The Untold Story

Irish History
by Province


New Brunswick




The First Irish Foothold in Atlantic Canada


Cyril Byrne

One of the clichés of Newfoundland history is that it is the oldest British colony overseas; this view, of course, excludes the six counties of Northern Ireland. It is ironic, however, that the oldest British colony overseas, Newfoundland, can also lay claim to be the oldest Irish colony. Indeed, it was through the Irish colony in Newfoundland that the Irish spread into the other British North American colonies, continuing to do so after the American revolution until well into the third decade of the nineteenth century.

The first Irish who came to Newfoundland did so following the voyages of the Cabots at the end of the 15th century. They did so as part of the Irish South-East Thalassocracy which went back into the Middle Ages. The ports of Bristol, Appledorre, Dublin, Wexford and Waterford represent a continuum of trade and social intercourse which defy any simplistic analysis. Merchants, seamen, fishermen, traders and adventurers were in and out of ports on both sides of the Irish sea for centuries- it is possible to find numerous surnames of obvious "English" origin scattered through the South-Eastern counties of Ireland and similarly, numerous "Irish" ones located in ports on the English side of the Irish sea.

There was another well known lcommercial ink which brought Irishmen to the shores of Newfoundland and to Acadia. The port of Wexford had an extensive commercial relationship with a number of ports in France: Irish merchants had a foothold in St. Malo, Bordeax and Nantes and a number of Irish traders and fishermen engaged in the very large French fishery conducted in Newfoundland and Acadia. When Ginkle was blasting away at the walls of Irish history, the French relief of the Seige of Limerick, John Aylward and his Irish-French brother Paul were on their way to Placentia in Terra Nova as agents for an Irish-French enterprise operating out of Nantes. It is fascinating to see how a man like John Aylward, a Catholic merchant from Waterford, could take such a prominent part in 17th century European life. Agent for the French at Placentia, he took time to secure a nice plantation for himself in the West Country English stronghold of St. John's. which he later sold to the Holdsworths of Dartmouth who built with it one of the largest fortunes made in the Newfoundland trade. He also reported to the Board of Trade and PLantation in London on the French operation at Placentia in which he had recently participated. When he returned to the west of England in 1705, he married Dorothy Trevelyan, a Catholic Lady of ancient Celtic lineage.

At the same time as Aylward was climbing the social ladder, another kind of Irishman was appearing in rather large numbers in Newfoundland. The westcountrymen, who arrived in Newfoundland each spring to prosecute the fishery, called in at Waterford and Cork, but especially at the former, to replemish supplies of water and to buy provisions: pork, beef, butter and bread, which were much cheaper in Ireland than in England, and of better quality. The ships took on Irishmen to become servants in the fishery. (The diary of L'Abbé Jean Beaudoin) is full of references to the numerous Irishmen that the French encountered in Newfoundland, many of whom joined the French service, and, through their knowledge of the country, aided the rading party.

The French continued to raid the Newfoundland fishery until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. After that, the Irish began to settle in Newfoundland, very slowly at first and in small numbers, but it is clear that continuous Irish occupancy of places such as carbonear, Harbour Grace, Harbour Main, St. John's, Bay Bulls, Ferryland and PLacentia begins at approximately 1720. The English needed "winter men" to remain on the island of Newfoundland, when the thousands who fished during the summer returned to Europe. Those who wintered were, in the main, Irishmen, and the permanent settlement of the island began.

The Irish in Newfoundland spread to other parts of British North America. Before the French were forced to relinquish Acadia, there were Irishmen among the Acadian population. At Louisbourg, there were at least three Irish priests who served the population. In the harbour of Chebucto, present day Halifax, three Irish fishermen are mentioned in a letter of Governor de Villebonne, written in 1699, as being resident in the harbour. A significant number of Irish names occur in Fr. Bailly's reports on the population of Louisbourg before its fall. It is generally believed these Irish came from Placentia, following the surrender of that settlement to the british by the terms of the treaty of Utrecht. Among the Irish of Cape Breton who came there with the French was one Lawrence Kavanagh, whose grandson, also Lawrence, became the first Roman Catholic to sit in any British Legislature following the penal proscriptions of the 18th century. It is of interest that Kavanagh's sponsor in the Nova Scotia Legislature was Richard John Unicacke, an Irish Protestant and Attorney General of the colony.

On Prince Edward Island, called Ile St. Jean (by the French), a number of Irish names occur as well. When Cornwallis founded Halifax in 1749, he brought a number of settlers of whom a significant number were Irish. Some 20 years after the founding of Halifax, a group of settlers from Derry City came to Nova Scotia via Londonderry, New Hampshire. Their settlement is now called Londonderry and these descendents have spread throughout Nova Scotia.

To return to Newfoundland, by the end of the 18th century, an Irish population was prominant in the Avalon Penninsula, specifically in St. John's, the southern shore, Placentia and the larger settlements in Conception Bay. It is not an exaggeration to say that until the 1820's, the dominant language on the Avalon Penninsula was not English but Irish. Byrne notes they carried it to Nova Scotia Jonathan Belcher, a Judge in Halifax in the 1760's, mentions the common speech of the city as being "wild Irish". In Cape Berton, the emigrants from Newfoundland were so strongly Irish that Fr. McKegney, the missionary at New Waterford, asked the Bishop of Quebec in 1826 to ensure that his successor be someone capable of speaking Irish, since he would of otherwise be of little use.

By the time of the great famine of the 1840's, when popular myth suggests the Irish began arriving in North America, the Irish migration to Atlantic Canada had, in the main, come to an end. There is the exceptional case of Saint John, New Brunswick but even there, where thousands were quarantined and died on Partridge Island, the majority of Irish who remained were from earlier waves of migration. Halifax, Saint John, Charlottetown and the Miramichi were Irish strongholds three decades before the Great Famine. Irish was spoken in all (these) settlements and in some of them, it was the dominant language before yielding to English at the same time as Irish was declining in Ireland. Thus, it is no exaggeration to refer to the Irish settlements of Atlantic Canada as the earliest anywhere on this continent.