The Untold Story
Another New Ireland Lost: The Irish of New Brunswick
by Peter Toner
During the middle of the nineteenth century, the Irish had reached the peak of their population growth in Canada. Outside of Quebec, the Irish were the largest single ethnic group, numerically more significant in ontario, but proportionately most significant in New Brunswick. By 1871, the Irish of New Brunswick numbered 100,000 out of a total population of 285,000, were strategically situated in the largest towns, and their presence was an important political consideration. And yet, by 1941, the date of the last published census data which specifically deals with the Irish as an ethnic group, the Irish had declined to less than 70% of their 1871 numbers, and had dropped to less than 20% of the provincial population. The reasons behind this drastic decline are obscure and have not been studied in a scholarly manner. In fact, a full-scale study of the Irish of New Brunswick in any form has yet to be written.
There are many approaches possible in the study of any group such as the Irish. Scholarly investigation could bring to light many outstanding characters as well as many anecdotes of the past. The politics of the Irish and their institutions are a;ways interesting, and this is especially true of the Irish in New Brunswick. But before any of this can be done successfully, it is essential to define the community distribution, composition, and salient demographic features of the Irish as an essential preliminary to an understanding of the New Brunswick Irish. This paper will examine some of the demographic characteristics of the Irish of New Brunswick during the period of their greatest numbers, and presumably of their greatest influence.
There were Irish settlers in what is now New Brunswick almost 100 years before the arrival of the Loyalists and the establishment of the province. Many of the Loyalists themselves had Irish surnames. Before 1800, the Irish presence was scarcely noticed by the bulk of the population, and it would be difficult to argue that there was any Irish 'community'. The beginning of the timber trade brought the Irish to New Brunswick in noteworthy numbers. They were probably most visible in the Miramichi, but were present in all parts of the province. During the years following the Battle of Waterloo, many Irish chose emigration as a means of ensuring their future. Many of these came to New Brunswick as ordinary settlers, often moving on to the land from which the marketable timber had been cleared. At this point, it is difficult to ascertain the exact identity of these Irish settlers, but probably the majority were Protestant, and the main exit points were the ports of the south and the north such as Londonderry, Wexford and Cork. The largest single influx of Irish was during the period from 1845 to 1854, the period of the famine immigration. The vast bulk of the famine immigrants to New Brunswick entered through the port of Saint John, and many of those did not continue on to Boston chose to say close to that city. Many, probably most, of the famine immigrants moved further on, either immediately or within a few years: this means that the genetic contribution of the Irish who had arrived before the famine has been greater than that of the immigrants of the 'Hungry Forties'.
Although they never became a totally stable group, the Irish by 1871 constituted 35.2% of the population of New Brunswick. A few Irish could be found in even the most remote Acadian settlements, but the main concentrations were in the areas closest to the ports of entry. The city of Saint John, the only true urban centre, was the main focal point. The city was 54.1% Irish, and that proportion increased to 62.2% for the County. Nearby parts of Kings County were also heavily settled by Irish, especially those areas which had not been granted to the Loyalists in the years following the American Revolution. Saint John City, its county and the adjacent parishes of Kings County held about a third of the Irish in the entire province. The second most important concentration of the Irish was in the Miramichi, where the Irish were about 40% of the population spread rather evebly over the county. There were smaller pockets of Irish, as in parts of Charlotte County, small portions of Carleton, Victoria and Gloucester Counties and the capital city of Fredericton. About 75% of the Irish were born in New Brunswick and the Irish born represented more than 60% of the foreign-born population. In Saint John and its environs, the Irish born constituted 42.8% of all those in the province, and they made up about 30% of the local Irish population. By contrast, amongst the Miramichi Irish, the immigrants numbered only 20%, which would indicate that the Irish population there had been established earlier and owed less to the famine migrations.
The Irish of New Brunswick were not uniform in that most important of Irish identification features, religion. Without a complete and detailed analysis of the manuscript returns of the early censuses, it is impossible to determine the exact breakdown on the basis of religion, but estimates are easy enough to calculate. In 1871, just over half of the Irish were Protestant, a situation which would be reserved as time went on. The Protestant Irish predominated in the south-western portion of the province, especially Kings, Queens, Charlotte, York and Carleton Counties. The City of Saint John and its environs were an exception. The Irish of the City of Saint John were 62.2% Catholic and of the County 50.5% Catholic. There were a few pockets in southwestern New Brunswick where the Irish were mainly Catholic. The City of Fredericton is an example. It was just under half Irish and these were almost 60% Catholic. The adjacent rural areas shared this distribution. But for the St. John River Valley outside of the two cities, the Irish population was mainly Protestant. In contrast, Catholics predominated amongst the Irish in the northern and eastern sections of the province. In the French areas, there were almost no Protestant Irish. The Miramichi Irish were over 80% Catholic, with a Protestant majority only in the remote upriver parish of Ludlow. Catholic and Protestant Irish were somewhat separated in New Brusnwick, though prehaps no so much in Ireland.
It is possible to probe more deeply into the character of the Irish population through a detailed analysis of the manuscript census. In time, this will be done, but for the present, a sample can reveal something. The sample under consideration is not random but is drawn from the population of eight parishes chosen for reasons of size, location, and the legibility of the manuscripts themselves. A total of 600 Irish households have been isolated from the 1871 census, and recorded with a number of variables. The prime characteristic was household type, according to the "Cambridge" classification system. The data reveal that Irish families tend to be more "nuclear" than those of other ethnic groups, 82.8% as opposed to 76.6% for the Scots. The Protestant Irish tend to be more extreme in this respect, reaching 86.0% for nuclear families. The extended family is more common amonst Irish Catholics, who had 25% more more families in this catagory than their Protestant cousins, but 35% fewer than the Scots. The belief that Irish Protestants and the Scots share much of their heritage and culture must be questioned in light of this data. Another tradition can be set aside, at least until more data can be examined. The Protestant Irish household was slighlt larger than its Catholic counterpart, each just averaging over four children per family. But there is one tradional belief which can be upheld by this data: there were over three and a half times as many Irish Catholic households, constituted of people living alone, than was true for the Protestant Irish sample.