Irish Republican News · July 23, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
The Irish in Canada

By The Wild Geese

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.

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.

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.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News