This post is a revised version of a letter I wrote to PEI poet Jane Ledwell after I read her new book, Return of the Wild Goose, with its central subject of Katherine Hughes (1876-1925), born and raised on PEI. Return of the Wild Goose is not only an exploration of Hughes’ life; it is also a dialogue between Hughes, a ground-breaking woman, and the contemporary poet Ledwell, who is Executive Director of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women. As well, the book reflects upon Prince Edward Island as experienced by Ledwell and, in Jane’s imagination, Katherine Hughes.
I read Return of the Wild Goose last week with great appreciation and admiration. It’s a splendid achievement, from beak to tail feathers. I began by being engrossed with the biographical and personal commentary in the “Preface” and impressed by its supple, succinctly eloquent prose.
Then the poems led me both “fiercely” and gracefully, insightfully, lovingly through not only Hughes’ life, passions, and accomplishments, but also through your attachments — including the welcome ironic perspective in “Province House Restoration” — to this island, your family, and your ancestral heritage. Within this framework, you poignantly and deftly explore vital matters of cultural identity, place and belonging; colonialism and independence; and exploitation, oppression, assimilation, resistance, resurgence — ranging from Indigenous peoples to the Irish in Ireland and the diaspora. That exploration also adeptly encompasses gender roles, obviously, with Hughes’ achievements, as well as personal challenges, tribulations, triumphs — hers and yours.
You also skillfully account, with persuasive poetic speculation, for her unwillingness to embrace the suffragettes. She was hardly the only dynamic, powerful, independent, high-achieving woman who held herself apart from, or even scorned, feminism – then and now. That phenomenon, and the variety of reasons, would in itself make for a fascinating study, novel, or poetic sequence.
I think of Dr. Fran Frazer, chair of the English Department when I was hired, and your father’s long-time colleague. She once said to me, in the midst of a discussion of Atwood and Munro, “I don’t understand why young women need feminist movements. I didn’t need a group when I was one of only ten women at Oxford. I’ve always been a feminist, but I don’t need a group.” But she did consider herself a feminist, and significantly mentored younger women, such as Island author Deirdre Kessler — not exactly a “group” or movement, but essential camaraderie. Everyone needs a “group,” however informal — even the early Christian desert ascetic hermits. Hughes found hers, finally, as you show: the Irish, as a people and a nation.
Back to “Province House Restoration.” Your devotion to Prince Edward Island is well-known – to its heritage, landscape, culture, and rich humanity. Therefore, you speak with considerable street cred when you satirize and trenchantly critique the obsession with monuments such as Province House. Now celebrated as the founding site of Canadian Confederation, with the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, it also embodies, as you evoke, a legacy of colonialism and imperialism, including the oppression of Indigenous peoples, the theft of their home and place, and their marginalization on an island swarmed by tourists visiting “the cradle of Confederation.” American poet Charles Olson advised that we should never underestimate the role of masonry in human civilization. And masonry overwhelmingly honours the conquerors, the rulers. Your Province House poem contributes to the resurgent effort to acknowledge the darker aspects of our colonial legacy and that this monument sits on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people.
Your book and Hughes’ story also make me think of another memorial, the Granite Celtic Cross at Charlottetown Harbour, which honours the 10,000 Irish settlers who arrived in the colony of St. John’s / Prince Edward Island during 1769-1810, constituting one-quarter of the island’s population, and who came from all thirty-two Irish counties. I have a vision of Hughes reading your book while sitting near the cross on the lawn.
I was in Ireland in 1974, as part of a summer cycling around England, Wales, and Ireland. I was staying in Dublin when de Valera died. I and my partner of the time — a classically trained musician (piano, cello, flute) — had secured a practice room in the music department of Trinity College. We were practicing a Handel Flute sonata (she on flute, me on alto recorder). We knew that de Valera’s funeral procession would pass by the college under our windows. Earlier that day, I nervously crossed the street rather than walk right by a pub. For this was a summer of terrible IRA bombings in England — at Harrod’s, at a pub frequented by soldiers in Birmingham. There were rumours that Protestant militants might use this occasion to set off bombs in Dublin. A knock on the door interrupted our playing. Two large men in Constabulary uniforms entered, carrying cases: a tripod, a sniper’s rifle, high-powered binoculars. Politely, they told us we must leave. The concerns, they said, were real. There would be snipers all along the route, ready for action. Fortunately, it wasn’t needed, and we watched the funeral from the street.
Return of the Wild Goose takes its place among the very best volumes of poetry by residents of this island, and of Atlantic Canada. It would, I am positive, resonate powerfully far beyond these shores, from Ireland to Australia.
Katherine Hughes was born in Emerald, PEI, in 1876, in an Irish Catholic family, and graduated from Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown with a first-class teacher’s license. She became a Catholic missionary, taught at the Akwesasne Reserve in 1899, and founded the Catholic Indian Association in 1901. She left teaching in 1902 to become a writer. Working for The Montreal Daily Star from 1903 to 1906, she covered the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, and helped establish the Canadian Women’s Press Club in 1904. She wrote a biography of Catholic missionary Albert Lacombe, Father Lacombe, the black-robe voyageur.
Hughes became the first provincial archivist for Alberta in 1908. She then worked for Alberta Premier Alexander Rutherford and his successor Arthur Sifton. In 1913, she was employed by the Agent General of Alberta in London. In 1917, she took a radically different path, devoting herself to Irish independence, and worked for the Irish National Bureau in the United States. The Irish nationalist leader Éamon de Valera chose her to be the Canadian National Organizer of the Self-Determination League. In this position, she worked on clandestine tasks, travelling to Australia and New Zealand, and to Paris at de Valera’s request to coordinate the Irish World Race Congress. She died in New York City in 1925.