Happy St. Patrick\’s Day! Canada and our Irish Roots

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, 14% of Canadians identify themselves as Irish. I recently found Irish in my own family history. My brick wall ancestor, my great grandfather John Wellington McDonald, identified his parents as being born in Ireland on his wedding registration. I am not the only Canadian genealogist to have found at least one Irish person in their tree. According to Library and Archives Canada, Irish is the fourth largest ethnic makeup of Canadians. Almost 4.5 million Canadians claim at least part Irish ancestry.

There are reports of Irish coming to Canada as early as the 1600\’s. The relationship between southern Ireland and France at this time period meant that Irish came here when it was New France. In fact, it is believed that some French Canadian/Acadian names actually find their roots in Irish names. By 1871, the Irish were the largest ethnic group every major Canadian urban center, with the exception of Montreal and Quebec city,

The biggest influx of Irish immigrants came during the Great Potato Famine of 1847. Hundreds of thousands of Irish people fled to North America. British North America was cheaper to travel to than the United States, so the majority of the immigrants coming here at this time were poor and destitute. They came over on what became known as \”coffin ships\”, because of the disease and sickness that became rampant on them. The flood of sick people on these ships soon overwhelmed the quarantine station at Grosse Ile. An estimated 5,000 Irish people died on Grosse Ile. The mass graves there are considered the largest concentration of Irish burials outside of Ireland. According to Wikipedia, there are eight memorials erected in Canada, dedicated to the Irish famine. They can be found in:

  • Grosse Ile, Quebec
  • Quebec City
  • Saint John, New Brunswick
  • Saint Andrews, New Brunswick
  • Kingston, Ontario
  • Maidstone, Ontario
  • Montreal, Quebec
  • Toronto, Ontario
Plaque commemorating the fever sheds in Toronto
Source: http://irelandparkfoundation.com/famine-memorial/150th-anniversary/

The assimilation of the Irish into British North America, as in the United States, was not easy. The Catholic Irish tended to fare better in French and some Scottish communities, due to their shared Catholic beliefs, and anti British sentiment. However, in the strong British Protestant areas of Ontario, for example, there was outright discrimination of the Irish. They were denounced as lazy, alcoholic ne\’er do wells that bred like rabbits. The fact that the huge influx during the famine years also brought cholera and typhus outbreaks did not endear them to many. Their loyalty to Britain was also constantly questioned.

The Protestant Irish fared better than their Catholic counterparts. Being a product of British settlement in Ireland previously, they were considered much more loyal than their Catholic counterparts. The friction between the two groups of Irish that began in Ireland carried over to their new country. As well, the Protestant Irish came with more wealth than the Catholics did, and were more interested in farming. They also brought with them the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization that started in Ireland,.

Today St.Patrick\’s Day is a provincial holiday in Newfoundland. In the rest of Canada, there are parades in cities across the country. Montreal\’s parade is considered one of the oldest in North America, going continuously now for over 190 years. Toronto\’s earliest one was in about 1863. However, due to threats of violence between Catholic and Protestant factions, it was cancelled in 1878. It didn\’t resume again until the 1980\’s.

Canada has Ireland to thank for some of our iconic historical figures. Some notable Canadians with Irish roots are:

  • Nellie McClung, one of our greatest suffragettes
  • Thomas D\’Arcy McGee, a Father of Confederation
  • Sir John Thompsom, our 4th Prime Minister
  • Louis St. Laurent, our 12th Prime Minister
  • Brian Mulrony, our 18th Prime Minister, 
  • Ben Mulroney, tv personality and son of Brian Mulroney
  • Paul Martin, our 21st Prime Minister
  • Seamus O\’Regan, former tv personality and now MP in Newfoundland
  • Stompin\’ Tom Connors, an iconic Musician
  • Jill Hennessy, an actress (Law and Order, Crossing Jordan)
  • Eugenie Bouchard, professional tennis player
  • Jim Flaherty, federal finance minister 
  • Timothy Eaton, founder of Eaton\’s Department Store
  • Mary Walsh, comedian and activist

So, even if you\’re not one of us who can claim Irish ancestry, take today to thank Ireland and the impact it\’s made on our country.

For more information on Canada\’s Irish roots, look at the following sites:

Library and Archives Canada

The Canadian Encyclopedia

Irish Genealogy Toolkit

A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada

Canada\’s Historic Places

Ireland Park

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