On Monday the voice of a United Irish Societies treasure fell silent when my friend and fellow past president passed away peacefully at home.
The last time I saw Don was in late November when he was spending some time at the new super hospital. I was off work that day, was headed in to town, and thought I’d drop in unannounced to say “Hi”. The sun was shining and he had a beautiful view from his window, so beautiful that he was enjoying a late morning nap in his chair. I could certainly relate. Warmth and sunshine beaming through a huge window is a recipe for a good nap. So Don didn’t see me. We were often in touch via e-mail. I would send an e-mail asking a question or simply to say “Hi” and to see how he was feeling. My last e-mail to him was sent Sunday evening to let him know an old friend sent his regards, having explained to the friend was gravely ill. Before that I sent a quick e-mail letting Don know we miss him and that we hoped to see him at one of the many Irish events if his health permitted. Don replied in an uncharacteristically short e-mail “Thanks, Don”
Don touched many lives. As news of his passing spreads, we have seen messages posted to the UIS Facebook page, to the Memories of Griffintown Facebook page, and as comments to the more than fifty photos added to the UIS Facebook photo album.
On Tuesday, His Excellency Dr. Ray Bassett tweeted “Sorry to hear of Don passing on. He was a mainstay of the Irish Canadian community in Montreal”
A Dorval resident wrote on the UIS Facebook page: “I used to take the bus to work with Don every morning when I lived in Dorval and he would tell me tales of Griffintown and Goose Village. I later ran into him during one of the Walks to the Black Rock and also when he was an usher at St. Patrick’s church where my mother sings in the choir. Rest in peace Don – you are missed!”
Don was very accommodating of his time, whether it was a member of the Irish community looking for historical information on the United Irish Societies, the Stone on Bridge Street, John Easton Mills (Montreal’s martyr mayor), the continuity of the annual Parade, Mary Gallagher, or a host of other subjects. He was also passionate about helping students with their research. On occasion he was called upon to speak to the media, which he did ably and with ease.
In May Don decided to officially step away from the role of historian, a role he clearly excelled in, and recommended to the President of the UIS that I be his replacement. The UIS named Don Historian Emeritus after he stepped aside. The only regret I have is we were not able to acknowledge this honour at a general meeting with Don present for he did not attend any meetings after he was bestowed this honour. What else could we do for him? He had been named Grand Marshal for the 1994 parade and Chief Reviewing Officer in 2013. He received the Simon McDonaugh Humanitarian Award in 2004 and the Liam Daly Heritage Award in 2010. After discussion it was decided to offer to name him Historian Emeritus. We were pleased to hear he accepted this honorary title. Whether he stepped aside or not, he was and is forever linked to the UIS history. Giving Don this honour was done in friendship with the knowledge we could rely on him to continue to advise us when needed.
One day in May, we picked up from Don numerous boxes full with the UIS files. Slowly, methodically I have documented its contents and have learned a few things along the way.. To date I have documented the archives through 1966 and will continue with this project after the “Irish Season”. His generosity also extended to including many photos, which I have not had the opportunity to document.
Within the United Irish Societies I found Don to be a calming influence. Never wavering from his beliefs or ideals, on occasion he was called upon to mediate disagreements that flared up from time to time as happens in any group with different visions within its membership.
On numerous occasions Don was known to push the envelope when it came time to nominate people to be parade dignitaries or award recipients. The United Irish Societies has been slow to recognize women in the community. In its storied history there has been one female Grand Marshal and now three female Chief Reviewing Officers. Don was known to nominate females for the dignitary positions. His candidate may not have received the nod from the Executive. However he was sowing the seeds for the future. We are beginning to see the fruit of his labour. This year, for a second consecutive year, a female has been chosen to serve as the Parade’s Chief Reviewing Officer. I know that in the years to come it will be just as normal to see a female in the top honorary positions as it is to see men.
Ville Marie Online, an online publication funded in part by the English Speaking Catholic Council that has not added new content in weeks, published an article about Don on February 9th. I think this demonstrates how important he was to the community for a suspended publication to make such an exception.
I know Don is looking down from above. He is probably uncomfortable at all the fuss being made and all the attention he is receiving in death. However, the attention is richly deserved. We, our children, and our children’s children have him to thank for his dedication and passion for the Irish of Griffintown and Montreal.
Ken Quinn, Historian