When Tom Jenkins decided to look for traces of an ancestor during a trip to Ireland just before the COVID-19 pandemic, he not only uncovered an entire family history previously unknown to him, but also the stories of hundreds of Canadian families that could trace their roots to Ireland.
Now, Jenkins has partnered with Irish historian Kevin Lee to write a book titled “Shoeboxes,” chronicling the stories of 50 families that left Ireland during the Great Famine in the mid-19th century for a better life in Canada.
Many of those families, Jenkins’ included, ended up in the Kingston area as well as other communities along the now Highway 401 corridor. Jenkins and Lee will be touring the book in the coming weeks, with stops in Kingston, in the hopes of shedding light on these cross-Atlantic connections and helping others find their family history.
Through a series of events during his pre-pandemic trip, Jenkins got a lead on a family in the mountains of Wicklow, southwest of Dublin.
“They said, ‘We’re related,’” Jenkins remembered, during an interview with the Whig-Standard. How do I know? They said, ‘Well, you’re related because of this shoebox.’ And they went to the mantle and pulled down a shoebox.”
Inside that box were nearly 200 years’ worth of letters, photographs and memorabilia shared between the family that had left for Canada and the family left behind.
“They even had photos of me and my children,” Jenkins marveled.
Jenkins’ family members landed in Grosse Île, Que., in 1847 and made their way to Kingston. (Located in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, Grosse Île was Canada’s main immigration gateway and served as a quarantine station for the Port of Quebec from 1832 to 1937.)
The family settled on a farm in Camden East for 30 years, then joined another family in Hamilton, where Jenkins’ family continues today.
From that fortuitous meeting, Jenkins connected with Lee and his wife, Eleanor, who have been working for decades to organize and share the histories of the families that left the Coollattin Estate in Wicklow during the Great Famine to sail across the Atlantic for Canada.
The Coollattin Estate was owned by the Fitzwilliam family. It was 90,000 acres and home to thousands of Irish tenant farmers. During a 30-year period in the mid-19th century, the owner of the estate, Earl Fitzwilliam, assisted thousands of families to leave Ireland and find new lives in Canada.
More than 500 families left Coollattin for Quebec during the famine. That information is available thanks to fastidious records kept by the Coollattin Estate, an unusual occurrence in that era. On the estate every house and field was numbered and the names of its residents recorded. The names of those who left were also recorded.
“We have a prototype, which we don’t have for anywhere else (in Ireland),” Lee said. “That’s what makes Coollattin so important in Irish Famine historiography.”
Jenkins was amazed by the Lees’ research into the Coollattin Estate records.
“I said, ‘We should probably write a book,’” Jenkins recalled.
“Shoeboxes” examines the time-capsulated history of the memories of families on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In some cases, there are “shoeboxes,” physical or digital, that were developed in parallel by families separated across that distance, where the contents of a Canadian family’s shoebox were replicated by a family in Ireland.
Most Canadians, all they know, and especially around St. Patrick’s Day, is that they might be Irish,” Jenkins said. “They don’t know how or where. That’s what this book was for. To write the stories of plain people, 50 families who came, and what happened to them, in the hopes that we’d find the other 450.”
Lee has connected with Canadian families, including in Kingston, Belleville and Napanee, to help them trace their ancestry to Coollattin tenant farmers. If their ancestry traces to this area, the Lees can show them the precise physical location of their relatives’ homes, paint a precise picture of the lives of those individuals at Coollattin, and can list the names of the family who sailed to Canada.
In Jenkins’ case, his ancestors didn’t all survive the journey. The couple’s three children died in Kingston within weeks of arrival.
“In many instances, such as in Tom’s case, the family didn’t all make it as far as Camden East,” Lee said. “In the case of many children, when they passed through Grosse Île, they contracted famine diseases: typhus and cholera. Given its incubation period, the disease really took hold by the time they reached Kingston. Many became so ill that they couldn’t travel further.
Kingston was a great distribution center for the Irish who left Coollattin. They went to Camden East, Belleville, Tweed, Centreville, to all those towns and areas in Lennox and Addington and surrounding Kingston. It’s very rich. Probably a lot richer than we realize.”
Through his research, Lee estimates close to 10,000 Irish from the south of County Wicklow ended up in the Kingston region.
Jenkins said that he and Lee estimate more than 200,000 descendants can trace their ancestry to the Irish who settled the 401 corridor, spreading out from their start in Quebec and then Kingston.
“It’s an enormous number, and 99 per cent of them have no idea about this story,” Jenkins said. “They have no idea where they’re from.”
Data gathered during Statistics Canada’s 2021 Census shows that more than 25 per cent of Kingston residents claim Irish ancestry.
“Shoeboxes” explores the histories of families with surnames such as Cassidy, Kelly, Doyle, Byrne, Kenny, Foster, Dunn, Hutton, McGrath, James, Tomkins and more.
Lee said that the Coollattin immigrants showed their immense resilience, leaving a farming life where they’d never seen a town or the sea, boarding ships for a harrowing six-week journey, coming to Canada, clearing forests to build their homes.
“It’s a major story of human endeavor,” Lee said.
Coollattin immigrants, many of whom were literate, which was unusual, not only became farmers and laborers, but also played big roles in Canadian politics.
“So many of the families we’re talking about … became so prominent in Canadian society and politics and the economy of the country, building up the young country,” Lee said.
“It was quite exceptional in the story of Canada.”
Lee and Jenkins started touring “Shoeboxes” on Thursday in Toronto and will continue during the days before and after St. Louis. Patrick’s Day, a time when “everyone thinks they’re Irish,” Jenkins pointed out.
“More than 1,000 people across 10 cities in Ontario have registered to attend stops along the book tour,” he said. “People are coming to find out where they’re from.”
The authors will be in Kingston on March 20, 21 and 22. Extra dates have been added so that everyone interested in discovering their family history has a chance to meet Jenkins and the Lees and discuss their roots.
“It’s really powerful for these families to find out where they’re from… most people take for granted that they don’t know,” Jenkins said. In reality, they can find out. At least these 500 families can find out.”
For more information, or to register to attend an event during the book tour, visit www.shoeboxesbook.com.
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