‘Irish Bard’ finds family roots on Wolfe Island by Brian P. Johnson

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Christmas snow storm, blizzard on Wolfe Island, Ontario Canada, photo above – Jannet L. Walsh waves to passersby from Spoor House built about 1870, located on Main Street in Marysville village on Wolfe Island, Ontario, Canada. Walsh spent the Christmas season exploring her family’s forgotten history on Wolfe Island located in the archipelago of the Thousand Islands, near the mainland city of Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Learn about this cottage, and other historic places to stay at Hotel Wolfe Island. (Self portrait by Jannet L. Walsh)

Jannet L. Walsh
February 11, 2023
Murdock, Minnesota

I’m excited to announce a story written by Brian P. Johnson, retired Captain of the Wolfe Islander III, of Kingston, Ontario, Canada, published today in The Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper, Feb. 11, 2023.
Read story Click to download and read story as PDF, below in document viewer, or as a photo at bottom of this blog post.

Direct link to Kingston Whig-Standard: Read story at Kingston Whig-Standard

Irish Canadian genealogy resources

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Brian was very kind and offered to picked me up at the VIA Rail Canada train station in Kingston, December 19, 2022, and helped me find my footing in Canada. He had no idea I’d have a lot of luggage for my expedition, and I came packed with a lot of enthusiasm to discover my roots on Wolfe Island during one of the worst recorded snow storms on the island in forty years. I wanted an authentic Wolfe Island Christmas, and that’s exactly what I received. I was cut off from mainland Canada and the United States when the ferry was taken out of service, and most of the island lost power.

Wolfe Islander III Ferry – December 27, 2022, at Dawson’s Point, Wolfe Island, Ontario Canada

About the story, writer – The story ‘Irish Bard’ finds family roots on Wolfe Island is about my visit to Kingston and Wolfe Island, Ontario, and the search for my Irish Canadian roots, mid December 2022 to early January 2023.

Brian P. Johnson, retired Captain of the Wolfe Islander III, of Kingston, Ontario, Canada, at St. Mary’s Cemetery, Kingston.

Brian Johnson is a past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society, and an author and storyteller. His family goes back five generations, mid 1840s, on Wolfe Island. Researching his family history is a labor of love as historian and storyteller. He recently retired after 35 years as a captain of the Wolfe Islander III Ferry, and after 40 years with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, Eastern Region Ferries. Brian has spent more than 50 years as a mariner, and is a certified Master 500 Near Coastal certificate of competency. You should be prepared if you ask him about ferries and Wolfe Island as he has a countless stories to tell.

Read more of Johnson’s writing at Thousand Islands Life, and additional back issues, along with his short stories. He edited the book Growing up on Wolfe Island with Sarah Sorensen, a collection of oral histories, and is working on a forthcoming book Ferry Tales from Wolfe Island. You can connect with Brian at his Facebook page to follow his writing, and book updates.

Brian P. Johnson
, retired Captain of the Wolfe Islander III, of Kingston, Ontario, Canada, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Kingston.

About Wolfe Island – Wolfe Island is in St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, almost four miles from the port of Kingston, accessible by ferry, the largest island in the archipelago of the Thousand Islands. 

This 48-square-mile island has been home to several European ethnic groups, cheese factories, and dairy farms, along with a history of fur trading. Wolfe Island is the native homeland of the Tyendinaga Mohawk, kawehnóhkwes tsi kawè:note, meaning Long Island Standing. Wolfe Islanders are completely dependent on access to mainland Canada by the Wolfe Island Ferry III to Kingston, soon to be replaced by a zero-emission ferry, Wolfe Island Ferry IV. Locals reference the journey the ferry takes in the St. Lawrence River as a water road, or Highway H20.

Wolfe Island Essentials

Hotel Wolfe Island is a venue for live music. Learn more at Hotel Wolfe Island for live music events.

Christmas Eve 2022 at Spoor House, Wolfe Island, Ontario Canada

The island is known for human smuggling in the 1800s, part of the Underground Railroad helping enslaved African American find freedom. There were numerous smuggling schemes between Canada and the United States; while today a Wind Farm of 86 wind turbines generate energy for use beyond the island.

Irish Canadian Roots – My Walsh family, originally from County Kilkenny, Ireland, departed in 1842 before the Great Famine of 1845-1852. They traveled first to Canada, before settling in the northern United States. Also factoring into their departure were anti-Irish sentiments, religious discrimination, and loss of culture and language that riddled the island of Ireland by British invasion and rule for several centuries.

The island of Ireland today includes the country of Ireland, achieving independence in 1922, and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom.  My extended Walsh family migrated by ships, often disease-infested, across the Atlantic Ocean to Ontario, Canada, before heading to Minnesota. They settled in the Swift County farming community in Dublin Township, where I now reside.

Johnny O’Shea is the storyteller of Wolfe Island, referred to as a bard. His family ran a dairy and cheese factory on the island, and originally from County Kerry, Ireland, arriving about 1846 to Wolfe Island.

I am the first known member of my family in 146 years to return to Wolfe Island, Ontario (December 18, 2022, to January 2, 2023). My Great Grandfather Michael J. Walsh Jr., born on Wolfe Island in 1858, arrived with his family in De Graff, Minnesota, on his 19 birthday, Oct. 14 or 15, 1877. He was part of a Minnesota colony designed to help disenfranchised immigrants become farmers. The late Archbishop John Ireland of the Catholic Diocese of St. Paul, Minnesota, selected my family – one of 4,000 immigrant families — to live in the first of his ten colonies. Nativist prejudice, including anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments, were common then, especially on the East Coast of the United States. The rural setting helped my family to thrive; my family is honored to say we are Archbishop Ireland’s people.

This activity is made possible by a grant from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council with funds from The McKnight Foundation. Learn more about this project writing project, and more details about this grant.

Jannet L. Walsh – View from Port Metcalf, the foot of Wolfe Island, Ontario, Canada, Dec. 30, 2022. Self portrait taken with trigger and travel Gitzo tripod. Canada is located to the left, and United States to right, standing on the edge of Canada.

Jannet L. Walsh of Murdock, Minnesota is a photographer, writer, and educator. She is the author of the forthcoming creative nonfiction quest narrative “Higgledy-Piggledy Stones: Family Stories from Ireland and Minnesota,” scheduled for publication in 2023 by Shanti Arts Publishing. Walsh is recipient of a Southwest Minnesota Arts Council Growth Grant funded by the McKnight Foundation, 2022-2024. You can follow Walsh on Facebook and Twitter, and on her other social media channels, with the hashtag #IrishFamilyHistoryDetective.

Subscribe – Get updates on latest blogs and news from Jannet L. Walsh and her forthcoming book Higgledy-Piggledy Stones: Family Stories from Ireland and Minnesota, scheduled publication 2023, Shanti Arts Publishing.

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