Published Wednesday May 23rd, 2007
Appeared on page A1
Maliseet Canoe Connects New Brunswick and Ireland
A majestic birch-bark canoe has glided its way back to Canada after nearly 200 years, helping to tell not only the story of aboriginal ingenuity but also of a Schindler-like hero of the Irish famine.
The watercraft could be the oldest of its kind in the world, the work of Maliseet craftsmen living near Fredericton in the early days of the British colony.
Because it was hung high above a damp stairwell in the Irish university’s museum for so many years, the birch bark, cedar ribs and spruce roots that keep it together remained moist and intact. Up close, you can still see the delicate lines of the birch tree’s bark. Others of its vintage would have disintegrated long ago.
Dr. Kathryn Moore, a geologist from Ireland’s national university, made it her personal mission over the past several years to piece together the life of the vessel spanning centuries. She sought out head conservator Paul Lauzon from the Canadian museum to check out the canoe in 2003, and under his guidance it was brought back to Canada early this year.
The stories that have sprung up from the canoe are the stuff of good historical TV dramas.
The Maliseet built the unusually long canoe in the early 1820s, perhaps for a figure of importance such as New Brunswick Governor Sir Howard Douglas. It was likely used to cruise up and down the St. John River, transporting furs or perhaps arms.
Shortly thereafter, a wealthy Irish landowner arrived in the region for a short stint as captain with the British army regiment stationed in the colony. Stepney St. George, of County Galway, was there long enough to witness the devastating fires that spread between Miramichi and Fredericton in 1825, and to help Sir Douglas with the relief efforts for the estimated 15,000 homeless settlers.
Before leaving, he acquired the canoe – whether he bought it from a person of stature such as Douglas or bought it directly from the Maliseet is unclear. He had it, and two other canoes, shipped home to his family’s historic home, Headford Castle, where Moore believes it was actually used on local waterways.
Two decades later, the Irish countryside where St. George lived would be utterly transformed by famine. While other wealthy landowners turned a blind eye to the plight of the poor, St. George became chairman of a relief committee, bankrupting his ancestral estate by opening soup kitchens on the property and housing those on the brink of starvation. He wrote letters to the British government, vainly asking for help to save more from dying.
"It may well be that Stepney St. George’s experiences in New Brunswick in 1825 may well have informed his approach to tackling the tragedy that happened in 1847 in Ireland," Moore said. "There are real parallels and links that I have suspected there but I have yet to prove."
St. George contracted a famine-related disease and died in 1847. Headford Castle was leased by a new tenant, who promptly evicted the poor from the grounds and the canoe, which was given to the university in 1852. It moved around the university through times of upheaval, such as the war of independence, and finally in 2001 was given a closer look. Moore and others noticed it had begun to fall apart, with the help of bugs and nesting pigeons, and wanted to save it. They contacted the Canadian museum for help.
"It’s a symbol of Irish history, it’s a fantastic story," she said.
For Canadian curator Stephen Augustine, the canoe tells another tale – that of aboriginal technical prowess. Augustine, himself a Mi’kmaq hereditary chief from New Brunswick, marvels at how the methods of constructing the canoe stood the test of time.
"It has endured 200 years and this technology and indigenous science attest to how well the indigenous thinking has survived. The idea of it endures, and that’s one of the more poignant aspects for me."
Restoring the canoe has several challenges, including finding just the right birchbark from New Brunswick to help patch some of the rougher spots. Once the project is finished, the canoe will be shipped back to Ireland where Moore intends to have it exhibited.
Said Moore: "It means so much to local Irish history and Irish-Canadian relations at this point and time, it’s very important for us to have Irish people see and appreciate it."