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Fifty Irish Lives in Canada



Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland


Today we celebrate the start of Irish Heritage Month, officially recognised as such by the Government of Canada thanks to the leadership of James Maloney MP and the Canada Ireland Parliamentary Friendship Group.

In celebration of Irish Heritage Month, we will launch Fifty Irish Lives in Canada on Friday March 3rd.  Please join James, me, and our guests online for the event.  From this day onwards, we will publish one profile of the Irish in Canada over the past three centuries.  The profiles we are launching resoundingly affirm that indeed the story of the Irish in Canada is a fascinating one.  Its richness lies in its complexity.

The launch of Fifty Irish Lives in Canada is the culmination of over a year’s work.  The project was inspired by the Royal Irish Academy’s (RIA) publication of Irish Lives in America in December 2021.  Surely, I thought, the story of the Irish in Canada deserved no less. 

Professor Mark McGowan immediately endorsed the idea. Within days of bouncing emails between various places, the enthusiastic and willing response of the prospective contributors launched what was for all a labour of both love and discovery.  Sage advice and expert inputs flowed from David Wilson, Michele Holmgren, Elizabeth Smyth, and others.

The collective wisdom from early on was that we had to confine the candidates to Irish born to avoid being overwhelmed.  Being deceased was also accepted as a useful parameter.  We realized quickly that we should strive to embrace not just those whose achievements gave them prominence, but those whose ‘ordinary’ lives were emblematic of the immigrant experience. 

There is of course a notable predominance of men.  Society at the time and in recorded history rendered half the population invisible: lack of respect, education, and encouragement denied women opportunity in life and a place in the record books.  Between this launch and eventual publication, there is much work to be done to recover women and their contribution, whether quotidian or prominent.

We intend on publication to include an essay on gender and diversity.  We also plan to include a response from Indigenous communities so that we can share the perspective on the Irish in Canada, who came from one colony to help found another one, whether their coming was willing or unwilling, knowing or unknowing about the impact on the pre-European natives of the land that we call Canada but to them was Turtle Island.

As the project gathered pace, we quickly grasped that not only was the story fascinating, it was also complex.  In fact, we soon adopted the motto “it’s complicated.” Over three centuries, we see unfold in Canada the story of a complicated symbiotic relationship with the colony of Ireland, England’s first imperial adventure. 

Traditionally seen as a story of immigration, the Irish in Canada must be understood as a story of colonialism.  Only that can explain why so many varieties of Irish identity and background turned up in Canada: from the émigré Tadgh O’Brennan in the 17th century to the Anglo-Irish colonists of the 18th; from the fishermen of the 17th and 18th centuries; from Protestant farmers and Orangemen to Catholic labourers and the Fenians in the 19th; from the soldiers in Wellington’s British Army who settled in Canada in the 1820s and 1830s to the forced relocation of Irish tenants during and after the Great Famine. 

The rich parade of Irish identity and perspectives revealed even in this small sampling testifies to the complicated history of Ireland itself and the key role many Irish played in the British Empire, whether unwilling or, as in many cases, willingly.  Canada loomed large in the imagination of moderate Irish nationalists at home who strived for the re-establishment of an Irish parliament.  History took Ireland in a different direction in a quickening of events between 1916 and 1922. Canada became the future that Ireland never had.

Tensions back in Ireland played out in Canada, notably between Catholic nationalists and Orange loyalists.  Yet Canada provided a society that ultimately allowed such divergent loyalties to find common cause in building a stable and prosperous society.

No figure perhaps encapsulates this complexity more starkly than Nicholas Flood Davin.  A supporter of Home Rule for Ireland, a supporter too of votes for women, Flood Davin was similarly inspired to write in 1877 a history of the Irish in Canada to correct a record that suggested Canada was the product of the Scotch, English, French and Mennonite Germans. He had harsh words for those Irish who denigrated their identity: “you may as well seek to fly from your shadow as to escape your nationality.”  Yet, it was this proud Irish nationalist who undertook the commission of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to report on Indigenous issues.  He recommended the establishment of the Indian residential school system.  From that conjuration of colonized and colonizer much tragedy flowed.

Yet the Indigenous and the Irish found a common humanity too that transcended the forces of history shaping their lives.  As we will reveal, the suffering of the Indigenous inspired them to respond to the suffering of the Irish as news of the Great Famine spread and desperate Irish refugees arrived in the traditional lands of the Indigenous. 

The project is now open to all submissions, each of which will be part of our online bank of Irish Lives in Canada.  Now is the time to submit your favourites.  Pick your person, keep the profile to one thousand words and your submission will be eligible for inclusion.  We are keen to welcome entries that reflect the rich diversity of the Irish in Canada.

I want to thank all those who have been involved in this project, particularly the contributors and Mark McGowan who has written an overview essay of the patterns of Irish migration to British North America, capturing its duration and complexity with eloquence and clarity. 

Following the advice of the RIA, we have adhered to the limitation of 1000 words.  That is no easy task and I hope that you agree we have achieved it without compromise of thoroughness or eloquence.


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