The Irishman In Percy

Excerpt from “The Irishman In Canada” (pp. 372-379)
Published 1877 by MACLEAR & Co., Toronto

Difficulties and Decisions

In Percy we find a representative man-a namesake of the late James O’Reilly, but apparently no relative. James O’Reilly, born of Catholic parents, in the Parish of Mourne, near Killeel, County Down, in 1800, was one of a large family of sons. He emigrated to Canada in 1830, and having been raised on the sea shore, naturally took to the water, and for the summer worked a “batteau” in Quebec. In the fall he removed to Upper Canada, and in the succeeding August married Ellen Dunne, from the County Kildare. He still clung to the water, working on the old Durham boats. Shortly afterwards he removed to Queenston, where he was for some time in the employ of Hon. John Hamilton.

In the summer of 1834, he, with a comrade, Lawrence Cranitch, a native of Cork, set out for Percy to “locate” land. They went by steamer to Cobourg, then but a small village, whence they proceeded on foot to the Township of Percy. They came to view some land owned by Revd. John Carroll, Point Pleasant, Niagara, but finding neither roads nor neighbours, and being unused to backwoods life, they gave up the prospect in disgust. They had proceeded to Cobourg, where they met Mrs. O’Reilly on her way to the backwoods. After gaining some idea of the hardships of the life of the backwoodsman, her husband had sent word that she should remain where she was, but the messenger had delivered a wrong message, viz: to come immediately. Here was a coil. On leaving Queenston, Mrs. O’Reilly had sold at a sacrifice every article of furniture not easily removed; the remainder she had with her. Her husband, after explaining the difficulties to be encountered, and the hardships to be undergone, left the future course to her decision. She, in the spirit of the heroine of Victoria, answered, “In God’s name, let us go to the woods.” His comrade, Lawrence, or as he was familiarly called, “Larry” decided to throw in his lot with them. They all returned to Percy, where a hospitable Irish Protestant, William, or as he was called, “Billy” Wilson received them with the generosity of his race. The two men proceeded to their lot which they occupied in partnership, and began “underbrushing.”

Now their hardships began. It may, however, be remarked, that throughout the early years of their settlement, the hardship fell principally to the lot of O’Reilly, “Larry” being a bachelor, and free at any time to leave for the “shanties,” and having less care and expense. O’Reilly’s situation now may be imagined.

Living in an old “lumber shanty” without a door, unless a blanket hung over an opening in the wall may be so described, and with other openings in the centre of the roof-troughs-to permit the free egress of smoke and the ingress of light, as well as wind. Rain or snow; with small means and a large stock of inexperience, but with plenty of health and strength, and strong hope for the future, he began to hew from the primaeval forest a home which he could call “mine,” where agents, bailiffs and the tithe proctors were unknown.

During the following winter, while Larry went to the “shanty,” O’Reilly occupied, with his wife, a house belonging to his friend, “Billy” Wilson, and here his eldest daughter was born. In the spring of 1835, they removed to their new home in the woods, situated six or seven miles from the nearest known settler. They were twelve miles from the nearest store or mill - Percy Mills, now Warkworth - and about thirty miles from a post office. He had to carry the grist on his back twelve miles. Having no team, he had, after underbrushing, to “change works” with some more fortunate settler, that is to say, for one day with a team, he had to work two in return. He had, besides, to earn a living for his living family, and as there was no settler near, he had to go to the front of the township, a distance of eight, ten or twelve miles, where ever some one might perchance require rail-splitting, logging, reaping with either the sickle or the like, carrying his pay home on Saturday night.

In the mean time his wife remained in the woods with no one to speak to, no company but her infant daughter, unless strolling Indian hunters came for a loaf of bread in exchange for venison. A nightly serenade of wolves did not add to the cheerfulness of the lonely dwelling, But never was the slightest insult offered to her; never was imposition practised, or other advantage take of her lonely and helpless position by those untutored children of the woods. Perhaps the courage with which she bore hardship and isolation engendered respect in the minds of the aborigines, and was her best sheild.

Sickness in the Bush

Had these been the extent of the hardships, they would probably soon have surmounted them, as settlers were beginning to come in. But now the bread-winner for the family was stricken down by the great enemy of the backwoodsman - fever and ague.

Other diseases may be thrown off and the former strength recovered, but where the ague takes firm hold of a man his previous strength is never regained. Thus James O’Reilly, the backwoodsman, a man of one hundred and seventy or one hundred and eighty pounds, with broad chest and erect carriage, who at the age of forty had not known what sickness was, and was as vigorous as when twenty -one, was in three years hopelessly prostrated. He never completely got rid of the ague. During the continuance of the fever, he became delirious; when it passed he frequently fainted, and, though afterwards in good health, never thoroughly recovered his former vigour. It is very easy to realize what difficulties and hardships such sickness entailed. The husband fallen sick, the wife did not escape, and so their substance was consumed. Their furniture, and even clothing, had to be given for doctor’s bills. But all difficulties must have an end, and theirs proved no exception. Settlers came in; roads were built; villages arose in suitable positions; as their family grew up their labour became less onerous, and if not rich, they were independent and respected.


In a pioneer’s life there are many points worthy of remark, the most important of which relates to religion and its influence on the lives of the settlers. Thus on O’Reilly’s migration to the back-woods there was no minister of his persuasion permanently established nearer than Belleville, a distance of forty miles. There the late Reverend Father Brennan was missionary for immense distances both up and down the lake, and could, therefore, but seldom visit any one locality. The consequence was that many of the people became indifferent or careless. Sometimes eight children of the one mother were baptized at the same time, private baptism having been previously administered. Thus it was a standing joke with an old Protestant friend that he was the “priest” who christened the children of the O’Reillys. Subsequently the settlers in this locality were visited by Father Butler, of Peterborough.

The first priest permanently established in their midst was Reverend Edward Vaughan, who arrived in 1845. Picture the life of a minister of religion in those times. Then buggies were not in use for there were no roads to drive them on, travel being either done on foot or on horseback. His life was not one of either case or luxury. Mr. Vaughan’s mission included the Townships of Seymour, Percy, Asphodel, Dummer and Belmont, which still remain the same mission. Father Vaughan was soon recalled. By his removal the mission lost a most zealous pastor and charitable man. He was succeeded by the Reverend J. Bernard Higgins, who had kindred difficulties to surmount.

In 1852 Father Higgins was removed and the Reverend James, now Vicar-General Farrelly appointed, who erected a priest’s house at Hastings, which , when O’Reilly “moved in,” had not a house of any kind or a tree cut where the village now stands. At that time there were two wooden churches erected by the present pastor, Reverend John Quirck, one at Hastings and one at Norwood, besides a frame church at Campbellford. Warkworth Church has been enlarged. During Father Vaughan’s time any small room would hold the congregation, but now commodious churches are becoming crowded. These churches have been erected almost wholly by the Irish people.

Wolves and Bears

Among the hardships of life in the woods there is hardly anything, as we have already seen, more distressing to the settler than the presence of wolves. Their hideous howling, their treacherous and ferocious disposition, and their destructive habits make them a formidable enemy. Every night sheep, calves, and such helpless animals had to be secured from harm. This was usually done by building a square pen of rails which was then weighted. This pen had what was called a “slip gap” for the admission of the sheep. The space between the rails left the poor shivering animals in full view of their terrible foes. The snow was frequently tramped as solid as a road on all sides of the pen. Wolves hunt in packs. They surround a sheep pen and encourage each other with their dismal howls, seek for entrance, and woe to the poor animals if any weak part is discovered in the pen. The pack usually send out a scout, an old and experienced wolf which will view the ground before a raid is made.

In old times the large chimneys were the only means of warming the houses or “shanties” of the settlers. The fire was kept up with wood being piled at night at the side of the hearth. At one or two o’clock one morning the family was disturbed by the dog which rushed madly against the bolted door and then ran off only to return with greater force. O’Reilly arose to see what was the matter. There was a moon. By its light he saw a large wolf that chased the dog. Seizing a stick of wood, and advancing towards the wolf which retreated, he cast the wood at him. The animal deftly dodged the stick and returned after O’Reilly to the door. O’Reilly pelted him with sticks of wood which the wolf cunningly avoided, without leaving his post. Finding stick-throwing to no purpose and bethinking him of an old musket which he possessed, he determined to try that. The musket was not in very good condition having the barrel bent, or as one of his friends said, “built for shooting round corners.” He fired without striking the wolf. No sooner was the report heard, however, than every fence corner, stump, and stone seemed alive with dismal howls.

On another occasion O’Reilly started before daylight to a neighbouring pond to fish for bass. Having caught a nice string of fish he was returning when he heard on every side of the path through the woods howl answering howl. He was in the centre of a scattered pack. Pulling the fish from the rod on which he had them strung, he cast them away, thinking the wolves would be detained to devour the fish. He soon reached home, and subsequently visiting the place he found the fish untouched. Wolves evidently are not fond of fish.

Bear stories are plentiful. While laid up with ague, O’Reilly had a hired man, who proved a lazy fellow. He frequently neglected his work which should have been done. Some wheat in the stack having become wet and sprouted was taken down and set around to be given to the pigs. The man, one night after dark, acknowledged that he had not fed the pigs, and was dispatched to do so. What was his horror on, as he supposed, seizing a sheaf of wheat, to find that he had a live bear by the shaggy coat. Bruin gave an angry growl and left.

An old Indian Chief, Penashie, with his two grandsons, started out on a hunt in the woods. The old man proceeded to the flat while the boys took the ridge. After advancing some time the old Indian discovered a cub on a tree, and rashly fired. He only wounded the young bear, whose cries brought the mother to its assistance before the Indian could reload his gun. The bear immediately “went” for the Indian, who, for his age, used his feet in a very lively manner. Knowing that he would be caught if he moved in a straight line, he ran in circles round a large basswood, closely followed by the bear. Such a race could have but one end. But luckily the young men had been attracted by the report and came running to see what their grandfather had shot. They found him not the hunter but the hunted. They shot the bear and none too soon, as the old man was completely exhausted.

Two white hunters named Perry, with a horse and a small dog were going through the woods, and seeing a cub in a tree, although wholly unharmed, determined to take it home in a bag which they happened to have with them. One of them climbed the tree whose branches approached the ground. On the approach of the man the cub began to cry, which brought the mother to the foot of the tree. Here she proceeded to climb after the man but was seized by the dog in the rear, which so exasperated her that she turned to punish his temerity. Immediately letting go and keeping out of her reach, he returned on her attempting to climb the tree, and thus kept her employed until the man had bagged the cub and handed it from the limbs to his comrade on horseback below. He then dropped on to his horse and left the field.


Nearly all the early settlers were distinguished for their kindness to each other during sickness and more especially the Irish and Scotch settlers. In spite of religious and political prejudices and in defiance of contagion, the sick were tended with the utmost care.

There was another trait of character not so praiseworthy. Many of the early settlers contracted a pernicious habit of “visiting,” or as it used to be called “cabin hunting.” Thus the wife with the “baby” would go to see some of her neighbours, and have “tea,” which would consist of all the “good things” that their scanty means could afford, and often at the expense of their future necessities. The husband went in the evening to carry home the baby.

Transcribed by John Charlton