Those Irish Holmes

I’m not exactly sure, but I think I was in high school when I was given a copy of a family-tree-filled booklet called Those Irish Holmes. I’ve only found a few references to it online, and those references suggest that it was published in 1987 (but with a question mark after the date) — I would have been in university in ’87, and I’m sure I had my copy before that. My parents moved during my first year of university, and I never saw the book after that move.

I’ve never really known how the Holmeses arrived in Ireland, but I’ve always known that my Holmes ancestors were Irish. My father strongly identified as Irish; my mother didn’t express any particular affinity with any national origin, although she has a lot of Irish in her with a French streak as well, based on the family tree.

I’ve found enough information from that original book, online, that I can reassemble the fragments I recall about how the Holmeses came to Canada. It starts with the family of Andrew Holmes and his wife Susan/Susannah. In 1845-49, the Great Irish Famine was in full swing. Compounding the problems of the famine was Irish fever — a typhus epidemic that took hold in Ireland, and moved to England.

It appears that Andrew and Susan packed up with 6 of their 7 children (the eldest, Mary Ann, stayed in Ireland with her husband) and sailed off to Canada. I have conflicting information about whether this took place in 1845 or 1847. New York had enacted some legislation with the goal of keeping Irish immigrants out in an attempt to prevent the epidemic from arriving and Canada knew full well that it was going to see a dramatic rise in possibly sick Irish arrivals. The arrival station at Grosse Île, Quebec, ramped up its quarantine procedures and prepared for the influx. Today, there’s a monument on Grosse Île which reads, “In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5,294 persons, who, flying from pestilence and famine in Ireland in the year 1847, found in America but a grave.” One of the names recorded on the memorial is Andrew Holmes, who died in 1845.

Susan and the five boys (including my great-great-grandfather, also named Andrew Holmes) survived, and settled in Toronto Gore (which is apparently now part of Peel). The one daughter, Margaret Holmes, had traveled with her husband and settled not far away. According to one article, in the summer of 1847, over 100,000 Irish passed through Grosse Île. 5,000 died on the island. Another 15,000 didn’t survive their first winter in Canada. This is an interesting blurb:

There are few records to tell us how those who survived fared during their first Canadian winter, but it is certain they found a poor welcome among a population terrified of the plague they carried. Thousands, bitter with hatred against the British, crossed the border into the United States. One of these was John Ford from County Cork, who had buried a wife by the St. Lawrence. He moved to Detroit; his grandson was Henry Ford.

In 1854, three of the brothers, Andrew, David and John decided to head to Lambton County and acquire farmland. One of the other brothers, Thomas, remained in the Toronto area — my aunt was telling me that we have distant relations in the GTA — and the other brother, William, seems to fall off the radar never having married.

Very shortly before this time, Lambton county had all been Indian land. Yes, my ancestors suck. I’m guessing that some of the land belonged to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, whose current reserve marks the southern-most border of Sarnia. The Walpole Island reserve is near Wallaceburg (farther south) and there’s also a Chippewa/Ojibwe reserve at Kettle Point, north east of Sarnia (notably, Dudley George was from Kettle Point).

The brothers sold their first farms when oil was found on David’s land (you’d think that’d mean we’re old money, but no) and moved west a bit to the 8th line in Moore township. I don’t know the timing on this, but I’m pretty sure of the following. First, Andrew’s farm on 8th line is the same farm my father few up on — that’s been an oft-repeated story in the family. Also, my aunt Janey said that, in 1967, people were making a bit deal about the “centennial farms” — farms that had been around since before Confederation, and the family farm wasn’t quite old enough to qualify.

Andrew Holmes the younger died in 1896, at the age of 66. He’d married at 36 to 19-year-old Maria Ross. He and the two other Lambton Holmeses also seemed to have consistently lied to census takers, telling them that they were each five years younger than they were. Maybe Andrew thought it’d be less skeevy to be a 31-year-old marrying a 19-year-old. Andrew’s son, John Holmes (like the porn star), ends up taking over the family farm. John is my great-grandfather. And his son, Vidal Holmes, is my grandfather (“Vidal” is pronounced like “vital”, not like the shampoo). The farm is still in my family — my uncle Ralph currently owns it.

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