything, but to ignore the Old Brewery Mission’s beginnings on Dalhousie St., or not mention St. Ann’s dispensary on Eleanor St., as the forerunner of St. Mary’s Hospital is an unfortunate oversight.  Nor is the book topical. It ends in the 1970s, about the time   Driedger left Montreal,  with a rather mythical  account of how Griffintown   disappeared. She buys into the notion that Jean Drapeau put an end to the community. In fact, the Irish abandoned the area after the war, moving up in the world to more affluent neighbourhoods  long before Drapeau was elected mayor. 

By the time St. Ann’s church was demolished in 1970, only about 10 per cent of Griffintown’s  meager population  was of  Irish origin.  There is nothing in the book   about the grandiose plans to revive  the area, the fight to preserve it from developers,   and no mention at all  of Rev. Thomas McEntree,  who almost single handedly,  kept the spirit of the community alive until his death two years ago.   Driedger  writes well, the book is a welcome addition to the study of Irish history,  but her private  Griffintown  should not  be considered the definitive word on the subject. 


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