In the 1840s, the Irish came to Canada by the thousands, to escape a horrible famine, that swept through Ireland like an unstoppable plague. A disease called Potato Blight ravaged their crops for nearly a decade, and during that time over a million died of starvation, and an equal number fled Ireland on ships sailing to Canada and the United States.
Most were tenant farmers, leasing their land; unable to pay their rent when their crops failed, and were evicted by ruthless landlords. They bundled up what little they had, and boarded ships headed for the new world.
Seven weeks was the average length of time spent at sea, and the conditions endured by these Irish immigrants were so terrible that the ships were nick-named ‘coffin ships’. The lice, ticks and fleas common in these over-crowded vessels were the ideal breeding grounds for the transmission of disease, and by 1847 an average of 50 passengers died each day of typhus on their voyage from Ireland.
Many came to Lanark County, and the number of Irish who settled in North Burgess Township, was so great that it was referred to at the time as ‘The Irish Invasion’. Most, but not all came from County Down and County Armagh, and some settled around Westport, and around the Scotch Line, Black Lake, and Stanleyville.
These new settlers brought their traditions, customs and stories with them to the new country. Stories and legends were passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter. Tales from the old country were told in the evenings by the fire, and the one story that seemed to run up and down the concessions in North Burgess was the legend of the Irish Banshee.
The Banshee, or ‘Bean Sidhe’ is an Irish spirit, and her high-pitched wail foretells of a death in the family. It was said that each family had its own Banshee, and that they travelled with them from the old country. Some said that the family’s Banshee would stay in Ireland at the family’s estate, and mourn the dead. The settlers to the new land brought their vivid descriptions of the Banshees – some claiming that she was an old hag with red eyes, but others said she was a fair, pale Irish beauty with long red hair dressed in a flowing gown.
It’s been said that whoever hears her high and piercing shriek could be sure that there would be a death within 24 hours. Irish lore tells that the Banshee always wailed when a family member dies, even if the person had died far away, and news of their death had not yet come. The wailing of the banshee was the first warning to the household of the death.
When several banshees appeared at once, it was said to foretell of the death of someone prominent, or of an accidental or unintended death – often of a murder victim, a suicide, or a mother who died in childbirth.
The early settlers in North Burgess passed down their stories of banshees, fairies, ghosts and the little people. Although they were fiercely loyal to God and to the church, they never abandoned their beliefs in the spirits and creatures of their ancient folklore.
Some of the families who were among the earliest settlers to North Burgess Township:
In 2002 the townships formerly known as North Burgess, South Sherbrooke and Bathurst were part of an amalgamation, and adopted the name of Tay Valley Township, as they are known today.
For genealogical records of the founding families of North Burgess Township:
National Archives of Canada – Immigration Databases Online Searh – Immigration to Canada
St. Bridget’s Cemetery Staneyville Ontario
Scotch Line Cemetery – Burials from 1822-2000 North Burgess Township
Irish Immigration to Canada
Lanark County Genealogical Society
Search the census records for North Burgess Township, Lanark County
Irish Genealogy Records online
For more information on Irish Folklore in the early days of Lanark County:
‘Banshees of Burgess’, is part of a collection of short stories in the new book ‘Lanark County Classics – A Treasury of Tales from Another Time’. The reader will discover more about the early families from Ireland, and their customs and beliefs in the supernatural, brought from the old country. The story explores some of the tales passed down by these Irish settlers, and documents their personal experiences with Banshees, ghosts, and fairies while living in Lanark County.
Available at The Book Nook, The Bookworm & Blackwood Originals in Perth, Perfect Books in Ottawa, Mill St. Books and Divine Consign in Almonte, or Online
(map of Northern Ireland – By Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) – map by NNW, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7918534)