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Born. Cootehill, County Cavan, 1820. Died Montreal, 1903.

Author: Jason King

Mary Anne Sadlier was in many respects a typical figure of the Irish Catholic emigrant community that she sought to represent and for which she wrote. Born in Cootehill, County Cavan, in 1820, she emigrated at the age of 24 to the Irish settlement of Sainte-Marthe in Quebec in 1844, where she married James Sadlier on 24 November 1846. The following summer she helped him establish the Montreal branch of one of the leading Catholic publishers in North America, D. & J. Sadlier & Co, beside Notre Dame Church. She quickly became one of its most popular and prolific authors, eventually helping transform it into the largest Catholic publishing house in North America.

During her lifetime, Sadlier published nearly one hundred novels and translations, historical and religious tracts, although by the time of her death in 1903 her literary reputation had significantly diminished.  Her early novels such as Willy Burke; or the Irish Orphan in America (1850), Alice Riordan, the Blind Man’s Daughter: A Tale for the Young (1851), New lights; or, Life in Galway. A tale. (1853), The Blakes and Flanagans: A Tale Illustrative of Irish Life in the United States, and Elinor Preston; or, Scenes at Home and Abroad (1861, serialized in 1857), often featured Irish emigrant orphan or peasant protagonists resisting the threat of proselytization and pressure to assimilate into a hegemonic Anglo-Protestant culture. Her most autobiographical novel Elinor Preston is narrated from the first person perspective of a middle aged, devoutly Catholic Irish woman whose recollections after thirty years of living in Montreal and then rural Quebec appear somber in tone, marked with an air of sadness, quiet resignation, and a passive acceptance of suffering as the sure path to moral salvation and spiritual enlightenment. Like her protagonist, Sadlier herself admired French-Canadians as akin to Irish Catholics in their ostensibly steafast perservance against Protestant temptation both in Ireland and Quebec.  

Mary Anne Sadlier formed a close friendship and literary partnership with the Irish-Canadian author, statesman, and visionary of Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. She communicated regularly with him over a period that spanned from 1855, two years before he embarked from the United States for Montreal to become editor of  The New Era and then run for Canadian office (1857), until shortly before his assassination in 1868. After McGee moved to Montreal, the Sadliers relocated to New York in 1860 from where she continued their correspondence.  She shared much of McGee’s outlook and regularly discussed his efforts to implement principles of social conservatism, cultural nationalism, and constitutional protection for religious instruction and Catholic, denominational education within a Canadian legislative context. McGee invited Sadlier to Ottawa in 1867 to what he termed “the opening of the first Parliament of the new Confederacy” and establishment of the Canadian nation. She was devastated by his assassination the following year, and played a pivotal role in shaping his literary legacy through her posthumous publication of The Poems of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. With Copious Notes. Also an Introduction and Biographical Sketch, by Mrs J. Sadlier (1869). Mary Anne Sadlier suffered further loss when she was widowed in 1869 and she eventually returned to Montreal in the 1880s.

One of the mysteries of Mary Anne Sadlier’s literary career is that she bore witness to the Irish Famine influx in Montreal in 1847 where up to six thousand migrants perished but she never wrote about it until over four decades had passed. It was not until 1891 that she published “The Plague of 1847” in Messenger of the Sacred Heart, a vivid eyewitness recollection of what had transpired in the city’s fever sheds and surrounding neighbourhoods.  There can little doubt that Sadlier’s memory of Montreal’s Irish Famine migration was initially inhibited by the overtly Protestant associations with the Ship Fever or Black Rock memorial that was erected in 1859 to mark their fate.  Although the vast majority of the Famine dead were Irish Catholic, the Black Rock’s installation under the auspices of the city’s Protestant bishop was deeply controversial. The deliberate exclusion of Catholic clergy from the memorial’s dedication ceremony was widely construed as a deliberate humilation. The growing animus between Catholics and Protestants in 1850s Montreal both helped launch Mary Anne Sadlier’s literary career but also foreclosed her memory of what she later termed its “six thousand half-forgotten” Famine victims buried beneath an unconsecrated monument that was inimical to her religious beliefs. Its dedication ceremony marked a complete repudiation of her literary mission.

Ultimately, it was not until Mary Anne Sadlier’s return to Montreal from New York and the reclamation of the Black Rock by the city’s Irish Catholic community in the 1880s that she began to draw upon her own eyewitness impressions of Famine emigrants as a source of inspiration in her work. The transformation of the Black Rock into a site of Irish Catholic pilgrimmage and communcal procession prompted Sadlier to similarly recall the city’s half-forgotten victims in service of a more usable past. In one of her final publications entitled “Something About Point St. Charles” in the True Witness and Catholic Chronicle (1900), she described it as “a holy and righteous object”.  In her final years, Sadlier lay claim to the monument and commemoration of the Montreal’s Famine dead as a belated theme in her writing. Mary Anne Sadlier was recognized as a National Historic Person by Parks Canada in 2008.

Further Reading

Thomas D’Arcy McGee, The Poems of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. With Copious Notes. Also an Introduction and Biographical Sketch, by Mrs J. Sadlier. New York: D. & J. Sadlier & Co., 1869.

Mrs. J. Sadlier, “The Plague of 1847,” Messenger of the Sacred Heart. Montreal: League of the Sacred Heart, 1891.

“Sadlier, Mary Anne National Historic Person.” Parks Canada Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. Parks Canada - Sadlier, Mary Anne National Historic Person (https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_nhs_eng.aspx?id=11994)

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