“A very plain city” An Irish priest’s view of Charlottetown

In 1870 Rev. Michael Bernard Buckley of Cork, Ireland travelled as a special missionary to North America to seek funds for completing the Catholic Cathedral of Cork. He and another priest left Ireland by steamer in May 1870 and spent more than a year visiting communities across Canada and the United States. After a tour of Ontario and Quebec Buckley boarded the Quebec and Gulf Ports Steamer Georgia  for its regular cruise down the St. Lawrence to Shediac, Charlottetown, and Pictou (which he calls Picton in error) and then by land to Halifax. He spent most of his time in North America in New England and New York.

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Charlottetown from the harbour a few years before Buckley’s visit

Buckley, who died in 1872, a year after his return to Ireland, kept a diary during his trip and this was published in Dublin by his sister in 1886.  His visit to Charlottetown was short and he does not seem to have solicited funds for the Cork cathedral here. Several of the individuals mentioned were fellow passengers and were subject of pen-portraits earlier in the trip.

Thus we get to Prince Edward’s Island, which at length discloses itself to view from the bosom of the ocean, a long island, over 130 miles in length, and about 35, at the widest, in breadth. It reminds me much of Ireland; isolated from continental lands, green as emerald, and fertile as Nature can be, with pleasant harbours, and — but here the comparison ceases — with a happy and contented population, self-governed, and only wanting to be let alone by the world, which is to be feared will not let it alone, but which, despite its inexhaustible treasures of land is still crying out “annexation! annexation!”

We do not reach the harbour’s mouth that opens to Charlottetown until dark, but we have a full moon and a clear sky. We see, as we approach, the dim outlines of ships and wharves and houses and church spires, and this is the metropolis, the mother city of Prince Edward’s Island. We are moored about 8 o’clock, and Turgeon and I go ashore together, after having bade farewell to the nuns and the two Christian Brothers. We stroll through the dimly-lighted streets – the main street; gas has not yet its way in here. We wish to find a decent hotel; it is called the “City Hotel” (for the Prince Edward Islanders call their town of 7,000 inhabitants a city). We reach it, and enter. Our chief desire is to bear the news of the great European conflict now waging between the Prussians and French. Up to this time no serious engagement has taken place, nor has the dignity of either Power been compromised. We find ourselves in a place that might be called the reading-room of the hotel, and we take up the paper of the day, Prince Edward’s Island Examiner. There we find news from Europe, three days old, exactly the same that we had heard before we left Quebec. This was disheartening; but it happened just as we were deploring the telegraphic shortcomings of P.E. Island, that a written telegram arrived, giving an account of a terrible battle between the Prussians and French, in which the latter were defeated with wholesale disaster.

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“A very great tower and a very short spire” St. Dunstan’s Cathedral in 1860. The spire is hardly visible in this faded photograph.

On our way towards the ship we reach the cathedral, a fair church enough, with a very great tower and a very short spire. Next door was the bishop’s palace, outside was a carriage and horse, and the two Christian Brothers were urging the nuns to enter, and proceed to the convent. The nuns, no doubt believing that the carriage was too small, were resisting and expressing a determination to walk, as the night was so fine.

There was a good deal of argument between the brothers and sisters on the subject; but at last, the horse brought matters to a speedy conclusion. He seemed to have grown weary of listening and so in brief he simply “took head.” Away he dashed at full speed, the nuns aghast and the two brothers stupefied. We followed the runaway, who went right around the next corner, pursued by a few young men, who had been standing by, and found that he had toppled over, having done very little injury to himself, and only broken the box of the carriage.

We proceeded towards the ship, which we reached in time, as all things are reached. We slept on board, for the ship stayed here, as at Shediac, over night, and next morning in like manner a great part the cargo was discharged. In the morning again Turgeon and I sally forth together to do Charlottetown. But there nothing to do. It is a very plain city, with the streets broad, and cutting each other at right angles. A voice from a window salutes us. It is that of Miss Baker, who has taken up lodgings here. A judge from Montreal is also staying here, for it is a watering-hole place, and rather frequented by people from the continent of America. The Judge breakfasts with us on board.

We got some notions of Prince Edward’s Island. It is a very fertile island, and produces a great quantity grain. The clay is of the old red sandstone description, and it is said that there is scarcely a stone in the whole island. The population is 80,000, the Catholic religion appears to be predominant. Bishop McIntyre is the present prelate, the whole Island being one see, with 22 priests to 43 churches.

The people are independent and proud, regarding themselves as quite able to manage their own affairs, and scorning to belong to the Dominion or the States, not reflecting that but for the protection of some greater power they should become the prey of the first that wished to invade them. There is no poverty on this island, and the people are lazy and indifferent to advantages of labour. Thus the captain offered some loungers one shilling an hour to assist him in unloading and although they admitted the payment to be just and fair, they declined, much to his annoyance and indignation. During the winter the island is icebound, and for several months the inhabitants devote themselves to the pursuit of literature, with a zeal proportionate to the vast store of knowledge to be acquired. If those people, despite their insular views, die happy, why disturb them? The population are chiefly of Scotch and North of Ireland descent. The land is undulating, and there is scarcely a decent hill anywhere. There is submarine telegraph to Nova Scotia, which is some connection with the world.

At 11 o’clock. August the 9th, we proceed to Picton [sic], distance about 60 miles across the Northumberland Sound.

Buckley’s most telling comment is that when he set out to “do” Charlottetown he found there was nothing in the city to do. The full text of Buckley’s Diary, titled Diary of a Tour in America can be found be following this link

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