Burying Jimmy Corrigan

Jonathan Hayward / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jonathan Hayward / THE CANADIAN PRESS

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They took Jimmy Corrigan back to Red Island for burial last month. They took him in a flotilla of four fishing boats, with 50 mourners bouncing through the high chop of Placentia Bay.

The day before, ten men from the mainland went out to Red Island and hand-dug the grave, the way they do in parts of Ireland. The mood on the fish boats was sombre but not serious. There was laughing, some songs, a drink or two.
Jimmy Corrigan was going back to his home where he rightfully belonged. Was he not, after all, the Shepherd of Red Island. He was 80, had the cancer, knew he was going, said he wanted to be buried on Red Island in the cemetery he had carefully tended over the years.
Placentia Bay is a 90 minute drive from St. John's.  Red Island is one of fifteen in the Bay and at one time was a moderately prosperous community of 500 souls.People had lived on it and lived off the bounty of its waters since 1811, since, as they like to say "the day of iron men and wooden ships."

It had a church, a flourishing funeral store, a few small businesses and some nice houses.

What it did not have was cars, telephones. Or electricity. The people who lived there liked living there. But it was a hard-scrabble life.
Red Island got caught up in  Premier Joey Smallwood's idea of emptying the outports and the Islands of people, and moving them to so-called population growth centres. Between 1954 and 1975, the government engineered the move of some 30,000 people from 300 outport locations.
In the first re-settlement program, each family received a re-location bonus of $150. When the federal government took over the program in the Sixties, the payment was raised to $1,000 per family and $200 for each dependent.

In the space of three years, all 15 of the Islands in Placentia Bay, including Red Island, voted to re-settle. By 1968, the island was all but deserted.

But James (Jimmy) Corrigan wouldn't move. He said he held true and fair title to his land and he wanted to continue to live on it. And he did. He never married. He had scores of friends, some who probably wanted him to move in with them.

In the only photograph of him I've seen, Jimmy is standing beside two other men, his hands in his pockets, cap on his head which is tilted down, a tiny shy, smile on his face. He stayed on Red Island as long as he could. He kept a small flock of sheep to add to his income, hence his title as Shepherd of Red Island.
 
But he could never bring himself to slaughter the sheep. Someone else had to do that, while he looked away. He lived there longer than anyone else, finally moving on shore in the 90's. When the funeral boats reached the shore, Jimmy Corrigan's casket was placed on a small trailer. 
A man carrying a white cross led the mourners over the bumpy ground to the little cemetery.

Said his cousin of Jimmy Corrigan; "He was a unique man, I can say that. And he cared gently about the land and the environment that he was in."
 
When he knew death was close, he gave specific instructions to his friends on shore, in Placentia. He wanted to be buried in the little Island cemetery next to his mother.
"I did not want her to be alone," he said.

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