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Born: 1776, Ireland

Died: 1846, Lower Canada

Author: Michele Holmgren

Standish O’Grady’s anti-immigration poem The Emigrant (1841) was not unique. Susannah Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush was a response to 1830s emigration manuals that downplayed the hardships faced by “persons of respectable connections” in Canada.  While O’Grady protested that he was “not an enemy to emigration,” he advised “those of a higher order” to “never venture to this side the Atlantic;” or if driven to emigrate, settle in Upper Canada and leave Lower Canada to the French.

Biographers have found O’Grady an elusive figure. Mary Jane Edwards suggests that he was born in 1789 or 1790, graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1810, then served as a Church of Ireland priest until the “tithe wars” forced him to emigrate in 1836.  But these dates contradict O’Grady’s own claim that he was a classmate of Robert Emmet, placing O’Grady at Trinity in the late 1790s.  Brian Trehearne argues that “Standish O’Grady” was the pseudonym for a Standish Bennett listed in the Alumni Dublinenses. Many details of Bennett’s life are reflected in the poem, which celebrates the aristocratic O’Grady family in Co. Cork.  Other documents from Trinity and elsewhere suggest that he used the name Standish O’Grady Bennett throughout his life, including on a petition arguing for Catholic franchise, a list of titheholders seeking relief from the government in the 1830s, and Cork and Toronto obituaries.  Born in time to witness the United Irishmen Revolution of 1798 and the Act of Union in 1801, the poet describes how agrarian resistance organizations and tithe reform drove him out of Ireland.  Whether he left as a middle-aged clergyman or as an elderly gentleman equally dependent on the impropriation of tithes, he was pathetically unprepared for life in Lower Canada.

While set in Lower Canada, the poem is preoccupied with the Act for the Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. In 1798 “Standish O’Grady Bennett” had signed the “Resolutions of the Independent Scholars and Students of Trinity College” stating their support for “the cause of LOYALTY AND THE CONSTITUTION” in response to a supposedly seditious pamphlet distributed throughout the college.  While the poet of The Emigrant later grudgingly concedes the necessity for the Act, made when Britain’s “Irish subjects [were] for the most part in a state of heartless rebellion,” he had no time for the Union’s chief architect, John Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare.  Clare had previously overseen a college inquisition that terrified the young poet Thomas Moore, expelled Robert Emmet, and likely disgusted Standish Bennett.  Not surprisingly, Clare, the poem’s “modern Nero of the state,” gets more blame than the followers of Captain Rock for burning O’Grady’s life to the ground.

The 1801 Union functions as a dividing line in The Emigrant.  It ended the “the good old times” that the poet portrays as a Burkean paradise.  The prescribed customs linking old Irish aristocrats to their peers and their tenants in  “a sacred trust, by obligations bound” are scattered in its wake, ushering in a distantly-governed and corrupt society in which “the rude peasant” and Irish tithe holders flee neglect and the violence of Captain Rock. 

The poem also vividly depicts emigrants alternately experiencing the brief calms of the sea voyage and the terrors of ocean storms. On embarkation in Quebec, the speaker describes the equally brief summer pleasures enjoyed by the English community in Sorel, followed by the tempest of revolution in the winter. (O’Grady claims to have heard the alarm bells rung during the attack by Papineau’s forces, and to have seen a haggard Papineau in Sorel just before he fled to the States.)  After narrating the sad fate of Sylvia, a widowed and starving Irish gentlewoman, the poem concludes with a winter storm:

The sheltered squirrel from his attic height,

Now headlong falls, and fears the storm’s might!

His well-wrought store, his wintry feast he sees

Dispersed aloft and wafted by the breeze;

His house a ruin, all its inmates cast

Outstretched in famine…

As fare squirrels, so fare emigrants; the speaker contemplates eating the frozen corpses of his farm animals at winter’s conclusion and warns: “Let Erin pause, and well reflect in time,…ere her sons seek transatlantic clime.”

In the Emigrant, even the epic cannot fully contain the poet’s experience or his conflicting impulses. He declares loyalty to Britain while deploring its treatment of Ireland, which he views as a kingdom deserving its own parliament.  He extols British progress, settlement, and government in North America while cataloging the defeats and suffering of Irish immigrants, both rich and poor. He eulogizes Robert Emmet while condemning Papineau.  The footnotes contain multitudes: comic sketches and ditties; a translation from the Irish by the philologist Theopholus O’Flanagan; biographies of famous Uilleann pipers; sea shanties and patriotic ballads composed by O’Grady.  Taken as a whole, this strange miscellany of verse and anecdote attempts to reconstitute in writing the rich and distinct folkways of Irish peasantry and gentry.  While the poem lampoons Daniel O’Connell and his parliamentary supporters, its paratext nevertheless suggests a vision of cultural identity distinct from England: one with the potential to transcend class and sectarian divisions.

Canadian newspapers reviewed the poem and chronicled O’Grady’s increasingly desperate progress from Sorel to Toronto.  In 1843, the Montreal Transcript identified him as instrumental in brokering a truce between feuding Cork and Connaught labourers on the Lachine Canal.  In 1845, an Essex County paper published a charitable appeal for a “distressed gentleman,” namely “poor old O’Grady, the poet,”  who was fast “descending in sorrow to the grave.” (In quoting this appeal, The Examiner unkindly suggested that another poetaster, the famously-dissipated “Sir” John Smith, was more worthy of patronage.)  Newspapers in Toronto and Cork carried the obituary of a Standish O’Grady Bennett from Tankerville who died in 1846, aged 70, after “a painful and protracted illness.” In imagining Irish migrants dying with “scarce…a pound to purchase death’s last need,” The Emigrant was sadly prophetic.


Further Reading:

The Emigrant by Standish O’Grady, edited by Brian Trehearne.  London, Canada: Canadian Poetry Press, 1989. https://canadianpoetry.org/library/early-writing-in-canada/early-canadian-long-poems/ogrady/

Edwards, Mary Jane,  “O’Grady, Standish,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed January 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_grady_standish_7E.html.

Holmgren, Michele, “Standish O’Grady” in Canada to Ireland: Poetry, Politics, and the Shaping of Canadian Nationalism, 1788-1900. Montreal/Kingston: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2021.

Trehearne, Brian, “Preliminaries for a Life of Standish O’Grady,” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 21(1987)  https://canadianpoetry.org/volumes/vol21/trehearne.html.

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