“We like to think the Irish started this town of Kentville,” a former Nova Scotia premier said at a function in the Cornwallis Inn.
As reported by the Advertiser’s then-editor, Harold Woodman, Premier Gerald Regan immediately qualified this offhand remark. “Well, at least the Irish helped get it started and helped keep it going,” he said.
There’s a grain of truth to this. Of Irish ancestry himself - the Regans are descended from Irish royalty - the former premier may have had in mind men like Henry Magee (1739-1806), a pioneer merchant in Kentville. Magee was born in northern Ireland, emigrated to the States, and as a loyalist during the American revolution, was given land grants here. You’ll find his tombstone in Kentville’s Oak Grove Cemetery.
Magee opened the first store in Kentville, in 1788, and for decades he helped the town prosper. At one time, he probably was the town in essence, since besides being a merchant king, he built a saw mill and a grist mill, the latter in the town. A pioneer merchant, miller and trader, Magee’s influence was felt in the town and well beyond it. Arthur W. H. Eaton saw fit to salute Magee in his history of Kings County and he’s been the subject of various historical profiles; all of which suggests he fits Premier Regan’s suggestion the Irish helped get Kentville get its start.
Then again, the premier may also have had in mind the Irishman William Redden (1815-1894). As a builder, farmer, trader and miller, Redden had considerable influence on the early development of Kentville. Like Magee, Redden is profiled by Eaton in the Kings County history. Eaton’s sketch notes that a large part of residential Kentville owes is existence to Redden. His obituary says Kentville’s material growth and prosperity is to a marked degree identified with Redden. Many of the houses Redden constructed along Main Street still stand and, in fact, the street once was known as Redden Row.
When Kentville incorporated in 1886, an Irish descendant, James William Ryan, served on the first town council. Ryan, one generation removed from Dublin, was the town’s fifth mayor, serving two terms in this position, the first 1894-1895, the second in 1913-1914. Along with his son, Robert Holden Ryan, the Ryans were prominent in town politics and the county militia. Eaton’s county history has a number of references to the Ryans and both, like Magee and Redden, are part of Kentville’s little known and unsung Irish element.
Now, on to another pioneer Kentville family out of Ireland. James Lyons emigrated from Ireland in the early part of the 19th century and became prominent as an hotelier. The Lyons, James and son Joseph, were hotel keepers, stagecoach operators, politicians and postmasters. Kentville historian Louis Comeau tells me James changed his Irish surname, possibly to conceal his Irish origin and Catholic religion.
James opened the Lyons Hotel in Kentville and, along with his son, Joseph, owned and operated the Stagecoach Inn. The Lyons also started a stagecoach line that ran from Kentville to Halifax. Joseph has the distinction of being the Kentville postmaster for 48 years. Gerald Lyons, KC, Joseph’s son, served as mayor of Kentville.
There are many others with Irish surnames who contributed to Kentville’s growth and prosperity over the years. So while Premier Regan’s remark may have been said jokingly, it has, as I suggested, a bit of truth in it.