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An Irish Palatine’s Story by Shannon Bond

Article by Shannon Bond ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: , ).
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I cannot pinpoint the exact moment in time when Ireland – the place, the culture, the idea – became a dream to pursue. It might be the awkward culmination of attachment to tokenism in childhood and a tenuous historical connection but it feels stronger than that.

I imagine the seed was planted when I was very young. Perhaps it occurred when a friendly stranger made an assumption about my heritage when they heard that my name was Shannon and my brother’s name Kelly and that our handsome, red-coated dog named Tramp was an Irish setter.

The other likely source of my deep longing for Ireland is compliments of my maternal grandmother. It is through her that our link to Ireland exists.

My grandparents were farmers in southern Saskatchewan, Canada. Hard-working and community-minded people loved by many. Pa’s father came from Denmark, his mother of Scandinavian heritage from the USA. We had his family history sourced out quite easily. Grandma’s Switzer lineage was a bit of a mystery. She traced back through generations of family lines travelling up from the USA to Canada and then across to the prairies by horse and wagon. It was her parents’ families that finally settled in an area of Saskatchewan that they would be an integral part of turning into what would become known as the country’s grain belt.

Grandma loved to say that her family had Irish luck. So sure was she of her ancestry that my parents even added When Irish Eyes are Smiling as her ring tone on their phone so they’d know when she was calling.

Every now and again she would stop everything on the farm and have my Pa drive her to the horse races in town. I recall being taken along on one of these Irish luck days and the thrill when her horse won. She’d darn well win money on horses when she listened to that intuitive lucky voice that informed her when it was time to get betting. It’s no surprise then that as a small child, I took her at her word that we were Irish. I’d witnessed the luck in action next to the excitement of the buggy race.

Decades later, a maternal cousin of my mom’s got interested in tracing our family ancestry and mailed all the first cousins family trees so each would have a record of the past. Upon my next visit home, mom laid out the map for me as I’ve also had a keen interest in our history. She left me alone to look at it, knowing full well what I’d stumble across.

“We’re German?” I hollered. “What the …”

Well we are and we aren’t and, well, I guess we are. My first incredulous thought was I’ve spent my whole life being proud of being Irish and wearing the green every March 17. I can’t simply ditch it for lederhosen and lager in October.

Reading cousin’s notes that came with the map, I learned that the Switzer family had in fact been Irish Palatines. The Palatines were being persecuted in the Palatinate, Germany,  during the 1700’s because of their religious belief. As Protestants in a Catholic region they weren’t doing so well.

While some Palatine refugees headed straight for North America, 13,000 escaped to England. Landlords in Ireland looking for additional tenant farmers found support from Queen Anne who sent them some 3,000 Palatines in 1709.

For roughly 50 years, the Irish Palatines farmed land in and around County Limerick and by the sounds of things, were a serious lot that mostly kept to themselves. John Wesley, the father of Methodism who converted the first Palatine, remarked that they were “a plain, artless, serious people” and that “their diligence turns all their land into a garden.”

For various reasons, in 1760, many Irish Palatines packed up and boarded ship for North America to start anew.

A branch of the Switzer family from whom I descend, sailed on the Perry to New York City and helped build (physically and spiritually) the first Methodist church in Manhattan in 1766. As an aside, that place of worship, the John Street Methodist Church, was a haven and respite for rescuers after the terrorism of 9-11 and was the first area church to reopen following the World Trade Centre attacks.

In America, the Irish Palatine Methodists continued to grow in numbers and spread the Word as they moved northward. Then, around 1780 during the American War of Independence, to show support for the Crown who had saved the original Palatines during their time of persecution, many of them left the United States for Upper Canada, which is now known as the province of Ontario. My grandmother had some of the story right and knew that her Irish ancestors had been Loyalists that migrated across the continent generation after generation. She just didn’t know about their German origins.

Fifty odd years in and around Rathkeale, County Limerick is all I have to lay claim to in Ireland. Fifty years of the Palatines keeping to themselves and yet, I like to imagine that a Palatine lass made eyes at an Irish lad (or the other way around, it doesn’t matter to me) and they snuck off and fell in love. Somehow, from that imaginary romance, I’m certain there is Irish DNA running through my veins.

Through research, I have discovered that descendents from the Switzer clan who stayed in Ireland have restored the ancestral home near Rathkeale. I can’t wait to see it, to lay my hands on the walls of the place where history turned and decisions were made that ended up shaping future generations of the family.

Something inside of me calls out for Ireland and has my whole life. I’ve traced maps of the island with my finger tips time and time again. It’s the first place I look for on any globe or in any atlas I come across in the same way that a plant grows towards the sunlight.

My longing feels deeper than the annual school parties I attended with green icing sugar cookies to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It runs deeper than the time I spent as a “leprechaun in training” serving pints at Regina’s “only authentic Irish pub” to help pay for university. It feels deeper than my love for Canada’s folk band the Irish Rovers or even U2. And I do love U2.

I feel a longing for Ireland in my bones for some inexplicable reason. Maybe 50 years of residency is enough to link a soul through time to a country across the ocean. I’m pretty sure that when the day arrives and I finally reach Ireland’s shores, I will feel so completely home that you’ll have to kick me out of the country.






Hard copy of family tree and notes that cousin sent to my mother

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Shannon Bond lives near the geographic centre of Saskatchewan, Canada in the woods where she tries to stay one step ahead of three athletic dogs, two cats and more wildlife than is always comfortable. She is a communications officer and has worked in British Columbia and Saskatchewan as a photo-print journalist for community newspapers and produced short news features for Aboriginal radio. You can find Shannon on her inaugural blog CurlyQ http://curlyqtop.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @CurlyQTop.