THE YEARS OF THE TIGNISH ARTS FOUNDATION: 1964 – ?

Tignish, in far-away Lot 1, was settled by Acadian families in 1799, probably to evade having to pay rent to their landlord. They settled in Lot 1, which nobody seemed to care about, around a lagoon called the Green just north of Tignish Harbour. This 1850s map by John Ball in the provincial archives shows the extent of their settlement by that time.

In 1811 a group of settlers arrived from Ireland, via New Brunswick, who were better off than the Acadians. A struggle for the best land ensued and by 1880, when the Meacham ATLAS was published, pretty much all the land was taken. Here is the pattern of settlement, crudely hand-drawn, because I don’t yet know how to do it on the computer.

In time Tignish became an important settlement as the railway terminus and distribution point – in and out – for local supplies and exported fish products.

This 1880 map from the great Meacham’s ATLAS shows the village in its first prime, before a fire devastated a large part of the residential and business section a few years later. The Church owned a vast amount of land, as seen in the plan, because Fr. Peter McIntyre had bought it before the village was actually established.

Tignish was slow to develop as a town, always having a small population, but important events happened there that benefited the community. It was the home of the Co-operative Movement on Prince Edward Island, the birthplace of the Fishermen’s Union that liberated fishers from a century of oppressive control by American entrepreneurs, who had had a fishing concession at Myrick Shore (Tignish Harbour) since the 1860s.

Tignish is also the place where you will find the most perfect Gothic Revival church on the Island, designed by famous New York architect Patrick Keely in 1857 and built by the most capable and ambitious Peter McIntyre. It was as the newly-consecrated Third Bishop of the Diocese of Charlottetown that McIntyre dedicated his splendid church in 1860. (Photo courtesy of Airscapes – R. Garnett).

Tignish also has its share of notable people and over the years has provided the Province with three Lieutenant-Governors, the current one being the Hon. Antoinette Perry.

I spent my first 14 years in Tignish, being raised by my grandparents. Perhaps it was as difficult a time for them as it was for me. I couldn’t wait to go and live with my mother in Montreal. That finally happened in 1958 and I have described that transition in my previous post.

I discovered with pleasure beyond describing, the world elsewhere of the intellect, and of culture in all its forms that became available to me in Montreal.

Soon though, I began – very slowly at first – to dream of going back to my village one day as a sort of cultural missionary. In retrospect this seems both arrogant and foolish – and innocent.

All the same, this vague dream was given a tangible jolt when, in my English Literature class, my wonderful professor – one of my greatest teachers ever – taught us about English and Scottish traditional ballads and I immediately had another epiphany. I realised that such songs were still sung in my home town, and I rushed to tell him this. He told me that I should make plans to collect those songs as they were precious relics of a living past. He also directed me to borrow books on ballads and folklore from the library. I had never known such traditions ever existed.

I soon became, in my view, an expert on the subject. I even bought, with my dwindling student loan, the complete five-volume set of Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. When I visited my grandmother in the summer I plagued her endlessly to sing for me all the old songs she could remember. Occasionally she obliged and I became that much wiser and charmed.

When, because of a total inability to do maths, I had to give up my dream of becoming a biologist, I turned with absolute confidence to Classics – the study of Greek and Roman history and literature – and by extension – art. The head of the Classics Department was Emily Elizabeth Cran, a woman of amazing intellect and great culture. In time we became great friends. She, of all my mentors, was/is the greatest.

In 1964 I told Elizabeth about my dream to return eventually to Tignish to set up some kind of centre for the study of local history and folklore, and with facilities for various cultural events. We spoke of this dream to people, both in PEI and Montreal, who were very interested in the idea of rural renaissance. Soon, with generous local and Montreal help, we established the Tignish Arts Foundation Incorporated, a not-for-profit educational organisation that aimed “to enrich, by organised projects in the humanities, the community life of Tignish” and “to present a number of activities – courses, films, a play, concerts – during the summer … to start cultural and intellectual development and find out by experience what will take root.” Not only were we celebrated in the Charlottetown Guardian, but the Montreal Gazette even took notice.

Following these goals we organised a series of summer programmes from 1965-68 that brought in instructors in music and children’s art as well as musicians to perform on the fine Mitchell organ in the church of Saint Simon and Saint Jude. There were also concerts of piano and harpsichord music as well as performances featuring local folk musicians.

Edward FitzGerald and his friends, Terry Arsenault and Hank Gallant, called “The Countrymen,” performed regularly in concerts and often music-making at the Dalton School went on late into the night. I have a tape of a concert of Irish songs we arranged in Kinkora one evening. Edward was a lyric tenor in his youth and, having, by mistake, been given the wrong chord for singing “Carrickfergus,” just soared and soared. I cried at the beauty of

But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over
And neither have I the wings to fly…

We managed to get the great Canadian folk singer Alan Mills, and the equally great Quebec fiddler, Jean Carignan, to come and gave a concert at the Tignish rink. Six people attended because we had scheduled it on bingo night. Afterwards we all went to the Dalton School where Edward and Terry sang for Mr. Mills and Mr. Carignan and they were wowed by some fiddle music by Hank’s brother Freddy, a famous local fiddler, whom I had recorded earlier.

To be frank, nearly all our events were on bingo nights. That was the community’s response to our incomprehensible and unwanted efforts. Nevertheless, a great deal of local history and folk music was collected on tape, and books, papers and photographs relating to local history were also brought together. It seemed as if nothing could dim our enthusiasm or limit our long-term plans.

The ultimate goal of the Tignish Arts Foundation was to become a permanent presence in the village, with headquarters that would contain a local history museum, a library, a centre for folkloric studies, an art studio and a small theatre to encourage local drama and musical performance. It was hoped that all this could be housed in the second parish church (built in 1826), formerly the parish hall, and which now stood deserted next to the new high school.

The Parish informally gave us the building and the land to put it on but when, in the summer of 1964, it was being moved just a few hundred feet to its new location, the bulldozer tore off the corner of the building. It was decided to demolish it then and there and by evening there was only a pile of ancient splinters covered with plaster dust. It provided villagers with unlimited firewood for the winter. Undaunted we continued to base all our summer activities in the Dalton School, to which the parish very generously gave us unlimited access.

My interest in establishing a photographic archive of Tignish past and present began in 1960 when I was 17 years old and attending high school in Montreal. When I visited my grandparents that summer I began, with my aunt’s Kodak Brownie camera, to take photos of all the buildings and landscapes that I thought were significant monuments of Tignish history. I visited the original site of the village, founded in 1799 near what is called the Green, adjacent to a lagoon near Tignish Harbour. There I photographed the first parochial house, now a farm shed, and soon to be burned down as a Halloween prank. I also went out to the Norway Road and photographed all the houses of the early Irish settlers who had begun to arrive in 1811.

In 1968, with Canada Council money, the Tignish Arts Foundation was able to buy high quality photographic equipment and a copy stand with lights. At this time I began to make 35 mm negatives of old documents, such as church records, and take more photographs of local historic interest.

This activity intensified when in the summer of 1971 the TAF set up several days at the high school where local people could bring in their family photo albums to be examined for relevant material on the history of Tignish. The response was very good and nearly 200 negatives were made and documented.

We also purchased some very good sound-recording equipment and thus began my career as folklorist in a serious way. I had already made tape recordings of my grandmother and her sister, and our neighbour Emily Doucette, singing all the French songs that had been passed on to them in their childhood at the end of the 19th Century. That same summer I recorded my grandmother’s sister (and my Godmother), Malvina Doucette, playing the fiddle. Here is a picture of both of them from that time.

I told my old friend from choirboy days, Edward FitzGerald, about my interest in collecting folklore, especially folksongs. He asked me if I had heard Alec Shea’s songs. I had not; I only knew him as the smooth-talking man who had measured my grandfather for the suit he would eventually be buried in.

Alec Shea was a local boy from the Anglo Tignish area who had begun to write tragic and satirical songs about local happenings, based on traditional melodies and formats. His first song was about a train wreck outside Tignish in the winter of 1932. This was followed by songs that cleverly satirised local individuals of note, like the great fish factory owner and politician Clarence Morrissey.

Thanks to Edward, on three separate occasions I was able to tape absolutely everything that Alec could remember before, as the evening progressed, he sank into oblivion. All the songs and their music have been transcribed and, as soon as I finish some writing and tidying up, will be available as a pdf on this site. There is a teaser among my manuscripts on the right of this page. Here are pictures of Alec Shea as a young squire and would-be priest, and as a tailor’s representative in his later years. His appearance in his last years, after a hard solitary life, was, sadly, not so urbane.

I also met several times with Charlie Gavin, who in his youth had been considered a fine singer in the lumber camps. He was old and past his singing prime, but he filled a number of tapes for me with classic lumber camp favourites. Unfortunately, after all these years, my work of transcribing and analysis is only partly done and I have not yet digitised my texts.

It was in the early 1960s that I met Sandy Ives, a prominent folklorist at the University of Maine at Orono. I had corresponded with him about a book he had written of PEI folksongs and when he came to the Island to collect more songs for another book, I took him around the Tignish area to meet various elderly men who had been noted singers in their day. I learned so much from Sandy in the short time I was able to follow him around and observe how he conducted those very difficult interviews with old boys who were shy and not at all sure what the fuss was about. This photo appeared in his book.

When Alex Campbell’s Liberal party came to power in July 1966 the funding for the Arts Foundation was questioned and eventually halted in 1968. Our work, from the beginning encouraged and personally nursed by Conservative Premier Walter Shaw, did not have a place in the agenda of the new government. Such things happen. In spite of this disappointment everything was not lost as we continued to do what we could for several more years to fulfil our aims by collecting photographic images, doing research in local history and collecting folklore materials. This work culminated in a history of the parish, and later, a history of Tignish, both written by Elizabeth Cran. (See the pdf of Mrs. Cran’s parish history in the Lost Treasures section on the left.) Here is a link to Elizabeth’s history of Tignish, called Success on the Edge: Portrait of a Small Town.

http://137.149.200.109:8080/fedora/get/ilives:257559/PDF

The work of the Tignish Arts Foundation never really stopped even when the charter expired from legal inactivity. The dream lived on and the number of things to be done kept multiplying.

I developed a passion for historic topography, which had begun in my university days in Sackville when I began to explore, in considerable detail, the historic Isthmus of Chignecto, which I explored, mile after mile on the ground, and finally, in desperation for more insights, from the air.

I did the same thing for the Tignish area. On two occasions I hired a small plane at the Summerside airport to take me on reconnaissance and photographic flights over Lots 1 and 2. Among dozens of negatives and slides I obtained this photo of the site of the 1799 settlement, identifying features I had discovered on the ground. I also photographed the now completely disappeared cedar pole fences (right) that zig-zagged across the fields near Nail Pond.

These cedar pole fences were beautiful, very functional, long-lasting and articulated the rural landscape of my childhood with art and precision. This one was at Christopher’s Cross, north of Tignish.

At present I am completing the Alec Shea manuscript, begun fifty years ago. As well, having done all the research and photography, I am ready to write an illustrated history of the church of Saint Simon and Saint Jude in Tignish. A catalogue of about five hundred photographs and their negatives relating to the history of Tignish and the surrounding area, begun in the days of the Tignish Arts Foundation, was completed in 2012 – and issued in the name of the Foundation. It is among my manuscript pdf files on the right of this page. The work of the Foundation still goes on, fifty years after its official demise, and will go on until I die.

Some may say that the people of Tignish, except for half a dozen caring individuals, were largely oblivious to what we were trying to do. I am sure that they are right. Perhaps the people were just indifferent. But we believed in Rural Renaissance, that now dated concept, and carried on regardless. Nothing that we did was lost, or in vain. All this, including this blog, so many years later, is done in the spirit of the Tignish Arts Foundation, to keep those dreams of long ago forever green.

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