A bank holiday evening and a loose end. A chance to look for Uncle Robert.
He seems to have lived a nomadic life, as would be expected for a prospector in British Columbia in the early 1900s. The single letter from him that survives, dated December 1909, places him at Illecillewaet – close to the Rogers Pass and 46 miles east of Revelstoke. Born in 1876, he had been in Canada some years and had lost money in the ‘panic’ of 1907. The 1901 Census had placed him south of Illecillewaet in lodgings in the town of Nelson.
There is a mischievous element in the details he gives the census enumerator, stating that his birthday is 12th July. He had a brother, Walker, who did have the Boyne anniversary as his birthday. Robert’s claim to the date was probably no more than a reference to his Orange roots.
Ten years later, the man who still gives his name as ‘R. Morrison’ has moved west from Illecillewaet to Kamloops. Thirty-four years old by this time, the light-hearted touch has gone, his birthday is given just as September 1876.
In 1911, two years after he wrote to his brother Will back in Rathfriland in Co Down describing Canada as the land of opportunity, Robert still seems not to have made his fortune. He is still living as lodger and is now working as a labourer on the railway, a job he has been doing for at least a year. The 1911 census details give his date of immigration as 1906 – had he gone home to Ireland to visit his family? There is no suggestion in his letter home that he had had any recent experience of Ireland.
Does any of it matter? Maybe not. But maybe in understanding others we understand ourselves.
Robert’s life in Canada did not bring the things for which he had hoped. He returned to Ulster to join up and fight in the Great War. He was gassed and suffered shell shock. My mother in law remembers him from her childhood days as a quiet, pale and withdrawn character who died while still young.
Unfulfilled hopes and an early death, was Robert’s life a happy one? What are the things that bring happiness? What are the things that matter?