The Great Famine in Canada
The Great Irish Famine of 1846 to 1852 was a truly horrific human disaster. The potato crop fell to the blight and the Irish starved, waiting for a miracle. Poorhouses were overwhelmed, soup kitchens could not feed the hungry, hundreds of thousands died, orphans wandered motherless, and then cholera and typhus pulled the half-living into the fever pits - the mass graves. Emigration was the only hope. As many as two million Irish fled their homeland and another million are believed to have died trying. Hundreds of thousands came to Canada. These Famine immigrants were the poorest of Ireland's poor, barely able to pay the one or two pound passage, unable to buy enough food to sustain themselves on the voyage over. Some had their tickets paid by landlords eager to evict them and be free of the taxes the English forced them to pay. Many Irish packed onto Canadian timber ships that otherwise would have made an empty and unprofitable return home to their Canadian port. Of the Famine Irish, many didn't stay in Canada long. They continued on to the United States. Those who did stay supplied a pool of cheap labour that helped fuel Canada's economic expansion through the 1850's and 1860's. They erected bridges across the St. Lawrence into Montreal and heaved an industrialized nation into being. Before the two main waves of immigration, the Irish had come to Canada only in moderate numbers. The Irish may have made up as much as five percent of the population of New France. In fact, some French Canadian and Acadian surnames derive from a corruption of Irish names such as Riel (from Reilly) and Caissie (from Casey). There was also a sizeable Irish population in Newfoundland that began arriving in the 18th century. After the Famine the number of Irish immigrants to Canada decreased drastically. In the sixty years following the famine, 1851 and 1910, four million Irish left their homeland, compared with two million during the five-year Famine period. An estimated twenty percent of these emigrants went no further than Britain.
Quebec Irish History
Bernard McGauran left his home in County Sligo, Ireland, sometime in the 1830's. No one knows exactly when. He came to Canada as a boy and was ordained into the priesthood at St. Anne de la Pocatière, Québec, in 1846. A year later the Irish Potato Famine sent thousands of desperate emigrants toward Québec and into Father McGauran's care. But McGauran's arrival predates the Famine Irish and is part of the first and most significant wave of Irish immigrants to Canada: the period between 1825-1845. Many people think of the Irish Famine of 1847 as the time "when the Irish came to Canada." But an estimated 475,000 Irish landed in British North America before then. It was this earlier wave of Irish immigrants that would shape the development of Irish Canada and lay the most meaningful cultural foundations. There had been 'emigration mania' two decades before the Famine. The Irish economy had been declining while the population was exploding. Emigrants were mostly from Ireland's northern counties such as Ulster, north Connaught and north Leinster. They were middle class and could afford the voyage over to a second chance and a brighter future. It was an orderly emigration; most came in families, but there were also single male and female immigrants. The majority of these newcomers bypassed Newfoundland and Halifax, in favour of New Brunswick, Québec and Ontario, following the traditional trading lanes between Canada and England.
The Irish in Atlantic Canada
"For Halifax and Prince Edward Island, the beautiful fast-sailing ship New Brunswick Packet, burthen 600 tons, copper fastened and coppered to the bends, James Walker, Master, will sail hence for the above ports the first of May.... There is no part of the Continent of America that affords so great encouragements to Mechaniks, Labourers as what British America does; on arrival out, an application being made to the Governor, grants of Land from 200 to 1000 acres will be made out for EVER, according to the number in each respective family". Handbill circulated in Derry, Ireland, March 31, 1817. One of the groups most often neglected in discussions of Atlantic Canadian history are the people of Irish descent. Most people from the region know about the Scottish settlers, Nova Scotia means New Scotland after all; most people know about, and can see remnants today, of the French presence from when the area was united under the label "Acadia". The English also have a long history in the Maritimes, basing much of their colonial war with the French in the area. And of course Aboriginal Canadians, such as the Micmac and Malecite Indians, pre-date all of them by millennia. But there has also been a large Irish presence since the beginning of the European colonisations began, one that is sometimes overlooked for various reasons. Certainly the area with the largest concentration of Irish immigrants, both today and in the past, is the city of Saint John, New Brunswick. When it comes to Irish in North America, people generally think of Boston, but Saint John has as much, if not more, of a connection to Ireland as the Massachusetts city. Saint John was one of the primary ports where immigrants to the new world landed in North America. Starting around 1815, many Irish immigrants, mostly tradesman, came to the city and stayed there forming the backbone of the city's workforce. Between 1845 and 1854, more 30,000 Irish, fleeing the potato famine in their native country, again made Saint John their destination. It is estimated that during 1847 ("Black 47"), one of the worst years of the Famine, approximately 16,000 immigrants entered North America by way of Saint John. Many of these immigrants made the city their home, while others continued on up the coast and eventually settled in Boston. In addition to Saint John, there is also a very large Irish presence in the Miramichi. Many immigrants moved there to live and work in the lumber camps. Most of the Irish in the Miramichi and the rest of northern New Brunswick were Roman Catholic, while Irish Protestants were the predominant group in southwestern areas of the province. There were some exceptions, such as Saint John, which is located in southwestern New Brunswick. These immigrants were mainly Catholic. At one time, Irish in New Brunswick made up more than one third of the province's entire population and were the single largest ethnic group, more numerous than the French. In fact, one of names originally proposed for the province was "New Ireland". This began to change, however, and by this century that number had dwindled. Most of this seems to be due to assimilation into other groups; for many years the vast majority of Catholic Irish only married other Irish Catholics, but the Irish Protestants inter-married with other groups much more frequently. In the beginning, most of Irish in New Brunswick were Protestants, but that situation gradually reversed with many marriages to Scottish, English, and French immigrants. Nevertheless, many New Brunswickers can still trace their ancestry back to Ireland. In the province of Nova Scotia, most of the Irish resided in the city of Halifax. Because Ireland was mostly an agriculture country at the time, many of them tried their hands at farming in the rural areas of Nova Scotia, but found the province's land and particularly the soil to be much different from what they were accustomed to in their native land. As a result, many of them ended up being drawn to the urban areas. They did of course settle in other areas as well; relatively large numbers of Irish could be found in Pictou and on the predominantly Scottish-French island of Cape Breton, mainly the city of Sydney and the village of Arichat on the Isle Madame. Unlike neighbouring New Brunswick, most of Nova Scotia's early Irish population was Catholic. They were legally prohibited from practicing their religion for many years by the English, creating a considerable animosity between the two groups. Many of the Irish in Nova Scotia actually ended up supporting the French, who were themselves Roman Catholics. Some of the Irish also still viewed the English as the enemy at that time and adopted a philosophy of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" when they became involved in the conflicts of the two colonial powers. Many Irish also found their way to the island provinces, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. These two areas bore the most resemblance to Ireland, much of the coast-land of Newfoundland is similar to the Irish coast. Irish settlers found both provinces ideal for the kind of agriculture and fishery they were used to; even today these two provinces are Canada's largest producers of potatoes. And New Brunswick was not the only province that was referred by some as New Ireland. Because of Prince Edward Island's similarity to Ireland, it was suggested by many that it be called "New Ireland", but this effort did not succeed either.