Canadian woman, 91, finds home away from home in Northern Ireland

The Thibodeau family find their mother's old house in Belfast
The Thibodeau family find their mother's old house in Belfast

A 91-year-old woman from Canada has visited Northern Ireland for the first time to see the house her mother lived in before emigrating.

Dora May Thibodeau made the five-day trip this week accompanied by her daughter Mary and sons Mark, Steven and John, as well as daughters-in-law Dale and Jennifer.

The Thibodeau family in the Malone Lodge in Belfast where they have been based during the trip

The Thibodeau family in the Malone Lodge in Belfast where they have been based during the trip

The family made the usual tourist stops – the Giant’s Causeway and Titanic Belfast – but it was an old terraced house in north Belfast that proved the star attraction.

The house in Upper Mervue Street, formerly Collyer Street, was where Dora May’s mother Hannah Mary Palmer had lived before her husband decided it was time to start a new life in Canada in 1907.

Dora May said: “After she got married to Henry Eccles he said, ‘I’m taking you on a trip’. They got to Kingston, Ontario and he said, ‘we’re staying, there’s more opportunity here for our children’. She cried for a week because she didn’t want to leave Belfast.”

Hannah Mary had been part of the rich linen trade in Belfast before she emigrated.

Hannah Mary Palmer

Hannah Mary Palmer

Her daughter said: “She left school about Grade 7 (age 12 or 13) and worked in a factory making hankies.

“She had a lot of brothers and sisters. When she talked about her family she’d cry.

“Some of them never left Belfast. Aunt Tilly, Aunt Sarah and my mother were the three who left to come to Canada. They lost contact with their brothers and sisters during the Great Depression and that was sad.”

When Henry died Hannah remarried Frank Donald Michie, of Scottish origins. She died in 1949 aged 65.

The Thibodeau family at Titanic Belfast. Dora May (second from right) with her son John, daughter Mary and sons Mark and Steven.

The Thibodeau family at Titanic Belfast. Dora May (second from right) with her son John, daughter Mary and sons Mark and Steven.

Their daughter Dora May, who had eight children with her late husband Raymond Walter Thibodeau, said she has always felt drawn to her mother’s Irish roots and in recent years the family has begun to renew ties with Northern Ireland.

Following some exploratory visits from members of the Eccles family, contact was made with Marbeth Gilmour and Andrea Elkin, who live in Ballymena.

Daughter-in-law Dale said: “We call Marbeth and Andrea ‘the cousins’ but it’s something more like great, great half-cousins.

“They met us on Thursday and took us to the house in Upper Mervue Street where Hannah Mary lived. Part of the street was bombed in World War Two and only these few old houses remain. We learnt that the house is going to be torn down in the near future.

“We ended up sitting in the neighbours’ house having tea. The hospitality has been amazing. This trip was to make Dora May’s dream come true. It’s been even more.”

Her eldest son Steven said: “As a family we’ve often done cruises in the past, but this is a very special trip because we’re going back to our roots. It’s been an emotional five days.”

Unable to make the trip this week were Dora May’s daughters Susan and the late Janet and sons James and Andrew.

Her son Mark commented: “Some of us have a really strong interest in coming back. The people here take great pride in their beautiful country.”

Given that Hannah Mary had a lot of brothers and sisters who stayed in Northern Ireland the family are hopeful they may have more relatives here.

Anyone with links to the Palmer family can email thibojo@rogers.com