THE SKELLY FAMILY
FROM WESTMEATH, IRELAND
TO ST-COLUMBAN, QUEBEC, CANADA
By Kelley O’Rourke
The Skelly family can be traced back to the pretty little village of Ballynacarrigy, or Balnacarrig (referred to in John Skelly’s 1937 letter as Ballycarga), in the barony of Mygoish, county of Westmeath, and province of Leinster, 7 miles from Mullingar, and 45 miles from Dublin. The surrounding landscape includes bogs, mountains, and beautiful lakes.
A large Roman Catholic Church, for the union or district of Kilbixy, is situated in the centre of town. The Skellys, like so many of their neighbors, were devout Roman Catholics. The church was an important part of both their spiritual and community lives.
The beautiful countryside was in sharp contrast to the economic status of Ireland in the 1800’s. The ending of the Napoleonic Wars after 1815 was a major factor in the economic slump affecting the cities of Ireland. Prices for agricultural produce declined by one-third to one-half of the wartime prices. The depression in Ireland and the British Isles in general, caused many city dwellers to return to pasture land and forced eviction of many tenants-at-will.
Like so many other Irish people, the poor economic state of Ireland contributed to the Skelly’s decision to leave. In 1825, three of the Skelly boys left their father James Skelly Sr. and mother Catherine McLain’s farm (no records found of other siblings to date) and looked toward Canada. Canada offered potentially valuable farmland, which was considered “a good poor man’s country” because immigrants willing to work hard for a generation or more could acquire opportunities of land. The Skelly clan were hard working skilled farmers and had much to offer.
James Jr. (family letters refer to James as Garrett, although Quebec documents record him as James), Michael (b. abt. 1797) & Elizabeth (nee Carey, b. abt. 1807) and Edward (b. 1787) & Catherine (nee Carey, b. 1805) Skelly boarded a ship in 1825 and crossed the Atlantic together. (Two Skelly brothers married two Carey sisters and James Jr. (Garrett) was single).
“In the year 1823 Peter Robinson was approached, through his brother, who was then Attorney General for Upper Canada, to lead an emigration from poverty stricken Ireland to Canada. Bringing over 182 families in that same year, Robinson opened and settled much of the Ottawa Valley.
He seemed the logical choice then, when Under Secretary of Colonial Affairs for Britain, Wilmot Horton, was searching once again to alleviate the Irish problem in 1825. In May of that year, the settlers Robinson had chosen in his new capacity as Superintendent, were gathered at the docks in Cork, carrying what possessions they could and in a great state of excitement. Nine ships awaited them for the Atlantic voyage.” (Trenton Valley Archives)
Initially, the Skellys along with a group of other Irish immigrants remained in Montreal. With little money and hardly any possessions to their name, they found comfort and support within the catholic community. Father Phelan was assigned to look after the many impoverished Irish people within his parish. It was he who encouraged the many Irish families (with farming backgrounds) to move from Montreal to St. Columban (located in the foothills of the Laurentians), in the hopes of rebuilding their lives. By means of the Society of the Gentlemen of St. Sulpice, he offered them land grants consisting of about 150 acres. Father Phelan had great faith that the hard working Irish farmers would make a decent living off the land.
“The first mention of the Irish in Montreal was in 1817. This small group of people used to attend Mass at the French-speaking Bonsecours Church. Reverend Father Richards Jackson, a member of the Gentlemen of St. Sulpice, was an assistant at this church and noticed the Irish faces among the congregation. This zealous priest became their shepherd. In 1824, Rev. Fr. Richard Jackson opened a school for Irish children in the Recollect Convent; once an army barracks, and thus established the first Irish parish in Montreal. In 1829, Father Phelan, later to become a Bishop, was the first Irish pastor. To accommodate the increase in Irish immigrants, the Church was enlarged twice, once in 1829 and again in 1834. This building had once been the Recollect Convent on Notre Dame St., in the heart of old Montreal. (THE IRISH SETTLEMENT OF ST. COLUMBAN, Bro. Jerome Hart, September 30, 1955)
The Rev. Father Phelan was born in 1795 at Ballyragget, County Kilkenny, Ireland. Early in his youth, he immigrated to Boston and soon chose the priesthood as his life’s vocation. Msgr. de Cheries, his Bishop sent him to the Grand Seminary in Montreal to study theology. In 1822, he entered the Society of the Gentlemen of St. Sulpice, in 1825, was the first priest ordained by Bishop Latrique.
(SHAMROCKS IN THE LAURENTIANS, Thomas Edward Kennedy, Likely written about 1970)
After Father Phelan was ordained a priest in 1825, he was interested in establishing a township and surrounding settlement in the vicinity of Montreal, where Irish immigrants of the farming class could be placed after their arrival in Montreal. He had in view the people of his native county Kilkenny, as well as those of Carlow, Kildare, Offaly, Laoighia and Tipperary.
As the northern part of the County of Two Mountains was still unsettled, and as it was a seigniory of the Gentlemen of St. Sulpice, Father Phelan directed the voluntary immigrants to this section of the county, which became the municipality and parish of St.Columban. This district was shaped in the form of a triangle with the North River as its base, and the County of D’Argenteuil on the west, and the County of Terrebonne on the east.
The first colonists probably traveled by stagecoach, which went at the rate of six miles an hour. Leaving Montreal they likely passed through the villages of Ste. Therese, St. Augustin, Ste. Monique to Ste. Scholastique. From there the pioneers took a horse wagon to the North River, which they crossed by means of a raft. (THE IRISH SETTLEMENT OF ST. COLUMBAN, Bro. Jerome Hart, September 30, 1955)
The Irish immigrants acquired land either through the Canada Company (for Upper Canada), or in the case of St. Columban via the seignieury of the Gentlemen of St. Sulphice. The settlers were given the land free and had to pay taxes to the Seignieury.
The Skellys arrived in Montreal in 1825 and moved to St. Columban in 1826 after receiving their land grants. There were already a few Irish families established in St. Columban.
“An Irish warden by the name of John Ryan was elected at St. Scholastique Parish to represent the Irish settlers of St. Columban on November 22, 1825. The records at St. Benoit show that an infant named Mary Purselle (Purcel) was baptized in 1820. These same records record the baptism of John Ryan in the year 1824. This would lead us to presume that an established group were in St. Columban for some time prior to this date.” (SHAMROCKS IN THE LAURENTIANS, Thomas Edward Kennedy, Likely written about 1970)
James Jr. (Garrett) acquired lot 148, Edward 149 and Michael 150. The lots were side by each and located along cote St. Patrick, Parish of Ste-Scholastique. Each lot contained roughly 150 acres. The Bonniebrook stream meandered through them. The land was difficult to work due to its rocky and rugged terrain. The Skelly family worked hard to clear the land and together built a three-bedroom log home.
Originally they all shared the same homestead on lot 150. Situated to the left of the entrance to the farm was a huge rock (Fondly nicknamed, “The Rock”). A small wooden bridge marked the passage over the Bonniebrook stream and a windy sandy road made its way to the front door.
Circumstances changed during the first year on the farm. James Jr. (Garrett) returned to Ireland in 1826. He gave his lot to Michael on October 18, 1826 (Notary: Nicolas Benjamin Doucet, #14074). He married in Ireland and his daughter Catherine immigrated to the states; married a man named Duane and settled in Detroit, Michigan. His son (no record of a name) settled in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
The remaining Skellys managed to cultivate 6 acres of land by 1831. Their primary produce was corn. Meanwhile, space was getting tight inside the house. By this time, Elizabeth and Michael had 8 children all under the age of 14 yrs., (Generation 1) Mary (b. 1828), James (b. 1829), Bridget (b. abt. 1830), Owen (b. 1834), Patrick (b. 1835), Kate (b. 1837), Ann (b. 1839) and Michael (b. 1841).
Edward and Catherine built their own shanty on lot 148 around 1830 due to the tight quarters in Michael’s home and to accommodate the arrival of their baby daughter, Antoinette (b.1831-d.1831). In 1834, Edward and Catherine decided to leave St. Columban. They gave lot 148 to Michael on March 17, 1834 (Notary: Augustus Mackay, #1291) and moved to Albany, New York, 8th Ward. They had a one son, John (b. 1840). John became a plumber and married Mary. Catherine lived with John and Mary after Edward’s death and remained there until her own.
The Parish of St. Columban was officially founded in 1835 thanks to the dedication and effort afforded by Father Phelan and his catholic community.
“One now comes to the founding of the parish at St.Columban. On October 14, 1835, the parish priest of the Recollect Church in Montreal, Rev. Father Phelan, and the parish priest of Ste.Scholastique, Rev. Father Vallee, convened a meeting at the chapel of St. Columban which had already been built, for the purpose of electing trustees for the administration of the temporalities of the said chapel. It was resolved that Rev. Father Phelan be appointed President, and three persons be named from each Cote, namely, Cotes St.Paul, St.Patrick, St.Nichols, St.George and North River. For Cote St.Paul the persons elected were: John Phelan, Richard Blansfield and James Conway. For Cote St.Patrick: Capt. Phelan, John O’Neill and William McGrath. For Cote St.Nicholas: Thomas McKenna, Felix Murphy and James Madden. For Cote St. George: Patrick Ryan, Philip Kennedy and Hugh Madden, and for North River: Captain Sexton, Richard Power and John Ryan. The following persons were unanimously appointed churchwardens – in – chief: 1st, John Phelan; 2nd Capt. D. Phelan, and 3rd, John Ryan. This election was agreed upon and approved by the President, Rev. Father Phelan, and it was witnessed by Rev. Father Vallee of Ste. Scholastique. A short time after Rev. Father Etienne Blyth arrived in St. Columban. He subsequently became the first parish priest at St. Jerome. Rev. Father Dolan succeeded him and was cure for 1838-40. For the next forty-five years, Rev. Father Falvey was the pastor at St. Columban.” (THE IRISH SETTLEMENT OF ST. COLUMBAN, Bro. Jerome Hart, September 30, 1955)
Over the next couple of years, more and more Irish families arrived. With the increase in population of the small community in St. Columban, concerns were raised about the education of the children. The children originally were taught in a small area of the chapel in St. Scholastique, which was both inconvenient in distance and size. On November 18, 1848 (Notary: Nicolas Benjamin Doucet, 3879), Michael and Elizabeth donated a portion of their land for the construction of a one-room schoolhouse. Today, you can still see the remains of the foundation. A small cottage was built years later, just to the side of the original foundation.
“The first colonists went to mass and made their Easter Duty at Ste. Scholastique which was situated about nine miles south of the settlement of St. Columban. If the weather was fine, they walked the whole distance through the woods. When the weather was inclement, they were accustomed to come to the crossroads located near the site of the present church of St. Columban. The pioneers recited prayers at a wayside cross which was created there. A chapel was built near this cross in 1835, but for many years after its construction, the old folks would say: “to go to the cross” instead of: “to go to church”. The first school in the settlement was in a part of the chapel. When the chapel was repaired, a separate building was built for the school, and the original classroom became the sacristy of the chapel.
From 1825 to 1835, the number of families in the settlement increased, and in the latter year there were about one hundred. With Reverend Father Etienne Blyth, as resident parish priest, and with the opening of the first school, as mentioned above, around 1843, the settlement and parish grew rapidly, and towards 1850 there were two hundred families and at least three schools.” (THE IRISH SETTLEMENT OF ST. COLUMBAN, Bro. Jerome Hart, September 30, 1955)
Tragedy first struck the Skelly household when Elizabeth died on February 3, 1843 during childbirth. She was only 36 years old. Her newly born infant daughter, Elizabeth Jr. survived. Elizabeth Sr. is buried in the St. Columban cemetery. Elizabeth Jr. was permanently placed in the care of another family or orphanage (No records found). Bridget was sent to New York to live with Edward and Catherine Skelly. James and Mary were temporarily relocated, and eventually moved back to the farm. James never married and later moved to St. Louis, Missouri.
In the years after Edward and James left, Michael managed to cultivate over 80 acres of land. According to the 1851 census, his crops included potatoes, hay (500 bundles) buckwheat, oats and wood. In terms of livestock, he kept hens, sheep, cows, one heifer and pigs. The household included, Michael Sr. (60 yrs.) widowed, Owen (18 yrs.), Patrick (16 yrs.), Michael Jr. (10 yrs.), Catherine (14 yrs.) and Ann (11yrs).
Michael Sr. never remarried and by the time he reached his 70th birthday, he decided to pass the farm along to his youngest son, Michael Jr. At this point, Michael Jr. (b.1841) was married to Judith O’Brien (b.1836) and was already living and working on the farm. In 1871 they already had 6 children (Generation 2) John (b. 1857) aged 14, Francis or James (b. 1863) aged 8, Elizabeth (b. 1865) aged 6, Patrick (b. 1867) aged 4, Owen (b. 1869) aged 2 and Edmond who was also referred to as Edward (b. 1871) aged 1 month. Bridget came along in 1873. Sadly, Judith died in her 40th year, on August 13, 1876.
Father and son cultivated 65 of the 400 acres of land together. They produced 500 pounds of butter, 75 bushels of oats, 300 bushels of potatoes, hay, buckwheat and lumber. Aside from the 3 barns, 1 carriage, 1 sleigh, 2 ploughs, 3wagons and a fanning mill, they continued to maintain a fair amount of livestock.
When the older children were not helping on the farm, they attended school in the one room schoolhouse located on their acreage. The curriculum had been set by Father Falvey and taught by Sister Mary St. Patrick of the Congregation of Notre-Dame. The school day was set up as such:
“A DAY IN SCHOOL
11.45 a.m.-Spiritual Examen. 12.00-NOON-DINNER.
4.30 p.m.-Visit to the Blessed Sacrament, Beads, Prayers.” (THE PARISH OF ST. COLUMBAN by the Rev. Lawrence P. Whelan)
John and Francis (James) immigrated to the states in 1880. They left St. Columban to work in the lumber business. They worked on the North Branch of the AuSable from the fall of 1881 until March 1882.
“It is very unfortunate that the difficulties in farming the land and the small return on their produce made the young flock dissatisfied. By 1880 many left to take employment in Montreal, a city that had been growing rapidly. The city afforded better working conditions and salaries to the young generation. Some also journeyed to Ontario, and then on to various parts of the United States in search of employment. We believe that, had the parents divided their land amongst their sons, many of the young men would have remained on the land to make their living. As it turned out, with the young folk gone, many farms had to be eventually sold and thus the Irish community dwindled. In a little over half a century, a community was founded, grew, and then began to decline.” (SHAMROCKS IN THE LAURENTIANS, Thomas Edward Kennedy, Likely written about 1970)
Michael Sr. remained living and working on the farm with his son and family until his death in 1881. Michael Jr. remarried in 1882. The Skelly farm was officially handed over to Michael Jr. and his new wife, Ann Wells, on August 4, 1882. (Notary: Antoine Fortin, 6881)
Owen joined his brother in 1886. John returned to St. Columban in 1902 not only to visit, but also to bring the rest of his brothers and sisters and their new families, back with him to the states. They settled in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota where the men worked in the lumber business. The majority of Judith and Michael’s children who left for the states had married into St. Columban families.
This 3rd generation of Skellys or the step - 2nd generation, were to be the last ones to farm the land. Michael jr. and Ann had 8 children, Margaret (Maggie) Elizabeth (b. 1883), Mary Louisa (b. 1887), Catherine (Katie) Alice (b. 1890), Ann (b.1892 - d. 1893), Joseph Columban (b. 1893), Mark (b. 1895 – d. 1895), Agnes (Aggie) Mary (b. 1896) and Ann (Annie) Evelyn (b. 1899, my grandmother). Joseph (Joe) Columban was the only surviving son from this generation and chose to go into lumbering rather than farming. (No records of his whereabouts after 1911)
All the girls married men from the local communities of St. Columban, Ste. Scholastique and St. Canut. Aggie married William (Buddy) Cambridge. Maggie and Katie married two Dunn brothers from St. Columban and moved to Montreal. Mary Louisa married Theodule Gauthier and moved to St. Canut. They both died tragically young along with one of their son, Henry. Annie married Michael O’Rourke from Ste. Scholastique.
After Michael Jr. Skelly’s death in 1919, Annie Wells Skelly managed the farm for a few years, but she found it too much to handle on her own. She decided to move to Montreal and live with her daughters. She spent a couple of months at each of their homes, until her death in 1937. The farm was left to my grandmother, Annie. Over the years it became more of a country retreat where the family continued to gather for holidays and visit old friends.
Mike and Annie (Skelly) O’Rourke eventually moved to McMasterville with their 4 children, Audrey, Maureen, Michael (my dad) and Kathleen. The farm remained in her ownership until she became very ill. The farm was first sold to Aggie (Skelly) and Buddy Cambridge. Many years later it passed from the Skelly family to the Gauthiers.
Although the Skelly farm belongs to the past, the memories of the wonderful family and friends who lived there, linger on. My grandmother had great memories growing up in St. Columban:
“I remember how much the “Big Rock” at the left of the driveway played a part in the family lives. Children always played on and around it. It was a place we all gathered for family pictures;
Helping my father gather the sap from the maple trees in early spring with the horse and sleigh;
Enjoying a visit and a cup of tea with grandma in her garden at the front of the house. This was an arbour of beautiful flowering trees and shrubs;
Gathering the hay from the meadows and helping to feed the group of friends who came to help. The names I recall were the Funchions, McAndrews, Grimes, Elliotts, Phelans and the Keyes families;
Travelling by sleigh or wagon to Ste. Scholastique to deliver and pick up goods. This journey took 2 hours each way, but was always fondly remembered;
The quilting bees! All gathered around sewing on a large quilt laughing and talking. One of the games played was placing a cat in the middle and whoever it landed on getting itself out….was next to be married!
Playing the pump organ in the living/dining room, playing the organ in Church and singing, playing the fiddle at all the barn dances;
Best of all, meeting Mike O’Rourke (the O’Rourke families were also Irish immigrant farmers from the St. Columban & St. Scholastique areas) at one of these soirees!” (Retold by my Aunt Audrey, daughter of Mike and Annie O’Rourke)
My father and his sister, Audrey, recollect great times spent in St. Columban:
“Audrey: From the age of 9 – 14, I recall visiting the farm with Uncle Buddy and Aunt Aggie (Skelly), their kids, Lillian, Evelyn and Eldon Cambridge;
I loved these visits. Eldon and I also played around and on the “Big Rock”;
Walking to Masson’s for milk each day – to the left of the farm – through the woods – I recall this road (it was only a wagon path) being half way between the house and the river (North River running through the back of the property);
Picking blueberries on our way back from swimming in the river (Lillian and Evelyn were usually with us);
Walking to Phelan’s place to pick up the mail (All four of us!). The road then from the church to the farm was sand (We carried our shoes until we reached the Phelan house);
Going to church Sunday morning and always stopping at the Phelan’s house for a visit afterward. I seem to remember a Church picnic in the field where the park now is. Uncle Buddy donated a stained glass window – I thought it looked beautiful. Later, I tried to play the church organ, but couldn’t pump the pedal;
I remember getting up in the morning, having breakfast, then playing outside all day regardless of the weather;
Playing around in the one room schoolhouse. It was a great place to pick blueberries!
Michael: When Eldon and I were about 9 or 10 years old, we used to play by the old school house. One day, we came upon a stray horse and decided to ride it bare back to the Skelly farmhouse. Well…it didn’t go over to well!
Fetching water from the stream while trying not to step on the multitude of grass snakes;
We used to put our ear to the ground and listen for the rumbling sound of a car or truck from miles back. Then we would run up to the farmhouse to warn Annie and Aggie someone was coming!
Fishing for trout and swimming in the river (the stream was damned and flooded in later years by the Gauthier family);
We fished there for years. When we were older, Eldon and I would take the Ile Bizard ferry through Laval Sur le Lac and up through the back roads to St. Columban. Only a few of us knew the exact fishing spot!”
The farm was sold by the time I came along, but that didn’t stop us from visiting our family and friends who continued to live in St. Columban. We attended plenty of dances at the church hall. My grandmother would play the fiddle with Neil Grimes and my dad the guitar. It seemed everyone played something…including the spoons!
We use to stay with Ernie and Mary McAndrew when we visited overnight. Ernie was still farming and it was one of my favourite places. Occasionally, my sisters and I lucked out and remained a couple of days longer!
During the sixties and seventies, some of the Phelan, Casey, McAndrew, Dunn, and Grimes family were still living in St. Columban. They used to get together with my parents and play cards well into the night! Usually they alternated between singsongs and card games.
I’ve tried to transcribe the genealogical and historical events tracing the Skelly family from Ireland to Quebec as accurately as possible.
Should you have something to add/correct or have any questions, please feel free to contact me at:
- Canada census records for district of Deux-Montagnes (Two Mountains), Sub-district: St-Columban:
1831; 1842; 1851; 1861; 1871; 1881; 1901; 1911
- Drouin Collection-Microfilm:
St-Colomban (comté de Deux-Montagnes)
1836-01-28 / 1883-12-31 #8
1884-01-01 / 1939-12-29 #9
1884-01-01 / 1905-12-26 #73
[. Photographié au Greffe, 15/10/40; du 25 nov. 1882 à la fin de 1883, pages presque blanches. . Du premier janvier 1884 au 26 déc. 1905, les pages de droite étant coupées, ont été reprises sur la bobine #73.]
St-Canut (comté de Deux-Montagnes)
1886-09-27 / 1939-12-06 #5
[. Photographié au Greffe, 15/10/40.]
St-Jérôme (comté de Terrebonne)
1837-01-23 / 1851-05-14 #79
1851-05-14 / 1877-09-10 #80
1877-09-08 / 1895-06-17 #81
1895-06-18 / 1909-12-31 #82
1910-01-01 / 1925-10-17 #83
1925-10-18 / 1934-07-06 #84
1934-07-07 / 1939-12-31 #85
[. Photographié au Greffe, 16/12/40.]
Ste-Scholastique (comté de Deux-Montagnes)
1825-11-06 / 1841-12-29 #76
1842-01-01 / 1875-12-31 #77
1876-01-01 / 1916-08-30 #78
1916-08-21 / 1939-12-23 #79
[. Photographié au Greffe, 14/12/40.]
PN-003 Volume III Inventory of catholic and non-catholic Vital Records,
Province of Quebec, by place (N-Z)
- Family letters and interviews
- Griffith valuation index:
James Skelly found in:
International Records: Index to Griffith's Valuation of Ireland, 1848-1864
County: Westmeath Parish: Mullingar
Location: T/Mullingar Linen Street
- SHAMROCKS IN THE LAURENTIANS, Thomas Edward Kennedy, Likely written about 1970
- THE IRISH SETTLEMENT OF ST. COLUMBAN, Bro. Jerome Hart, September 30, 1955
- THE PARISH OF ST. COLUMBAN by the Rev. Lawrence P. Whelan
- Trenton Valley Archives