The following article appeared in The Telegram (published in St. John's Newfoundland), on Saturday, August 29, 1992.

Red Islanders relive a colorful past

by Peter Jackson
Telegram Staff Writer

When the Americans started setting up the naval base in Argentia in 1941, 18-year old Elizabeth (Lizzie) Barry and her friends would sit on McCarthy's wharf on Red Island in the evening and stare at the lights sparkling across the bay.

It was not until the following year that she left the island for the first time in her life and saw those lights up close.

After marrying and raising a family on the island, she and her husband Frank Ryan finally joined a growing exodus and left to take up permanent residence on the mainland in 1958. Throughout the next 10 years, under the resettlement plan of the 1960s, the last remaining residents of Red Island would follow suit.

Last weekend, the Unity Parc arena on the abandoned north side of the naval base proved an appropriate setting for the first ever Red Island reunion. A heavy grey sky hung over the crumbling foundations and skeletal remains of buildings as about 500 former residents of the island, with their sons, daughters and in-laws, drove out to attend a dinner and dance Friday evening.

To the left, across the barren landscape and through the mist, the green rolling hills and sandstone cliffs of Red Island rose majestically out of the ocean.

Unlike the quadrennial Merasheen reunion and a recent celebration at Tack's Beach on nearby King's Island, the Red Island reunion took place primarily on the mainland. The organizing committee, led by Mary Hefferan, focussed most of its attention on tracking down as many former islanders as possible and getting them together under one roof.

Their efforts met with resounding success.

Inside the arena, under a ceiling brightly decorated with hundreds of red and white balloons and streamers, Red Islanders and their families dined, danced and delved into a history and community spirit that has long outlived the rotting grey timbers that were once their homes.

There were McCarthys, Reddys, Barrys, Dunphys and Ryans, along with Lambes, Carrolls, Counsels and Kerrivans. The oldest Red Islander, 93 year-old Sister Camillus Dunphy, was also on hand, joined by Sister Philippa Reddy and a number of their relatives. Brian Hennessey, an island descendent who has spent tireless hours over the past several years churning out revisions of his 200-page Red Island Family Tree, joined the other guests at the head table.

The rafters rang and voices grew hoarse with stories of how things used to be.

Red Island, a tall striking jut of land about four miles long by three miles wide, is located about seven miles off Argentia in Placentia Bay. It is the most southerly in a cluster of islands, the largest being Merasheen Island at 11 miles in length.

Until the last permanent residents left in 1968, it was home to a thriving fishing community that once rivalled nearby island and mainland settlements, including Merasheen, Fox Harbour and Long Harbour. In the early 1920s, the population reached as high as 500. That number gradually diminished throughout the Great Depression, and by the end of the Second World, the population had fallen to just over 300.

Life on Red Island was simple, but not easy. For the most part, people were either poor or very poor. They worked long, hard hours at the fishery, and tasks such as making hay and tending gardens consumed much of the rest of their time.

But in the days when boats were the main source of travel, Red Island was no more disadvantaged than any other outport.

"All in all," wrote the late James V. McCarthy in 1974, "anybody who was willing to work could bring up a family on Red Island as well as any town in Newfoundland."

James McCarthy, or "Mr. Jim" as he was known, and his family were among the last to leave the island, packing up their belongings and moving to St. John's in 1968.

Mr. Jim. whose grandfather Thomas McCarthy was one of the first two original settlers there in the early 1800s, was, by all reports, something of an aristocrat. A prominent merchant, Mr. Jim also served as Justice of the Peace and, in the absence of a priest, leader of the rosary at church. He was a tall, proud-looking man who drew respect from everyone in the community, even those who may have felt some disdain for his authority.

Most Red Islanders remember the warmth shown them by Mr. Jim's wife Julia, or "Mrs. Jule". Mrs. Jule had a particular soft spot for children, and would always make molasses taffy or other treats for when they came to visit.

"Her kindness to everyone, her gentle voice, her interest and concern for all Red Islanders, stayed with her until her death," said 54-year-old Mary Ennis in a speech during Friday's reunion dinner. "Mrs. Jule and Mr. Jim's home was open to all of us, no matter how old or young we were."

Mary Ennis, a former Mercy sister who left the island in 1957 to join the convent, sparked a surge of memories for everyone at the dinner by rattling off a few tales and tidbits about people on Red Island.

Redundant names, she said, were handled in an inventive manner.

At one point, there were three Patrick Barrys living on Red Island. One was known as "Paddy Sparrow" because his game leg made him limp quickly like a hopping bird. Another, "Paddy Cork", had a stubby build, was light on his feet and reportedly floated well in water.

The third was apparently just called "Paddy Barry".

After her speech, Mary Ennis ran into another Paddy whom she recalled had dipped into the home brew one night before going to intercept his love interest, Nell, as she got out of a card game at the church hall. Little did he realize that Nell had decided to stay home that night.

As Paddy approached a familiar looking woman on the road, he said "Nell, where have you been? I've been waiting for you."

The woman replied, "You don't know who I am, do you?"

"Indeed I do, you're Nell," said Paddy.

"No I'm not," came the reply, "I'm Nell's mother."

Nell and Paddy eventually married.

For young Red Islanders who had to create their own sources of amusement, there was no shortage of inventive, but relatively harmless, mischief.

One prank that was pulled on more than one occasion called for a piece of strong rope, a corpse, a coffin, and an unsuspecting visitor at a family wake.

Said one person, qualifying: "Of course, you'd be hung if you tried that today."

On Saturday and Sunday, the Placentia Bay Queen and some smaller boats offered excursions out to Red Island itself, and for those who made the 45-minute journey it was an eye-opening experience.

A handful of young children, most belonging to fishing families that still live on the island during the summer, flocked to wharf as boats arrived.

Some of the original houses, shops and sheds still stand, but they looked like little more than dollhouses to the grown-up eyes of people like Judy Ryan, who was only 11 when her family left the island.

Long hills that she and her friends used to slide on were little more than bumps, and the main footpath around the harbor had been reduced in spots to little more than a rabbit trail.

All around, a sea of purple and white wildflowers, lupens and queen of the field, had sprung up amidst the tall grass.

The whole harbor seemed hardly bigger than a postcard.

But the ghostly desolation meant nothing to those who could still envision the stately church and school on the hill, the fish flakes, gardens and white picket fences.

A contingent of about 70 Red Island reunionites spent the better part of Saturday afternoon traipsing across the flowers and foundations and telling stories.

"That's where I received my punishments," someone exclaimed as the group inspected the spot where the school once stood.

High up on the side of a steep hill overlooking the harbor, several people peered at old faded headstones in the Red Island cemetery, now grown over with alders.

Despite the cold misty weather, the group stopped at a favorite gathering spot by the harbor to sing a few songs before they left, while 57-year-old Marie Ryan played accordian and young Paddy Carroll played guitar.

For Lizzie Ryan (nee Barry), who had sat on the wharf as a teenage girl and stared across at the lights of Argentia, her short stroll around Red Island on Sunday brought a weekend journey back in time to a fitting end.

"We had a good bit of fun here," she remarked happily, as she made her way back to the boat.

Another reunion is planned for 1995, but few expect it will ever match the magic of this year's gathering.

Said Mary Ennis, after the dust had settled and bags were packed: "We'll never get it back again like this."