O’GRADY (Grady), STANDISH, farmer and poet; b. probably in 1789 or 1790 in County Limerick (Republic of Ireland), son of Standish Grady; m. Margaret Thompson, also of southern Ireland, and they had at least three children; fl. 1807–45.
Standish O’Grady’s life in Ireland cannot be determined precisely; what information is known comes largely from his own writings and is occasionally contradictory. In addition, the existence of several contemporaries with the same name has led to some confusion. It appears that O’Grady entered Trinity College, Dublin, on 3 Feb. 1807 at age 17; he received his ba in 1810. On 3 Oct. 1813 he was ordained deacon of the Church of Ireland and on 24 July 1814 he was priested in the diocese of Limerick. He was collated priest of Tullybracky in this diocese on 16 Sept. 1817; before that he had been curate of Cullen in the diocese of Emly. From 1820 until his immigration to Lower Canada in 1836, he may have been rector of Kilnasoolagh and several other parishes in the diocese of Killaloe. His decision to emigrate was at least partly precipitated by the “tithe wars” that beset the Church of Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s and that left many clergymen without pay and, in his own words, in “the most abject state of distress.” O’Grady became “[disgusted] with the government, and unable to exist at home, . . . sailed for America, with a small competency.” A revenue of £382, owed to him since the early 1830s, was never paid.
O’Grady and his wife sailed from Waterford in early April 1836 and arrived in Quebec on 22 May. By August they were living on a farm near William Henry (Sorel); they remained in the area until at least 1842. A son was born in June 1836 but died the following January. Another was born in September 1837 and a daughter in March 1839. A young and an increasing family was only one of the many problems faced by O’Grady in his new home. Unaccustomed to hard physical work, unprepared for the severity of the Lower Canadian winter, and unable to cultivate a soil that was “a perfect compilation of sand not worth the labouring,” he did not succeed as a farmer. One winter “a Canadian stud horse with one miserable cow were the only remnants of [his] stock which survived.” His difficulties were exacerbated by the unrest resulting from the rebellions of 1837–38; unsympathetic to republicanism, he called Louis-Joseph Papineau* a coward who fled while “the bold, intrepid peasants” bled for his cause. In the end, poor health finally forced him to try to change his circumstances. O’Grady provides these details about his life as a Lower Canadian farmer in the lines and notes of his poem The emigrant.
In the summer of 1841 O’Grady visited Montreal to sell subscriptions to “a poetical composition.” The editors of the Literary Garland, “favoured with glimpses at a few pages of this work,” reported in their issue of August 1841 that it bore “the character of an epic poem, enriched with a considerable store of notes, of a laughter-inspiring nature, and occasionally sparkling with wit and genius.” The lines they had read were “very beautiful,” and the “respectable names” on the subscription list, together “with the highly flattering notes addressed to the author,” afforded further evidence “that the work [was] of no inconsiderable merit.” The emigrant, a poem, in four cantos was printed and published in Montreal by John Lovell* in 1841, although it was probably not distributed until early in the next year. On 20 Jan. 1842 the Montreal Transcript contained a long, mostly favourable review, and the following week it reprinted a short, enthusiastic notice from the Montreal Messenger.
The emigrant contains the first canto only of the title poem, along with copious notes and 13 short lyrics. In the preface O’Grady emphasizes that he is not “an enemy to emigration,” but recommends Upper Canada rather than Lower Canada with its “excessive” cold and “too long” winters. He promises to tell more in his “next Canto” about Upper Canada, “by far a more desirable emporium for our redundant population.” The first canto deals with several subjects, including the troubled state of “proud Erin,” emigration, the climate of Lower Canada, the customs of the Canadians, and the political strife in the Canadas. These subjects are given an emotional force by being linked to and interwoven with the poet’s own story and that of the fictional Alfred and Sylvia, young lovers who flee Ireland, elope to Lower Canada, and fail as miserably there as the poet himself. The canto, written in rhymed couplets, ends optimistically with the arrival of “rude spring” and “cheering hopes” because “mighty Wolfe [James Wolfe*] in Colborne [John Colborne*] still survives.” Yet the discontinuous way in which the canto’s various subjects are presented reveals the sense of displacement and despair felt by O’Grady as he composed “this first volume” and dedicated it to “Nobody.”
Shortly after the publication of The emigrant, the O’Gradys left William Henry. In March 1843 the Transcript reported that O’Grady was a member of a committee of Irishmen from Montreal who went to Lachine in an attempt to quell riots that had broken out between feuding Irish labourers from Cork and Connaught, who had gone on strike to protest low wages during the construction of the Lachine Canal. He “mainly contributed to the success of the mission, by bringing several hundreds of the Corkonians to the spot, where a reconciliation was effected. He received the warm applause of his countrymen.” By late 1845 “poor old O’Grady,” apparently living somewhere in Upper Canada, was a “distressing case,” according to the British Canadian, and Canada West Commercial and General Advertiser. Although “descended . . . from a highly respectable Irish Protestant family,” he now had “the chill hand of poverty pressing heavily upon him,” and “his grey hairs” were “descending in sorrow to the grave.” O’Grady was “silent” about his “wants,” so the newspaper was publishing “this brief notice – wholly unknown to him” – to ask for charity on his behalf. O’Grady could “be heard of” at the office of the British Canadian. As a result of this notice, the Montreal Gazette offered to receive “contributions” on O’Grady’s behalf. The Examiner, however, was incensed by the request for charity and hinted, somewhat obscurely, that O’Grady’s life had been one of “dissipation.”
Nothing further is known about O’Grady. Most likely, he died somewhere in Upper Canada. His monument is The emigrant, incomplete and disjointed, but still frequently anthologized and quoted. In its mixture of hope and despair, alienation and accommodation, it is a fitting memorial both to O’Grady and to the thousands of other Irish emigrants – Protestant and Roman Catholic – who, driven from their native land, arrived in North America in the middle decades of the 19th century.
Standish O’Grady’s death date has not been located despite extensive research in Ontario and Quebec. He is the author of The emigrant, a poem, in four cantos (Montreal, 1841), parts of which have been included in a number of anthologies, among them The Oxford book of Canadian verse, in English and French, ed. and intro. A. J. M. Smith (Toronto and New York, 1960) and The new Oxford book of Canadian verse in English (Toronto, 1982).
ANQ-M, CE3-1, 20 août 1836; 27 janv., 9 oct. 1837; 2 avril 1839 (mfm. at PAC). Representative Church Body Library (Dublin),