AHEARN, JOHN & NORA
Publication14 March 2023
Born Waterford, Ireland, 1806 and 1811. Died Ottawa Ontario, Canada, 1871 and 1892.
Author: Eamonn McKee
John Ahearn and Honorah Power were born in Waterford. Though he was a trained blacksmith, the depressed economy and other travails of life in colonial Ireland meant John reckoned his prospects were better elsewhere. They emigrated across the Atlantic sometime in the late 1830s.
Cities like Montreal and Quebec were expanding apace, bustling with English, Scottish, French, and Irish accents. Steamboats, sailboats, birch bark canoes, and massive lumber rafts plied the great St Lawrence to and from the vast Canadian wilderness, with entrepreneurs reaping pelts and pines for export to Europe. Rubbing shoulders with immigrants, Indigenous, soldiers, sailors, functionaries, hunters and lumbermen, Norah and John entered a very different world from everything they had known in Ireland. They made their way by steamboat up the Ottawa River or Rideau Canal to Ottawa, then known as Bytown, arriving around 1840.
Bytown was divided between affluent Uppertown with fine houses, a bank, church and even a theatre; and swampy Lowertown, full of taverns and shanties for the families of lumberman and labourers. Work on the canal, available land, and jobs in the lumber industry had drawn many Irish to Bytown and the Ottawa Valley. They competed, often violently in the 1830s and ‘40s, with the French for jobs and social dominance. John found work making tools for the lumber mills and fixing machines in the busy industrial area of Chaudière Falls. By the early 1850s, they had settled in nearby LeBreton Flats just as the area was developing as a suburb.
Born in 1855 when Bytown was renamed Ottawa, by the time their son Tom was five years old Ottawa had become the Capital of Canada. As he grew, Irish and French builders erected its landmark Parliament Buildings. Tom’s young mind must have been fascinated by the magical transformations in his father’s forge as glowing metal was hammered into usefulness. If metallurgy had fashioned civilization for millennia, the steam age of industrialisation, harnessing electricity, birthed the modern technological age. With the success of the transatlantic telegraph cable laid in 1866, communications were truly globalized with momentous consequences.
Somehow Norah and John found the means to enrol Tom in Ottawa College. John died in 1871, just about the time that Tom was either expelled or left the college. Whatever other science he learned, it was on the job. Tom became obsessed with electricity, learning its practical application as a telegraphist. On reading of Edison’s invention, Tom took cigar boxes and wires and made his own telephone. His progress as an inventor was unstoppable and his sobriquets accumulated: electricity Tom, the Edison of Canada, and the king of electricity.
As an engineer, inventor and wealthy business mogul, Tom Ahearn, along with his childhood friend and business partner, Warren Soper, transformed their home city with electric lighting, telephones, tramways and much more. By 1900, Ottawa had more light bulbs per capita than any other city in the world. He filled Parliament with electric light. A master of promotion, Tom combined many skills: inventing and tinkering with new devices, networking people to advance projects, and thinking big about developing Ottawa. He was a prolific inventor with more than thirty patents to his name, including the electric oven that won him the gold medal at the Central Canada Exhibition in 1892 and featured in the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 (the subject of a commemorative stamp issued in 2011). Tom was first chairman of the Federal District Commission, charged with planning the city. Confidant of Prime Ministers, he was appointed to the Privy Council and was one of the first directors of the Bank of Canada.
In 1884, Tom married into the local aristocracy in the person of Lilias Mackey Fleck, whose family had made its fortune as Montreal industrialists before moving to Ottawa. In 1886, Lilias gave birth to Thomas Franklin, known always as Frank, who grew to become a soldier, businessman, MP, and sports mogul. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as owner of the Ottawa Senators in their glory days between 1920 and 1923 when they won three Stanley Cups.
Two years after Frank’s birth, Lilias Ahearn died while giving birth to a second child, a daughter, named Lilias. Her fate was an ever-present mortal danger with 5% of all women dying in childbirth at the time. Her sister Margaret took over raising the children and in 1892, a few months after the death of Norah Ahearn, she and Tom married. Lilias would grow up to marry the publisher Harry Stevenson Southam to form one of the resident elite families of old Ottawa.
In 1909, Frank married Norah Lewis whose family were Canadian establishment. Their daughter, also named Lilias, was from birth embedded in the elite of Ottawa, familiar with the VIPs who regularly visited their home. Every event of her young life was documented in the press.
Confident, enchanting and daring, after service in the Second World War, Lilias married Lionel Massey, descendant of the great Toronto family of industrialists and philanthropists. She made her mark as the vice-regal consort to her widowed father-in-law Vincent when he was appointed Canada’s first citizen Governor General. She represented Canada at the 1952 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London, Vincent having elected to stay in Ottawa. She accompanied him on his more than eighty trips around Canada on all kinds of transport, including dog sleds, and was the first woman to fly over the Arctic. Entertaining the world’s elite in Ottawa at the official residence of Rideau Hall, Lilias was, literally, hostess to Canada’s emergence onto the world stage in the 1950s.
In 1947, Frank and Norah Ahearn moved into 7 Rideau Gate, an historic Ottawa mansion dating to 1861. They enlarged and modernized it in a way that made it suitable for its present vocation as the Official Government Guest House for visiting dignitaries.
With little more than their character, talent and grit, Norah and John established a new life in rough-and-tumble Bytown and successfully raised a family. For the Ahearns, as for so many Irish families, the opportunities of Canada transformed them. Within three generations, the talents of the Ahearns for innovation, business, sport, and politics helped transform Bytown into Ottawa, a modern city worthy of being Canada’s capital.
Thomas Ahearn, Canadian Dictionary of Biography profile by Anna Adamnek.
Janet Uren, The Man Who Lit up Ottawa, Ottawa Magazine, March 2006.
Capital Builders: Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper, the ‘Edisons of Canada’, Ottawa Citizen, 4 April 2019.
We can look forward to a full treatment of Ahearn’s life when a new biography of Ahearn and Soper is published by Laura Ott. Ott has said that Ahearn and Soper are “among the most unrecognized people for the type of impact they had on the city.”