The Bandon – Toronto connections

Posted on: 7th July, 2014

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Samuel Kingston

Samuel Kingston studied history at NUI Galway and has a keen interest in oral and local history. He is also interested in the Irish historical experience abroad especially in Canada and South America. The aim of this column is to tell the stories of West Cork people both famous and forgotten who, through their lives at home or abroad, made an impact on their time.

IMAGES ABOVE: (l)William Warren Baldwin (r) Robert Baldwin Sullivan.

Toronto is the largest city in Canada, in fact it’s one of the largest cities in North America. It’s a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural city. In the 1800s its development was greatly influenced by the Irish and three men who played an important role in the development of the city were both born in the Bandon area.

Robert Baldwin Sullivan was born in Bandon in 1802. He came to York, as Toronto was then known, with his family in 1819. In 1834, York became a city and renamed Toronto. He studied law and was called to the bar in 1828. In 1835, he was elected to the council and was chosen to be mayor. He was the second mayor of the new city. He added a business like atmosphere to council with the official ‘robes of office’. The council worked on matters like tax rates, grants and the removal of ‘filth and nuisances from the city streets’. On May 6, 1835, council’s committee on draining and paving approved construction of the city’s first main sewer on King Street into which all drains and sewers were to be connected. At the time, Canada was divided into Lower and Upper and Baldwin Sullivan supported the Union of the two which duly occurred in July 1840. He served briefly as the first Commissioner of Crown Lands for the united province. He died in 1853.

His uncle, William Warren Baldwin (born 1775) also born in Cork (probably Bandon), made a big impact on Toronto and Canada in general. He was a keen advocate of ‘Responsible Government’ for Canada. At a more local level, he was heavily involved in many institutions in York (Toronto). He was President of the York Board of Health established to contain the 1832 Cholera epidemic, plus he was involved in Home District Saving Bank, the Mechanics Institute and the House of Refuge and Industry.

William Warren Baldwin’s son Robert continued his father’s good work. Together with his political partner Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, he led the first responsible ministry in Canada. ‘Responsible Government’ marked the country’s democratic independence, without a revolution, although not without violence. This achievement also included the introduction of municipal government, the introduction of a modern legal system and the Canadian Jury system, and the abolishing of imprisonment for debt. Baldwin is also noted for resisting a decades-long tradition of Orange Order terrorism of political reform in the colony that went so far as to burn the Parliament buildings in Montreal in 1849.

Poster for O'Keefe's signature beer Old Vienna

Poster for O’Keefe’s signature beer Old Vienna

The next Bandon man to impact Toronto arrived in the city in 1834, the year before our first Bandonian was made mayor. This man was Eugene O’Keefe; he was six years old when he arrived. In 1861, he was one of the purchasers of Toronto’s Victoria Brewery, at the corner of Victoria and Gould Streets, with had an annual production of 1,000 barrels. Although he had no knowledge of the brewing industry, his dedicated work ethic and forward thinking saw the brewery grow to be one of the biggest in Canada. In 1891, he incorporated it as O’Keefe Brewery Company of Toronto Limited. The brewery would expand to a capacity of 500,000 barrels. In January of 1909, O’Keefe received a prestigious honour when the Vatican named him a Private Chamberlain of the Pope, reportedly the first Canadian to receive this honour.  The premature death in 1911 of his only son, Eugene Bailey, effectively ended O’Keefe’s interest in his brewery’s long-term future. He sold his shares to his partners. The company would evolve to be part of Carling O’Keefe Breweries. Which in turn would merge with Molson Breweries Canada. Molson would later merge with Coors to become Molson Coors Brewing Company.

The O’Keefe name is well established in Toronto due to his many charitable donations. The sizeable proceeds were applied to O’Keefe’s favourite charities, such as Peter’s Pence, St Michael’s Hospital, and the repair of the rectory of St Michael’s Cathedral, of which he was a member. O’Keefe, who rarely did anything on a small scale, had already set out to erect new Catholic churches. For example, in 1907 he built St Monica’s Church on Broadway Avenue as a memorial to his wife. Four years later he purchased West Presbyterian Church on Denison Avenue and turned it over to immigrant Poles, who renamed it St Stanislaus Kostka Church. His most impressive and lasting legacy is St Augustine’s Seminary which opened in August 1913. He also built Toronto’s first low-income housing development.

As a tribute, his name was used on the performing arts centre, the O’Keefe Centre, when it was built in 1960. In 1996, the name was changed to the Hummingbird Centre. In 2007 the name was changed to the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. His former mansion (O’Keefe House), located across from the former O’Keefe Brewery serves as a residence for students at Ryerson University and the brewery itself is now the Image Arts faculty building.

By the time of his death in 1913, he had become one of Canada’s most successful brewers and one of Toronto’s most prosperous citizens—no mean feat in an era when Toronto was still predominantly Protestant. It is only recently that people have rediscovered O’Keefe and the vital role the man played in shaping the city during the Victorian period.

O’Keefe and the Baldwin family left Bandon for different reasons yet both left a strong, identifiable mark on their new home. A city that today prospers thanks to the groundwork of people like O’Keefe and the Baldwins.

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