Darren Jerome - Lower Town

The brilliant firmament of youth,
Has vanished, and but leaves the truth,
Written wherever mortals range,
That things below are doomed to change.

William P. Lett Ottawa (Bytown) City Clerk, 1855 - 1891

They called the Irish of Lower Town The Shiners

Lower Town

A novel by Darren Jerome

Image: Cover of Lower Town, by Darren Jerome.  
Lower Town
By Darren Jerome
First Class Press (2014)
Paperback: 306 pages
ISBN-10: 0981272517
ISBN-13: 978-0981272511

On any given day you can see them at Parliament Hill, taking in the majestic Gothic, Art Deco, and ‘Chateauesque’ - style limestone and marble structures that are emblematic of a nation’s capital. Many Ottawa visitors also make their way east along Wellington Street to look down from Plaza Bridge onto the Rideau Canal where more tourists, and residents alike, take the opportunity to relax and enjoy the generous green space lining this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Across the bridge is the Byward Market. Another popular spot, its eclectic mix of shops and outdoor stalls offer everything from fresh produce and maple syrup to clothing and accessories year round. Downtown streets like Laurier, O’Connor and Sparks are inviting, with their assortment of residential, government and commercial buildings standing in good repair. More often than not the mood is friendly and relaxed. Ask someone who is visiting for the first time what they think of the city and the word you will invariably hear is ‘nice’. Ottawa is a nice city. But it didn't start out that way.

Ottawa perfectly masks its origins as a harsh lumber town which, less than two hundred years ago, was arguably one of North America’s most dangerous places. Little remains of this “Bytown”, as it was then called, save for the flights of locks along the canal itself, and rare buildings such as the old Commissariat which now houses the Bytown Museum. Not easy to spot, it sits nestled, nearly hidden from view, at the bottom of what was once Barracks, now Parliament, Hill. Otherwise there are rare maps, watercolour paintings and a handful of written records for those who care to look (not to mention the odd bones of those once laid to rest which are rediscovered during construction). The fact that so little remains is not surprising. New replaces old, and cheaply-made wooden buildings do not tend to last. Almost anything that could burn that was still standing at the beginning of the last century was engulfed by the great fire which cut through the town in June, 1900.

Bytown started off small (there were less than 2,000 residents in 1835), and quickly became divided along geographic and cultural-economic lines. The largely Irish/French populace of Lowertown (a drained swampland east of the canal) and English/Scottish Uppertown (just west of Parliament Hill) were separated by canal, brush and swamp, linked only by a single path that ran through what is now the city's downtown core. At its midpoint was the town cemetery, bigger than a city block, it was fenced in with tall wooden pikes and separated into Protestant and Catholic halves.

But change has not been limited to buildings and roads. Even the waters ran different then. The Lay By, where the canal once bulged like a distended stomach into a half kilometer-wide turning basin just before the final flight of locks, is long-since filled in. The same is true for a narrow, fetid stream called the Bywash that once meandered its way through the Byward Market. Running east-west along the centre of Rideau Street, it turned sharply onto King Edward where its contents, including every form of filth imaginable, ultimately emptied into the Ottawa River near to where the old City Hall now stands.

The image of this thin channel cutting through rows of hastily-built tenements imparts a depressing but accurate image of life during that time. Twice ravaged by cholera, the populace of Lowertown struggled to survive in the wake of severe poverty and unemployment once canal construction was complete in 1832. With law enforcement scant at best, violence was commonplace and fighting raged on, often along ethnic lines. Many Irish became known as shiners, a word whose origin has been linked to the derisive term ‘cheneurs’ or oak cutters, in reference to the wood they cleared during canal construction. The violence increased further still in 1835 with the appearance of a successful lumber baron named Peter Aylen. Attempting to establish a monopoly in a lucrative industry, Aylen successfully galvanized collective shiner angst in an effort to intimidate any who stood in his path. This bloody period, which ran until 1837, became known as The Shiner War.

Lowertown is the home of the fictional Brislin family, and the setting for this narrative. At its core is the story of two brothers, Richard and Hugh Brislin, and the paths which put them on a collision course during the most vicious period of a city’s violent past.

The story opens as younger brother Hugh, who is nervous and eager to please, is performing odd jobs at The British Tavern or “The British,” as it is known. The Tavern, which is located on the opposite side of the canal from Lowertown, is owned and operated by a one-armed veteran of Waterloo, who is known only as The Little General, and his wife, Mrs. General. The Little General also has two colourful associates; the giant stone-faced Mr. Moodie (a fellow soldier) and Mick, an Irishman with a gift for story telling who spent most of his adult life in the British Navy. After getting off to a rough start, Hugh has managed to endear himself to all three, although he connects best with Mick. In the short time Hugh has worked in the tavern has come to truly enjoy the old man's yarns, told nightly after closing, about his time at sea. Hugh also develops a strong affection for Cammy, a young French-Canadian girl who works in the kitchen and who, to everyone’s delight, brings fresh flowers to decorate the kitchen window each day. It isn`t long before Hugh begins to think of The British Tavern as his real home.

Hugh’s brother Richard has just spent his first winter at a lumber camp putting his great strength to use, although struggling to control his short and often violent temper. Like many of his Irish brethren, he is released from the camp in early spring, and returns to Lowertown with others who share his situation that he meets along the way. He is too proud to go home to his family, however, until he can show himself to be a success. Things take an unexpected turn when, sitting alone one night at a local tavern, Richard encounters another group of young, unemployed Irishmen much like himself. He learns of The Shiners, a newly-formed organization headed by wealthy lumberman Peter Aylen who is intent on bringing work and dignity to the Irish of Lowertown. Invited to the Aylen farmhouse, Richard embraces both the cause and the decadent lifestyle Aylen offers. He quickly moves up the ranks, his brutal nature drawing the attention of one of the Shiner leaders, Mr. Dodgson, who soon takes Richard under his wing; although it is clear to all that the cause itself is more a pretext for Richard’s own violent tendencies. Before long, Richard is leading many of the Shiners’ violent attacks, his signature tall, beaver-skin hat and sleeveless jacket becoming more and more well known.

The boys’ parents, Deirdre and Robert, and sister Eileen, live in a squalid second-floor Lowertown tenement, with Deirdre keeping house and doing her best to look after a husband who is wasting away from the effects of cholera and ‘the drink’. Deirdre is very social to all, although it is clear that she is staunchly opposed to the Shiner movement, particularly now that her relationship with many of her French-Canadian friends becomes badly strained. Deirdre has convinced herself, however, that neither of her boys could possibly be involved in the violence that has begun to affect the town. But, when her husband dies, his wake is overshadowed by a mix of outrage and heartbreak brought on when Richard proudly announces that he is a Shiner and proud to be one.  Enraged, his mother kicks him out, cursing him for the misery and loss that he and his kind have caused her. This does nothing to dampen Richard’s enthusiasm for the Shiner cause however and, if anything, he becomes even more committed and brutal in his actions. He continues on his murderous rampage in spite of numerous setbacks, including the loss of friends when their stolen raft is destroyed in the Grand Rapids just outside of Montreal.

Hugh is also impacted by the conflict. In spite of his brother’s allegiances, Hugh develops a strong contempt for all Shiners and does his best to protect The British Tavern from the violence that surrounds them. In the relatively short time he has been there he has learned a great deal from Mr. Moodie and the others about how to defend himself He has also grown in confidence and strength and, as such, become a trusted member of the team.

The youngest member of the family, Eileen, plays a smaller role in the story.  She is seen once she takes a job as a servant girl, or slavey, in the home of Samuel Mutchmor, UpperTown merchant. The book’s other principal character, Francis Apple, is Samuel’s son-in-law. Both men are drawn into the war when Francis' wife and Samuel's daughter is robbed and assaulted by Richard. We see Samuel through Francis’ eyes as a greedy and manipulative man whose primary concern is his own financial interest.

As Shiner raids intensify they look to cut off commerce by occupying the only bridge linking Uppertown to the Lowertown docks. Mutchmor’s business interests begin to suffer. He takes it upon himself to establish a local militia and The ‘Bytown Association For The Preservation Of The Public Peace’ (the actual name of the militia formed in 1835) is created. Mutchmor enlists the services of his son-in-law although puts his faith in Sergeant Bobby O’Leary, an Orangeman from nearby Richmond who is a retired War of 1812 veteran, to help him whip the force into shape.

As the war continues to rage, things go from bad to worse for Hugh.  Thanks to his slender build, he is ideally suited for the brutal job of retrieving bodies from the Tavern’s well (a favourite Shiner tactic and a task he despises). He also begins to feel like an outsider, due in no small part to the treatment he receives from Mutchmor’s militia who are now using the tavern as a headquarters. It seems they have no problem showing their contempt for the young Irishman -  something which The Little General seems unwilling or unable to do anything about. Then, to make things worse, Cammy leaves, her family deciding it is unsafe for her to remain. Shortly after, Richard pays Hugh a visit, ambushing him at the well and goading him to join, doing his best to convince Hugh that his days at The British Tavern are numbered. But the worst occurs when Eileen returns home, pregnant. Both she and her baby die in childbirth, but not before Hugh and his mother learn that her pregnancy was the result of repeated rapes by her master, the same Samuel Mutchmor.

Broken hearted, Deirdre soon passes away in Hugh’s company, but not before advising him on her deathbed that, whatever path he chooses, he must follow his own conscience. Shocked and grieving, Hugh turns to the only family he has left, and goes to the Aylen House to share the sad news of their sister and mother's plight with Richard. United by grief and rage, the brothers devise a plan of revenge against  Mutchmor, who still uses The British Tavern’s back room for meetings. Dodgson agrees to support the plan and the stage is set for the final showdown.

On the night of the raid, the brothers share a moment of brief bonding. Then, on Hugh’s signal, Richard, who is waiting in an adjoining stable a handful of his best men, charges into The British, savouring his moment of glory and slashing at everything in his path. Locating Mutchmor in the back room, he chases him throughout the tavern. In the melee that follows Mick is fatally injured and Hugh rushes to his aid. At the same time, Hugh sees that Richard is continuing to press his attack and shows no sign of letting up even when Mutchmor grabs and uses Cammy (who has returned unexpectedly) as a shield. A shot rings out and Richard falls, wounded with a bullet to the head. Hugh rushes to his aid and, with the help of another Shiner, is able to drag him out and back to their old home in Lowertown. All assume that Richard has been shot by The Little General, and it is not until the owner shows that his weapon did not discharge, and that Mick’s pistol is missing, that they suspect it might have been Mick, or someone else, who fired the shot.

In the final chapter, months have passed and the boys are still in their Lowertown shanty. Richard is slowly recovering although the meagre funds which were left by their mother are fully depleted.  Hugh decides that his only hope lay in returning to the Aylen house to seek the help of Mr. Dodgson. Dodsgon agrees to a meeting but turns down Hugh’s request since, in Dodgson’s words, there is no place for a broken knight on his chessboard. Enraged, Hugh knocks Dodgson unconscious with Mick’s pistol and runs off, unsure of what to do next. Drained, cold, confused, and feeling completely alone, Hugh stops to catch his breath at the cemetery where he comes across the graves of his family and Mick.

Hugh has avoided the cemetery since Mick’s death and although hesitant at first, feels a certain peace in standing at his grave. He also finds a flower buried in the snow which he assumes to have come from Cammy which he places in his jacket. He makes his way back home, holding a few pieces of firewood to his chest, imaging the flower pressing against him as he makes his way back home to look after his brother.