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BloodLines: "Strangers of Smiths Falls" by Rosemary Sullivan

We’ve partnered with the Canada Council for the Arts to present a new literary series: BloodLines. Inspired by this year’s Massey Lectures by Lawrence Hill, Blood: The Stuff of Life, BloodLines features new fiction, nonfiction and poetry inspired by the theme of blood—written by ten Canadian writers who have won or been nominated for Governor General’s Literary Awards.

In Rosemary Sullivan’s BloodLines piece, the author explores the colourful and gritty Irish women coursing through her blood.

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"Strangers of Smith Falls" by Rosemary Sullivan

We are all fascinated by the strangers who course through our blood, the ones who made us up. I still think of myself as Irish somewhere in my blood. I'm third generation Irish on my father’s side and my mother’s ancestors fled the Irish Potato Famine in 1847. For the Irish, traditionally a marginalized group, the memories in the blood matter. A while ago I started to collect the family stories, and I discovered my female ancestors, so courageous and contrary, so gritty, that I'm awed to have what little of them is still running through me.

Among the papers of my father’s sister, Cecile, I found a letter dated February 28, 1949, signed by her “cousin” Brian Kelly. It was filled with news of home: 

Hughie O’Toole was hung in Londonderry last week for killing a policeman, may God rest his soul. And may God’s curse be on Jimmy Rogers, the informer, and may he burn in hell. God forgive me.

We had a grand time at Pat Muldoon’s wake. He was an old blatherskite and it looked good to see him stretched out with his big mouth shut. He is better off dead and he’ll burn ‘til the damned place freezes over. He had too many friends among the Orangemen. God’s curse be on the dirty lot of them. 

Uncle Dinny took a pot shot at a turncoat, from in the back of a hedge, but he had too much drink in him and missed. God’s curse be on the dirty drink.Mollie O’Brien, the brat you used to go to school with, has married an Englishman. She’ll have no luck.

May God keep you from sudden death. Your devoted cousin.
Actually this letter was a joke that someone sent my aunt and she obviously found it hilarious since she saved it, but the Irish inheritance is there: a brutal political history, rampaging mockery, black humour, emotional extravagance, pigheadedness, and family loyalty. 

My great-great grandmother on my mother’s side, Mary Morrison, buried two children in Ireland before setting sail for the new world—both died from the mass starvation caused by the British resettlement policy. Mary was forty-five and pregnant during the ocean crossing. After they arrived, the family settled in Smiths Falls, Ontario, on a farm that was more stones than soil. 

One hundred and forty years ago, my great-grandmother Catherine Morrison, Mary’s daughter, married a stonemason, twenty years her senior, to get off the farm and then she upped and left him when he wanted to baptize her son Jeremiah a Protestant. She brought up her son alone, and bought him a bicycle so he could make a quick getaway if his father ever tried to reclaim him. Jeremiah became cycling champion for Canada. And then Catherine disowned Jeremiah when he married a Protestant. And never forgave him. Jeremiah died when he was forty-five. 

By the time my ancestors got there, religious bigotry from the old country was rampant. There was a famous moment in 1868 at the Smiths Falls Farmers Market when a mob of Protestant Orangemen attacked the Catholics and the Catholic women came in from the farms, their stockings filled with rocks, and marched down Beckwith Street. I can imagine my female ancestors among those women; they were that feisty. 
I look at a photograph of my widowed grandmother, Lottie Guthrie, surrounded by her eleven children on the frugal Guthrie farm; one of the infants is my mother. It is summer, 1925, only two generations back in my blood. My grandmother is not smiling. She is simply there, as rooted as a tree, a hub holding her children together like spokes on a wheel. It took discipline to pull this off; it took fortitude; it took love.

They are so real and so inaccessible—those women in all their rampant individuality. I once wrote a poem with the lines:
It terrified me to think I was lived in
by strangers I had never met
or knew only by name.
They made me alien fiction. 

We are all alien fictions, carrying mysteries in our blood. How much of the legacy of my female ancestors persists in me? There is still some of the chip-on-the-shoulder stubbornness; some of their resistance to authority; some of their black humour and their passion for language; and I hope some of their enduring loyalty and love. I could spend a lifetime sifting through the graves in my blood. 


Rosemary Sullivan by Juan Opitz.jpg
Biographer and poet Rosemary Sullivan is professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, and was the Founding Director of the MA Program in English in the Field of Creative Writing. She has published 13 books, and received numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction, The City of Toronto Book Award, the Canadian Jewish Books Yad Vashem Prize for Holocaust Studies, and the Lorne Pierce Medal from the Royal Society of Canada. She has been the recipient of Guggenheim, Trudeau and Jackman Fellowships. She was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2012. 

Photo credit: Juan Opitz

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