Posted by: alexhickey | August 15, 2017

Thirty Two Years of Community ©

Jam Session Main Stage 2017-08-13 South Coast Arts Festival, St. Jacques

“It’s been twenty-five years.  The last time I was here the stage was right up there at the end of the field, a flat-bed truck I believe. By Jeez there’s some difference now; yes sir!” Frank Skinner.

And so the conversation went.  We chatted about family, acquaintances, things which happened over the course of that twenty-five years, the music, and the performers, all the while scanning the crowd seeking friendly familiar faces.  They were there everywhere you looked; some from last year, some from five years ago, a few only recognized because of resemblance to their mother or father and an occasional one familiar in the way they walked. Such is the annual experience of visitors to the South Coast Arts Festival in St. Jacques.

From the time the gates opened on Friday evening and closed on Sunday evening local performers, occasionally joined by visitors or guests, providing wall-to-wall music that traverses genre.  Hearts beat a little faster and eyes moistened when on Friday evening, a performer struck up a version of Johnny Drake’s song Headin’ Home, for the majority of Festival patrons know that feeling of turning off the TCH onto the Baie D’Espoir Road heading to the South Coast. The song has become somewhat of an anthem for residents and visitors alike.  Then, on Saturday crowds swelled and gathered about the main stage when Bud Davidge took to the microphone to deliver a selection of his crowd-pleasing songs.  The Loss of the Marian had people swaying and Music and Friends had the audience singing in unison.

On Saturday afternoon pre-school children flocked to the face-painting activities of the Family Resource Centre while parents stood back allowing them to frolic in the sun on a manicured grassy field.  All the while melodic sounds of guitars, accordion, fiddles and drums, shaped and tugged by sound man Rob Rogers, floated across the Festival site, rose and skirted the side of Big Hill then drifted across the harbour and on out into Fortune Bay.

Ask where are you living now, and you’ll hear Pouch Cove, Lark Harbour, North Sydney, St. John’s, Calgary, Spryfield, Fort Mac, Boston, Germany, Australia, Lamaline or Gander. They come back from all over to enjoy the wealth of musical talent the south coast of Newfoundland has to offer.  They come back to visit family, to renew acquaintances, and to meet the children of their childhood friends. They come as individuals, as families and in groups vacationing together. They come out of curiosity having heard of a three-day arts festival all the way down on the South Coast almost at the end of the road. Wherever they came from in August 2017 they came with intent to party, to celebrate and socialize.

One visitor said, while it is good to get together for family reunions it is also really good to get together as a community for a reunion. That describes well what happens during the second weekend of August in St. Jacques.  St. Jacques is one of six communities which comprise the municipality of St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove.  The South Coast Arts Community embraces the adjacent towns of Belleoram and Pool’s Cove, reaches out to Rencontre East, Harbour Breton, Hermitage, Conne River, Milltown and St. Alban’s.  Performers and visitors from all of these towns can be seen on the Festival Site throughout the weekend.  The community that gets together isn’t St. Jacques, it’s the entire Connaigre Peninsula congregating during the weekend as a single community of music lovers to celebrate culture, heritage, each other and the thread of artistic expression which bind us all together.

Community-based volunteer groups such as the Lion’s Club of English Hr. West and the St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove Fire Department provided food services and assisted with security. The Community Health Group made their Paramedics and ambulance freely available during the weekend, particularly during the 5K/10K Walk/Run which took place on Saturday morning; a walk organized in partnership with the St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove Recreation Committee.  A local aquaculture firm, Northern Harvesters, delivered complimentary vats of freshly frozen ice for use at the bar. A small army of volunteers kept the wheels turning and the energy flowing throughout the weekend, checking ID’s, providing backup to other performers, answering questions, and ensuring everyone was safe and able to have a good time.  A short distance beyond the entrance gate returning visitors and new, parked their recreation vehicles and trailers side by side, got to know one another and savoured the musical atmosphere surrounding their weekend home.  One departing visitor was emphatic in saying he’d be back next year and that he’d be bringing friends.

Accenting the music was a showing of films by well-known and award-winning Newfoundland film-makers, many of which had roots on the Connaigre Peninsula. Riverhead, Crocuses and The Tour captivated audiences for two nights at the St. Jacques Community Centre.  The Nickle Roadshow is offered in partnership with the Nickel Independent Film Festival of St. John’s and celebrated its sixth year at the South Coast Arts Festival.

How do you run a four-day arts festival uninterrupted for thirty-two consecutive years? There is no simple answer; however, within it are such descriptors as pride, dedication, belief, giving, selflessness, stuck-to-it-ness, resolve, commitment, love, enjoyment, sharing and sometimes a tiny bit of smugness when you step back and watch hundreds of people enjoying themselves year after year. At its heart is volunteerism; volunteers who plan, organize, publicize, perform, clean, do maintenance, collaborate and respect the contribution each other makes to ensuring a successful event.

Yes, it is quite different from twenty-five years ago, quite different from the first Festival on that site when lawnmowers were used to cut bushes and sawdust used to fill depressions left from removing boulders by hand. What isn’t different is the vision of that handful of founders who imagined what would happen thirty-two years later on 2017. Though some have passed on and others moved away there are still a few of them wandering among the fifteen, twenty and twenty-five year veterans who continue to bring to the field in St. Jacques one of the best festivals in Newfoundland and Labrador.

As the last note escaped, the last glass clinked and the last hug given, plans were already underway for next year at the Festival.  We’ll see you there again next year if all goes as planned.

Links to References in this Post

Posted by: alexhickey | June 5, 2017

Trouting in St. Jacques Pond

Were one able to line up, end-to-end, the thousands of trout caught in St. Jacques Pond throughout the generations of people from St. Jacques and Belleoram it might rival the ‘squids’ in the Ted Russell recitation, The Smoke Room on the Kyle. Many a young boy and girl experienced catching their first fish on the shores of that pond under the tutelage of an older more experienced trouter.  Trouting St. Jacques Pond was a common thread that ran through the surrounding communities and succeeding generations.

Author with George Drake at St. Jacques Pond c. 1958

My early trouting experiences in St. Jacques Pond were with my father and a cousin of his, George Drake, who would lead me by the hand up the hill at a most leisurely pace, for George didn’t move too quickly under any circumstance, beyond the home of Uncle Den and Aunt Hilda McCarthy.  The Tibbo family had a grass meadow adjacent to the southern end of the pond which made for easy access and a comfortable place for trouters to sit and enjoy the ambiance of the valley.  I don’t recall catching many trout on those occasions; however, I do recall being coached to cast my line out into the water.  The length of the bamboo pole seemed at least five times my height, making coordination a bit of a challenge.  It seemed that no matter how hard I swung that pole towards the water I could not get the hang of flicking the line.  Each time it mysteriously fell to the surface just feet from where I stood, yet when George took the fishing pole to demonstrate, the string effortlessly arced through the air and landed well out into the deeper water. Little skills like that seemed magical at the time.

Later, as a pre-teenager I spent endless hours with other kids from the neighbourhood, Carl and Tom , Cliff, Kev and whoever else was inclined to spend an hour or two getting their feet wet clambering around the shoreline.  Everyone had their favourite spot which they fished until the trout stopped biting, then moved on to another.  We could be seen standing at any location where water flowed in or out of the pond, jockeying for the best or most solid rock to balance on; that is until ones feet slipped into the water.  After that, getting wet wasn’t a concern and wading out into the pond to fish farther off shore was routine among us.

Sometimes we would encounter others fishing the pond and give them wide berth for one didn’t want to be accused of interfering with their success by making noises that might frighten the fish away.  Usually these were folks of our own age from Belleoram, many of whom we knew.

Later still, I took my young daughter back to St. Jacques Pond for the experience of trouting. We climbed through fallen trees and over grass covered boulders to reach the mouth of the brook which feeds water from the Barred Pond upstream.  There she learned to cast a line into the little pool and reel in her first brook trout.  The glee in her face translated to an excited dance of stamping her feet, splashing water well above the tops of her ten inch rubber boots.  She was willing to assist with placing worms on hooks but drew the line at removing a wriggling trout from that same hook.

Trouting is a passion for young boys and girls; one that courses through their veins, a passion to get the gear ready the night before and motivation for an early rise the next morning.  Bait, of course, was always a per-requisite to catching trout. After dark on damp foggy nights there was a ritual in our neighbourhood to hunt for night crawlers; larger worms that emerged from underground when the grass was moist with evening dew.  We would walk, bent from the waist along those pathways where we knew they could be found, one hand holding a container and a flashlight, the other hand at ready to grab the crafty worm before it deftly withdrew into the earth.  Like every other sport those that got away were always bigger than the ones we caught.

There was a level playing field amongst most of us.  Our implement was the bamboo pole, rigged with cotton line, a hook at the end weighed down by lead weights.  In the absence of lead weights a small machine nut from the garage of one of our parents sufficed. Depending on the depth of water, the bobber could be moved up or down at will.   There were those among us who preferred not to use a bobber but to troll the hook through the water resulting in much more frequent casting of the line.  It was inevitable during every fishing excursion to the pond that one of us would hook a tree when casting, requiring some effort to disentangle the line; or hook a rocky ledge on the bottom which meant maneuvering to the left or right along the shore to dislodge it or in worse circumstances part the line and add a new hook.  Occasionally one would flick a trout so hard that it came off the hook and land in the woods – the big ones we’d look for with futility, the smaller ones we’d ignore.   Each of those took time away from our primary tasks and were not looked forward to by anyone.

We were among the world’s best trouters.  We prided ourselves in never coming home empty-handed. It’s a wonder the trout population of that pond ever survived, but it did and is still as healthy as it ever was.  A couple of years ago two of my nephews were visiting and wondering where they could go trouting.  I showed them the way to St. Jacques Pond and turned him loose.  Every morning for the next week they were wetting their lines, carrying on a timeless ritual and bringing home just enough trout to fill a small frying pan!

A recently deceased friend of mine, George Pauls, once described to me in a letter his experience of catching trout in St. Jacques Pond around 1930. Below is his description of standing entranced to see Teacher Fanny Cluett of Belleoram fishing the pond in her hip waders.

“She was an ardent fisherperson (trouter), and in summertime, after those overnight light rains, we would be sure to bump into her the next morning somewhere in the brook or along the eastern side of St. Jacques Pond where she, fishing with a split-cane rod equipped with a fly-fishing reel, landed some of our best be-speckled beauties to frequent the area.

Her equipment sparkled like gold to our eyes – us with our roughly ‘chopped in the woods’ trout poles, fitted out with coarse line and hooks baited with worms; the excess line wound around the butts of the poles, making it a nightmare when traipsing through the densely growing brushwood. Ms. Cluett wore hip-high waders well strapped to her belted breeches which was something of a novel arrangement at the time, especially with regard to the female standards that existed.

Seeing her wade ashore with a couple flicking on the skiver to be wrapped in moist moss and placed in the wicker basket that she wore slung from her shoulders, was just as exciting as watching her cast and reel with such precision.

She would take the brook somewhere in back of where the Allans lived (about mid-way between St. Jacques and Belleoram) and follow it southward to the lower or northern end of the pond where she did some clever casting and collecting of a few of the larger of the species, possibly of the sea-run trout that entered the water system from the Doctor’s Brook, as it was called till the water went over the falls which were partially dammed, then it was known as Pittman’s Brook.

From that end of the pond she would proceed along the eastern side and fish in a few favourite spots, whipping the waters out and beyond the reach of our tackle.  We did alright too, of course, but in her basket were the prize ones.”

What George described was the dedication of a committed trouter willing to go the distance to get the “prize ones.”  We, on the other hand, were joyous when we hooked one over five inches, whether we caught it or not!  But for a few of us we were quite content to walk home with a half dozen threaded by the gills on an alder branch, our rubber boots squelching with every step, dried fly bites behind our ears and a victorious grin upon our faces.

St. Jacques Pond

A few other things for you to investigate …

Smoke room on the Kyle – Bay Roberts Cultural Foundation

Newfoundland and Labrador Angler’s Guide 2017-2018

Newfoundland Brook Trout


Posted by: alexhickey | March 3, 2017

Jean ‘Fitzpatrick’ Drake Merritt ©

We’d reached the end of the road. I pulled over to the side so we could gaze out across the harbour for a few minutes. “Now this is where … who was it whose house was about here? Tony Burkes?  Yes, and down below there was your father’s house, well, your grandfather’s place.  And of course your great-grandfather’s house as well.  That’s where we are related. My grandmother and your great-grandfather were brother and sister.”

Jeannie Drake, 2017

Jean Drake, 2017

I struggled to see through time to witness with her that visual memory; to share a moment before my birth; to acknowledge a shared knowing, if nothing else.  Age brings incredibly beautiful textures to the human face, softened wrinkles that move with each smile and echo inheritance from parents and grandparents.  They embody personality and character and tell the richness of experience that eyes and lips sometimes fail to speak.  As “Jeanie” surveyed the calm blue reflective waters of St. Jacques harbour her expression was of satisfaction and delight; of memories flooding to fill spaces she hadn’t seen in years. In the quietness of unspoken thoughts her face betrayed them, sharing with me both tension and ease, the distance between her yesterday and the fleeting moments we shared that day.

It was a privilege and a joy to accompany this woman around the harbour and reminisce about people, houses and events that shaped both of our lives in ways neither of us could have ever known about the other; an experience where the verisimilitude of her past contributed to the  plenitude  of my feelings for our shared sense of home.  It all began a couple of hours earlier in an encounter with a group of people standing on the roadway near our house.  A conversation soon ensued which determined the group to be Jean Fitzpatrick Drake and some of her family visiting from Cape Breton.

I grew up hearing her name as “Janie” Drake thus that pronunciation is ingrained in my lexicon regardless of how I spell it. During her adult years in Nova Scotia Janie became known as Jean. Seeing her that afternoon brought forth feelings of family, of connectedness and rediscovery.  Excitement was electric as we coaxed them to come into our house.  It became a turning point of knowing for me, a juncture beyond which there would no longer be mystery or wondering about who and where ‘Janie” Drake was and is. My father was a close friend of George Drake all through my years of growing up.  The three of us spent many hours together as did some of my siblings.  Somehow I knew there was a family connection; not close enough to be firsthand knowledge for me but close enough for my father to value the relationship; hence the regular visits and socializing and exchange of family photographs.

Standing in my living room that afternoon was my cousin, a cousin I’d heard of but had never met; one who had presence in my life, but no physical substance for she had left home before I came into the world of St. Jacques.  Her return visits over the years must have gone unnoticed by a child for I had no recollection of seeing or wrapping my arms around her or she, me, prior to that day.  There are simple joys in life that sometimes go beyond measure, beyond words and beyond expectations.  A fortuitous meeting which might have never happened had we been ten minutes earlier or later led to making a connection between two cousins separated by time and distance.

Jeanie’s story starts long before this visit to St. Jacques in a time when the community was still prospering from the lucrative cod fishing industry.  There were a constant parade of schooners from other south coast ports calling at local wharves and along with them came their crews.  New faces, young men who sought out the local girls to take to a dance at the Parish Hall or simply to flirt with during the few days they were in port, exuded optimism for their chosen occupations and offered new opportunities for those girls seeking a life partner.

Jeanie’s mother, Frances Drake, was one of those young women.  Captivated by Richard Fitzpatrick of Marystown, visiting St. Jacques on a schooner taking on water for the trip to the Banks a dashing robust young man hardened by the rigorous work of a schoonerman, she fell head over heels in love, married and moved to his hometown.  Bill and Maryann didn’t stand in her way despite their trepidation of having their daughter move away from home.  In the end they gave their blessing and resigned themselves to the fact that any visiting to the new couple and any children they might have would take days of travel.

That difficulty grew when the first child of Frances and Richard, christened George, died shortly after his birth.  Undeterred and determined, not long afterwards Frances was once again able to tell her parents that she and Richard were expecting.  This time the baby boy was baptized William. It was 1922 and things were beginning to look up for the newly married couple.  Maryann began looking forward to the next child, hoping this time it would be a girl.

During the next year every time the boat arrived delivering mail, Maryann made an expectant trip around the harbour to the post office where Paddy McEvoy would either nod affirmation there was a letter or slowly shake his head as he made eye contact with her.  Letters were few and far between leaving her uneasy. One afternoon with a smile and nod Mr. McEvoy handed her a letter.  She dropped to a chair in the outer office beside the wicket, ripped the envelope with her finger and hungrily read the words of her daughter, starting with ‘Dearest Mother, Once again I am with child.’

The joy of having a granddaughter brought both delight and concern with the spectre of the firstborns death still fresh in the air even though William was healthy and walking by then.  Soon after the baby’s birth Frances began experiencing difficulty breathing, accompanied by bouts of coughing which was attributed to being Pertussis (Whooping Cough), a particularly contagious respiratory tract infection.  This was prior to the development of a vaccination and was often fatal to infants who contracted it.  Fortunately the baby didn’t have any of those symptoms.  In a letter home to her mother Frances told of how she had developed pneumonia and was experiencing a sore side, however, she asked her mother not to worry, she wouldn’t die from it. Fourteen months after Jane’s birth, Frances at age twenty-nine on January 25th 1925, succumbed to a disease which claimed the lives of many young people in rural parts of Newfoundland – tuberculosis.

Back in St. Jacques the news was devastating. How would Patrick manage with two small children? Work was critical to survival thus the question of what would become of William and Jane was an immediate concern.  A decision was made. Maryann booked passage on the coastal boat for Marystown.  Jane was brought back to St. Jacques to be raised by her grandparents along with their youngest son George. This is where she gained the name Janie Drake.  William remained in Marystown to be raised by his paternal grandmother.

The two children saw nothing of each other for fifteen years; not until Janie was on her way to St. John’s to take a job.  She left the coastal boat which had taken her to Argentia and boarded a train where Bill, knowing she would be there, came on board to meet her.  The power of sibling relationship had not dissipated in the intervening years and grew stronger with time.  They remained close until Bill’s death in 1980. In the meantime Jane’s father remarried and had five more children whom Janie has had contact with over the years.

The Drake house in St. Jacques sits abandoned now, its windows empty of the warmth of home.  One doesn’t have to work hard to imagine a young girl kneeling on the daybed fitted against the kitchen wall under a harbour side window, staring out into Fortune Bay, watching the coming and going of vessels, waving to passers-by and day-dreaming of what Marystown meant.

Childhood had its hurts as well as its joys.   One morning Janie awoke with a sore throat, a rising temperature which soon grew into a fever, a headache and aches throughout her body.  The dreaded Scarlet Fever had arrived.  Other children in the community had already suffered through the week-long experience.  Doctor Conrad Fitz-Gerald, who lived nearby on the other side of Pittman’s Brook, was summoned. This was just one more hurdle for Janie to get beyond, and get beyond it she did.

The 1930’s were challenging time for families in small communities like St. Jacques, nearby Belleoram and English Harbour West.  The Great Depression was felt by every family and Janie’s was no exception.  Work was scarce thus many young people moved away from their homes in pursuit of employment.  Some of her immediate family and cousins found work on coastal boats at a young age including her brother Bill; others moved to places in Canada to stay with relatives while they looked for jobs.  That expectation became the norm and at the end of the decade at the youthful age of sixteen Janie walked up the gangway to the S. S. Burgeo and booked passage to a job waiting for her at the Woodstock Colonial Inn on the outskirts of St. John’s.

World War II spread a cloud across the south coast of Newfoundland and elsewhere with reports of submarines sightings, the threat of ships being torpedoed and a growing list of young people leaving home, volunteering for service in the Canadian military.   There was evidence of the war effort everywhere with much talk of joining up. Janie decided she too could contribute to the war effort on behalf of Newfoundland and Canada.

In 1942 this determined young woman from St. Jacques travelled to North Sydney in Nova Scotia with the intent of moving to Halifax where she would be joining the military. Arrival in North Sydney meant standing in line in a cordoned off area while immigration officials processed the papers permitting entry into the country.

North Sydney was a special place for Jane whose name took on a new pronunciation of Jean.  There were many relatives living in the town and surrounding area; people who had moved there during and prior to her lifetime.  She was met at the Terminal by her grandmother’s sister Sarah Penney (nee Hickey) who along with her husband Ambrose had immigrated to Canada in 1906. Sadly Ambrose died in 1912 leaving Sarah to raise their children.  It was into the midst of this family that Jean settled after her arrival. In addition to her aunts and uncles Jean had cousins to connect with; the children of her mother’s brother Tom Drake who had left St. Jacques some years earlier.

Jeannie Drake

Jean Drake

Life in North Sydney held a certain appeal to the young woman and brought enough influence to entice her to stay and seek employment.  She found that at the Hamilton Memorial Hospital located on Groat Hill at the top of Convent Street.   It was here she was working when she met and fell madly in love with Donald Ephrem Merritt, known to his friends as Ephrem.  Their union produced six children whom Jean raised as a stay-at-home mom.  Jean’s children were born into a growing community of Newfoundland expatriates which over time included her cousins Bill, Pat, Con and Betty Drake.

Trips home became a regular part of the Merritt family vacation schedule with visits in both summer and winter.  A passage booked to cross the Gulf invariably left Jean with tingles of excitement in anticipation of the journey along the south coast of Newfoundland on one of the stately coastal boats calling into many small coves and inlets along the route.  By the time her children were born, ‘home’ in St. Jacques meant her uncle George whom she grew up with as a sibling and his wife Anna who now were the sole occupants of the family homestead.

Jean’s visit which began this article coincided with a 2012 Come Home Year in St. Jacques.  Some of her children and grandchildren were able to share in the experience of looking back, looking around and feeling what it means to be in her ‘home’. With six children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren Jean can reflect back on her years in St. Jacques, her years in North Sydney, her fifty years of marriage to Ephrem and feel accomplished.  She does this from time-to-time with clarity and confidence.  That shouldn’t suggest she sits around reminiscing all of the time. That would be a major mistake for Jean maintains a vigorous social calendar and loves to travel.  Each year she makes a trip to Halifax for the Royal Tattoo, has visited many Canadian and American cities with particular fondness for Ste.  Anne de Beaupre in Quebec.  At eighty-nine Jean fulfilled a long standing desire to visit Cuba.

Who knows where the resilient spirit of Jean (Janie) Drake will take her as she approaches her ninety-fourth birthday. Wherever she goes, whomever she encounters she leaves in her wake a respect and admiration for her incredible strength, patience, empathy and determination.  Her presence isn’t based upon her size or the boldness of her voice, it emanates from her calm exterior, her knowing smile and the sparks of electricity in her eyes.  You know she enjoys life, people, a good chuckle and that place which shaped the values and beliefs of a young girl ‘who grew up’ in a house on the side of the road overlooking St. Jacques harbour.

Posted by: alexhickey | December 23, 2016

Christmas Time Travel©

Time travel is a wonderful gift to human kind. I don’t mean the type of time travel found in science fiction films where you haul on your boots and walk out the door into a world twenty years into the future.  I’m thinking of that which we unwittingly engage ourselves in at some point in the month of December each year.  It isn’t consciously acted upon or purchased at a kiosk in the shopping mall.  It creeps into your consciousness when you are sitting at the kitchen table and snowflakes drift lazily by the window; when amidst the incessant commercial noise of the radio you hear a familiar comforting chord or melody; when you encounter the smell of freshly baked cookies or the instant you pick up a tree ornament which so ordinary looking to another, brings on a rush of emotion and memories.  That’s the time travel on my mind.

Sometimes it lasts but an instant.  Then there are those occasions when you are carried along on a roller coaster through time tumbling and twirling through the years to a particular Christmas morning, a treasured long lost toy, a warm hug from someone whose name is rarely mentioned anymore, a friend with whom you felt you could share anything, to a place your feet haven’t trodden for years.  Memories flood into consciousness and suddenly the world around you disappears and you are there in that moment savouring the smell of a freshly cut fir tree, tangy citrus, cinnamon and cloves.  Torn multi-coloured paper festooned with little toy drums, decorated trees and Santa Claus heads leave a crisp sound in the air unheard on any other day.  The air of a normally cold room aglow with excitement, anticipation and sheer joy is transformed into a bubble of warmth.

Gone are the feelings of trepidation around whether the gift under the tree is what you really wanted Santa Claus to deliver.  Gone too are the minor conflicts with siblings or parents, the tiredness of being awake for most of the night listening to every aberrant sound and awareness of the cold floor beneath your feet.  No longer is naughty or nice relevant.  At this moment the world has moved on and the sins of all days past are forgiven and forgotten, replaced by something more intangible and amorphous than anything else in our daily lives.

Off to Cut a Christmas Tree [click image to enlarge]

The seven wonders of the world do not include human memories among them yet of all the capacities we share, memory is the one thing which emphatically connects us with our past, with all those whose lives we’ve encountered, with all the places our hearts have travelled and the mosaic of experiences which sit behind the name our families and friends call us.  Though it resides within and is accessible around the clock, the effect of little things which trigger memories at Christmas time seem to be more vivid, more pronounced and more deeply laden with positive emotions for most of us.  Through them we travel across years and generations uncovering long-stored recollections of people, events and places we’ve shared with others in our lifetime.

It is said we carry within us three and sometimes four generations of memories; those engendered by our own lived experiences, those shared with and from our parents lives, and those passed on to us through our grandparents were we fortunate enough to know them.  A fourth comes from storytelling which can reach back centuries in oral cultures.  Through this complex collection we find the key to time travel and even for the briefest, most fleeting passage of a moment we are taken back somewhere familiar and unexpected; somewhere which now can be worn as a warm scarf about one’s neck, a touch through time more special than words can express.

It does tempt me to wonder why this is prevalent as we lead up to Christmas.  Is this what folks mean by the Christmas Spirit?  Is it a thread of consciousness brought on by melancholy or a genuine human capacity to step backward into our own life lived, to indeed travel through time?  For each of us this begs the question of what triggers this and where does such travel take us.  For me it’s back to St. Jacques, the little town which witnessed my birth and which has nurtured growth throughout my life.  Oftentimes the trigger is music.  Hearing Jim Reeves sing a song written by Vaughn Horton back in 1949 evokes rich memories, not of Christmas Cards but of the emotional dimensions of the season, particularly the line “ Yes, I’m always sentimental ’round this time.”.

Then there are the singers and songwriters of our own homeland who have captured the essence of many aspects of what Christmas means to Newfoundlanders wherever they reside in time or place. Songs like Christmas in the Harbour by the Punters, The Mummer’s Song by Simani,  Hello Mom and Dad by A. Frank Willis, A Children’s Winter by Ryan’s Fancy, Christmas Eve in St. John’s by Darcy Broderick, Heading Home for Christmas by The Irish Descendants, and of course I’ll Be Home Christmas Eve written by Ron Hynes and sung here by The Ennis Sisters.

A Children’s Winter by Ryan’s Fancy

I’ll Be Home Christmas Eve

The Mummers Song (Excerpted from CBC’s A Fortune Bay Christmas)


Posted by: alexhickey | November 11, 2016

What is it to Remember? ©

What is it to remember?

What is it we remember on Remembrance Day?

These two questions have dogged me all my life.  As a child in elementary school we drew and coloured brilliant red poppies, taped them to classroom walls, read John McCrae’s, “In Flanders’s Fields” and looked forward to a holiday, even if it did come in the middle of the week!  That was it! Older kids may have drawn tombstones and wooden crosses for I recall seeing them on the walls as well. Beyond that there is little to remember about school experiences associated with Remembrance Day. If we make paper poppies and stick them on walls is that remembering? If it is then what are we remembering beyond how to make paper poppies?

It wasn’t until early adulthood that the kind of remembering I do now began to emerge; after I’d attained a level of knowledge of war and empathy for those people who willingly or unwillingly engaged in such conflict.  That awareness of consciously remembering, deliberately forcing myself to pause and think, to reflect and appreciate took some time to emerge.  My awakening wasn’t triggered by war or conflict but by seeing people wearing blue blazers emblazoned with an embroidered crest of the Royal Canadian Legion.  As I look back now I can see Joe and Romaine Drake coming out of their house on their way to a Legion meeting in Belleoram wearing their impeccable blazers.  I can see my mother positioning a beret on her head as she prepared for a Ladies Auxiliary meeting.  I recall wondering why they were members of the Legion. They hadn’t been to the battlefield.  As far as I knew then there were no war veterans in my community. And therein lay the problem.  The generation that still remembered forgot to share with the next generation how to remember and why it is significant to remember.   I don’t blame them.  They lived in a time when memories of war were beginning to fade, where survivors were few and those who didn’t come back were mere names mentioned when someone ‘s memory was triggered.

Lieutenant Francis Burke 1888-1918

Lieutenant Francis Burke 1888-1918

Remembering became passive, it became more about the symbols and less about the events and people in them.   In the back of the Roman Catholic Church there was a plaque honouring Francis M. Burke who died in World War 1. In the Anglican Church there was a Baptismal Font dedicated to the memory of John Evans, who was also lost during World War One.  No one drew attention to their names or told their stories.  Perhaps it was less about forgetting and more about the passage of time.  I grew to know Jacob (Jip) Fiander and Eric Skinner who had survived WWII.  Jip had served with the Canadian Infantry and Eric with the British Merchant Navy.  Over time I learned the names of men from St. Jacques who sailed dangerous waters around Newfoundland and throughout the Atlantic and how they struggled for recognition.  I also heard derisive comments because someone received a Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA) pension and hadn’t served in the war; supported by the shallow argument that all they did was sail between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and what was the danger in that? Never mind the sinking of the S. S. Caribou in 1942, the HMCS Shawinigan and the HMCS Valleyfield in 1944; all of them off the South Coast.

I drifted into passivity as well, paying little attention, thinking less and less of soldiers, war and service as fewer and fewer people in the community remembered until one year I decided, as a photographer, to document the Legion Parade on Remembrance Day in Belleoram.  On that occasion I kept pace with Alan Jensen and Leo May as they proudly carried their flags.  I climbed on the bridges of houses to get elevated shots and rushed before the marchers to get them as they approached.   Through those images I began to understand why they marched, why they remembered and why I too should remember.  I realized it wasn’t about the event it was about the stories embedded in the faces of those who marched; the stories that still at eighty years of age they couldn’t bring themselves to share; the stories of families at home imagining the worst outcome every day and night; the stories of children who grew up without a mother or father who didn’t return, and those families where the returning soldier shouted and cried in his sleep every night until he died of old age.  I realized it was about the pride in the hearts of those who marched that day; the pride they felt for having done their part; the pride in their fellow comrades who still remembered and who marched alongside them ignoring the rheumatism in their aging joints.  It was about the pride their children and grandchildren felt because they viewed them as heroes despite the reluctance these veterans felt to be ascribed that status.

There were more people marching than watching, a sign of things to come for soon the marchers dwindled, the marches ended, the Legion struggled to survive, eventually folded and is now remembered mostly for having occupied a particular building. Remembrance Ceremonies still occur with local towns assuming a role.  Attempts have been made to re-discover who they were who went off to war during the last century and to keep their names in the lived memories of local residents.

My remembering on this day is for the faces of those who put their lives at risk to fight, to those who supported the men and women who did, to those who assumed greater responsibilities in order to enable others to serve and those who wanted to serve but were unable to do so.   Those of us who haven’t lived through the immediacy of war are challenged to know the urgency, the fear and trepidation, the not knowing.  The best we can do is remember those who did live through such horrific experiences and to ensure others know their stories.

Today I remember the members of my own family whose lives have been touched by war.  My paternal grandfather James Corcoran served with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and saw action in Europe.  His son Jim served in the Canadian Army as a young man.  My Uncle Fred Hickey and my father Alex Hickey worked with the Americans to build  the  Fort McAndrew Base and the Naval Station in Argentia. My grandfather George Hickey served as light keeper on St. Jacques Island during WWII where he maintained vigils watching for enemy vessels, particularly the submarines they listened to late at night when they surfaced to charge their batteries.  My cousin John Hickey served in the Canadian Navy. Another cousin Jason McCarthy is still serving with the Navy.  My brother Paul recently retired from a career in the Canadian Navy after having seen action several times.  And I remember, my nephew Tony Hickey who is currently on a NATO tour in Europe and the Middle East.

Today’s remembrance is of the crews of Canada’s naval ships, the families waiting at home, my family members alive and deceased whose days were touched by what it means to be in conflict and at war. I remember the faces of those people whose lives touched mine in the years I grew up in St. Jacques who carried memories and experiences I now wish I had known. I remember the stories I have been fortunate enough to inherit and those of the descendants of those who served.  I remember how fortunate I’ve been over the years to get to know such men as James Johnson, George Paul, Eric Skinner, Joe Drake, Tim McCarthy and so many others who served in diverse capacities.  I remember the many from my family who made valiant decisions to serve.  I remember the fallen on both sides of conflicts, the anonymous faces in old war photographs, the children whose lives are cut short through atrocities, the victims of opportunists in war zones and I remember the misguided actions of leaders who fail to realize the power of their words and actions and the devastating impact they have outside their limited field of vision.

I remember by never letting myself forget.

Posted by: alexhickey | October 4, 2016

Volunteering at the South Coast Arts Festival 2016 ©

A volunteer is a person who actively takes on a task or responsibility on his or her own accord without pay. (Webster’s Dictionary)

South Coast Arts Festival 2016

South Coast Arts Festival 2016

Once a year the population of my hometown swells to ten times its normal size and more.  St. Jacques is one of six communities which comprise the town of St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove whose total population in the 2006 census was 669 people.  St. Jacques itself has approximately 100 year-round residents. During the second week of August the place is buzzing with visitors as final preparations get underway for the annual South Coast Arts Festival.

You can feel the excitement, the anticipation.  There are elements of celebration and rejoicing as former residents return and are welcomed by those awaiting their arrival. They bring with them family members and friends, first-time visitors and seasoned festival goers.  Traffic along the main street through the community increases as each day passes.  There are many more people walking through town, stopping in at the local stores, visiting cemeteries, hiking the hillsides and shoreline.  There are even lineups at the corner gas pump.

These things aren’t limited to St. Jacques.  You can feel and see them in English Harbour West, Mose Ambrose, Boxey, Coomb’s Cove and Wreck Cove.  It’s there in Belleoram and Pool’s Cove, and to some extent in Harbour Breton, Hermitage and Baie D’Espoir.  In fact the entire Connaigre Peninsula feels it.

Plans are made in all of these communities to be in St. Jacques for the Festival weekend.  B & B’s have been booked since last year.  Motor homes and travel trailers begin arriving around mid-week.  The Festival site goes through its final round of readiness followed by a flurry of activity as final measures are carried out.  The grass is cut and trimmed, minor repairs carried out on the stage, washrooms, fences, buildings, water supply and parking lots. Flags are raised, pennants strung, paint touched up, washroom facilities cleaned meticulously and all tested to be flushing as they should.  Food concession groups gather to check out the facilities they’ll be using throughout the weekend and get their stores in order.

The sound crew arrives in a massive transport truck and like a well-oiled machine hundreds of components are assembled, checked and re-checked until the sound man feels all is ready for someone to walk on stage and strike the first chord.

Facebook and other social media have been sharing up to date information several times daily prompting followers to post comments, stories, photographs and videos of previous festivals.

Behind the scenes planning has been underway for months.  Organizers have been going over details, making adjustments, reviewing the previous festival for lessons learned and assigning responsibilities for 2016.  Performers have to be contacted to confirm participation then contacted again as the dates approach.  Performance schedules have to be developed in consultation with performers in order to accommodate personal commitments throughout the weekend.  It’s a process of consultation and give and take.  Plaques for any deceased performers have to be designed and ordered, tributes written, publicity planned, bar services organized with bar tenders hired and scheduled along with all supplies ordered.

The entrance gate workers are scheduled, security arranged and scheduled, programs copied and distributed, perimeter lighting checked and repaired if necessary, consumable supplies ordered and inventoried, along with a hundred other details.  Then, on Friday evening at 8:00 when the first performer steps up to the microphone the party begins on the Festival Field!

This year over a thousand people came through our gates, filled our seats, crowded together in pockets on the field and in the beer garden to make this year’s Festival one of the best ever!  Behind that success is a group of dedicated volunteers who give freely of their time and talent to bring the event to the field each year.  These volunteers are on our stage tirelessly performing from Friday evening to Sunday night. They are providing security, monitoring the crowds, greeting visitors, managing the stage, overseeing hired staff who are serving the bar, cleaning the washrooms and selling refreshment tickets.

You will see them at the partnership events as well.  On the night before the music weekend gets underway the Nickel Independent Film Festival Roadshow takes place in the St. Jacques Community Centre.  On the second day of the Festival a 5K and 10K walk/run is hosted with the St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove Recreation Committee – all run by volunteers.

Over 13.3 million people volunteer in this country.  They volunteer their time because they want to support their community. In 2010, almost all (93%) volunteers said that making a contribution to the community was a key motivating factor in their decision. Slightly more than three-quarters (78%) said they wanted to make good use of their skills and experiences; over one-half (59%) said that they had been personally affected by the cause the organization represented or supported. (StatsCan)

These statistics are true for those who make the South Coast Arts Festival a success.  I have been volunteering at this event for its entire life as have some others. It is sometimes risky to identify a few names when so many contribute; however, there was a core group this year who deserve particular attention.  These are Conrad Williams, Cyril Brown, Mark Courtney, and Dwight Williams. Their contributions were critical. They were there every day for every session. Leadership at its best is transparent and we see superb leadership in the quiet and unassuming ways these gentlemen deployed their skills and capacities throughout the entire weekend.

Hats off to all of the volunteers! If you haven’t been a volunteer at the event or would like to re-engage with it, this is your year to do so. As the Festival enters its 32nd year perhaps it’s time to put your name forward to become a part of this rewarding event.

South Coast Arts Festival Site

South Coast Arts Festival Site

Posted by: alexhickey | July 24, 2016

Summer Ritual in St. Jacques ©

Summer in St. Jacques has its rituals like most communities. Children seek out shallow pools of warm water in the Barachoix within which to swim, socialize, and cavort in ways childhood naivety and freedom allows.  Lawnmowers break out of their winter shelters and drag their owners through fields of grass that a few generations ago never reached such heights. Grazing sheep and an occasional cow or goat worked together to maintain manicured lawns, albeit a little more fragrant than most noses are now accustomed to.  Hopscotch patterns appear on the streets in many of the same locations they appeared prior to their paving; then scratched in the gravel with a sturdy stick.  Boat owners spend more leisure time on the expansive harbour though the familiar yellow flat-bottomed dories have all disappeared.  The sound of a one stroke Acadia engine echoing off the hillsides in early morning is experienced now only in dreams of the oldest citizens.

In recent years another ritual has emerged. Since the moratorium on the cod fishery non-fishing residents have little access to fresh fish until July when the recreational fishery comes around.  At one point the limited privilege to venture out onto Fortune Bay in pursuit of cod was called the ‘food fishery’ and for some inexplicable reason that moniker has stuck.  Put simply, if a family were to rely on the meagre catches of cod given the severe restrictions enforced by the Canadian government that family would soon die from starvation.  That being said, when the opportunity to legally set out upon the Bay arrives, its significance cannot be underestimated.  When the southerly winds permit there is little in summer life in St. Jacques more precious or more grounding than to slip away from the wharf and set a course for the fishing grounds.

Historically the best locations for catching cod on a handline lie east of St. Jacques Island.  And not just anywhere east of the island.  The water is devil-deep out there so knowing the marks is critical to success.  ‘Knowing the marks’ is knowing where the shoals are located for it is on these shoals the cod congregate. Marks are triangulated by locations on the shoreline.  For example, if you keep Boxey Point open between the two sections of the Island, Eastern Point aligned with ‘the scrape’ on the western side of St. Jacques Harbour and Sandy Point on the Island touching a particular promontory at the entrance to the Harbour you will locate yourself on St. Jacques Shoal where the most shallow area is approximately two hundred feet deep.

Cut your motor, lower the handline with its single hook over the side and then saw away until the line suddenly becomes taut and the excitement begins. It’s not that cod are fierce fighting fish when on the hook.  Unlike a salmon if you attempt to play the fish in all likelihood you will lose it.   A codfish is more content to swim in the direction it is being pulled. Therefore hauling the line in hand-over-hand, permitting it to gather on the bottom of the boat around ones feet, must be carried out with a consistent pattern else it come off the hook.  And when it does come off the hook during its ill-fated journey to the surface it is quite evident for all resistance disappears and a feeling of disappointment travels from the line to one’s heart.  Like every form of fishing it is always the biggest ones which get away.

The exhilaration of hauling back two hundred feet of line, salty water splashing against pant legs culminates when the blackish water is broken by the sudden appearance of a whitish flicker about twenty feet down.  Within a few seconds the prize is hoisted out of the water, held momentarily to admire, then taken off the hook and stored away out of the sunlight. Each person in the boat may catch five each up to a limit of fifteen per boat per day that the season is open.  It isn’t the quantity or even the quality of the catch that resonates with this newly-acquired summer ritual. That has more to do with a line that runs through time rather than the one which runs to the bottom.

As a child I frequently accompanied my grandfather to this shoal and another commonly called the ‘Terfer’ Shoal or in some articulation, the ‘Derfer’ Shoal.  Either way you say it, the name derives from “Thoroughfare” Shoal which is located between the Island and the land, a body of water approximately a kilometer wide.  Most of the time my task was to ‘keep up’ which meant putting oars in the water, keeping the dory headed into the wind and rowing to maintain your position over the shoal.  If one didn’t ‘keep up’ good enough the dory would drift off the shoal into deeper water where fewer cod would be found. There were also those occasions when he handed me the jigger while he broke out his thermos and lunch box for a mid-morning snack usually consisting of home-made bread lathered with butter and molasses accompanied by raisin tea buns. My first taste of strong tea was on St. Jacques Shoal served across the engine house with the smell of fish all around.  It was a special day when in the middle of the ‘mug-up’ my jigger line nearly jumped out of my hand as a determined codfish bit firmly on the feathered bait.

To this day the act of lowering a line over the side brings to mind those experiences and also provokes thoughts of those generations of men and women who toiled from before dawn to dusk repeatedly hauling one-fish-at-a-time over the gunnels in a subsistence way of life.

Days before John Cabot purportedly lowered baskets over the side of his vessel to haul up cod in abundance Indigenous peoples knew of their value as did the Basque fishermen who hailed from across the Atlantic.  In the wake of Cabot, Northern Europeans set their sights on this valuable commodity which led to sporadic settlement patterns, particularly along the south coast and Fortune Bay.  We know that when Captain James Cook charted Fortune Bay in 1765 there were families living in St. Jacques. After that the population ebbed and flowed until the early 1800’s when the community took on fervent growth.  This was when codfish became a bigger commercial commodity led by merchants and buyers from other countries.  Still, fishermen toiled to haul these fish into their small boats and process their catch onshore.

For my grandfather and generations before him their sole method of catching fish was a line with a single weighted hook at the end threaded through a piece of herring, a capelin or whatever ‘bait fish’ was in season to attract  the cod as the line was pulled up and let down within a few feet of the ocean bottom.  He also used a ­­­lead jigger with opposing hooks embedded in it known to us as a ‘stunner’.  These were the staple tools for many open-boat fishermen.  Every fishing stage held a two-sided mould shaped like a small fish into which molten lead was poured to set the hooks.  Once cooled the mould was opened, the rough edged filed and readied for use.  As a child it was magical to observe the process.  Once poured the anticipation in waiting for cooling before seeing the final form was an exciting event in  days of a child; perhaps my first exposure to the manufacturing process.

Some of these fishermen also used nets, trawls and seines at various times of the year.  Prior to mechanical assisted hauling these too were hauled over the ‘gunnels’ to harvest their catch. Whatever means they used required attendance upon the sea in open boats which for generations were propelled by either rowing or sailing.

Standing, feet braced, and sawing back and forth on the line brings on muscle memories, cultural memories and familial memories of men in early mornings their faces, weathered by sun and salt, gazing at the horizon  or friends in another dory not far away. The act demands resonance with these people who populated our town and cemetery.  It calls forth their stalwart determination to succeed, their stubbornness against the odds of unforgiving seas and the physical challenges they must have faced as they plied their chosen trade through all seasons.  One can imagine wary and weary eyes monitoring the accumulation of fish in their dories, assessing the winds, the tides and the time required to reach shore for all factors came to bear with nothing more than human strength to propel them homeward.

Though not something to be dwelling on when out in the middle of Fortune Bay in an open boat, those who slipped below the waves never to be heard from again also come to mind. Dories loaded too low in the water were constantly in danger of being swamped when a single mistake or a rogue wave came over the side.  Moving about in a dory in heavy seas wearing cumbersome oilskins walking on wet slick surfaces often proffered the same outcome.  Then there is the fog, the wall of greyness which silently creeps in over the bay and eliminates visual referents.  Prior to the late nineteen twenties there was no foghorn on St. Jacques Island to guide them safely back to harbour. A compass and experience then became the tools for survival and sometimes they weren’t enough.

It would be foolhardy to suggest the experience now of hand lining for cod has significant resemblance to that of forbearers.   Vessel construction has changed, seaworthiness has improved, navigation equipment such a GPS is the norm, cell phones keep us in touch, opportunities to catch cod are limited by governments, and catch limits are imposed per person, per boat, per day.  Those of us not full-time fishermen of St. Jacques engage in the practice recreationally thereby availing of reasonable hours to fish. Our experiences are not driven by economic necessity thus there is no necessity to brave adverse conditions to fish.

Yet, the experience holds a transfixing power, an echo across time.  There are feelings beyond words which enter one’s mind and body on such occasions. Are they spiritual; are they sentiment; are they poetic?  Are they all of these? I just know they are;  and for a few weeks each summer I can feel the ocean rolling beneath my feet, smell the pungency of my ocean, lick salt spray from my lips, reflect and feel as one with my surroundings as I saw the line back and forth across the gunwale.

Cod Fishing St. Jacques Shoal July 2016

Cod Fishing St. Jacques Shoal July 2016

Posted by: alexhickey | July 1, 2016

Choosing a Lens on Newfoundland in the Great War ©

National War Memorial of Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's

National War Memorial of Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John’s (Wikipedia)

On this one hundredth anniversary of an event which transformed the world and Newfoundland along with it, it is important to keep in perspective the things we say and do.  There is a tendency among some to define the Great War of 1914-18 exclusively through the lens of the Newfoundland Regiment, particularly the first five hundred men who volunteered and their blue puttees. On top of that there is also a tendency to reduce the total Great War effort of Newfoundland and Labradorians to a single day, a single battle on July 1st, 1916.

Beaumont-Hamel, as part of the first day of the Somme Offensive, which lasted for almost five months, was a tragedy in every respect for British forces, of which the Newfoundland Regiment was a part.  It was a tragedy of communications, leadership, vision, of misguided organization and a thorough lack of respect for human life by the upper military ranks. It was particularly tragic for the Newfoundland Regiment which was nearly wiped out; the single biggest loss of human life in one day in our history.  This event was a defining moment in our history and we should remember those who bravely stepped into the line of fire and were slaughtered that day.

Yet, there is more to the role of the Newfoundland Regiment in the Great War which we must also never forget. In many books there is a glorification of those who died; but what of those who didn’t die? What of those Regiment members who weren’t on that battlefield that day? What of the survivors of that battle?  Was their effort any less on that day? Was their heroism somewhat reduced because they survived the massacre? We must be cautious that we don’t allow our greatest loss on the battlefield to define our collective war effort and our collective memory.

There were many more battles, many where the Newfoundland Regiment led or contributed greatly to victory.  Battles like Monchy-le-Proux, Cambrai, Gueudecourt, etc.; battles where soldiers from our many Newfoundland and Labrador outports gave their lives, earned medals and commendations for their bravery.

And, there was more to the war effort than the Regiment. There were the Royal Naval Reserves and the Forestry Corp; there were those who served with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, and those who served with United States Forces and those of other countries.  All of these men and women served Newfoundland and the “Mother Country”.  Many of them died in far-off places like Egypt and Gallipoli; torpedoed on the ocean, lying in hospitals, during training and elsewhere. Their sacrifices were no less.

Those who survived the Great War, however and wherever they served, suffered injuries physical and mental, grieved for fallen comrades, lost limbs, memories and some even lost their minds. They too must be remembered; they who came home, the ‘lucky ones’ who were condemned to recall and remember the horrors of what they’d seen and experienced until death gave them reprieve. Many of them suffered in silence without help, without support.  Many were forced to fight again for assistance from a government which had begged, cajoled and shamed them into volunteering in the first place.  We must remember them as well.

In our haste to remember, to commemorate, we must also not forget that soldiers came from all over the Dominion of Newfoundland.  Much is spoken and written of the men and women who enlisted from the families of politicians, merchants and fraternities or well-known city schools in the capital city.  Yes, their efforts were important and should be held up to our eyes today. But in doing so let’s remember that their service was no greater than those who came from communities all around our fair Dominion.  There is a tendency to glorify family names as though the young men and women born into those names held more value than others of other parentage. In the end, on the battlefield, in the forests, the hospitals, they are all soldiers with one life to live, one life to give; all with families, lovers, friends at home.

Let’s not forget the impact of losing a half dozen young men from a small community had on the future of that community. As we embark on the 100th commemoration let’s remember all who came forth and laid their lives on the line; let’s remember the fallen; let’s remember the survivors; let’s remember the injured; let’s remember the families whose children were taken away from home, and let’s remember those parents who died while their children were away fighting in a foreign land.

Let’s remember that for Newfoundland this war was bigger than one place, bigger than those who died or served; bigger than any single day or any single battle.  For if we don’t, we perpetuate the myths and misinformation to another generation thereby making the whole story of Newfoundland’s role in the Great War even more challenging to tell.

In my hometown of St. Jacques we must remember those people who came forward when their country called. We need to remember:

Lieutenant Frank Burke,

Lance Corporal Edgar Skinner,

Lance Corporal Leonard Burke,

Naval Reservist William Skinner,

Sargent Sam Farrell,

Private Anthony Burke,

Private Albert Burke,

Infantryman James Whalen,

Infantryman Jack Pauls,

Private Charles Lee,

Infantryman Reg Fitz-Gerald, and

Sailor John Evans.

These are but the people I have been able to identify who served from St. Jacques.  It is highly likely there were others.  Let’s remember their families and the sacrifices they made during the war; the women who knitted socks, hats and mittens; raised funds to purchase equipment and who wrote letters to soldiers.  Let’s remember the mothers and fathers who waited weeks and months for news from the war, who spent endless nights not knowing.

The twelve men I have been able to identify from St. Jacques all returned.  Some, like Leonard Burke came home injured.  How many of them suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) we will never know. Most would not talk of their experiences in their lifetime.  For some the war didn’t end when they returned home; they re-lived it every night in their dreams for the rest of their lives. Others like Edgar Skinner, Anthony Burke and Sam Farrell volunteered for service again at the outbreak of WW 2.

Finally let us never forget those people who tried their best to comfort the troubled minds of soldiers who so willingly or reluctantly left the warmth and security of their homes to travel around the world to fight in places many of them had never heard of before, and would never forget.  It is quite appropriate to have the ‘forget-me-not’ as the official flower of remembrance of those who served in the Great War.  Some suggest the common field flower which so delicately presents itself throughout the island of Newfoundland came here from Europe following the war, perhaps in the garments of returning soldiers.  That may have happened, yet it is likely the flower bloomed in the backyards of families long before the Great War arrived and the phrase ‘forget-me-not’ fell from the lips of teenage lovers and wives throughout the coves and crannies of Newfoundland and Labrador as their loved ones set off to fight for ‘king and country.

Today, as we contemplate the sacrifices made by all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in the Great War, let’s not only remember those who died but all of those who survived to help build this great place of ours and as many poets have lamented let’s also remember those who were never born. Let us not forget all of the human sacrifices that occurred during those four years between 1914 and 1918, a war that was not expected to last beyond Christmas in the year it broke out.

Wear a ‘Forget-Forget-Me-Not Pin Crafted by Florence Morgan-Thornme-Not’ proudly and during all of the events and discussion around this 100th commemoration.  Remember ALL who sacrificed between 1914 and 1918 and the years which followed all the way down through time to today.

The links below provide more information about Newfoundland and Labrador’s contribution to the Great War.  Take time to explore this momentous event in the cultural, emotional, social and spiritual heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Royal Newfoundland Regiment Web Site where you can find information about the various battles fought by the Regiment in WW1

Royal Newfoundland Regiment War Diary – a document which recorded the day-to-day activities of the Regiment from the first to the last day of the war. This isn’t a story about the war but a document that tells quite a story.

Newfoundland in the First World War – a thorough and detailed site which provided information and documentation of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, the Forestry Corp, the Naval Reserves and the Regiment.

O’Brien, Patricia Ruth (1981) The Newfoundland Patriotic Association: the administration of the war effort, 1914-1918. Masters thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland. This thesis research provides a look at the role of the Newfoundland Patriotic Association in recruitment during the war.


Posted by: alexhickey | May 1, 2016

Looking at a Photograph ©

Group Portrait by John Staples c.1900

Group Portrait by John Staples c.1900

Conducting research is occasionally like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  You feel confident there is a needle in there but to find it means examining every piece of hay surrounding it until finally your eyes see what you’ve been looking for.  And, sometimes, even though you know it’s there you never come across it. Then, there are times you find something that you know is significant but there is absolutely no contextual information to make sense of it.

Like all communities there is a rich and complex social, cultural and historical heritage to St. Jacques.  No one person has a complete record of that heritage and like most communities there has never been any concerted effort to create an archive of materials or to record the heritage.  That leaves any of us interested in our past to search through whatever we can that has a connection to the community.  It means talking to people, asking questions in an attempt to put diverse bits of information together to create a reasonable picture of an event or person.

A while ago a friend was generous to pass on to me a collection of photographs taken by John Staples, a photographer who worked in St. Jacques around the 1900’s and later. Among them was a group photo taken outdoors beside a body of water.  Neither he nor I know who is in the picture.  This is where you come in.

Photographs are full of information and we can learn a lot from them.  This photograph represents something real that took place in a particular moment. At the same time, it is something created by the photographer.  A photographic image is never completely neutral and devoid of information.  It contains decisions about how the people were posed, where they were posed and how they are positioned within the image, as well as information about the time in which the photograph was created. However, it isn’t a one way street. When we look at the photograph we take an active role in interpreting it.  We are influenced by our culture, values and beliefs which affect how we view and interpret the image.  Whenever we take time to look at a photograph, we engage in a process of decoding it, that is looking for information contained within it.

How would you decode this photograph?  Take a few minutes to read through the process outlined below then go back to the photograph and apply what you have learned.  If you are able to draw any conclusions or offer any insight into who is in this photo and any information surrounding it please post at the end of the page.

There are questions to ask and conclusions to draw.  A standard method is to first describe the image, then attempt to analyze it before placing interpretation on it and forming conclusions.

Describe the Image

  • What are the essential things you see in the photograph?
  • Does the photograph have a title?
  • Who is the photographer who took the picture?
  • When and where was the photograph taken?
  • Describe the subject matter. Are there people in the photograph? Adults or children? Indoors or outdoors? Does it show the country or the community?
  • How has the photographer arranged the subject(s) in the image?

Analyze the Image
A photographer makes decisions when composing a photograph; decisions about when, where, time of day, sometimes day of week, background, foreground, how much of the environment is included and the arrangement of people or objects in the image. Look at some of these decisions to see if there are any clues in the photo?   Look at the clothes they are wearing? What can you tell from what they are wearing? How old do these people appear to be? What might the relationships be between the people? Are there clues in their facial expressions and body language which might suggest something about them?  What is in the background? Is there anything recognizable that may provide a clue? Can you tell anything about overall mood or feeling of the image and the people in it?

Interpreting the Photograph
This is the point where you draw conclusions about the photograph.  Is it possible to say what is happening in the photograph? What was the intent of the subjects and the photographer in creating this picture? Why was it taken? Why was it taken at this location? Why did the photographer arrange the people in this way?  What is left out of the photo? Is there anything that can tell us the time period when the photo was taken? Does the photo have different meaning to you as a viewer now compared with what it might have meant to those in the photograph when it was taken?  Why would this group of people want to be photographed together?  What are their relationships?

Evaluating the Photograph
You are now at the final stage of decoding the photo. What does this image make you think?  What is the significance of the image? Has its significance changed over time?  Is it a useful piece of information for research purposes?  Does it tell us anything about St. Jacques? Is it really set in St. Jacques? What does it add to our knowledge of the history of the community?

Share your discoveries and conclusions.  Help me make sense of this photograph.

Posted by: alexhickey | March 3, 2016

The S.S. Portia ©

Coastal Boats or “Steamers” hold a fond place in the hearts of St. Jacques residents whose memories reach back to the early eighties and beyond. Fond recollections of the ships whistle as it rounded the point, trips taken or the rush wharf-ward to welcome each visit, are widely recalled. Through the eyes of a child these ships were of mammoth proportions and stories of their heroics intrigued young minds. So much so that the mere mention of a ships name evokes stirring memories. There was one such vessel which travelled with me into adulthood and only recently was I able to piece together the details of its St. Jacques connection.

Beginning in 1851 when Newfoundland assumed control over its postal service, a marine shipping service took root along the coasts of the island and Labrador which not only shaped the course of history along those coasts but also the lives of generations.

Initially the vessels were wooden schooners hired by government to carry mail within regions such as Placentia and Fortune Bays. Their itineraries saw them travelling to and from designated ports dropping off and picking up mail. Not all communities had harbours accessible to schooners nor did all communities have wharves where they could dock in those days. Consequently there were key delivery points from which mail was further delivered overland to other communities. Some of these mail routes later became roads between communities while others retained their status as trails and are still known today.

A decade later the government, in response to a combination of need and demand, decided to implement a regular steamer service which would also carry passengers. The first of these was the Victoria, followed by the Ariel, the Leopard and the Tiger, all of which provided service in various parts of the country. Throughout the next century ships with names that include the Conscript, Volunteer, Alert, Hump, Home, Bruce, Sagona, Fogota, Clyde, Argyle, Ethie, Fife, Lintrose, Meigle, Dundee, Prospero and the Virginia Lake served along the extensive Newfoundland coastline.

Along the south coast more familiar names include the Northern Ranger, Glencoe, Kyle, Burgeo, Nonia, Springdale, Bonavista, Bar Haven, Baccalieu, Malakoff, Hopedale, Petite Forte and Taverner. In later years the smaller and faster Marine Runner, Marine Courier and Marine Sprinter offered the service as road networks reduced the need for larger vessels to provide coastal transportation and shipping.

One steamer, now almost forgotten in terms of its service along the south coast is the S.S. Portia named after Portia the heroine of William Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, whose beauty was matched only by her intelligence. The Portia has a particular connection with St. Jacques, one which occurred on the night of March 18th, 1921 during a severe and blinding snow storm.

steamship portia

S.S. Portia

Prior to the outbreak of World War 1 The S. S. Portia was assigned to what was known as the “Western Route” and called on the following places as it made its way along the southern coast of Newfoundland: Cape Broyle, Ferryland, Fermeuse, Trepassey, St. Mary’s, Salmonier, Placentia, Marystown, Burin, St. Lawrence, Lamaline, Fortune, Grand Bank, Belleoram, St. Jacques, Harbour Breton, Pass Island, Hermitage, Gaultois, Pushthrough, Richard’s Harbour, Rencontre West, Francois, Cape La Hune, Ramea, Burgeo, Rose Blanche, Channel, Bay of Islands and Bonne Bay. The S. S. Portia was a sister ship to the S.S. Prospero which serviced the “Northern Route.”

This Portia wasn’t the first ship by that name to ply Newfoundland waters. The first Portia provided service between St. John’s, Halifax and New York City for fifteen years between 1884 and 1889, the year it was wrecked on the shore outside of Halifax. Following the wreck the Portia was replaced by a new vessel, the Sylvia, on that run.

The second steam ship, the S. S. Portia under discussion here, was built by the firm of Murdoch and Murry in Glasgow, Scotland and launched on July 02, 1904. The ship was owned by C.T. Bowring & Co Ltd, of Liverpool until 1912 when its ownership was transferred to Bowring Bros Ltd. Of St. John’s. Bowring & Co were hired by the Newfoundland government to deploy the S. S. Portia as part of its coastal service.

When Bowring’s’ subsidized coastal steamer contract expired in 1923, ownership of the Portia was assumed by the Newfoundland government as part of the Newfoundland Railway. It continued to serve coastal residents until it was retired in 1940. The Portia and Sagona were both retired that year and replaced by the Burgeo and Baccalieu. In 1941 the Portia was sold to Bowater’s Newfoundland Pulp & Paper Mills, whose head office was in St. John’s. In 1942 the Portia was again sold, this tie to N.D. Allen of Panama where it remained until 1945 when its ownership moved to Manuel Velliantis, also of Panama. In 1946 Kapotis & Baits of Alexandria, Egypt became the Portia’s new owners. This didn’t last long for she was destroyed in a fire on October 27th, 1946.

The luxurious Portia could accommodate 150 passengers. The vessel became quite well known in coastal Newfoundland. Captain Abram Kean brought the vessel from Scotland on its maiden voyage and was the ship’s master for most of the next 15 years during which it served on both the “Northern Route” and the “Southern Route”. Wesley Kean, J.W. Kean, Thomas Connors and Thomas Pierre Fitzpatrick all commanded the steamer.
The Newfoundland Quarterly, America, History and Life, Vol. 4-6, June 1904 carried a short article which described the Portia:

“ Her lines are beautiful and graceful, and she has proved herself an excellent sea boat … The ship accommodates sixty first class passengers and ninety second class passengers. Her staterooms are most comfortable, even luxuriously furnished throughout, and she is fitted with all of the modern improvements of a first class British passenger ship. She steams at an average of ten knots, but she made twelve and a half knots on her trial trip. She has triple expansion engines and her dimensions are: – length, 200 feet; breadth, 30 feet; depth, 15 feet 3 inches; gross tonnage, 978, net 599; speed 12 ½ knots. Besides being luxurious in all her appointments, her salon, music rooms, smoking rooms, etc., being furnished with mahogany, upholstered with plush, she is also comfortably heated throughout by steam. She is lit by electricity and has a powerful search light as well as electric masthead and port and starboard lights, and when all her lights are going as she enters a harbour after nightfall, she presents a most brilliant spectacle. All the berths on the ship are fitted with life vests of the very best kind and everything that science can suggest or money can purchase is supplied for passenger safety and comfort. Added to this the table is bountifully supplied with good wholesome food, carefully prepared and daintily served. Is it any wonder then that the Portia and her sister ship the Prospero have bounded into public favour, and are likely, for years to come, to be patronized by the travelling public?” (Newfoundland Quarterly, 1904)

captain tom connors on deck of the ss portia

Capt. Tom Connors on the S.S. Portia

This was the elegantly described vessel which, on its regular trip along the south coast in March 1921, encountered what was reported to be a severe blizzard upon entering Fortune Bay. This was likely a Nor’easter which had developed along the eastern seaboard of continental North America and steered northeast to Newfoundland by the jet stream. Typically this type of storm is preceded by a slow-moving high pressure area which parks itself over Newfoundland. This condition captures cool moist air which the nor’easter bring onshore in the form of high winds and blowing snow resulting in a winter storm which can lash away at the south coast of the island for several days without break.

Under the circumstances the Portia was forced to make a run for St. Jacques where greater shelter and safety beckoned. Grand Bank, because of its inadequate harbour, could not offer shelter from the heavy southeast winds and driving snow. Captain Tom Connors, a veteran sailor who was no stranger to sea and wind conditions on the south coast, charted a course in a north-north-easterly direction for the entrance to St. Jacques Harbour.
It was reported that the snow fell with such intensity that the light on St. Jacques Island, normally visible out the bay as far as Garnish was not visible first or last. Not a glimmer could be seen from the beacon mariners had come to rely on in the thirteen years since its installation. As the ship approached her sheltered destination those on the Bridge peered fruitlessly through the blinding wall of snow and darkness for any familiar feature. Though they knew their charts and trusted their compass, fiercely buffeting winds left the crew with an uneasiness that would only dissipate once they lay at anchor or tied to a wharf in St. Jacques.

It is highly likely that someone on the bridge had been keeping an eye clock-ward thinking they would soon be nearing shelter when a shudder passed from stem to stern, the howling winds out-classed by an even more sinister sound of metal scraping the ocean bottom. Searchlights were hastily pointed downward as the ship came to a stop, loose objects chaotically tumbling and flying with the impact. Crashing waves sent spumes of spray through the intense beams of light now scanning the near invisible shoreline.

The Portia had run aground at 5:30 am on Friday morning, March 18th. The first report received by the Minister of Shipping’s Department said that the S. S Portia had gone ashore about one and a half miles west of St. Jacques during a snow and wind storm early that morning. The report stated that the steamer was undamaged and not leaking. It further stated that it was expected she would float off at high tide. The S. S Senef, which was tied up at Belleoram, was then ordered to proceed to the location of the Portia to provide assistance. The Evening Telegram of St John’s reported in their afternoon paper that a severe blizzard had thrown Newfoundland shipping and railroad traffic in to confusion because of its severity. It noted that the “coastal steamer Portia was driven ashore at St. Jacques, Fortune Bay, and is in a dangerous position. She is jettisoning her cargo tonight and the steamer Senef has gone to her assistance.” (Evening Telegram, March 18th 1921)

It was this jettisoning of cargo that led me to the event. As a child my grandmother told me a story of how my great-grandfather had secured a full barrel of flour from the ocean when a steamer ran aground outside the harbour in a winter storm. I remember asking why the flour didn’t get wet while it was in the water and she explained how it only got wet on the outside and that prevented the water from going any farther. She added that other people from the community were also successful in securing a variety of merchandise and food supplies. Grandmother went on to tell me that the steamer’s name was Portia.

Many times during the ensuing decades I wondered about the story and I wondered about the Portia. As an adult I asked my parents, uncles and aunts as well as other elderly people about the story but none remembered any details of it. With no evidence of a wrecked vessel on the coastline west of St. Jacques harbour and no witness to corroborate the story I had just about concluded it was nothing more than a story to intrigue a small child’s curious imagination.

A couple of years ago I began thinking about the story again. This time I took a research approach. I reasoned that grandmother must have either heard the story from my great grandparents or had witnessed it during her earliest days in St. Jacques after marrying my grandfather in 1924. Since none of her children knew the story I concluded it happened before they were born. Thus, my search began. I found out that the Portia was introduced to coastal service in 1904. That gave me a twenty year window through which to narrow my focus. Research into coastal boat schedules placed the Portia on the north and east coast during her first years of service which further narrowed the window. From there it simply became a day-by-day review of newspapers from that time focusing on the winter months. It was through this I found out my grandmother had been sharing with me oral history in the best way that such histories are told – in story form.

The Portia was specially fitted in the bow to contend with ice. She was frequently called upon to break ice in harbours and channels as she made her way along the coast. This was particularly true in the Bay of Islands, especially in Corner Brook, one of her furthermost port of call on the west coast. This reinforcement worked to her advantage on that day in Fortune Bay.

Newspaper reports on March 21st spoke of the storm and efforts to re-float the Portia. This was successfully done Monday morning with assistance from the S.S. Senef and the S.S. Daisy who secured cables to the Portia and with the buoyancy of a rising tide coupled with the offloading of cargo, tugged her back to a floating position. The Portia then proceeded to the wharf in St. Jacques under her own steam. Initial assessments showed there were no punctures or serious damage to the hull. However, in the interest of safety it was decided the trip westward would be cancelled and the Portia would return to St. John’s to go on dry dock to carry out whatever repairs were necessary. The New York Times, March 21, reported that “The mail steamer Portia was re-floated this morning at high tide and is coming on to St. John’s under her own steam, after being on the rocks at the entrance to the harbour of St. Jacques on the coast of Newfoundland for the better part of two days.” Captain Connors took the ship to St. John’s arriving there at 1:30 on Thursday of that week.

In St John’s a diver by the name of Squires was sent down to examine the hull of the Portia to determine whether or not she needed to go on dry dock. He carried out a detailed inspection and concluded the ship was sound and would not need any repairs.

The reports of the accident place the Portia aground either a mile and a half west of the entrance to St. Jacques Harbour or immediately outside of the Harbour. It seems unlikely to me that the experienced Captain Connors would miscalculate a course he had completed many times before by a mile and a half despite the weather. The shoreline at that distance from St. Jacques Harbour is fairly rugged in areas with underwater crags which could readily damage a hull. On the other hand, there is a gravel beach just west of the harbour entrance where, had the Portia struck there, it is likely she wouldn’t have suffered much damage. Since the Portia didn’t suffer any serious damage from the grounding this seems most likely. An error of a hundred feet during a blinding snow storm is understandable.

The Portia held a special place in the hearts of people along the south coast and even though they were inconvenienced by the accident they remained appreciative of the service the ship provided as their only transportation highway. Though the names of vessels changed with the years that mode of transportation helped foster social identity, commerce, communication and economic development. Perhaps most of all it contributed to storytelling and the sharing of culture among a people who measured their lives by the visits of coastal boats.

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