Smiths Falls welcoming Irish visitors this summer

Posted on: March 8, 2017

By Chris Must

As Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation this year, Smiths Falls will be embracing a vital part of its history – the Irish connection.

In 1871, 63 per cent of the residents of Smiths Falls and the surrounding townships were Irish. Today the town is officially twinned with Carnew, a small community in County Wicklow. From June 23 to July 2, Smiths Falls will host a group of visitors from Carnew who will be hoping to learn more about the lives their relatives led after they came to the new world in the 19th century. Over a dozen Irish visitors have signed up for the tour so far, and Smiths Falls has made plans to host up to 30 or more.

The town is hoping the Irish visitors will “experience some of the beauty and culture that we’re able to experience every day living here,” said Mayor Shawn Pankow.

“A lot of them are coming because they’re interested in tracing their family history,” said Ingrid Bron, the town’s coordinator of tourism and economic development.

Smiths Falls has been officially twinned with the town of Carnew since July 18, 2016, when a formal resolution was passed. The initiative began two years ago, when Kevin Lee, a historian from Ireland, visited Smiths Falls and observed that many of the family names seen on markers in local cemeteries are similar to those of the families that were forced to migrate to Canada in the mid-19th century during the Potato Famine. Some of those family names are: Dagg, Doyle, Eagers, Jackson, Murphy, Pearson, Pierce, Rickby, Tallant, Tallon, Timmons, and Whelan. 

One other notable family is the Balfes, who settled on the land which is now occupied by the Smiths Falls Golf & Country Club. The fireplace in the clubhouse is built of stone from the original buildings. Original settler Thomas Balfe died in 1882 at the age of 78.

The town of Carnew is the location of the former Coollattin Estate once owned by the powerful Earl Fitzwilliam. Throughout the first six decades of the 19th century there was a constant exodus of tenants from the earl’s land to Upper Canada, including the local region. From the mid-1830s onward Fitzwilliam assisted thousands of his tenants in finding a new life across the Atlantic. From 1847 to 1856, about 6,000 people were evicted from the Coollatin Estate. According to information from the town, Fitzwilliam arranged for the passage of these tenants, many of whom settled in the Smiths Falls area, finding work on the railways and establishing farms in the area.

In recognition of the link between Carnew and the Smiths Falls area, an organization called the Coollattin Canadian Collection was officially launched in Carnew in 2015 by Canadian ambassador to Ireland Kevin Vickers. The organization helps the descendants of emigrants seek out knowledge of their family history.

Last summer Mayor Pankow paved the way for this year’s visit by travelling to Carnew on a family vacation, with his wife Tracey and children Shawna, James, and Tatiana. Pankow said his mother’s family originally came from Wexford, the county next to Wicklow, dating back to 1814.

The mayor said one of the highlights of his family’s trip was the opportunity to view a holographic re-enactment of the Battle of Vinegar Hill which took place during the brief Rebellion of 1798. The family was suitably impressed by the natural beauty of the “Emerald Isle,” and found that the local people were very caring, and “very similar to people here.”

Pankow said he is confident that this summer’s visitors from Ireland will succeed in reconnecting with some of their long-lost relatives.

Some highlights of the June 23-July 2 trip will include the opportunity for the Irish visitors to attend a number of local Canada 150 events: the Highland on the Rideau Music Festival and Smiths Falls Triathlon on June 24, the visit of the Voyageur Canoe Brigade to Smiths Falls on June 27, a golf tournament and gala dinner at the Smiths Falls Golf & Country Club June 28, a performance by the Steel City Rovers at the Station Theatre June 30, and Canada Day festivities July 1.

The busy itinerary also includes opportunities for the visitors to explore the archives at Heritage House museum, visit homesteads, churches and cemeteries in surrounding communities, visit the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario, and tour the Rideau Canal. Plans also include an Irish cultural celebration the evening of June 24 with music by Gaelic Storm.

Photo Caption: Coollattin House was the home of Earl Fitzwilliam, owner of the Coollattin Estates. Many of the earl’s tenants emigrated to the Smiths Falls area in the first half of the 19th century. Mayor Shawn Pankow and his family visited the former estate last summer. Photo Credit: Tracey Pankow.

First published in the February of Hometown News.