The Untold Story

Irish History
by Province

New Brunswick


Nova Scotia




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


William M. Baker

In 1866, parishoners of St. Patrick's Catholic Congregation in Montreal wrote a public letter to Bishop Ignace Bourget which included the following passage:

Your Lordship, referring to the sad events of 1847, is pleased to call us an "unfortunate people". We admit it, we were unfortunate in 1847 though the insrutible ways of God, who, however, often chastises in love. In 1866, we are "still unfortunate" - for your Lordship will not allow us to forget our sad destinies. The memory of all past afflictions must be kept fresh; and all the charities of which we have been the sad recipients, must be turned into an argument to force us to surrender in silence, all the advantages of our present altered condition, and which we owe to our own efforts, under the blessing of God and the generous sympathy of our immediate Pastors. Certainly, we are a pecularlarly "unfortunate" people.

Thousands of our fellow countrymen left their native land in 1847, in order to seek a home in Canada. They did not come here to live on charity. They were for the most part in the prime of life. Their intention was to repay the hospitality promised them in this new country by the riches of their labor, of their enterprise and of their virtue. God willed it otherwise" The passage raises some fundamental questions about the Irish Catholic experience in 19th century Canada. What was the nature and severity of the "past afflictions" which they had suffered. How had their circumstances altered? Is it appropriate to describe them as "God's unfortunate people?"

My own interest in the history of Irish Catholics in Canada began over 15 years ago. I was involved in writing a biography of Timothy Warren Anglin, a Catholic who left his home town of Clonakilty Cork in 1849. He had been a school teacher of sorts and was a well educated man of considerable literary ability. Circumstances in Ireland did not, however, offer him good prospects and he emigrated to Saint John, New Brunswick where he established himself as the editor and owner of a newspaper, The Freeman. Through its pages, he became the most prominent of lay spokesman of Irish Catholics in New Brunswick from the 1850's to the 1880's. He was also a politician of note, being an elected member of the New Brunsick Assembly from 1862-66 and becoming one of the most important cabinet Ministers of the short lived anti-confederation Government of 1865-66 From 1867-1882, he was a member of the House of Commons, acting as Speaker of the House from 1874 to 1879. After electoral defeat in 1882 and the decline of his newspaper, he moved to Toronto as part of a plan by the Reform, or Liberal, political party to woo the Catholic vote in Ontario. This proved to be a disapointing experience and he died in 1896, but not before he saw his eldest son become a successful lawyer, en route to his eventual position as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Other children also achieved success, his daughter Margaret becoming an internationally acclaimed actress.

The interpetation I proponded in the biogrphy was that Anglin was an Irish Catholic leader and that his career depended on that. In other words, his ascent and eventual decline depended on the existence in reality and/or the belief of an Irish-Catholic sector within the Catholic polity. His role was to mediate between the two, to act as a liason 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 Irish Catholics. Anglin urged Irish Catholics to adopt Canadian norms and practices. He, along with another prominant Canadian Irish Catholic, D'Arcy McGee, advocated a type of assimilation, one which would remove the distinctiveness of Irish Catholics within Canadian society, although it would preserve their religious committment. I argued that Anglin's perspective and role were important, in that they assisted in closing the gap between Irish Catholics and other Canadians. Indeed, it seemed that the decline of Anglin's influence in the 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 acceptable to them. They had, to all intents and purpose, disappeared as an ethnic group, although they retained their religious distinctiveness.

My biography of Anglin focused, naturally enough, on the individual rather than the group for which I claimed he was a spokeman. Equally obvious, however, is the fact I required some knowledge of the nature and the evolution of the Irish Catholic community in British North America.

Prior to 1970, there were no available general account of the Irish experience in Canada, let alone one for Irish Catholics. The only item that even promised 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 immigration to Canada; various items dealt with the Fenian "troubles"; some popular works had been published on the so-called 'Black Donnellys', a rather obnoxious famine Irish Catholic family who had settled in rural Ontario and had been brutally massacred by their neighbours in 1880. Numerous articles and dissertations had examiined the Irish in such local or regional settings as Montreal, Toronto, Quebec, Sudbury, the Peter Robinson settlement around Peterborough, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. In addition, there was Ken Duncan's interesting and influential article "Irish Famine Immigration and the Social Structure of Canada West", and a number of useful dissertations such as David Lyne's "The Irish in the Province of Canada in the Decade Leading to Confederation", Peter Toner's thesis on the New Brunswick Schools Question (which told far more about Irish Catholics in New Brusnwick than its title might suggest), Robin Burns' work on D'Arcy McGee, Stan Horrall's dissertation on the Canadian response to the Irish Home Rule Question, and Michael Cross's thsis which among other things examined Irish lumbermen in the Ottawa Valley. There was also H.C. Pentland's thesis, "Labor Development of Industrial Capitalism in Canada", which was completed in 1961 but did not attract much attention from scholars concerned with Irish Catholics in Canada or in Canadian histiography in general, until the 1970's, although his articles on the Lachine strike of 1843 and on the development of a capitalistic labor market in Canada was made use of. Certainly, this is not an exhaustive biography of pre-1970 writings relevant to Irish Catholics in Canada, but perhaps it is enough to indicate that it was a topic which had attracted considerable attention and on which a significant body of literature had already accumulated.

Prior to 1970, there was no general account of the Irish Catholic experience in Canada but it seems to me both possible and useful to suggest that certain generalizations can be drawn from the scholarship. Put in the form of questions which can be asked of post-1970 writings, the important interpretive themes are as follows:

  1. Were Irish Catholics in Canada poor, unskilled wage earners in urban centers?
  2. Were Irish Catholics a pecularly violent and troublesome group which created great discord in Canadian society?
  3. Were Irish Catholics absorbed into the mainstream of Canadian life thereby ceasing to form a distinct ethno-religious group, and if so, when and how did this occur?

The pre-1970's literature in general provides an affirmative response to all these questions. Few prominant studies examined rural Irish Catholics or placed much emphasis on the distinctiveness, as a group, of pre-famine Celtic immigrants. The impression was left that, as much by ommission as anything else, was that the core of Irish-Catholic experience was that of the famine Irish, a group which Gilbert Tucker described as "probably the most diseased, destitute and shiftless that Canada has ever receieved". For example, Kenneth Duncan brushed aside the pre-famine Irish in four sentences, asserting that even the earlier Irish immigrants had shown a "preference for urban life". Duncan then focused on the famine immigrants and argued that their entry into Ontario had, along with other effects, the following consequences:

The creation of an Irish Catholic urban proletariat; the development of areas of de facto segregation in cities; the accentuation of religious conflict...the differentiation of the Irish population into Irish and Ulster Irish factions...the introduction of a tradition of violence to gain economic, religious and political ends; and greatly increased crime.
For Duncan, these features were so evident that his main interest was in answering various "why" questions.
Why did the Irish peasant become a city man? Why did he prefer an urban slum to an independent farmstead, refusing great attractions and resisting strong pressures to take up land. Why did he accept lower wages, separation from his family, exploitation and danger in railroading, logging and canal work when better wages and conditions were offered by farmers. What made the Irish so violent in their relations among themselves and with others? Why did they live in crowded tenemants never out of sight and sound of neighbours?
More important than Duncan's explanation that these features reflected the transfer and persistence of aspects of the social order in Ireland was the image be projected of Canadian's Irish Catholics as an unskilled, ghettoized unruly, almost tribal group.

Pentland's focus was less fixed on the famine immigrants but the image that emerged was much the same. According to him, the "migration of Irish peasants, mostly from Munster and Connaught, was to provide the main constitution of Canada's capitalistic (labour) market." They worked on canals, in the timber industries. on railways and in unskilled work in towns and cities. Portand's characterization of Irish-Catholics was as follows:

The Irish peasant was hard working for others, indolent for himself, ignorant, superstitious, fervent, beligerent, sociable, but his distinctive characteristic, in relation to the labour market, was his preference for wage employment. Unlike all earlier arrivals in North America, he never wanted to be an independent farmer. Whether because of his remoteness from the Protestant ethic or because the countryman's position was so hopeless in Ireland, where wage employment offered the only chances, the Irish peasant clung to wage work in spite of every hazard of low pay, uncertain employment and abiminable conditions.

These quotations from Pentland and Duncan speak mainly to the first two questions posed. But what about the absorption of Irish Catholics into Canadian sociey? Duncan did not deal with the matter at all. Portland claimed that although the second generation of Irish Catholics still "clung to the cities" they did progress economically, "dispersed among many occupations", and saved to acquire a lot, build a house...put funds in savings banks", thereby integrating into their environment by the 1860's.