McGavins of Ontario, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas

Growing up, we heard very little of the background of my father's family. I knew the story that when his ancestors arrived from Ireland, they had changed the family named from McGovern to McGavin, but there was no explanation for the change. We knew that he had visited Seaforth, Ontario where his grandfather lived when his father was a boy. There was a gap between Seaforth and Reading, Pennsylvania where he grew up. After his visit to Seaforth, he also spent time in Ireland and Scotland looking for his family's roots. On his return, his Christmas gifts included something made from Scottish wool in the Graham tartan. His research had allowed him to become a descendent of a clan. I was more than a little bit confused.

My sister recently attended a family reunion in Walton, Ontario attended by the many descendents of William and his brother, Henry (my great-great-grandfather) that shared a stage with the 75th anniversary of the founding of McGavin Farm Equipment. She found a storehouse of pictures and lore that have helped form a new perspective on my father's reluctance to share views of his roots.

The following is excerpted from an advertising supplement marking the 75th anniversary:

The name McGavin has been part of Huron County history for five generations. With bleak times in his homeland, William McGavin left County Fermanagh, near Donegal, Ireland, for the new world in 1837. Eight months later he arrived in New York, alone and penniless.

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He spent the first winter in New Jersey, then moved on to Port Huron, Michigan where he stayed for four months. Walking barefoot, he departed for Bayfield. When he arrived there he spent his last 25 cents on a flask of whiskey.

William made money digging wells, until he had saved enough to buy a farm on shares. His crops were abundant and he prospered. He married Elizabeth Graham of Bayfield, with whom he had four sons, William, John, Isaac and Albert, and two daughters, Annie and Sophia.

After living for a time in the Varna area, the McGavins moved to McKillop Township. They acquired more land so that when each son married, there was a farm for each of them. It was Elizabeth's wish that her family be near her, and as a result, all four brothers had their homes within a mile and a quarter of each other.

Henry does not appear in this history, but he joined William in Ontario about a year later. Both brothers became successful farmers and Henry married Elizabeth's sister. Also excluded from this history is the context of being Irish between the years William and Henry were born and the year of my father's birth in 1919.

Henry was born in an Ireland that made Catholics second class citizens. They could not own land, live in a city or secure an education. They left Ireland just before the great famine in the 1840's and the first of what became a series of rebellions against British rule. William landed in New York, took a look at the life of the Irish in the Five Points (think Gangs of New York) area, immediately changed his religion, the spelling of his last name to the protestant form of the name and left for New Jersey then on to Ontario where he could avoid the racism that was all he had ever lived. While the brothers were establishing farms and families, 3 generations of Irishmen were battling racial hatred to establish Irish Home Rule and the wild geese (the name given the Irish who emigrated based on Irish soldiers sent abroad) fought a similar battle in the United States. My father was born 17 years after the Anthracite Strike of 1902 when Irish miners first won some concessions from the mine owners. My father was born 3 years after James Connolly was tied to a chair and executed by firing squad because his injuries made it impossible for him to stand for the occasion as the last execution following the Easter Rising in 1916. My grandfather, inexplicably moved to southeastern Pennsylvania at the end of 40 years of strife between coal mine owners and miners that included the rise and violent destruction of the organization the Molly Maguires that focused racism on the Irish.

I can imagine my father growing up as the little (as an adult he was 5'6”) Irish kid. He surely must have taken to sharing his devilish side rather than trying to exert his will with physical strength. He learned every epithet for every conceivable ethnic group except the Scottish. He learned that being Scottish was easier than being Irish in the same way that his grandfather learned that it was easier to spell his name in a protestant way and move to Canada. My father learned bigotry first hand and his response was to live a life trying to pass.

My father did not participate in active self-disclosure. He kept his history to himself as another story from the reunion made clear. I knew my father had two brothers and that my mother had a brother she never met as he was killed in an accident before she was born, but I had never heard of Jack. Jack is shown in photographs preserved in Ontario with his three brothers. Never in my father's 89 years did I hear him mention his brother that had gotten sick and died. I imagine that there was a social stigma attached to losing a brother to disease that caused him to hide this along with his Irish heritage.

So, my father grew up hating the racism that greeted him every day. He responded in kind, learning every way he could to denigrate other cultures. An otherwise gentle and considerate man, he was at his worst when pointing out the flaws of a group of people. I understand how a man could make a trip to Ireland, to the home of both his great-grandmother and great-grandfather near Fermanagh, and come back convinced that he was of Scottish descent. It is difficult to imagine how different his life would have been if his father had stayed in Canada, in Ontario, where the racism was minimal. I understand these things, but I am embarrassed we have not learned much in the 170 years since William and Henry arrived from Ireland. My father managed to teach me not to judge people based on their parents or grandparents even though he could not live it.

Me? I knew I was Irish the first time I convinced a bartender to pull a pint of Guinness for an underage Irishman and knew it was good for me. I know why I am a hockey fan. I know that people organizing Gay Pride parades learned from my Irish ancestors that it is better to march down the middle of the street and flaunt the wearing of the green. I know I have seen what happens when you suffer for being a member of an ethnic group and I am glad that I have not felt it. I know I have yet another reason to lift a glass in salute to Pearse, Connolly, MacDermott and the Molly Maguires. I know that it is hard to overcome racism and I have lived the rewards of their efforts.

Note - The included links are mostly wikipedia for simplicity sake to show the racism of 100 years ago in its historical context.

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The above image exemplifies the hatred openly demonstrated towards the Irish.

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