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Overview: Irish Migration and Settlement in Canada


Professor Mark G McGowan

The Canadian and American experiences of mass Irish migration and settlement are different. In the British North American colonies, the Great Irish Famine migration was more the highwater mark of longstanding Irish migration than the beginning of such. Irish migrants appeared in France’s Canadian empire as early as the 17th century, and Irish fisherman and mariners frequented the waters off Newfoundland in the same period. In the three decades immediately prior to the Famine close to 450,000 Irish migrated to the British North American colonies. Included in these 19th century migrations were thousands of Protestant Irish. Thus, the term “Irish” in Canada did not automatically equate with Roman Catholic. In the United States, historian Kevin Kenny has referred to Irish settlement as primarily urban; by contrast in the British colonies, most of the Irish settled in rural areas, and a minority in the major cities. Finally, the Irish migration to British North America was highly differentiated, with various regions of Ireland, and its peoples, linked by chain migration and shipping routes to specific colonies and areas in the colonies. As a result, there is not common Irish community in Canada, but more or less a community of communities, depending largely on the Irish region or origin, the timing of their migration, and the culture and character of the host colonial society that engaged them.

Little known to Canadians is the presence of Irish settlers and sojourners in New France. There were many reasons for the Irish to make a home in France’s overseas Empire. Irish Catholic settlers in the English colonies in America often fled to New France, where they were permitted the free exercise of their Catholic Faith. Other Irish men and women were forcibly taken to Quebec because of raids made by the French and their First Nations allies along the borders of New York, New England, and even Virginia. A third migration pattern consisted of soldiers and “men of means” fleeing Ireland in the 17th century, many of whom enlisted in the French army and navy and found themselves posted to Quebec.  Such was the case of Charles de Latouche McCarthy, who was born in Brest in 1706, France, son of Irish refugees. He was a decorated captain in the French navy and served in New France from 1737 to 1763. Similarly, the first recorded Irish resident of New France was Tadhg O’Brennan, a member of a prominent military family, who escaped the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland via France, and then arrived in the French colonies in 1661 at the age of 29.  He married Jeanne Chartier and had seven children. The O’Brennans were not alone among Irish families in New France who Gallicized their names and assimilated into their new French and Catholic home. By 1700, an index of parish registers indicates that of the 2,500 families living in the colony, about 100 were natives of Ireland, and there were 30 other cases where either the husband or the wife was Irish born.

Irish fishermen from Wexford and Waterford were frequent visitors to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland as early as the mid 17th century. They were engaged in the “dry” cod fishery which required them to take their catches on shore to dry and salt the fish on flakes (racks) and then transport the salted cod back to Europe. In time, these fishermen eschewed the annual trip because they found it more convenient to remain in Newfoundland, set up their flakes, and then ship their salted cod by means of a few selected vessels instead of the entire fleet. Despite the English Admiralty not desiring any colonial settlement on the island, the Irish by necessity had created the first Imperial residence in the colony. Situated mostly in the coves and outports of the Avalon Peninsula and harbours of Bonavista Bay, the Irish also became the principal inhabitants of St. John’s (NL), which in turn became a dispersal point for further Irish migration throughout what would become Canada’s Maritime Provinces.

Known colloquially as “two boaters” (one boat to Newfoundland, and a second boat elsewhere), Irish settlers established farmsteads in the Miramichi Valley of New Brunswick, in the Margaree Valley of Cape Breton Island, (CB) and on the tenancies of Prince Edward Island. Irish two boaters also migrated to the port centres of Sydney, CB, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. There were already Irish settlers and sojourners in Halifax, many of whom could trace their origins to the labourers hired to build the citadel fortifications that began to tower over the harbour in 1749. Other Irish settler colonists came directly from Ulster and the midland counties, also established farming communities in the Chignecto Isthmus region of Nova Scotia, near to the shores of the Bay of Funday, and in the Saint John River Valley, in the colony of New Brunswick (NB). It was not unusual, given the navigational and trade ties between Saint John NB and the Irish ports of Cork (Queenston/Cobh) and London/Derry, that Protestant Irish migrants would be heavily represented among those Irish who landed in the Bay of Funday region.

The Maritime settlements were religiously diverse. Irish Catholics dominated Newfoundland, Halifax, and Prince Edward Island, while Irish Protestants were close to half of the Irish population in New Brunswick and the majority in northern Nova Scotia. It was through the agency of Irish settlers that infrastructures for the Roman Catholic, Anglican (Church of England/Ireland), and Presbyterian Churches appeared. Included in these Church establishments were the importation of Irish clergy, the appointment of Irish bishops, the recruitment of Irish religious orders, particularly women’s congregations, and the construction of chapels, churches, and Cathedrals. The Irish Catholics of St. John’s provide an excellent example of the Hibernization of the Catholic Church in the Atlantic colonies. In 1784, the Vatican established the first Prefecture Apostolic (with its first bishop in 1795), making it the oldest Catholic bishopric in Canada, except for Quebec City (1658). Six Irish-born bishops held the See, from 1795 to 1893. In that time these Irish prelates recruited the Irish Presentation Sisters, Sisters of Mercy, and Christian Brothers to provide Catholics with schools, regardless of class or social standing in Newfoundland. Similarly, across the region Irish-born bishops dominated new episcopal establishments in Halifax, Chatham, and Fredericton (later Saint John).

Irish migration to the interior colonies of Upper and Lower Canada (as of 1841, the United Province of Canada, and in 1867, Ontario and Quebec) were funnelled through the port of Quebec City, or ventured north through the Hudson River corridor to Montreal, via New York, or later via the Erie Canal from Albany to the Niagara region. Unlike Irish migration to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, most which came from the southeast of Ireland, or emigrants to New Brunswick who hailed principally from Ulster and western Munster, Irish migrants to the port of Quebec came from all counties and many made the voyage via the English port of Liverpool. After 1815, and the end of the Napoleonic Wars, young Irish men were attracted to the availability of work on canal projects, lumber camps in the Ottawa Valley, and the opening of ceded and unceded Indigenous lands for farming. In the 1820s and 1830s, Irish labourers were prominent in the building of the Welland Canal, which allowed navigation to circumvent Niagara Falls, and the Rideau Canal which linked the fortified town of Kingston with Bytown (renamed Ottawa in 1855) on the Ottawa River, allowing the British to avoid the severing of transportation between the Upper and Lower Canadian colonies, in the event of an American invasion.

Families from Ireland were attracted by cheap farmland (in the early nineteenth century, free) in the St. Lawrence Valley, the Talbot Settlement on Lake Erie, the Ottawa Valley, and in the one million- acre Huron Tract in what is now western Ontario. Noticeable in their migration were Irish Protestants from the midland counties and from Ulster, who created migration chains between Ireland and central Canada. In one instance, Ulster Protestants created farmsteads in townships appropriately named Monaghan and Cavan. Fiercely ethno-centric, a small group of these settlers, known locally as the “Cavan Blazers,” prohibited Catholic settlement in these townships by “burning out” Catholic farmsteads in the 1840s. In Pontiac County, on the Lower Canadian shore of the Ottawa River (now Quebec), an Irish Protestant surveyor in Clarendon Township prohibited Catholic settlement, hoping that the religious and political sectarianism evident in Ireland would not be replicated in Canada. He did allow three Catholics, former colleagues in the British Army, to settle provided they did not reveal their religion to their neighbours. To this day, the principal town in the county, Shawville, still has an active Orange Hall (LOL27), which flies the Union Jack, and there is no Catholic Church in the township. In the pre-Famine period it is estimated that over sixty percent of the Irish who settled in Upper Canada were Protestant. It was these settlers who established a grid of Anglican (Church of England/Ireland) and Presbyterian churches across the rural areas and small towns of what is now Ontario.

Irish Catholic settlement was more robust in the cities and rural areas of Lower Canada (Quebec) and in pockets across Upper Canada (Ontario). The former province was attractive because Roman Catholicism was publicly practiced and recognized in law since the passage of the Quebec Act in 1774. Before 1829, Irish Catholic migrants would have been astounded that, in the Canadas (Upper and Lower), they could vote, sit in legislatures, and aspire to the liberal professions in ways not available to them in Ireland. There was substantial Irish Catholic sojourning and settlement in Montreal, Canada’s largest city, where Irish Catholics soon came to understand that they had a “double minority” status. They were a religious minority among the Anglophones of the city, and a linguistic minority among the French Canadian Catholic majority in Montreal. As a result, this group of Irish migrants clung and promoted their Irish identity as a badge of distinction from their neighbours. Irish Catholics could also be found in the farmsteads of rural “Quebec”: at St. Columba, north of Montreal; the Outaouais region, the Gatineau Valley; the Francois River Valley; and at St-Sylvestre.

In Upper Canada, Irish Catholic farmers were prominent in what is now Renfrew County in the Ottawa Valley, Lanark County, Adjala Township north of Toronto, and in the Huron Tract lands of Biddulph Township. Other townships in the Tract contained many Protestant Irish migrants. Some of the most famous Irish settlers in Upper Canada, however, were the Peter Robinson migrants from Tipperary and Cork, who comprised the only state-sponsored assisted migration of Irish to Canada before the Famine. In 1820s, two large groups of Irish, mostly Catholic, were settled in Lanark and Carleton Counties (1823), and in Peterborough County (1825). Most historians accept that at least 450,000 Irish migrated to British North America before 1845, and in so doing created a settlement grid, kinship networks, and migration chains that pre-dated the catastrophe of the Great Famine.

Irish social and economic decline after the Act of Union in 1800, the potato blight and the ensuing spread of infectious disease created Ireland’s greatest human tragedy in its modern history. In 1841 the population of Ireland was just over eight million, by the late 1850s it was just over five million. At least one million Irish died and at least 1.5 million emigrated to Great Britain, the United States, Australia, and British North America. The Famine period, 1845-1852, marked the high-water mark of Irish migration to British North America. In 1847, alone, at least 110,000 Irish left Irish and British ports for Quebec (90,000), Saint John, (17,000), and Halifax (2,000). BNA ports became more desirable to ship owners and some landlords because fares were cheaper than to the United States, standards looser or non-existent, and ports were less punitive financially about landing potentially sick passengers. Although there is a popular myth that America closed its ports, the evidence suggests that 119,000 Irish migrants landed in US ports in “Black ’47. It should be noted that in the United States the Famine migration marked the rapid increase in Irish immigration, whereas in Canada and the other British colonies, Irish migration rapidly dropped and paled in significance to the preferred destinations of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, after 1847. Given the prominence of Irish migration to British North America prior to 1846, Famine migration did not significantly alter pre-Famine settlement patterns, except in a few cities like Hamilton and Toronto. In fact, many Famine migrants to Canada simply used the British colony as a way station on route to the United States. It should also be noted that although there were high numbers of Irish Catholics among the Famine refugees, there were also Irish Protestants. In Toronto, for example, approximately 20% of the 1,124 Irish dead, in 1847, were Protestant. At Quebec, of the seven hundred Famine Orphans accommodated and placed in Canadian families, at least 100 were Protestant.

The loss of life during the Famine migration was particularly shocking. Of the 110,000 who set out for British North America, some 20% either died at sea, in quarantine stations, at makeshift fever hospitals, or in their places of sojourn. The quarantine stations at Grosse Ile, near Quebec, and Partridge Island, in Saint John Harbour, were simply overwhelmed in 1847, and were unprepared for the huge numbers of migrants who suffered from typhus (“ships fever”), dysentery, and in some cases small pox. At Partridge Island, 600 were buried on the island, and between 1845 and 1848 the death toll exceeded 2000 at New Brunswick’s principal quarantine station. At Grosse Ile, over 5,000 migrants died and were buried on the Island. Because the symptoms of typhus do not appear until after a week after one having been infected, suspected healthy migrants were allowed to move inland with disastrous results. Emigrant hospitals and hastily erected fever sheds in cities and towns in the interior of Canada soon became the foci of pestilence and death. Hundreds died at the Marine hospital in Quebec City; close to 6,000 were buried near the fever sheds at Point St. Charles at the western edge of Montreal; nearly 2,000 died and were buried in Kingston, and in Toronto, 1,124 of the over 38,000 migrants who landed there died before the end of January, 1848. The loss of life and the powerful images of Black ’47 in Canada, left an indelible mark on the popular historical memory. Even though Irish migration to the region prior to 1846 had been robust, religiously mixed, catalytic in establishing civil, social, and ecclesiastical infrastructure, Canadians and the Irish themselves, would often read the Irish experiences in Canada through the lens of the Famine.

The character and complexion of Irish communities varied as one moved across that vast Canadian landscape. The religion of the Irish was a case in point. Irish settlers in Quebec, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Ireland were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. This was not the case in either Ontario or New Brunswick, where Protestants were the majority in the former province, and almost even with Catholics in the latter. In both of these provinces, Irish Protestants acculturated easily to the Protestant cultures that were in place from the late eighteenth century, and were renewed by subsequent waves of British migration. In the early twentieth century, Irish Protestant were enticed to form large block agricultural settlements in both Alberta and Saskatchewan. Irish Catholic cultures adapted to their new surroundings in different ways. In Halifax, Britain’s “warden of the north” and principal naval installation in the north Atlantic, Irish Catholics readily acculturated to the norms of an Imperial port, formed local militia companies, and eagerly engaged in local civic politics. In Montreal, however, where Irish Catholics were a double minority, Irish settlers clung fast to their Irishness as the principal badge of identity, and Montreal became a hotbed of Irish nationalism for generations. In Toronto, Irish Catholics lived in caution in what had been termed “the Belfast of North America,” although over time, and with waves on non-British immigrants in the twentieth century, gravitated to the political, social, and economic life of the dominant Anglo-Protestant culture. By the time of the Second South African War (Boer War) in 1899, and the Great War (1914-1918) Irish Catholics joined Irish Protestants in rallying to the assistance of the British Empire.

One of the chief means of Irish social adjustment in Canada came through associational life. In fraternal benevolent and nationalistic associations, immigrant communities could both retain a sense of Irish identity while offering a sense of community, in addition to financial support to fellow Irishmen and women in need. Most notable among the associations was the importation of the Loyal Orange Order, which was re-established in Canada by Ogle Gowan, an immigrant from Wexford. Dedicated to preserving ties between the colonies and the Crown, loyalty to the Empire, and the open Bible, the Order became a powerful broker in Canadian political life and by the late nineteenth-century included one third of Canada’s adult male Protestant population. In time, the association ‘s Irishness was diluted with the inclusion of Scots, English, Welsh, and Italian members. Noted most often by historians for its persistent opposition to Catholic assertiveness in the public square, the Order’s fraternal benefit system is often overlooked. Orange lodges offered  financial assistance and death benefits to its members and a cultivated a sense of community, particularly in isolated rural settlements. Catholic and Protestants, in the early period of settlement, often joined together to establish charitable aid societies to assist Irish migrants and other in need. The Benevolent Irish Society of Newfoundland, the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax, and the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society of Toronto were a few examples of this more ecumenical behaviour by the Irish in early British North America.

While Irish Catholic would also create distinctive associations (Hibernian Benevolent Association, Toronto, The St. Patrick’s Society, Montreal, or the Ancient Order of Hibernians), the Catholic Church itself provided the principal foci of Catholic life across all colonies. Bishops of Irish birth or descent dominated the Catholic Church in English Canada until the mid-twentieth century. As has been seen in the case of Newfoundland, the Catholic women’s religious orders, many from Ireland or with Irish women in leadership and the ranks, created massive networks that provided education, social service, and healthcare for the entire Catholic community and others. Irish-born women such as Mother Theresa Dease, IBVM, Mother Bernard Dinan, CSJ, and Mother Bernard Kirwan, PBVM, helped lay the foundations for a robust Irish Catholic social and religious life across Canada. Similarly, Irish priests and religious were recruited to animate the hundreds of parishes across the country. These men gradually gave way to Canadian men of Irish descent, who assumed control of parish life and helped to maintain Irish traditions parochially. By the early twentieth century, it was clear to leaders in the Catholic Church or Irish-birth and descent that, outside of Quebec the Church was under their control and the English language would dominate. This perception was shared by officials in the Vatican, who did not hesitate to populate new diocese in the west of Canada with men of Irish descent: McGuigan, McNally, Nelligan, Sinnott, O’Leary, and Casey.

Both Irish and Protestant Canadians did not forget the struggles of their birthplace. A variety of Irish nationalisms emerged in Canada over time, and were visible during times of crisis in Ireland, particularly during the Home Rule crises, the challenges to Irish landholding, the wars of Independence, and “the Troubles.“ Many Irish Protestant Canadians supported Unionism and the retention of Ireland within the United Kingdom. Other Irish, both Catholic and Protestant sympathized with the movements for Irish autonomy. The largest group of these historically were constitutional nationalists, who envisioned an Ireland with a similar status within the British Empire/Commonwealth as enjoyed by Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. These constitutional nationalists, through their donations, newspaper editorials and political rhetoric clearly supported the likes of Daniel O’Connell, Charles Parnell, and John Redmond. During the Irish civil war, most Irish Canadians favoured the Free State faction led by Michael Collins over that of Eamonn de Valera. A small but robust number of Irish Canadians favoured physical force to achieve complete independence of Ireland from Great Britain and the creation of an Irish republic. Perhaps their point of greatest strength was during the 1860s, when the Fenian movement had considerable support in Canada. Later, in the period following the Great War Katherine Hughes would be a prominent Irish Canadian in favour of Ireland’s republican movement. While Irish nationalisms in Canada differed, and sometimes clashed, the retention of this sense of “Irishness” among immigrant and their descendants was evidence, that although there may have been a “waning of the green,” concern for Ireland was alive and well when circumstances called for it.

Catholics and Protestants of Irish birth or descent were eager to participate in the political arenas of Canada. Richard Uniacke, for instance, became a major political figure in the formative years of the Nova Scotia legislature. John Costigan and Timothy Warren Anglin were active in New Brunswick politics, as was Edward Whelan in Prince Edward Island. The most notable of the nineteenth century Irish Canadian politicians was Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Born in Carlingford, McGee eschewed his political roots in the Young Ireland movement and become one of the most eloquent voices for Confederation, the union of the British North American colonies in 1867 and the establishment of a federal parliament and government under the Crown. His outspoken opposition to Fenianism and physical-force nationalism in Ireland and the diaspora cost him his life in 1868, when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet. Inspired by McGee’s vision of Canada, many of Irish birth and descent stepped into the breach of Canadian Federal, Provincial, and Municipal politics. At least five Canadian Prime Ministers could claim Irish descent: Sir John Thompson, Arthur Meighan, Louis St. Laurent, Brian Mulroney, and Paul Martin, Jr. Other Irish and their descendants filled the ranks of cabinet ministers, members of legislatures and city councils across the country. When one examines the legacy of Irish Canadian contributions to civic life in contemporary Canada it is not hard to discover prominent contribution of men and women with surnames like: McKenna, Crombie, Crosby, Whelan, Flaherty, McGuinty, Ahern, Fogarty, Leddy, Maloney, Scott, Savage, and Horgan, to name a few. 

As the biographies in this collection (and those still to be included) attest, Irish-born Canadians and their descendants have made significant contributions to all aspects of Canadian life. Irish emigrants have been leaders in resource industries, manufacturing, and agricultural development (John Egan, John Glenn, Patrick Burns, & Nicholas Balfe); they have been founders of Canadian banking (Edward Kenny); and innovators in Canadian retail (Timothy Eaton, John C. Tobin & Frank Smith). They have also piloted trade and industrial unions in Canada to secure social justice for workers and their families. Irish descendant and emigrants have become notable in Canadian sport, where excellence in ice hockey is measures by such names as Heaney, Keon, Clancy, and Nolan. Irish emigrants have also distinguished themselves in literature and journalism as novelists, musicians, poets, and newspaper editors. Here names like Anna Sadlier, Anna Brownell Jameson, Agnes Higginson Skrine (Moira O’Neill), the Millar Brothers, Patrick Cronin, and Patrick Boyle, come to mind. First generation Irish Canadians such as John Macoun, could also be found as pioneers of exploration and science in their adopted home. Today 4.4 million (12%) of Canadians can claim Irish birth or descent. They stand on the shoulders of giants who have made enormous contributions to Canadian society and the country’s reputation globally. The prominent Irish could only achieve their pre-eminence from within the communities of ordinary Irish whose own lives as immigrants were extraordinary in themselves.  Without those generations, neither the Canada of today nor the Irish community of Canada would have been possible. The 50 Irish Lives Project is a modest, but important beginning, to bring some of these Irish Canadian stories to light.



Further Reading

Akenson, Donald H. The Irish in Ontario: A Rural Study. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1984.

Barlow, Matthew. Griffintown: Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2017.

Clarke, Brian P. Piety and Nationalism: Lay Voluntary Associations and the Creation of an Irish Catholic Community in Toronto, 1850-1895. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993.

Elliott, Bruce. Irish Migrants to the Canadas: A New Approach. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988.

Houston, Cecil and William Smyth, The Sash Canada Wore: A Historical Geography of the Orange Order in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

Houston, Cecil and William Smyth, Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement: Patterns, Links and Letters. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Jenkins, William, From Raid to Rebellion.: The Irish in Buffalo and Toronto, 1867-1916. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Mannion, John. Irish Settlements in Eastern Canada: A Study in Cultural Transfer and Adaptation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Mannion, Patrick. The Land of Dreams.: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and the Irish in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Maine, 1880-1923. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018.

McGaughey, Jane G.V.. Violent Loyalties: Manliness, Migration, and the Irish in the Canadas, 1798-1841. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020.

McGowan, Mark G. The Waning of the Green: Irish Catholics and Identity in Toronto, 1887-1922. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999.

McGowan, Mark G. Death or Canada: The Irish Famine Migration to Toronto, 1847. Toronto: Novalis, 2009.

McGowan, Mark G. The Imperial Irish: Canada’s Irish Catholics Fight the Great War, 1914-1918. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

Wilson, David A. Thomas D’Arcy McGee., Vol. 1 Passion, Reason and Politics, 1825-1857. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008 and Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Vol.2. The Extreme Moderate, 1857-1868. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

Wilson, David A. Canadian Spy Story: Irish Revolutionaries and the Secret Police. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022.

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