Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Dictionary of Miramichi Biography

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COONEY, ROBERT (1800-1870)

COONEY, ROBERT, clerk, journalist, historian and Methodist convert; b. Dublin, Ireland, 24 Jun 1800; m. 1837, Susan Catherine (Thompson) Shaw, wid/o Israel Shaw, of Halifax; d. Toronto, 17 Mar 1870.

Robert Cooney's father was born in the barony of Forth in Co. Wexford, Ireland, and his mother, a Miss Haughton of English descent, was a native of Dublin. His father was a dutiful Catholic, whose close relatives included "two veritable priests and one titular bishop," while his mother had an Established Church upbringing and converted to Catholicism at the time of her marriage.

Cooney was born in the former Established Church parish of St Mark in Dublin and grew up in the city, as the son of a father who was "well to do and very respectably connected." After receiving a classical education he developed an interest in religion, joined several Catholic societies, and had his mind fixed on becoming a priest. His father died when he was eighteen, however, which was a serious financial blow to the family, and his hopes of entering the church "fell to the ground." Instead of continuing with theological studies he decided to emigrate, and in August 1824 he sailed from Dublin for Miramichi in the ship Earl of Aberdeen.

For three years after his arrival Cooney was chief clerk with the firm of Fiddes & Smiths, lumber and general merchants at Newcastle who imported British and West Indian goods and provisions for sale to the local population, and exported the products of their sawmill to England and Ireland. After the Fiddes & Smiths partnership was dissolved in 1827 he was clerk for a short time to a barrister.

In the provincial by-election held in the fall of 1828 Cooney agreed to lend his support to Joseph Cunard, whose liberalism he admired. His assigned task was to deliver enough of the Catholic vote to Cunard for him to defeat James D. Fraser, whose candidacy had been endorsed by Bishop Angus B. MacEachern. When Cunard won the seat the bishop denounced Cooney's "interference." Prior to the election Cooney's interest in studying for the priesthood had been rekindled by a warm friendship with Father William Dollard, but what he saw as the hierarchy's denial of his rights as a citizen eradicated that interest and caused him to cease attending the Catholic church.

Between 1829 and 1831 Cooney worked as an editor for James A. Pierce, the publisher of The Gleaner. His duties brought him into contact with the members of the mercantile and professional classes and gave him the basic knowledge which he needed to write his invaluable (if often inaccurate and biased) History of Northern New Brunswick and the Gaspé. The book was dedicated to Joseph Cunard. It was printed in Halifax in 1832 by Joseph Howe, after a large part of the print run had been sold by subscription on the Miramichi and elsewhere.

Following Cooney's alienation from Catholicism, clergymen of other denominations on the Miramichi perceived him to be a potential recruit for their clerical ranks. He stated that the Rev. Samuel Bacon was exceedingly anxious that he seek orders in the Church of England, but instead he turned to Methodism. The first member of that body to approach him was the local preacher Joseph Spratt. Later the Rev. Michael Pickles displayed much interest in his case, and after Pickles's departure in 1831, the Rev. Enoch Wood and his assistant, the Rev. Arthur McNutt, treated him with "great delicacy and consideration." His formal conversion took place while he was in Halifax in 1832 arranging for the publication of his book, and it had a souring effect on Catholic-Protestant relations on the Miramichi.

Cooney served his probation for the Methodist ministry in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, and two years after his ordination in 1835 he accepted an assignment in Lower Canada. He returned to New Brunswick in 1847 and had churches in Saint John and St Stephen respectively. In 1855 he went back to Lower Canada, and the following year to Upper Canada, where he served until his retirement in 1862. He resided during most of his later years in St Catharines, before making a final move to Toronto.

Cooney's status as the first historian of the Miramichi was given a boost in 1896 when David G. Smith, editor of the Miramichi Advance, reprinted the History of Northern New Brunswick and the Gaspé, very few copies of the original edition of which were then in circulation. Cooney's second and only other book, An Autobiography of a Wesleyan Methodist Missionary (1856), is the principal source of information on his life and thought.

According to the Methodist biographer John S. Carroll, Cooney was "unmistakably Hibernian" in appearance and possessed all the wit, vivacity and warmheartedness of the Irish. He was an extremely popular public speaker and lecturer, as well as a universally-respected minister, who was honored with an MA by Wesleyan University (1851) and a DD by the Newton Theological Institute in Massachusetts. His standing in the intellectual and cultural life of New Brunswick is signified by Mount Cooney, a peak in the vicinity of the Nepisiguit Lakes, near the northern limit of Northumberland County, the naming of which was first proposed by William F. Ganong in 1899.


[b] Encycl. of Can. [m] Acadian Recorder 24 Jun 1837 [d] Telegraph 29 Mar 1870 / Acadian Recorder 29 May 1830 (re. Shaw/Thomson marriage); Carroll; Cooney (A); Cornish; DCB; Manny (Ships); Mercury 29 May 1827; Rayburn; Smith