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By Mike Heenan
True North Perspective
A memorial to the more than 1,000 Irish Navvies (canal workers) and their families who died building the Rideau Canal between 1826-32 was unveiled on Sunday, June 27th, 2004. The location of the monument is along the Rideau Canal - at the first lock at the Ottawa River – across the Canal from The Bytown Museum.
After three years of negotiation, fundraising and planning, the Rideau Canal Celtic Cross Committee (RCCCC) comprised of a dozen Ottawa volunteers from various trades & professions, finally saw their vision and hard work become a reality.
Ottawa poet and editor, Mike Heenan, Publicity Director for the project said, “This is a long-overdue recognition of the tragic sacrifice made by The Irish Navvies and their families. And let’s not forget Colonel By who was twice stricken with “Swamp Fever” (Malaria), and narrowly escaped death at Hog’s Back Locks when the works collapsed.”
Heenan added, “This beautiful Celtic Cross would not have come about without the determined and generous support of The Ottawa Irish Society, The Ottawa & District Labour Council and the many ‘Valley Irish’ musicians & writers who gave freely of their time and talent for fundraising Ceilis in Ottawa and throughout The Valley.
"Originally built following the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States of America the Rideau Canal was to provide a safe alternative transportation route between Montreal and Lake Ontario and by-pass the St. Lawrence River, keeping supplies safe from American attack," said Sean McKenny, Chair of the RCCCC, “Now it is American pleasure craft that are among the many visitors to travel the 125-mile Canal", he said.
"The monument to the workers and their families will remind the public that part of the cost of construction of what is now a beautiful waterway, was the loss of over 1,000 lives with the vast majority being newly-arrived Irish immigrants to North America," said McKenny. "Today the majority of those workers remain unknown and lie in unmarked graves along The Canal's route."
Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli and Ireland's Ambassador to Canada Martin Burke addressed those in attendance as did Pat Kelly, President of the Irish Society of Ottawa. Old Irish tunes and songs were played by Kevin Dooley & Friends and Mike Heenan’s poetry (BELOW) was read in memory of the fallen Navvies
All were invited over to Mother McGintey's Pub at 67 Clarence St. for a Reception & Ceili hosted by Pat Kelly.
Gone, too long, your laughing eyes.
Gone, too long, your shining face.
Gone, too long, your youthful grace.
Too long, gone without a trace.
Forgotten years now near two hundred
As down the shores your axes thundered.
You fell like oak and pines you’d hewn
For six long years – a thousand strewn.
Some by the blasted granite shards;
Some by earthslides quick graveyards;
Some by Fever – young lives squandering;
Some by madness, lost and wandering.
Our ancient brothers came for you
Through forests, swamps and death-mist blue.
Ten thousand years of wisdom healed
You frightened lads so far afield.
Ten thousand years of Native grace
Saved Navvy lives and gave them place
To rest awhile and bleed no more
And ne’er return to Rideau’s shores.
Is where and when worlds intertwine:
Where Heaven and Hell are both in reach,
When thinnest veils are often breached.
Crossed roads near water are all ways blest
And Seasons’ turnings make times best
For shining spirits caught between
An eye-deep Hell and Heaven’s green.
Their rising runs through this thin place
Fixed by their Cross for eternal grace.
May this Beltane’s song reborn
Return their dear souls safely Home.
© Mike Heenan, Beltane, April 28, 2002
All down the long graveyard of our Canal
Half-sunken maple leaves swirl and cling to our blades.
Wild rice clutches at our gunnels
And whispers softly with our passage.
At wider river stretches past the locks
Red-winged, black acolytes shrill their alarms
From grey and hopeless roods.
Sentinel herons gaze baleful, motionless.
Near dusk, the Cranberry Marsh
and a cold harvest moonrise
Mark our wake with crimson streaks.
Later, wrapped in blankets round the holy campfire,
We fall into fitful rest.
My beloved whimpers in her sleep
And I wonder, was this the final sunset
For my lost, unshriven kinsmen?
A lone loon’s requiem
Across the blood-dimmed marsh.
© Mike Heenan, Fall, 2003
Controversy was stirred up in March of 2007, when Ottawa Mayor O’Brien and Council began considering a name for a new footbridge over The Canal situated by the Navvies’ former slum shantytown, nicknamed “Corktown” by the fallen Canal workers.
Such names as “The Nelson Mandela” bridge and “The Charlotte Whitton” bridge leaked out of City Hall annoying Ottawa’s Irish community and petitions, poems and angry responses deluged the Mayor & Council.
Heenan sharpened up his pencil again and joined the fray with the much-publicized two “Corktown” poems below, and the bridge officially became “The Corktown Bridge” with an appropriate plaque honouring the Irish Navvies.
(To the tune of “Down By The Salley Gardens”)
Down by the Locks of our Canal
The Lads dug in to live.
Caves and wattled huts were all
That wilderness would give.
Irish Navvies from old Eire,
Some wives and wee in tow,
Spent by Fever, war & fear,
They died both fast and slow.
Black Powder took some lads away,
Swamp Fever took the rest.
They laid them where they fell those days:
No Mothers, Mass, nor Priest,
They called it “Corktown” in the day,
And shame attached the name,
For they nightly drank the pain away
And sang away the blame.
The shame belongs to them.
Of Old Corktown there’s no trace:
As if they’d never been.
Yet some startled tulip beds
Along our Waterway,
Bloom Irish skulls with grinning heads
Now quietly tossed away.
Still today the City balks
At naming our new link
The “Corktown Bridge” for those who stroll
Across that sacred stink.
Irish memories run deep
And City Councils’ small.
For The City’s shame won’t let us weep
For the Lads who served us all.
© Mike Heenan, March 17, 2007
“Five million bucks for a footbridge!”
Some whined, as it went up;
Still shake their heads and grumble,
Yet enjoy the view and stop;
Gaze North to Gatineau-framed Chateau
Or South where Rideau turns.
Some know the Navvies rest below;
Others, purposeful and stern,
Stride to work or classes,
Where Town & Gown now meet
Without a glimmer of the past
Or the lads beneath their feet.
For Irish Navvies built Canal,
And Navvies paid the price
And they were buried where they fell,
You can hear their muffled cries.
Just listen on the Footbridge now,
As you pause right at the middle.
You’ll hear their whispered songs below,
And soft the tunes of fiddles.
It’s a fine young bridge and nicely swank,
With muscles, curves and turns
That lean into the flowered banks
And make the walkers yearn
For a rightful name with history’s crown
To make us all feel proud
For the lads who died at Corktown
And our Capital endowed.
© Mike Heenan, March 17, 2007