The Irish in Canada: A Strong, 'Loyal' Presence

By Joseph E. Gannon

The Gaels in one-time British North America never quite understood the revolutionary fervor that gripped their American counterparts.

Today, nearly 400 years since they first arrived, the Irish have been nearly fully and seamlessly integrated in Canadian society. While many Irish tended to congregate in the large cities in the United States, in Canada they tended to spread into the countryside. Thus Irish-Canadians have been a bit less visible than the Irish-Americans, but clearly they had a significant influence on the history of the country.

The island of Newfoundland offers clear evidence of the Irish presence in Canada. Many describe St. John's, the provincial capital, as one of the most Irish places in the world outside of Ireland itself.

The first Irishman to settle in what is now Canada was probably a trapper discovered hunting beaver with Native Americans near Cape St. Mary's in Newfoundland in 1622. Later that century, the Irish would begin to settle in Newfoundland in larger numbers. Most came on English fishing vessels and planned to return to Ireland in a year or two, but often they stayed. By 1731, historian R.G. Lounsbury reported that "the majority of the male population (in Newfoundland) were Irish Roman Catholics." In spite of their large numbers, the Irish there experienced the same religious prejudice they faced at home. Finally, in 1774, the Quebec Act ended institutional discrimination in the British Canadian provinces.

In New France, the French-controlled section of Canada, what is today Quebec Province, Irish names are seen in the land and census records by the late 17th century. Many Irish began leaving Ireland for France at the time, especially after the broken Treaty of Limerick in 1691, and some ended up in New France, where they could practice Catholicism. This was just as their countrymen at home were beginning to suffer a long period of religious persecution under the Penal Laws.

It should be noted, that many of the Irish who came to Canada through the early years, just as was the case in the American colonies, were from the group sometimes known as Scots-Irish, often from Ulster. Unlike in the United States, the percentage of Scots-Irish immigration in Canada remained high into and through the 19th century. As late as the period from 1896 to 1900 over half the Irish immigrants to Canada were from Ulster. This perhaps explains why Canada was never as fertile ground for support of Irish revolutionary groups as was the United States. In fact, authorities ferreted out plans for a rising in Newfoundland in 1800, but by and large the Irish in Canada remained loyal to the Crown -- something the Fenians would later discover too late.

Canada did not have as large an increase in Irish immigrants during "The Great Hunger" as did the United States. Though many thousands arrived in Canada, a large percentage moved on from there to the United States. Their arrival, however, was a traumatic experience for both immigrants and Canadians. At Grosse Ile, an island quarantine-station north of Quebec built to accommodate perhaps 200 patients at best, more than 20,000 sick people overflowed their facilities at one point during 1847; what they later called their "Summer of Sorrow." As many as 5,000 were buried on the island that year. On Partridge Island off St. John's, a similar disaster took place on a smaller scale. The Canadians were overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster.

Through the rest of the 19th and into the 20th century Irish immigration to Canada continued in a steady but not spectacular flow. When the Fenians threatened the country in the late 1860s, the Irish of Canada did not rush to the banner of Irish nationalism that so inspired their brethren to the south. Unlike the many Irish massed in the large urban areas of America's Atlantic coast, the Irish of Canada continued to spread themselves around the vast expanse of Canada. As a result most Irish-Canadians have never been quite as aggressive in their Irishness as the average Irish-American. But the Irish had a strong influence on the making of Canada from the beginning, and still do to this day. Of that there is little doubt.

French, British Armies Provide Cannon Fodder, Immigrants

Another early source of Irishmen in Canada were the military units of both France and Great Britain.

As these two great European powers struggled over control of North America during the first half of the 18th century, many Irishmen arrived with the armies of both nations. Those that arrived with the French army often stayed in the Quebec region when their units left.

In addition, a good number of Irishmen in the British army deserted for the French side, or changed sides after capture, and some of them also settled there. In 1748, the president of the Navy Board in Paris wrote to New France saying, "If the Irish Catholics taken prisoner (i.e., from the British army) ask to remain, the King of France sees no difficulty in their being allowed to do so."

There has been some dispute through the years on the question of whether any actual units of the Irish Brigade of France served in New France during the French and Indian War. No definitive answer has been found to that question yet, but no one disputes the fact that many Irishmen served as individuals with the French forces in New France.

The end of the American Revolution provided another influx of Irish, those who remained loyal to Great Britain and fled to Canada as the nearest refuge.

The Fenian Role in The Birth of Modern Canada

The Irish on both sides of the Unites States/Canada border were to help transform British North America into modern-day Canada.

The key step was confederation, the political union of Canada's four provinces. One of its major proponents was Thomas D'Arcy McGee (left), an Irish-born journalist and politician who had been a revolutionary in the Young Ireland party before escaping to the United States after the abortive 1848 Rising. Meanwhile, from the other side of the border, the Fenians, with their 1866 invasion, would provide the final push to convince Canadians to support confederation.

Underscoring their experience fighting in America's Civil War, Fenians at the time took to this ditty:

We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war,
And we're going to fight for Ireland, the land we adore,
Many battles we have won, along with the boys in blue,
And we'll go and capture Canada for we've nothing else to do.

On July 1, 1867 the British Parliament approved the British North America Act, establishing the Dominion of Canada.

The Weekly Globe, published in Toronto, highlighted the Fenians' role, stating in 1870: "Canadians have gained more in national character during the last six years than in any previous twenty; ... the outrageous proceedings of the Fenians and their abettors have been among the chief agencies."

McGee would be elected to the new Dominion Parliament in 1867, but he would not serve long. On April 6, 1868, he was assassinated, apparently by a Fenian named Patrick James Whalen, who was later executed, though some now doubt his guilt.

Canadian Wild Geese ... Give Us Your Feedback!

We'd love to hear from the Canadian members of The Wild Geese about Irish heritage in Canada.  What is it like growing up as an Irish-Canadian?  If you'd like to share some insights, please leave a comment below.

Related Content:

How The Irish Nearly Squandered the Gains of 1776
The United Irish Rebellion in Newfoundland
The British North America Act
Thomas D'Arcy McGee, Canada's First Political Assassination
Thomas D'Arcy McGee: Irish Founder of the Canadian Nation
The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada 
Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage.
National Library of Canada's Confederation Web Site

Selected Bibliography:

Lahey, Raymond J. James Louis O'Donel in Newfoundland, Newfoundland Historical Society, 1984.
O'Driscoll, Rogert, ed.: Untold Story : The Irish in Canada, Vol. 1, pp. 171-201. Celtic Arts of Canada, 1988.
O'Hara, Aidan. "The Entire Island is United?," History Ireland, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2000, pp. 18-21.
Pedley, C. The history of Newfoundland,: From the earliest times to the year 1860, 1863.
Tillyard, Stella. Citizen Lord The Life of Edward Fitzgerald Irish Revolutionary. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

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Tags: Canada, Diaspora History


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