My father was born in 1919 in a town near Manchester. His parents were both of Irish background, part of a wave of people who had migrated there to find work in the Lancashire mines and mills. He was an only child. By the time he was ten years old his mother had died and his father, for reasons that remain unknown, brought him to Montreal and left him with a relative of his wife’s, Margaret Ryan, and her daughter May. They hadn’t been in Canada long before my father joined their household, where he stayed until he married my mother in the late 1950s. Thomas McDonnell returned to England and never saw his son again.
When I found out that the Bibliothèque nationale had digitized Lovell’s street directories, a catalogue of Montreal residents and businesses from 1842 to 1999, I spent a few hours tracing where the Ryan household had lived in Montreal long before I was born. The directories functioned for many years much like a phone book: look up someone’s name and it gives you their occupation and a street address, although not a phone number.
I knew that the Ryans had lived in various rented premises over the years and recalled mentions of the street names and parishes. The directories made it easy to find out the exact addresses where my father had lived: 1720 Nicolet, from 1931 to 33; 4354 Fullum, in 1934; 4324 Messier, from 1935-41; 5973 Waverly, from 1942 to 50; and 5352 Park Avenue, from 1951 to 57. So I went to have a look.
My father’s first address in Montreal was in Hochelaga. At the turn of the last century, the neighbourhood had enough English-speaking residents for the Catholics to have created a new parish for them in 1909: St. Aloysius, at the corner of Adam (then called Stadacona) and Nicolet, a building which no longer exists. The clipping comes from the Bibliothèque’s Albums Massicotte.
The triplex where my father lived on Nicolet has been radically yet shoddily renovated, although other buildings on the street suggest how it might once have looked:
An adjoining building on Nicolet with original façade and ironwork.
Southwards, Nicolet Street gives a view of the Miron grain elevator on Notre-Dame. North towards Ontario Street there were other factories clustered around the railway. Like Point St. Charles and Saint-Henri, this part of the city was built up so people could live close to where they worked.
Nobody in the Ryan household worked in Hochelaga, though. Margaret was a skilled cook who had worked for upper-class households in England and may sometimes have partly lived where she was working, as part of the servant staff of a big household in the Golden Square Mile. May commuted by the Ontario streetcar to her insurance job downtown. And my father was still in school.
In 1934 the Ryan household moved up to what we’d now call the eastern Plateau, and lived for a year on Fullum Street, a step north of Marie-Anne. It’s an unprepossessing, blocky building, although with balconies facing across to Baldwin Park, which even now is a pleasant green space that hasn’t been too overburdened with leisure facilities.
The following year they moved around the corner to Messier Street into a second-storey triplex flat in a prettier building. They stayed there for seven years. The building on Messier looks much as it must’ve done when they were living there. By this time, Margaret Ryan had probably retired: she had not been a young woman when she came to Canada.
I remember mention of St. Dominic’s as their parish at that time. Another English-speaking Catholic church – located in those days at 4732 de Lorimier – St. Dominic’s has also been demolished. (To be fair, both St. Aloysius and St. Dominic’s parishes continue to exist in some conceptual sense, but no longer have visible buildings or feature in the urban fabric.)
In 1942 the Ryans moved to Waverly Street south of Van Horne in what we now call Mile End. (My father never said “the Plateau” or “Mile End” in describing where he’d lived, but I don’t know what the common names for these areas were at the time.) They went to St. Michael’s church nearby on Saint-Viateur. The triplex where they lived on Waverly has been remodeled shoddily too, in a different taste from the hatchet job on Nicolet but with almost equally unpleasant results. The original tall windows, as seen on every other building on the block, have been ripped out and replaced with stingy little ones, and the leftover spaces filled in. The dark brick detailing and heavy dark doors add to the graceless effect.
By 1951 Margaret Ryan had died, and my father and his cousin moved onto Park Avenue, into one of those gloomy brick apartment buildings between Fairmount and Saint-Viateur which remain pretty much unchanged. He left there to marry my mother in 1957. May Ryan never married.
My father never reminisced in great detail about his life, but his boyhood spent “down the east end” took away all but faint traces of his Lancashire accent and taught him French, and his anecdotes made me aware that there used to be a much wider distribution of anglophones throughout Montreal than is commonly thought now, when the dictum that “the Main separated the city into English and French halves” is often cited as fact. Demographics are never so simple.
Tags: Exploring the City, Mile End, Montreal, Personal History, Then and Now