Monday, September 7, 2009

LABOUR DAY: The Celtic Cross Memorial to Irish Labourers

The Ottawa Citizen's Saturday Edition mentioned things worth visiting or doing on Labor Day, including the reasons to visit the Celtic Cross commemorating the many Irish who lost their lives labouring on the Rideau Canal.

I have expanded the paper's treatment with a review of a book on this episode in Canadian history, the achievement of Colonel By at the cost of 1000+ lives. On my walks by the Ottawa River I often pause at the Cross.

Labour Day is more than the unofficial end of summer; the public holiday is also a day to honour the contribution of Canada's working people.

The Celtic Cross, which commemorates the 1,000 workers, and also their families, who died building the Rideau Canal from 1826 to 1832, was erected by the Rideau Canal Celtic Cross Committee and the Ottawa and District Labour Council in June 2004.

It's at one of the most picturesque places in downtown Ottawa: is on the east side of the lower locks of the Rideau Canal at the Ottawa River between the Fairmont Ch√Ęteau Laurier and Parliament Hill. The five symbols on the monument—explosion, mosquito, wheelbarrow, shovel and pick and harp—honour the oral tradition of the fallen labourers.

From a review of LABOURERS ON THE RIDEAU CANAL 1826-1832: From Work Site to World Heritage Site (Edited by: Katherine M.J. McKenna; Borealis Press) by Catholine Butler:

In 2007, the Rideau Canal was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was originally built in the event of war with the United States as an inland supply route connecting the Great Lakes with the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Thankfully, it was never used for that purpose.

The canal extends 202 kilometres (123 miles) from Ottawa to Kingston, an interconnected network of rivers and lakes connected by locks and channels carved out of swamp, rock and wilderness forest.

Having had considerable engineering experience, Lieutenant-Colonel John By was sent from England to supervise the construction of the Rideau Canal.

Since the canal was to begin in the wild and sparsely populated Ottawa River valley, his first task was the construction of a town to house the men who were to work on the canal and associated services. The resulting settlement, called Bytown in his honour, would later become famous under the name of Ottawa.

Construction of the canal commenced in 1826 and was completed in 1832. Irish immigrants were the mainstay of the labour force in the canal construction. Many of the immigrants arrived near destitute and unprepared for the harsh Canadian winters.
It was these men that provided a willing and eager pool of labourers just as By's contractors were wanting to recruit men to work on the Rideau Canal. The result of the labour surplus was that contractors were able to attract workers despite low wages and poor working conditions.

As an officer and "a gentleman", By did not question the justice of a hierarchical social order or the inevitability of poverty. His main duty was to produce a canal of good quality as quickly and cheaply as possible.

For purpose of the project, it was expedient to view the workers primarily as instruments of production required to facilitate the most economical completion of the project.

A distinction was made between craftsman and less skilled. The former were in short supply and treated with some respect. The latter were plentiful and treated chiefly as commodities. The labourer on most North American canals existed near the subsistence level and frequently was unable to support a family.

Speaking about the terrible plight of the Irish immigrant labourers, one commentator noted that he had never seen such distress, "There is scarcely a mud hut or log house but is filled with sick and needy, who are suffering not only from disease but from hunger and from almost every other misery for want of the common necessities of life."

The construction of the Rideau was conducted mainly by hand with the aid of small tools and animals for hauling. Workers not familiar with the technique of work were often killed or injured by falling trees or by falling stones from the blasting of rocks. But there were always plenty of other desperate workers willing to take their

Because of a lack of information, it is estimated that there could have been as many as 5,000 labourers working on the Rideau Canal. No estimate on the number who died and were buried in unmarked graves along its banks.

There can be no doubt that the Rideau Canal is an engineering marvel of the Nineteenth Century with much credit afforded to Colonel John By, whose name lives on in a number of contexts in Ottawa today such as the Byward Market area of Ottawa's Lower Town.

His statue also stands in nearby Major's Hill Park, and there is the scenic parkway of Colonel By Drive which follows the first stretch of the canal through the city from Lower Town to the falls at Hogs Back.

In 1979, to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth, Canada Post issued a stamp bearing his image, and in Ottawa Colonel By Day is the name given to the Ontario August civic holiday.

However, upon returning to London, By faced accusations about the finances of the project. Officials of the British Treasury Board suggested that he had made a number of unauthorised expenditures, and By spent the rest of his life attempting to clear his name. He died in 1836 and is buried in the South East of England.
Labourers on the Rideau Canal documents the engineering feat of the Rideau Canal and honours the difficult and tragic lives of the workers who were instrumental in creating such a world treasure.

The real history of the Irish labourers on the Rideau Canal may never have been recognised or documented had it not been for Kevin Dooley and The Canal Workers Committee.

Mullingar man, Kevin Dooley commended the work of Belfast man, Tony O'Loughlin, who started pushing for recognition of the Irish canal workers through the Rideau Canal Celtic Cross Committee.

In 2004 a Celtic Cross was erected in memory of the 1,000 workers and their families, who died building the Rideau Canal, from the years 1826 to 1832. The Celtic Cross stands beside the Ottawa Locks in downtown Ottawa, in the shadow of the Parliament Buildings and the Chateau Laurier.

Dooley also saw the need to document in book form the tragic history of the Irish Canal workers and he did extensive research at the Parks Canada Library.

Speaking about the difficulty of finally obtaining the historical documents regarding the Rideau Canal, Dooley said, "Parks Canada who had the documents finally agreed to release them to me and the Canal Workers Commemorative Group.

"The next big hurdle was to find a publisher willing to take on the work, which proved very frustrating until we met Dr. Frank Tierney of Borealis Press. He did an amazing amount of work to get the manuscript and photos into shape.

"Borealis Press made a major commitment to publishing this book and it couldn't have been done without them.

"Dr. Katherine McKenna, the editor and one of the writers in the book, is also an eminent historian at the University of London, Ontario. She worked with Dr. Tierney and myself at putting the book together in its current form."

Dooley hopes that the book will show the project's leader, Colonel John By, to be more flawed than his mythology currently makes him out to be. "This book is an indictment of Colonel By and his regime," he says.

The Rideau Canal is a major tourist attraction in the City of Ottawa. As a tourist attraction, it has indeed been very dearly purchased.


  1. That was very interesting; I had no idea the canal was built so quickly, and with such a high cost in lives.

  2. I never heard of the Rideau Canal until I visited Ottawa last week. Kevin Dooley, a fellow Irishman, gave a very interesting talk at our Daly Gathering in Wakefield .His historic knowledge and storytelling skills sent me researching the canal. I visited , watched the locks in action and videoed the action. I was amazed at this wonderful project and tried to visualise what conditions must have been like for the thousands of Irish men ( and women) who sought refuge in what is now the beautiful country of Canada and the ever so attractive capital Ottawa.The Celtic Cross beside the canal is a poignant reminder of manual labour 1826-1832. Go ndeana Dia trocaire ar anamnacha na bhfear a fuair bas san obair.
    Maurice Daly.