St. Luke’s Church, left, built in 1895 in Downeyville, Ont., remains at the heart of what was once a stauch Irish Catholic town in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes region. Photo courtesy of Dan Sullivan

Remembering town’s Irish, Catholic past

By 
  • December 11, 2021

The hamlet of Downeyville in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes region is a very different town from when author and community historian Dan Sullivan grew up there in the 1950s and ’60s.

Back then, he says, in the small, close-knit Irish Catholic farming community between Peterborough and Lindsay, everyone was a farmer, everyone knew everyone else and the entire town went to St. Luke’s Church on Sundays and religious holidays.

These days many of those families have sold their properties and moved to bigger cities for jobs and newer members of the community have no knowledge or connection to the Irish migrants who came to the area to escape poverty and oppression in their native land back in the 1800s. St. Luke’s, built in 1895, remains a central part of the community, however.

Sullivan has captured the history of the people in this unique town whose lives all centred around church and their common Irish Catholic heritage. Over 287 pages, The Irish Catholics of Downeyville carefully documents the history of the Irish-Catholic church community that settled and worked the area farms.

“I think 100 years from now (the book) will be a real gem,” chuckled Sullivan, who has seen factory farming and big ranches replace traditional farming in the community. “People won’t believe how people lived. How the people went to church, even the area itself, when I grew up it was all mixed farms (both growing crops and raising livestock) with big frame barns. I grew up when you milked cows by hand, you had pigs and chickens, grain fields to feed the animals and hay for the cattle. That has all pretty well disappeared.”

The book chronicles the peoples’ long journey from Ireland to the backwoods of what was then Upper Canada. It covers the English conquest of Ireland and land confiscations until Irish independence more than 350 years later, chronicling the suffering under the discriminatory penal laws, the resulting poverty and the fateful years of the potato famine in the mid-1800s that led to a million deaths.

A large influx of immigrants from Ireland, known as the Robinson Settlers — after MPP and Commissioner of Crown Lands Peter Robinson, who organized the Irish migration to settle the area — arrived in the central Ontario region in 1825 and continued for 50 years until all desirable land was settled. Escaping English oppression and extreme poverty, immigrants left their European homeland, many never to see it again.

For well over a century, Downeyville remained true to its roots. “In the 1950s it was still a solid Irish Catholic community,” said Sullivan. “I don’t think there’s another (community) that ever existed that long where it kept that way.”

The book tells the stories of area: the Indigenous peoples, land settlement, the dams and waterways, the years of the lumber industry, trapping, fur industry, hunting/fishing and tourism, and the years of small mixed-farming. It describes the livelihood of the inhabitants over the years, their homes and daily lives.

Sullivan’s upbringing was not unlike many who came before him in Downeyville. He recalls going to school in a one-room schoolhouse with no running water. Trekking a mile through knee-high snow to school, throughout his Grade 7 and 8 years he was tasked with coming in an hour before the others to start the wood stove to provide heat. Some children had to walk up to three miles and there were no snow days or snow ploughs to clear the roads. Built in the late 19th century, the school had outhouses and water was retrieved from a pump outside of the uninsulated building. It wasn’t until after he completed the eighth grade that the province closed the one-room schoolhouse and began busing children to schools.

“The world has changed a lot in my time,” said Sullivan, who is now in his 70s and lives in Simcoe, Ont., though he visits the area often. “I wrote the book as a history of the area. When I grew up all the farms there were solidly owned by Irish Catholic descendants with few exceptions. Right now, half the farms are owned by people who are not Catholics or who are not from the Irish descendants. It’s fast changing. In time I guess the only reminder that there was once an Irish Catholic church community will be the surnames on the tombstones in the graveyards.”

Sullivan’s cousin Ron is the last of the Sullivan clan to own a farm in the region. Though he’s moved just north of the area to nearby Bobcaygeon, Ron’s daughter is still living on the family property and he’s hopeful she’ll decide to stay for the long haul. 

“It looks like it will be one more generation of the Sullivans living on the farm,” said Ron, whose white farm house graces the cover of the book. “With the 200 years mark around the corner in 2025, it’s rare to have a single-family farm being passed down from generation to generation. The same piece of property for 200 years.”

For more information about the book, contact St. Luke’s Parish (www.stlukesdowneyville.ca/).

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