Your location: Rideau Canal Home Page > Tales of the Rideau > The Tale of Denis Donovan

Denis Donovan
Bury Me in Ireland

as adapted by Ken Watson from various sources

There is a story told on the Rideau of a poor Irish man by the name of Denis Donovan from County Cork, Ireland. He came as a young immigrant to Canada, as did many of his fellow Irishmen, and found employment helping to build the Rideau Canal.

Denis had no skills and so was employed as a pick-and-shovel man, excavating dirt, gravel and rock by hand and moving it by wheelbarrow. The work was hard, but Denis toiled with the vision of coming away with money in his pocket, enough to get married and raise a family.

Sadly it was not to be. In August of one year, Denis came down with Swamp Fever. While most men recovered from this, it eventually became clear that Denis was not going to be one of the lucky ones. On his last day he made a plea to his fellow workers, “send my body back to Ireland.”

Returning the body back to Ireland was not an option, so his fellow workers did the next best thing. They buried him on a local farm, taking out a deed on the burial plot in the name of County Cork, Ireland. So, while Denis was not returned to Ireland, he lays to this day, buried in Irish soil.

The Facts

This is a story about a real person, completely in error, but one told as recently in 2007 in the Ottawa Citizen, as a true story. However, the story falls apart with the first bit of factual information, Denis Donavan did indeed die and was buried near the Rideau Canal – in 1851.

Denis Donovan was born in Ireland in 1795 or 1796. Did he work on the construction of the Rideau Canal? There is no actual evidence for this, but the records are patchy. The Citizen article refers to him as a teenage boy, but he would have been a man in his early 30s at the time of the building of the Rideau Canal. It appears he arrived in Ontario from New York with his family sometime in 1825. He was later a farmer, so it is more likely he pursued that occupation than working on the Rideau Canal.

He may have already been married when he came to North America in the early 1820s, he and his wife were both Irish. It appears that he first settled near Oswego, New York. His first son John was born there in 1823 and his second son James was born there in 1825. His first daughter, Mary Ann was born in Ontario in January 1826 – so that places the date of immigration to Canada, from the U.S., as sometime in 1825.

Critical to the story is that in 1842, Denis Donovan purchased, for the sum of 100 pounds, a parcel of land, Lot 22, Concession 2 of South Burgess Township (just a bit west of Donovans Point on Big Rideau Lake). The land was purchased from Reuben Sherwood Jr. who acquired it from his father, Reuben Sherwood, in 1841. This is the land on which Denis Donovan’s burial plot is located.

Denis, his wife Elizabeth (Betsey) Morris and their family moved onto their new property and started to operate a market garden and apple orchard.

In 1848, Denis sold the property to his son James, for the sum of 50 pounds (although he appears to have retained some interest the property).

In mid-December (December 15 or 18), Denis Donovan committed suicide and was buried on a plot on the property. The headstone erected on his burial site was discovered in 1970, the faded inscription stating “DENIS DONOVAN departed this life Dec. 18, 1851 aged 56 years, a native of the County Cork, Ireland.”

On May 3, 1860, James and Elizabeth (his mother) sold the property to Myles Young (who may have been related to the family by marriage) for 125 pounds. It is said that when Myles Young sold the property, the buyer got the 50 acres, except for a 9 foot by 6 foot section, that being the burial place of the late Denis Donovan.

This is where the facts perhaps turn into fiction. Could you in fact exclude a small piece of ground from the sale? If so, who owed it at that time (did Myles Young retain ownership?). The story goes that the deed for this small plot of land was given (at some point in time) to the County Cork in Ireland, but to date, there is no evidence of this. More likely is that story grew from the factual evidence of a burial plot of an Irishman overlooking the Rideau Canal – imagination did the rest.

The End


Corbett, Ron, Ship My Body Back to Ireland, Ottawa Citizen, September 2, 2007 -

Gill, Lynn, Denis Donovan b. 1795 IRELAND to Leeds, ONTARIO,

Portland Historical Society: Dennis Donovan,

Comments: send me email: Ken Watson

©1996- Ken W. Watson