The Shepherd of Red Island comes home

80-year-old man buried beside his mother in resettled community

Josh Pennell Josh.pennell@thetelegram.com
Published on September 13, 2013

It was an unusual funeral procession for an unusual man. Four boats steamed for an hour and a half Thursday through Placentia Bay toward the resettled community of Red Island. There was singing, laughter, seasickness and stories on the ride out, the more than 50 people spread out over the four vessels coming together to grant the last wish of a man who lay in a casket wrapped in a tarpaulin on the deck of one of the boats. Jimmy Corrigan — the Shepherd of Red Island — was coming home.

Corrigan was born in a different time and let modernization pass him by in favour of the life he was born into in the community of Red Island. He took to tending the community’s flock of sheep as a boy, which earned him the nickname “The Shepherd.”

Wayne Traverse, whose father was very close to Jimmy, says Jimmy roamed Red Island tending to his flock barefoot as a teenager. When a man gave him a pair of rubber boots, Jimmy is said to have claimed they only slowed him down.

In recent years, Nick Traverse had half a dozen sheep left on Red Island with Jimmy.

“He was a very dear friend of mine,” says Nick.

When Red Island was resettled in the 1960s, Jimmy had to move.

“He left in resettlement. He told me he never got paid for no land,” says Nick.

He worked the lumber camps and went to Churchill Falls for a spell, but once the dust had settled over centralization, Jimmy and another man named Morris Barry came back to their island home. Jimmy had the island to himself for the most part. He picked up where he left off — fishing and tending to his flock.

“He lived his life out here,” Nick says.

And while he kept up the practice of keeping sheep for sustenance, it wasn’t by his hand that the animals met their demise.

“He didn’t have the heart to slaughter them for food,” says Nick.

Jimmy would go get water while Nick killed an animal. He would cook enough for a few days and salt a bunch more to make it last.

The reality of the life Jimmy Corrigan chose can probably never be understood unless replicated, but as Red Island breaks through the fog and the floating funeral procession pulls up to the wharf, the reality of it is a little clearer.

What’s left of Jimmy’s home sits on a small head of land at the mouth of the tiny harbour.

One shack lies in ruins. The green cabin that he called home is standing, but there’s not much else to say of it other than that. While it must have been in somewhat better shape when still in use, there’s no doubt this was never the abode of a man who cared for material possessions.

Wayne Traverse says when Jimmy sold off his fishing licence and a $100,000 cheque for it came in the mail, he told them to just toss it in his drawer.

The population of Red Island is said to have been 500 strong at one point. On this day, there are the rundown shacks of those who once walked here and the well-kept cabins of those who live elsewhere, but still return.

The wharf fills with people as Jimmy’s friends and family disembark from the boats. The men set to work right away. His casket is unwrapped and strapped to a small trailer pulled by a quad.

Albert Mulroney leads the way carrying a white cross. Behind him comes the quad carrying Jimmy. And behind that, a line of people who quite obviously loved him. They have come together to bring him here to fulfil his last wish.

Ten men came out the day before and dug his grave by hand. Now the line of people celebrating his life weaves around the cabins and up over the hill to where Jimmy will rest. It’s a collective, selfless act earned by a man through how he chose to live.

“He was a unique man, I can say that. He loved everybody and he cared gently about the land and the environment that he was in,” says Norm Cheeseman, Jimmy’s nephew.

It’s not lost on Norm how strong-minded Jimmy must have been to live on this island alone during the winters. The last time Placentia Bay is remembered to have frozen over completely, Jimmy’s sister couldn’t reach him on the VHF radio. She feared the worst and sent a helicopter with some food and a nurse to find him. They saw his tracks in the snow and found him in his cabin.

“The nurse wanted to check him out, and he said, ‘You’re not touching me,’” says Nick, adding that he doesn’t think Jimmy saw a doctor until his 70s.

Jimmy stayed with Doreen Traverse at times in the last 24 years. A couple of times a year, he would come in from the island. He also lived with her full time the last three or four years when failing health meant he could no longer make it to Red Island.

“He loved kids,” Doreen says. “When he was dying, on the Saturday morning at 7:30 there was a teenager came in and gave him a kiss and a hug.”

There are plenty of young people snaking their way up to the gravesite overlooking the island. There’s an obvious collision of lifestyles here. The odd cellphone is dropped and fetched from the mud as the line climbs further up over mud and rock. A iPad in a young woman’s hands is recording the event. It’s in stark contrast to what life must have been like for Jimmy on Red Island.

As the casket is lifted off the trailer and the men carry Jimmy up to his resting place, his true reason for asking these people to bring him back here — perhaps part of the reason this man chose to spend so much time alone here — is waiting for him next to his gravesite.

“He always said his mother was alone. It was all about his mother,” says Doreen.

His mother died before the community was resettled. His father was buried in Placentia. His sister will be buried there, too. Jimmy didn’t want to leave his mother on Red Island by herself.

After he is lowered down by hand and some words are spoken, a man with a guitar stands by Jimmy’s grave and starts to sing Harry Martin’s “This is my home.”

I have no silver, no diamonds, or gold,

But I am far richer by the visions I hold;

‘Cause I’ve seen the mountains and I’ve seen the sea,

I’ve seen all their beauty and lived a life that is free.

The many voices gathered to celebrate Jimmy’s unique life come together as one as people join the singing.

When I am weary and it’s time to rest,

Please take this old body to the place I love best;

Somewhere on that mountain turn my face to the sea,

And let the wind in the treetops sing me to sleep.

josh.pennell@thetelegram.com