My Grandfather, the Character

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Aug 18, 2015 12:05 PM
Captain John Dunn of Riverhead, Harbour Grace


In her cozy, art-lined kitchen in Coley's Point, Newfoundland, painter Margaret (Peggy) Cahill (pictured below) shows me some of her intricately detailed acrylic paintings of historical churches and fishing premises. Newfoundland history is clearly her muse and the past is very much in her present. But I’m not here to learn more about her art. I’m here because of something she said to me when we met at an art show in the fall of 2014. She said, “I wish you could have met my grandfather. He was quite a character.”

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She shows me an aged black-and-white photo of a slight, but distinguished man with silver hair and a prominent moustache. His shirt is buttoned almost to the collar and secured with suspenders. Captain John Dunn, of nearby Riverhead, Harbour Grace, looks lost in the moment, head bent forward in concentration on the newspaper spread open in front of him. Flashing a wink at me, Peggy says with a smile, “They don’t make them like him anymore.”

Capt. Dunn lived with Peggy’s family until she was about 10. “He loved to tell us old stories from when he was a young man courting. He would walk back and forth from Carbonear to Harbour Grace, up and down over Saddle Hill, to visit his lovely Miss Kennedy back in the mid- to late-1800s.” This is the start of one of Peggy’s favourite stories. “Anyway, there was one night he was coming back from Carbonear, all decked out in the best coat and clothes he had. It was a beautiful moonlit night, very bright, and he could see everything as he was going up Saddle Hill. He was just going on with his thoughts when he looked up at the top of the hill and saw a huge, black dog. It was in the middle of the road looking down at him. The closer he got to it, the more the [dog’s] eyes started to glow bright orange and red. Now, he wasn’t one to frighten easy and he just kept going up, thinking it might be a wolf or something and would take off once he got upon it. Of course, as he got closer whatever it was started to look less and less like a dog and he thought it was something supernatural. He was a Catholic and habitually carried his rosary beads with him in his Sunday clothes, as many folks did in those days, and he reflexively reached into his pocket, pulled them out and started to pray as the beast came towards him. With that the creature flew up into the air in a ball of flame and went on out over the harbour, out over Carbonear Island. He never saw it or anything like it again for the rest of his life.”

Capt. Dunn claimed to have been present at the Harbour Grace Affray of St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1883, Peggy says. It was a standoff between the Catholics and the Protestants that led to five deaths and 17 injuries. While 19 people were charged in relation to the fighting, they were all acquitted. But, Peggy says, her grandfather did not talk in much detail about such grim events, preferring to focus on stories with better outcomes.

Being a very capable navigator and commander of his own vessel, Capt. Dunn sailed all over the Atlantic during his long and colourful career. One trip to Labrador had a lasting impact on him. It was an accident on board the ship that called for some ingenuity and nerve.

“I always noticed my grandfather had a funny-looking thumb on his right hand,” Peggy says. “Turns out he had lost his thumb, cutting the top off it cleaning a fish or something like that. Of course, there was no doctor or medical help to be found for hundreds of miles, so he had no choice but to sew his own thumb back on himself. It did knit together and worked fine, but looked a bit deformed and enlarged from that knuckle down. I often wondered at what kind of presence of mind and courage would you need to do that, to sew part of your own body back on with no painkiller. He didn’t seem too worse for wear and took it all in stride as just something that needed doing.”

No, they don’t make them like that anymore.

According to Peggy, Capt. Dunn kept his wit and nerve right into his golden years, illustrated by yet another story about him that Peggy likes to tell. “There was a time, near the last of the age of schooner sail, that someone bought one of the final remaining fishing vessels and was taking it away somewhere for maybe use as a pleasure vessel, but nobody alive still remembered the proper way to rig her very top masts. Grandfather went down and was explaining it to the younger men, but they still weren’t getting it right to his satisfaction. So up he climbed and went to work and rigged her out himself. He was 85 years old at the time.”

Capt. Dunn passed away in 1958 at the age of 97. But through Peggy and others who knew him and his stories, his legend lives on. - By Dennis Flynn

Editor's note: In the August 2015 issue, we incorrectly identified the subject as Capt. John Dinn. Downhome sincerely apologizes for the error.