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All the way from Oderin


Bert Riggs,

(an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University),
whose column, A Backward Glance
appears in the Telegram each Tuesday

Transcribed From the Telegram

By: Barbara McGrath



The McGraths of Oderin, an island community in Placentia Bay, were one of the leading families in Placentia and St. Mary's bays, and other parts of Newfoundland, with sons and daughters over several generations contributing to the political, religious, legal and educational life of Newfoundland. Patriarch Richard McGrath was a fisherman who represented Placentia and St. Mary's in the House of Assembly as a Liberal from 1861 to 1865. He was later appointed a stipendiary magistrate.

His oldest son, James Francis McGrath, was born in Little Placentia (later renamed Argentia) on May 23, 1859. He was educated at Oderin, and like many Roman Catholic sons, he was sent to St. Bonaventure's College in St. John's to finish his education.

He returned to Oderin, where he entered the fishery as a boat owner and operator, involved in the Grand Banks cod fishery and the inner Placentia Bay herring fishery. He established a solid reputation as a hardworking and resourceful individual. It was only natural that he was approached to enter the political arena.

James McGrath's first attempt at a seat in the House of Assembly came in the election of Oct. 31, 1885. That election is notorious in Newfoundland political history for its blatant sectarianism, both in the campaign and in the make-up and ideology of the two parties.

On Boxing Day 1883, fighting broke out in Harbour Grace between parading Protestant Orangemen and Roman Catholics. Several people were killed, but subsequent trials resulted in acquittals as witness after witness contradicted each other's testimony.

One of the results of these trials was a restructuring of political allegiances as some Protestant members of the governing Liberals under Prime Minister William Whiteway broke with their leader to join a new party.

Under the leadership of St. John's merchant Robert Thorburn, the new party consisted of these disgruntled Liberals and the remnants of the Conservative party, which had been floundering in opposition for many years.

Cutting corruption

The Reform party, as it became known, promised an end to political corruption and no coalition with Roman Catholic members of the new House of Assembly. The Liberal party was predominantly Roman Catholic, and was equally determined to protect the interests of all Catholic citizens.

The election was unique, in that one third of the members were returned by acclamation. Those districts that did have contests usually had the one of the two main parties fighting one or more independent candidates, as for the most part, the Liberals ran only in predominantly Catholic districts and Reformers in predominantly Protestant ones.

James McGrath was elected at the head of the poll in the three-member district of Placentia and St. Mary's. He was re-elected twice, in the general elections of 1889 and 1893. In 1889, he was part of the Liberal coalition re-established by Whiteway, and received appointment to the Fisheries Commission, precursor to the Department of Marine and Fisheries, in part because of his extensive knowledge and experience in fisheries matters.

After the 1893 election, Whiteway appointed McGrath as chairman of the board of works, a non-cabinet but extremely important administrative position. It controlled the distribution of all money budgeted for public works, an important source of income and patronage in 19th-century Newfoundland.

McGrath's service in that portfolio was short-lived. The Conservatives, who had lost the 1893 election, charged 15 members of the Liberal party with using patronage funds from the board of works to bribe voters in the election.

The 15, including McGrath and Prime Minister Whiteway, were tried in the Supreme Court, found guilty, unseated and barred from running in future elections.

When the Liberals regained power in 1895, McGrath received appointment as governor of the penitentiary, a position he held until his death on Oct. 29, 1902 at Halifax, on his way home from Boston, where he had undergone kidney surgery.

McGrath married three times: to Theresa Power of Oderin, Kate McCarthy of Red Island, and Minnie Aylward of St. John's.

Two children from the third marriage were James and Elizabeth. James is better known as Dr. Jim McGrath (1902-1975), a medical doctor for many years in St. Mary's and Harbour Grace who achieved a high profile in public life.

In 1943, Dr. McGrath became assistant deputy minister of health, and in 1956 he followed his father and grandfather in politics as MHA for St. Mary's, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1971. He served in Premier Joseph Smallwood's cabinet as minister of health (1956-1967) and as minister of finance (1967-1968).

Elizabeth McGrath (1900-1989), as Elizabeth Conroy, became the second woman to practise law in Newfoundland, when she was called to the Newfoundland Bar on Oct. 2, 1934, only 18 months after the first female lawyer, Louise Saunders.

Brother's keeper

When James McGrath was removed from the House of Assembly in 1893, his position was taken by his younger brother Richard (1868-1934), who won the seat in a byelection. He lost his seat in 1897, was re-elected as a Liberal in 1900, but fell out with Prime Minister Robert Bond and lost his bid to retain his seat as a Conservative.

His daughter, Helena McGrath Frecker (1906-1993), was the first graduate of Memorial University College in 1926, and spent many years teaching at the college and its successor, Memorial University.

Richard's son, the Right Reverend Richard T. McGrath (1912-1987), spent 49 years in the service of the Roman Catholic Church in Newfoundland, the last 15 years as bishop of the Diocese of St. George's.

Other descendants of James and Richard McGrath have made - and continue to make - their contributions to the political, legal, literary and business life of Newfoundland.

Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...



This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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