A story of love and loss that started in the Emerald Isle 95 years ago has drifted across the ocean and gently landed in the City of Trail.
Finally knowing the fate of her great grandfather has Michelle Armstrong and her father, Donald — of Northern Ireland — healing painful wounds from the past with aid from the city archives.
Just before Christmas 2020, Michelle contacted the Trail Times and Sarah Benson-Lord at the Trail Museum and Archives asking about her great grandfather John McGinnis.
“I write this from Ireland about my great grandfather that only 48 hours ago we discovered his life in Trail,” Michelle wrote via email. “And I think it’s a wonderful story and possibly one of many similar stories based on the history of the smelter plant.”
All she knew about her great grandfather, John McGinnis, is that he left Londonderry, North Ireland on Feb. 27, 1926.
“My (great) grandmother, who was just 18, said goodbye to John at the port, with their two-year old daughter Margaret,” Michelle shared. “John apparently looked back down the gangplank at them both, hoping they would follow soon after he found a job.”
After crossing the Atlantic, John boarded a train in Halifax and eventually made his way to Trail, arriving in the city on April 28, 1926.
Right away, John secured a job with Cominco where he stayed for 37 years. He was first a smelterman then later, a gardener for Cominco, likely using know-how he learned as a farm lad in Ireland.
“My (great) gran was scared of the long trip on her own with a young child, her parents were old and she decided she couldn’t travel as she needed to look after them,” Michelle said. “She never divorced John and she never met anyone else. She talked about John with the fondness of an 18-year-old who said goodbye to him all the years previously.”
Michelle said John sent money and a letter to his wife every month until at least the mid 1960s, maybe longer.
“(Great) gran thought he would come home,” Michelle said. “But I realize now as he was sending money home each month, on a low salary, he never had enough to travel back.”
During the war years, John’s daughter Margaret moved to England. There she had a son named Donald, who is Michelle’s father.
It is Donald who always bore an ache in his heart, wondering if his grandfather John even knew he existed.
This is where Sarah Benson-Lord enters the story, graciously helping to answer this long-pondered question.
She sent John’s obituary (June 27, 1980) from the Trail Times, to Michelle along with some information about the people who shared their Groutage Avenue home with the Irishman.
In the obituary was Donald’s answer. “He (John) is survived by a daughter Margaret Soyer, of Canterbury, England, and grandson Donald also of England.”
“After many tears falling my daddy is smiling,” Michelle said. “He never knew if John knew about him and there on his obituary is his name — Donald!”
Sarah also sent Michelle two photos of John from when he was featured in the Cominco Magazine circa January 1957 and later, for his retirement in August 1963.
This was the first time Michelle and her dad laid eyes on John McGinnis.
“This small kindness you have shown to us has been incredibly uplifting to all of us,” Michelle wrote back to Sarah. “My (great) granny did not see her husband after he left in 1926. What an extraordinary life to get on a boat at 25 and take the journey to Canada not realizing he would never see his family again,” she added.
“It is Christmas and my dad said, ‘miracles do happen.’”
With so much turmoil regarding COVID last Christmas, the Times did not get this story written in time for the holidays.
This week the Times reached out to Michelle to ask how the past year has been, knowing that even though her great granddad never returned to his family, they can finally rest, assured he never forgot them.
“Dad’s turning 80 next year, the same age his granddad John passed away, and of course he wonders how his life would have turned out if he had known him,” Michelle said. “We talk weekly about the journey John, and now after research, we know his brother-in-law, made to Trail.”
How heart-wrenching it must have been as they left the beautiful countryside of Limavady, their families, everything they knew.
“The anticipation, excitement, and stories they must have shared,” Michelle reflected. “Then to travel from Halifax to Trail — did they do this by train, how long did it take and why Trail?”
As she still has so many questions about the great grandfather she never knew, nearing one century later, Michelle is planning on following John’s footsteps by travelling to Trail next year.
“If COVID has taught my dad and I anything, it is the importance of family, the connection of knowing you’re belonging,” she shares, mentioning their daily father-daughter Facetime calls.
“I imagine John never seeing how the years changed the love of his life, the wind from the Atlantic never to be felt again, his parents, child.”
Finally knowing a little history about John’s life in Trail has given the family a sense of peace this past year.
“My dad learning a little about the man he knew very little about, like a silent family secret he never spoke much of, possibly because of the sadness,” Michelle said.
“I like to think of it as a beautiful love story across the sea.”