The Untold Story

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Irish History
by Province


Nova Scotia

New Brunswick




God's Unfortunate People: Histeogeography of Irish Catholics
in Nineteenth Century Canada

by William M. Baker

My interest in the history of Irish Catholics in Canada began (when) I was involved in writing a biography of Timothy Warren Anglin.

The interpretation I propounded in the biography was that Anglin was an Irish Catholic leader and that his career depended upon that fact. In other words, his ascent and eventual decline depended on the existence in reality and/or in belief of an Irish-Catholic sector within the Canadian polity. His role was to mediate between the two, to act as a liaison between Irish Catholics on the one hand and the wider Canadian society, on the other. In effect, while advocating the fair treatment and social advancement of lrish Catholics, Anglin urged lrish Catholics to adopt Canadian norms aud practices. He, along with another prominent Canadian Irish Catholic, D'Arey McGee, advocated a type of assimilation, one which would remove the distinctiveness of Irish Catholics within Canadian society although it would preserve their religious commitment. I argued that Anglin's prespective role were important, in that they assisted in closing the gap between lrish (Sathol ics and Canadians. Indeed it seemed that the decline of Anglin's influence in thc 80's and 90's was in a sense, a measure of his success, for he had worked himself out of a job Irish Catholics had become accomodated, not considered equal to other ethnic groups but at least acccptable to them. They had, to all intents disppeared as an ethnic group, although they had maintained their religious distinctiveness.

Prior to 1970 there was no available general account of the Irish expericilec in Canada, let alone for Irish Catholics. The only item that even promosed comprehensiveness was Nicholas Flood Davin's The Irishman in Canada but it had been published in 1877 and really was of little use especially for the Catholic Irish. A handful of articles had studied the famine migration to Canada; various items dealt with the Fenian "Troubles"; somepopular works had been published on the so-called Black Donnelly's. There were numerous regional studies.

However hazardous it is to venture, it is both possible and useful to suggest that certain generalizations can also be asked of post-1970 writings:

  1. Were Irish Catholics in Canada poor, unskilled, wage workers in urban centers?
  2. Were (they) a peculiarly violent and troblesome group which created great discord in Canadian society?
  3. Were (they) absorbed into the mainstream of Canadian society? How did this occur?

    The pre-1970 works provides an afformative response to all those questions. The impression that was left, as much by ommission as anything else, was that the core of Irish-Catholic experience was that of the famine Irish immigrants, a group Gilbert Tucker described as "probably the most doseased, destitute and shiftless that Canada has ever received."