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Irish Nationalism in Manitoba: 1870-1922

by Richard Davis

The origins of Manitoba as a Canadian province in 1870 are inseparably linked with Louis Riel, the Metis Leader. In 1870, Riel's Red River Rebellion extracted important concessions from the Canadian government before annexation. In Canadian history, moreover, Riel has become the symbol of resistance, French Canadian to English Canadian, West to East and indiginous peoples to foreign interlopers.He has rarely had any role in the Irish pantheon yet Riel was descended from ancestors who settled in Limerick after the French civil wars of the 17th century. In Ireland, the family, which migrated to Canada after the Treaty of Limerick, was known as Rielson. In the New World, its members were referred to as Riels d'Irelande. Though the flag of Riel's provisional government of 1870 apparently combined the shamrock and the fleur de lis, the significance of the former has not been emphasized. The execution by Riel of the troublesome Orangeman, Thomas Scott, however, aroused the fury of Ulster Protestants and their allies. It should be noted that after the establishment of the first Manitoba Lodge in 1970 and a grand Lodge in 1870 Orangeism developed rapidly. The Orangemen swore to avenge their hero-martyr, Scott. Meanwhile Riel offered the new Governor 250 Metis to oppose the unsuccessful Fenian raid on Manitoba in 1872. A former associate of Riel's, WB O'Donoghue was, nevertheless, implicated in the fiasco of the attempted Fenian coup and Riel was considered a potential Fenian ally. Riel's overtures to the Governor were repulsed and he was forced into exile.

Between 1870 and 1885 most of the Irish in Manitoba, far from following Riel, made common cause with the English speaking immigrants from Ontario. These soon gained a numerical preponderance over the original French or mixed blood inhabitants. By 1881, Manitobans of Irish descent were equal in proportion to the French community, constituting one sixth of a total population of 65,954. These Irish included a number of Protestants and Orangemen but soon Irish Catholics outnumbered French Catholics. A multi sided struggle ensued. Irish Catholics found relations with French Catholics strained. They preferred their Protestant compatriots when the latter showed some Irish national feeling. It is ironic that in Canada as a whole Orangemen and ultramontane French Catholics both tended to support the Conservative party.

At that time, in the United States and British colonies, Catholics of Irish extraction tended to dominate their Church. In Canada, however, the French were determined to maintain supremacy. In Manitoba, the Catholic Church was ruled originally from the French enclave of St. Boniface. The first prelate, Archbishop Taché, though French, was relatively popular with his Irish flock. His successor, Adelard Langevain, however, lived in almost continous strife with his Irish religionists until his death in 1916. The division was then recognized by the creation of an English speaking archbishopric at Winnipeg.

The tension between the Irish and the French in Manitoba had important reprecussions on the patriotic activities of the former in support of their homeland. The organ of the English speaking Catholics, the Northwest Review, founded in 1885, was originally controlled by clerics of French background whose interest in Ireland was more conventional. Moreover, the more militant Irish repudiated lay leaders such as JK Barrett and FW Russell as "English speaking Catholics". The latter, though representing a group 95% Irish, seemed to discourage any interest in the homeland. Such was the reason, it was claimed, for many Irish leaving the Church. Barrett supported Irish causes but was clearly preoccupied in defending Catholic schools during the 1890's and early 1900's. Not until 1919 was the Northwest Review controlled by an entusiastic Irish patriot, Patrick J. Henry.

French influence on the Northwest Review can be detected in the periodical's hostility in the formation of Irish societies catering to both Catholics and Protestants. This was indeed a key issue. Irish nationalism, as normally presented, is a non-sectarian ideology. The Northwest Review in 1886 flew in the face of the Irish national tradition when denouncing the undenominational Winnipeg St. Patrick's Society. "The Irish nation is Catholic."

There is some evidence to indicate that the frank religious separtism of the Northwest Review was unwelcome to a number of local Irish Catholics. The attempts to form non-denominational St. Patrick's societies continued into the 20th century. Irish Catholics were warned against posing as Orangemen to obtain the cheap excurions rates accorded Lodge members visiting Winnipeg to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne in 1892. Nellie McClung's sentimental story of old Manitoba which depicted Father O'Flynn as keynote speaker at an Orange meeting may contain some truth.

In its social conservatism, the Northwest Review appears to have represented upper class French rather than Irish Catholic attitudes. The Manitoba School Crisis, which absorbed the energies of Catholic leaders for three decades after the cessation of funds to Catholic schools in 1890, increased the tension between French and Irish Catholics. Irish Catholics complained that, living among Protestants, they bore the brunt of the financial difficulties, which were mitigated for French Catholocs by the compromise agreement of 1897. Some Irish Catholics may have been dimly aware that prominant Irish nationalists, like the Young Irelander Thomas Davis, had insisted on non-sectarian schools as the essential basis of a united community. The dissenting John O'Donohue claimed most Irish Catholics secretly oppossed separate education, accused the French of doing the bossing while the Irish did the praying.

This distraction of Irish-French hostility is one reason for the slow development of Irish self-conciousness in Manitoba. There was also the insistence by Irish publicists, at home and in the US, that the British government was luring Irish peasants to Manitoba by false promises in order to assist land monopolists by increasing pressure on rich farmlands. It was argued Irishmen, attracted by the prospect of 100 acres of fertile land and government assistance, would find themselves in a barren and unproductive land. The Irish in Ireland, Canada and the US found themselves at odds.

The Manitoba Irish naturally wished to increase in numbers and influence. The Northwest Review attacked the Irish and Irish American papers for their persistent denigration of the province, arguing that the abti-climatic hazards and anti-Catholic bigotry were greatly exaggerated. Before 1890, the state supported parochial schools over the secularism of the United States was emphasized. Like the Irish nationalist leaders, the Irish Catholic hierarchy also oppossed emigration to Manitoba.

In 1891, Michael Davitt of the Land League visted Manitoba and investigated a number of settlements. Local Irishmen were disapointed however. Davitt evasively maintained that Irish emigration was already excessive. A local Irishman complained that Davitt, who favoured emigration to the United States, was disingenuous. Davitt would later ridicule the Irish notion of the province as a Siberia to which the British government planned to exile the Irish. The Irish World frankly sought Manitoba's annexation by the USA. When Louis Riel emerged in 1885 from his United States exile to lead a new rising of Indians and Metis in Saskatchewan, the Irish World, emphasizing his Irish ancestry, equated his movement with Davitt's Land League and gave him full moral support. The Boston Pilot also saw Irish Canadians as solidly behind Riel. When Riel was hanged, the Irish World denounced the 20 million Irish Americans who "stood silent and indifferent while England was crushing their co-religionists and fellow sufferers." Riel apparently regarded the Irish World as "the only true friend we have". In 1878, however, when Riel had sought Fenian aid for a new movement in the northwest, he was treated with contempt. His hostility in 1871 was no doubt remembered. At Riel's trial in 1885, he mentioned his Irish ancestry and evidence was given of his vahue plans for a sevenfold division of Canada, incorporating his Irish homeland in the northwest and excluding Orangemen. Riel's post conviction boast that he could have received Fenian assistance had he desired it was dubious. The newly established Northwest Review attempted to sit on the fence, though the burial of Riel at St. Boniface led to an outburst of Orange fury.

In its cautious attitude to Riel, the Northwest Review demonstrated the conservatism of the officia; Canadian Catholic reaction to Irish issues. Unlike the Irish Americans, Canadian Catholics frequently regarded the British connection, even after the Manitoba Schools Question, as protection against the secularism of the United States. The Irish in Manitoba were encouraged to support only moderate and constitutional nationalist movements in the homeland. The strong initial opposition of secular papers like the Manitoba Free Press to the principle of Irish Home Rule may have made Catholic authorities somewhat cautious.

There was some resistence to the process of Catholicizing Irish nationlism in Manitoba. In 1889, it was lamented that Winnipeg was one of the few Canadian cities that had contributed nothing to the Parnell defense fund. A committee was formed with D. Smith, a safe Catholic, as treasurer, to remit funds for Parnell.In 1890, a committee was established to provide money to relieve Irish distress. When in 1892, the Canadian Liberal statesman Edward Blake was elected to the British House of Commons as an Irish nationalist MP, he became the natural focus of Irish Canadian interest, especially popular in Manitoba for his legal assistance in the struggle for separate schools.

Efforts to sublimate Irish patriotic feelings were not entirely sucessful. The world wide celebration of the centenary of the Irish 1798 Rebellion was played down in Manitoba, though the French L'Echo de Manitoba pointed out that the Archbisop of Montreal and his Priests were in favour. There may have been some silent Fenians in Manitoba, prepared to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church. Another attempt was made in 1893 to establish a St. Patrick's Society. There was no reason, it was stated at the meeting, why the Irish should not be united like other nationalities.At the same time, however, a branch of the Catholic Mutual Benefit Association was established in Winnipeg with JK Barrett as grand deputy and JJ Golden as vice-president. The CMBA was an obvious attempt to create a feeling of Catholic, not Irish, identity among its members. Subsequently, there were a number of unsucessful attempts to build a Manitoba Catholic Federation to lobby the government on issues like education. Most failed because of the racial divisions in the Catholic community.

In the first years of the 20th century, there was little nationalist activity in Manitoba. Though the split in the Irish parliamentary party was healed in 1900, local Irishmen, unlike their fellow countrymen in other Dominions and the USA, did not create branches of the new supporting organization, the United Irish League. The turning point was the establishment in 1908 of a Winnipeg branch of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians. Increased Irish immigration to Canada plus the assistance of JJ Ryan, national vice-president of the American order, encouraged this development. The AOH was an excellent example of institutionalized Irish-Catholic nationalism. As was pointed out at the opening meeting in St. Mary's school hall, Winnipeg, the AOH object was "a deeper appreciation of the faith and the highest pride and self-respect of nationality."

A new non-sectarian Irish Association was also set up in 1908. For five years, it held sucessful banquets on March 17. But the problem of sectarian versus sectarian nationalism was not resolved. Some Hibernians disagreed with the Protestant Young Irelander Thomas Davis that the Orange and the Green should be united. They established in Winnipeg in 1913 the first western Canadian branch of the non-sectarian United Irish League. Meanwhile, William Jordan, a Catholic whose father had been a member of the Young Ireland movement, refused to join AOH "because the order does not embrace the principles of Robert Emmet", the Protestant hero hanged for rebellion in 1803.

On the other hand, some prominant Catholics considered an AOH branch in Winnipeg as too radical. PJ Henry, an AOH office-holder in 1908 and president two years later, subsequently accused some English Catholics of working hard to impede the inaugeration of the movement in Manitoba. The emergance of the Winnipeg AOH coincided with an attempt to pressure the government by a united federation of Catholic parishes. Irish particularism seemed inoportune in the circumstances.

Though oppossed on both flanks, the AOH made reasonable progress between 1908 and 1913. A Ladies Auxillary was set up, the women sometimes rivaling the men in their enthusiasm. A Hibernian football club was mooted in 1909 and Gaelic sport was played in Winnipeg some years later. In 1910, thw ell known Irish novelist MP, TP O'Connor, lectured in Winnipeg. A year later, Fr. Michael O'Flanagan, a Priest who later became President of Sinn Fein, spoke on the Irish language revival. Meanwhile, the Irish parliamentary party gained the balance of power in the British House of Commons. With the limitation of the House of Lords veto in 1911, Irish Home Rule appeared a certainty. In Manitoba, the Irish question began to compete with the perennial schools' problem, on which the new Conservative Prime Minister, Robert Borden, gave no greater satifaction than the Liberal Laurier.

The liklihood of Home Rule aroused Orange reaction at home and abroad. The Winnipeg Lodges gained publicity by promising to send 500 men to fight "Rome Rule" in Ireland. Winnipeg was seen as an especially strong center of Ulster support. The polarization of opinion by the schools' question may have been responsible. There was, however, some disagreement among Manitoba Orangemen. There were also non-Orange Protestants. As Catholics asserted that "Home Rule" was not "Rome Rule", a non-sectarian Irish movement was required in justification.

The challenge was taken up by an Irish Protestant, Samuel Jordan, the new President and manager of the Manitoba Stock Food Company. Born in Belfast in 1866, Jordan has emigrated at 18 to New Zealand but returned in 1890 to participate in the Irish "Plan of Campaign", a system of rural collective bargaining, oraganized by two of Parnell's chief lieutenants. Jordan strongly supported Parnell's side in the split of 1890-91 and when unity was restored after 1900, played a prominant part in the United Irish League. He promised the establishment of a United Irish League Branch in Winnipeg.

Jordan, shocked at Winnipeg apathy, established his Branch without delay in late 1913. He sought to counterbalance the propogandist effect of the local Orange offer. As he admitted, they forced the hand of the Winnipeg Home Rulers. The new branch emphaisized Catholic-Protestant unity. Jordan and the Catholic clergy were united in opposing Orange objections to Home Rule but Jordan's belief that the Irish problem was fundamentally economic, suggested new divisions.Joseph Fahey, who had complained of the Northwest Review's hostility to the labour movement, was a UIL vice-president. Such nationalism challenged Catholoc ecclesiastical interests, impeding the efforts, ultimately successful, to establish a Catholic federation in Manitoba.

The UIL collected 200 members in its first 10 days. There was an overlapping of membership with the AOH. The organizations operated separately. In 1913, the AOH disassociated itself from a UIL concert held in the Central Congrgational Church. On St. Patrick's Day, 1914, both organizations held celebrations. In late March, the UIL enjoyed its longest meeting. The excitement attendant on the third and final passage of the Home Rule bill was increased by the lecture, filled to capacity, of William Redmond, brother of John. Back in Ireland, Redmond advertised the patriotism of the Winnipeg Irish.

Meanwhile, the Orangenen divided their attention between condeming of Home Rule and the Caldwell amendments to the Manitoba School Act, the latter viewed as being a surreptitious attempt to indtroduce the separate school pribciple by the RP Roblin government. If indeed 75% of the Manitoba civil service were Orangemen and 17 sat in the legislature with only five Catholics, it would appear the Lodges could rest easy. It proved however, impossible to maintain interest over the hot summer. When the Irish Home Rule bill passed for the third and final time, overrising the Lords' veto, the Winnipeg UIL was caught almost unawares. Jordan had to sound up a few members to send a congratulatory telegram.

The outbreak of war in August and the dubious tactics of Redmond, who threw the whole weight of his influence into the British recruitment drive, appears to have discouraged any further attempt to revive the United Irish League in Manitoba. The Northwest Review was strongly pro-Redmond but by 1916, the UIL had even disappeared from the United States. The Home Rule bill was suspended for the duration of the war. There was also some Irish militants in Winnipeg who formed an Irish Volunteers group and supported Eoin MacNeill, leader of the Irish Volunteer Minority which had refused to endorse Redmond's war effort. The AOH, howver, continued in existence, emphasising the teaching of Irish history in Manitoba Catholic schools.

The Irish Rising of Easter proved a turning point for the overseas Irish, no less than for their comptriots in Ireland.The Northwest Review condemned the "Irish riots" as work of the Germans, the Sinn Feiners, James Connolly and James Larkin. Even the Winnipeg Voice, previously supportive of Connolly and Larkin, repudiated the uprising. The Orange Sentinal gloated that the rebellion would make impossible the forcing of Ulster into any new regime of Home Rule. The tide of opinion turned after the execution of the leaders of the Rising and the murder, by a deranged British officer, of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a pacifist journalist. The Review now responded to the new interest in the executed leaders; it published a poem by Joseph Plunkett and Padraic Pearse's last letter to his mother. The British government's discouragement of the Irish Canadian Rangers in 1917 may have persuaded a number of Irish Canadians to move closer to the Sinn Fein position in Ireland.

War antagonisms and Ireland's bitter independence struggle encouraged the growth of new Irish organizations in Manitoba. In early 1917, Katherine Hughes lectured in Winnipeg on nationality and language. Keenly interested in labour issues, she was originally from PEI. The Alberta government sent her on a mission to Ireland where she developed a deep interest in the Irish question and published a book on the subject.

After the war, Hughes played an outstanding part in organizing the overseas Irish in Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand in the cause of self-determination.Her preliminary visit to Winnipeg was the beginning of four years of Irish agitation. The Review advocated Irish representation at the peace conference. PJ Murphy appealed to all Irishmen to unite for Home Rule.

The Orangemen were further removed, however. Murphy himself was decidedly toward the left. He criticized the Northwest Review's attempt to use Daniel O'Connell tp prove the impractibility of Irish separatism.To Murphy, the Protestant Parnell was more in tune with the Irish spirit than the Catholic "Liberator", O'Connell. In March, 1918, PJ Murphy formed a new all embracing Irish organization, the Winnipeg Irish Assembly. "It is the purpose of our organization to create an Irish atmosphere that will make co-operation easy and pleasant". An Irish class was also mooted. Somewhat ambitious in its aims, the organization survived till July 1919, despite its promoters departure for Ontario in January. In the following autumn, the Assembly was revived and undertook to meet at least once a month. The AOH campaigned with doubtful sucess, for a new membership to help in Ireland's great battle. By August 1919 the Winnipeg AOH was "just quiescent". Some required stronger patriotic fare than the AOH could supply and were attracted to non-sectarian Irish associations.

The Montreal Irish endeavored to presuade the Borden government to advocate Irish Home Rule at the peace conference. Accordingly, the Winnipeg Irish held a mass meeting on October 11. The gathering protested against the delay in the restoration of Ireland's parliamentary rights and called on the Canadian government to act on Ireland's behalf. Associated with Henry and Jordan was Edward J Murray, a Winnipeg Catholic lawyer and subsequently Solicitor General for the Dominion.

Northwest Review correspondents were now asserting the need for Catholic-Protestant co-operation. As in other periods of Irish crisis, Catholic separatism was breaking down. While Orange and nativist opinion was particularly hostile to Irish Protestant nationalists, Protestants were welcome to to Irish Catholics.

Though local Labour supporters were preoccupied by the genesis and the aftermath of the Winnipeg General strike, (May 15-June 15,1919), they also had some interest in the Irish question. The Western Labour News, after the electoral vistory of Sinn Fein in 1919, wanted Ireland to "go the whole way and overthrow capitalist imperialism in all its forms." The democratic program which Dail Eireann, the Irish revolutionary parliament, voted in early 1919, appealed to Labour supporters