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From ‘dirt poor’ to riches: Book details how Owen Connolly became a successful P.E.I. entrepreneur

The bust of Owen Connolly still sits on top of a building at 75 Queen St., Charlottetown. Connolly is the subject of a new book written by Leonard Cusack. JOHN MORRIS/LENS MAKE A PICTURE
The bust of Owen Connolly still sits on top of a building at 75 Queen St., Charlottetown. Connolly is the subject of a new book written by Leonard Cusack. JOHN MORRIS/LENS MAKE A PICTURE

When Owen Connolly first stepped onto the docks in Charlottetown in 1839, he was seeking a better life.

After escaping poverty and strife in Ireland, the young immigrant was broke so he immediately went to work on the Smallwood farm. After two years there, he leased land on the Monaghan Road and set out to establish his own farming operation.

He married Ann Hughes, an immigrant from County Armagh, on Jan. 14, 1847.  They opened a small store, but their struggle to make an income, along with several personal tragedies, led them to sell it and move to the province’s capital.

Now a new book chronicles how, over a 40-year period, Connolly rose from being a “dirt poor farmer” to one of P.E.I.’s wealthiest entrepreneurs.

“He knew how to make money. He knew how to make a deal. And when property became available, he would buy it. So he spent a lot of money in a short time buying buildings downtown,” says Leonard Cusack, author of “Owen Connolly: The Making of a Legacy 1820-2016”, published by Island Studies Press and the Owen Connolly Estate.

By 1852, Connolly had set up his own store in Charlottetown and was soon wholesaling goods to other merchants. He expanded to importing, exporting, banking and real estate, setting up stores in Souris, Cardigan and Montague.

 

Researcher Lori Mayne and author Leonard Cusack hold a copy of their book, “Owen Connolly: The Making of a Legacy”. A book signing is scheduled for today at the Bookmark in Charlottetown at 2 p.m. SALLY COLE/THE GUARDIAN
Researcher Lori Mayne and author Leonard Cusack hold a copy of their book, “Owen Connolly: The Making of a Legacy”. A book signing is scheduled for today at the Bookmark in Charlottetown at 2 p.m. SALLY COLE/THE GUARDIAN

What propelled his success was a strong work ethic, says Lori Mayne, the book’s researcher.

“Connolly had a brilliant entrepreneurial mind. Besides his store in Charlottetown he had chain stores. He traded with farmers, sold liquor, bought properties and shipped agricultural products (oats and hams) and succeeded in all of it,” says Mayne, who read through his business and estate records at the P.E.I. Public Archives.

But it was sifting through approximately 15,000 letters that gave her the greatest insight into the man.

 “When you’re reading someone’s words you feel as though you’re getting into someone’s head. I found someone who had a very sharp mind and wit. He was always thinking business, wishing people well. He was very demanding, but was very caring as well, trying to help them succeed but not hesitating to lecture them if he didn’t think they were measuring up.”

Connolly also had great expectations for himself.

On Boxing Day in 1881, while working at his warehouse on Sydney Street, he tumbled down the stairs. He had such a bad fall that he had to be carried back to his house. He spent the next three months in bed where he continued to run his business.

Three months later one of his letters describes his condition after getting back on his feet. He writes: “I am moving around on two sticks and progressing favorably and attending to my business. It will be summer before that I can get along without aid. I am otherwise in usual good health. I suppose that you are so busy you have no time to complain.”

Besides giving insights into his personal life, the 201-page soft cover book covers his transition from entrepreneur to philanthropist. Connolly felt strongly about education. And when he died in 1887 much of estate went to provide bursaries to Irish Catholic students from P.E.I., said Cusack.

“He saw other people around him doing well on P.E.I. They were mainly of English and Scottish descent. The Irish were considered labourers, for the most part. Connolly realized that if his Irish friends and cousins were to do well they would have to be educated too.

“That’s why he started the bursaries, which continue to today.”

Although the book is about Owen Connolly, his wife, Ann, also plays an important part of the story.

 “She was with him every step of the way,” says researcher Lori Mayne.

 

This 1879 painting of Owen Connolly by Robert Harris in 1879 is part of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery collection. Harris also painted a portrait of Ann Connolly in 1879 that is also part of the art gallery collection. CONFEDERATION CENTRE ART GALLERY/SUBMITTED PHOTOS
This 1879 painting of Owen Connolly by Robert Harris in 1879 is part of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery collection. Harris also painted a portrait of Ann Connolly in 1879 that is also part of the art gallery collection. CONFEDERATION CENTRE ART GALLERY/SUBMITTED PHOTOS

For instance, when they first opened a business it wasn’t just a general store. The family offered lodgings, including breakfast. 

“So we figured Ann delivered all of that,” says Mayne.

Then later in life, while he was known for his generosity, she played a part, too.

When he died in 1887, he left her money and the use of the property.

”But she argued that she should receive more, which was quite revolutionary for the time.”

 So Ann went to his trustees of the Owen Connolly Estate, incredibly prominent men in Island society and said: “No, I deserve more.”

 She was successful in getting the terms of the agreement renegotiated.

“So Ann received twice as much money a year and received ownership of some of the property.”

 Later in life she donated some of the key property for the Charlottetown Hospital that was located where the Culinary Institute of Canada is now located.

Connolly’s obituary in the New York Times

CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island, Dec. 27. – Owen Connolly, the wealthiest merchant of Charlottetown, dropped dead in his store today.

He was writing an order for a pair of blankets and a load of coal, which were to be a Christmas gift to a poor woman, when he sank into a chair and expired.

He was 67 years old and married, but had no children.

He is rated worth $800,000.

His will, after making several bequests. gives the residue of his estate for the education of poor Roman Catholic children in Prince Edward Island.

The New York Times December 28, 1887

 

Fast five facts:

-           What: “Owen Connolly: The Making of a Legacy”.

-           Book signing: Saturday, Dec. 9, 2-4 p.m., the Bookmark, Charlottetown.

-           Published by: Island Studies Press.

-           Author: Leonard Cusack.

-           Researcher: Lori Mayne.

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