Patrick Coffey (1794-1863)

MY WORD IS MY BOND – Patrick Coffey From Co. Cork

John Coffey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada

The blood seeped into the dirt and grass from his wound as TADHG O’DONOVAN ASNA lay dying on the ground that Wednesday morning on June 19, 1798. The death that day of the rebel leader was to have an impact on the future of one of his relatives in years to come, and more than likely influenced the decisions of a young couple seventeen years later.

John Coffey
John Coffey
Battle of the Big Cross Memorial

Father John Foley welcomed Judith Donovan and Patrick Coffey into St. Patricks church in Kilbrittain, in West Cork that sunny September morning in 1815 as the young couple were about to exchange wedding vows. Judith Donovan, who was baptized on September 7, 1794, lived only about eight miles from where her father’s relative was killed at the Battle of The Big Cross, near Shannonvale a few months earlier. She was my great great grandmother. As a little four year old girl she would no doubt be within earshot of conversations as the adults discussed the tragedy that occurred on June 19, 1798, when neighbors, friends and some relatives were massacred by the troops of the Caithness Legion who used muskets and big guns to repel the rebel farmers of the United Irishmen, armed chiefly with pikes.

As the years passed and many conversations took place around the turf fire in her primitive home, Judith was to hear the stories of the struggles of her countrymen, and learn of their brutal treatment at the hands of the ruling government. These home stories were to be the primary source of education for young Judith, as formal schooling was next to impossible with the exception of open-air schools held in private secluded areas out of sight of the English.

In much the same way her future husband, Patrick Coffey was raised. Patrick, my great great grandfather, had no formal education, however he was a determined young man with a flame in his heart and a mind that was alien to fear. Patrick was familiar with ships leaving the port of Blennerville at Tralee and Cobh, for the new world and knew that there was hope for a better future in that direction. Patrick also knew that there were master shoemakers named Coffey in the Bandon area and took advantage of his name to avail himself of the opportunity to learn a trade.

My great great grandparents met while Patrick was in Bandon, and he spent time courting Judith as they walked along the banks of the Bandon River. Sometimes they would cross the stone bridge and walk up Killbrogan Hill to the Shambles Market where they would dream of perhaps some day having livestock of their own on a farm. That was just that however, a dream. In 1815, the Napoleonic Wars had just ended, and there was an economic downturn in Ireland. There was certainly no hope of ever owning their own farm. That was out of the question. The ruling English had made sure of that a century earlier, and even to be able to rent some land to farm was nearly an insurmountable feat, unless one of their parents was able to permit them to take over as tenant of their leased lot. Even then, there would still be a need to have a building to house themselves, and any livestock they may be fortunate enough to own.

All of this played on their minds as Judith and Patrick pondered their future in 1815. Patrick told Judith of the sailing ships that frequently left Blennerville in Kerry and the port of Cobh in Cork, that sailed to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and up the Saint Lawrence River in what was to become Canada years later. It was a known fact that although the English ruled that part of the new world, they did so from a different perspective than how they ruled Ireland. The new land was vast, it had not been fully explored, and there were other nationalities, especially the French living there, along with the native indigenous peoples. There was a great need for new settlers, abundant natural resources, land for newcomers and most importantly more religious tolerance than was exercised in Ireland.

Then that was it! Patrick and Judith told their parents that they wished to leave Ireland and cross the ocean to a new land and new future. Judith’s mother probably wept when she heard those words, but her father knew that their future would be much better. He also knew they would probably never be able to own their own land, and there was little cobbler work for Patrick without having to move to another part of Cork or Kerry. Judith’s parents were sad knowing they would never see their sweet girl ever again. Patrick promised her parents he would look after her and be good to her, which he did right to the end of their lives. He kept his word!

The sea birds swooped past the tops of the masts and rigging while Judith and Patrick hugged and said farewell to their parents, siblings, and friends from their growing up years, while the ships crew prepared her for a long voyage.

Ads placed in local establishments in Irish ports offered passage on vessels bound for North America. As an example of what excited Patrick to take a chance and risk seasickness and/or drowning on a month long ocean voyage, some of the posted notices offered transportation “……For the most flourishing ports in Newfoundland…..The ship HYBERNIA , Roger Nealen, master, burden two hundred tuns, will be ready to sail from Cork the latter end of this month: All such as chuse to take their passage in said ship, are desired to give their names to William Rickotts, near the customs house (Cork), as well as all fishermen and others who are engaged to serve Mr. Jeremiah Coghlan, the ensuing season.”1

Other similar notices advertized passage to Quebec, Montreal, and Saint John, New Brunswick on ships sailing from Tralee, “wind and weather permitting” They were described as superior ships for the conveyance of passengers, “with good height between decks”. Many notices boasted of considerate captains as opposed to masters who, after leaving port, neglect their passengers. Transportation to the east coast of what was to become Canada in 1867 was cheaper than to the American Colonies, often posted as three pounds Sterling.

Once at sea, passengers often realized that ocean travel was unlike anything they had ever imagined. No concept of ocean size had existed in their minds. Often the emigrant vessels, sometimes referred to as “coffin ships” provided little food, except to barely keep the passengers alive. Frequently the crew abused the human cargo. Add to that misery, were the vicious ocean storms, huge swells and waves and leaking decks. The squalor below decks, with sick passengers, some with Cholera, some with Smallpox, a shipload of unwashed bodies, coupled with poor waste disposal, made for a terrible experience.

As many of Judith’s and Patrick’s friends bid them farewell, I’m sure some of them were thinking that the young couple were making a big mistake, and would be better off staying put in Ireland. Little did these friends know that in less than thirty years, many of themselves would experience the effects of the deadly famine that would envelope Ireland, thanks to the indifference and callousness of England. The catastrophic failure of the potato crops, the land rental requirements, and food export quotas, caused many to perish, no doubt including some of Judith’s and Patrick’s family and friends.

Once on board the smell of tar on the ropes, the smell of the sea breezes and shore gave a feeling of new excitement to my ancestors as the crew let go the bow and stern lines, the breeze filling in the jib, allowing the ship to swing away from the dock. Waving to everyone on shore, Judith and Patrick stood together at the ship’s rail, excited, wondering what would happen next. Once out in the stream, the fore and aft sails were hoisted on the aft mast, until the square sails could he hauled up for the open water.

“Beset by continuous gales” was a term passed down through oral history of my family to describe my great great grandparent’s voyage from Ireland. Oral history also said that Patrick and Judith had planned to sail up the Saint Lawrence River. Something happened however during the long voyage, and for whatever reason the ship made a stop (perhaps to replenish water) at a port on the Atlantic coast. Judith had had enough! Sea sickness (or morning sickness), convinced her to get off that ship. Judith refused to go any further, at least for a while. Fortunately they were lucky enough to encounter a Lawrence Kavanaugh who had a flourishing mercantile business in Saint Peters on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Lawrence Kavanaugh had four sailing ships that he used in his business, carrying on a good trade all along the Atlantic coast. He was always on the lookout for other Irishmen having a trade, who he would coax to settle in his own community in the Saint Peters area. My great great grandparents took him up on his offer of help and stayed on. I have copies of some of his store account books from the Public Archives showing my ancestors purchasing food, fishing supplies, leather, cloth, tea, rum, shot and powder for their musket, paying for it by barter, either labor work or making and repairing shoes and boots (remember, Patrick was a shoemaker).

Over time Judith and Patrick built a homestead in a rural area called Lynches River, just a few miles from Saint Peters. The first of their nine surviving children was born within a year of their arrival in their new country.

The early years were hard, as they had to quickly build a rough log home to survive the first couple of winters, which they had never experienced in Ireland. Long, cold winters, with deep snow that made travel difficult, was a new experience they had to learn to cope with. In spite of that, their determination, and gratefulness for their new freedom to own land, practice their religion without reprisal, helped them survive and thrive.

By the time the 1840’s arrived, Patrick and Judith had established themselves and owned a farm that was larger than many townlands back in Ireland. By the time the famine in Ireland was at its height, Patrick and Judith had children and grandchildren, a successful farm with a large home, out buildings, sheep, horned cattle, pigs, ducks, chickens, a large apple orchard, hay fields, woodlots, and gardens. Unlike in Ireland, where someone in a manor house on a river owned the fish that swam upstream from the ocean past the house, Patrick and his sons could fish at will for trout, cod, salmon, smelt, oysters, and mussels in the nearby lakes and rivers. They could also hunt rabbits, deer, and birds on his own land. Chances are their fate would have been much different had they stayed behind with their friends, many of who probably died during the famine.

Patrick Coffey probate
Patrick Coffey probate

That adventurous young couple from Cork, with a goal and a determination to succeed, left a Coffey family legacy their descendants of today are proud of. Patrick, surviving Judith by a few months left a Last Will And Testament (reserved only for the upper classes in Ireland), that gives testimony to his bond to take good care of Judith to the end, giving instructions in his will to his friend Father John MacDougall, to have masses said for her soul after he died.

Our Coffey ancestors from Co. Cork have given us a legacy, a path, and an example, to guide us even in the twenty-first century.

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