The Untold Story

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Irish History
by Province


Nova Scotia

New Brunswick




Ireland and the Irish Canadians


Kildare Dobbs


Irish History has been a nightmare, to borrow the words of James Joyce, from which all of us have been struggling to awake. No national story has been so deficient in good will. An Irish historian has said that this dearth of good will "was probably a not insignificant element in the extrusive impulse that sent hundreds of thousands to lands where, relieved from some of the cramping insecurity and bitterness of life in Ireland, they behaved to one another better than at home" I believe this is true of Irish Canadians. Coming to terms with the new country kept us too busy to indulge obsessions, though I do not want to play down the many conflicts that have wasterd so much of our energies. As W.B. Yeats wrote:

Great hatred, little room
Maimed us at the start
I carry from my mother's womb
A fanatic heart

There is something else about the Canadian air that gradually heals fanaticisms. Ours is a country made possible by accepting the otherness of other people, by agreeing to differ and so learning to become what we are.


The Irish have been coming to Canada since the 17th century, not only as barefoot economic refugees but as soldiers and servants of the British Empire which was at once the oppressor of their home country and their way out to the world. At confederation, people of Irish origin were the second largest group in Canada after the French Canadians. They had been leaders in the struggles for religious toleration and responsible government, prominent in journalism, in politics, in the churches. The vision of a new nation in North America had been given most powerful expression in the oratory ofThomas D'Arcy McGee. It is fair to say that without that vision, which caught the imagination of colonists scattered from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it would have been possible to see confederation as a mere business arrangement, a matter of railway dividends, freight rate amd tarrifs.

The Canadian Dominion was a political innovation that was to blaze a path to independence subsequently followed by many British colonies, including Ireland itself. Yet by a paradox, it may well have been the innate conservatism of the Irish, remarked by almost every commentator from the middle ages down to modern times, that helped to set the pattern of Canadian national character: love of order and hierarchy; instinctive skepticism about social chamge and revolution.

True, this is a statement that can hardly be proved. It scarcely accords the time honored stereotype of Paddy, the Irishman laying about with his shillelagh, of Irish violence and partisan malice. That there is truth in the stereotype was attested by the murder of D'Arcy McGee by one of his own countrymen, though it was the first of only two political assasinations in the whole history of Canada. In our own time, the stereotype seems reinforced by the dismal conflict in northern Ireland, a three way fight between reluctant British authority, neo-Marxist terrorists and militant Presbyterians. It is by no means a new conflict and in Canada in the nineteenth century, it erupted regularly between the Irish factions of the Orange and Green, Protestant and Catholic, in the Fenian raids against Canadian territory and in the Cathlic struggles for church schools and for a fair share of government patronage after confederation. Though a good many heads were broken in those fights and a few lives lost, they were conducted in most instances with notable restraint. There were commonly more violence in the newspaper reports and the ballads that followed them than in the events themselves.

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Still, there is no point in denying that the Irish have always been ready to fight. Too many great generals in too many countries have been Irish to have room for doubt; the British army offers such examples as Wellington, Roberts, Montgomery amd dozens of others.the great Irish parliamentarian of the 18th century resorted to arms on the rare occasions when words failed them and debates in the Parliament in Collge Green were more than once followed by encounters at dawn in Phoenix Park. Nor was readiness to shed blood restricted to persons of rank in the 19th century. In this sense, all the Irish were gentlemnen and faction fights werea well known feature of Irish life.

Irish crime statistics so not support the theory of Irish violence. With a population of about 3.2 million, the Republic of Ireland has had an average of twenty-two murders a year since 1973, except in 1974 when a raid by terrorists from Ulster brought the total of 51. In North America, Toronto is thought to be a peaceful city; in a population of 2.7 million, the number of murders committed annually is in the forties. The rate of deaths during conflict should not be considered typical. (It) reflects the fact that the Irish are not a single, homogeneous ethnic group. Ancestorally, they are of many origins, but most belong to one or other of two ethnic groups. Catholics of Gaelic or Norman origin form the majority in Ireland as a whole. Protetstants of English, Scotch or other origin, are a majority in northern Ireland.

Nothing could be more misleading than the myth that one group of Irish is somehow purer than the others. Even the term "Anglo-Irish", which Brendan Behan defined as a Protestant with a horse, can be misleading. Despite the doctrine of a pure Gaelic race violated by invaders, but holding firm to the old religion, the Irish are no more a single ethnic group than any other national population, though more than two centuries of persecuation has given them a powerful sense of identity.

Irish pluralism may be understood by taking a look at surnames. The Os and the Macs are obviously Gaelic. O or Ua means a male descendant; an O'Neil is someone descended from an ancestor called Neil. Mac means a son. Hence, MacNeil is the son of Neil. The same name often occurs without a prefix as Neil or Neale, a form that recalls a time when many Irish were ashamed of their Gaelic origins, when O'Kelly became Kelly, O'Kane became Kane and so on. Hart, Tracy, Garvey and many other Gaelic names were pruned this way to give them as English look. An interesting example is Ward, which comes from Mac an bhaird, son of the bard, a name found among nobles yet perhaps more authentically among tinkers who are still nomads like their bardic forebears. There are names that look Gaelic like MacWilliam. which are Gaelicized Norman. Other Gaelic looking names may be Viking, like Doyle, which derives from duhh ghaill, the black foreigner or Dane.

Names beginning with Fitz (from the French fils de came in with Norman invaders in the twefth century; Fitzgerald, Fitzgibbon, FitzTalbot. Fitzpatrick is however, Normanized Gaelic from MacPatrick. Other common Norman names are Burke (from De Burgo), Costello, Cusak, Cogan, Dalton, Keating, Hagle, Nugent, Power (from le Poer or De la Poer) and Sarsfield. About one Irish name in seven is Norman. Along with the Normans came Welsh and Flemish soldiers; hence names like Walsh and Fleming.

Many Mac names of Ulster are of Scottish origin, having come in with seventeeth century colonists. Gaelic racists console themselves with the reflection that the Scots were originally Irish immigrants. In Latin the word Scotus means simply Irish so that the late Earl Russell translated the name of the great scholastic philosopher, Duns Scotus Erigena, as "Itish John from Ireland".

French names are fairly common in Ireland: La Touche, Lefanu, Dupuis. Those that are not Norman like DeLacey or De Courcy, commemorate Huguenot refigees who came to Ireland before Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes granting toleration to Protestants. German names are also found, such as Boveinizer. They came in with Palatine Protestants who were displaced in Marlborough's campaigns in the time of Queen Anne. English names are also common in Ireland: Baldwin, Martin, Rogers, Evans, Palmer, Easton. THeir ancestors settled in Ireland under various schemes for colonizing the rebellious kingdom, usurping Gaelic lands, as th Gaels themselves had usurped the lands of earlier invaders. A small but important group of names belong to Quaker families: Goodbody, Ledbetter. Odlum, Shakleton.

If there is one persistent Irish trait, it is family pride and love of geneology. And despite the separation of the Irish into two nations for so much of modern history, they have intermarried to the degree that almost anyone in Ireland, of whatever religion or origin, could be a cousin of someone else. Changes of religion have also been common, either forconvenience or conscience. Irish Catholics, however, are remarkable among the people of Europe with the steadfastness with which they have clung to the old faith trough every kind of persecution and deprivation. Members of many Catholic families say proudly, "We never took the soup". This goes back to the famine times when Protestant missionaries, more zealous than honorable,offered food to starving people in return for their conversion. But it should not be supposed that every Catholic who turned Protestant did so for selfish motives. Moreover, it has been possible for Irish Canadians, with the detachment of their new allegiance, to see whatever causes may have divided the Irish and set them against one another, the two kinds of Irish are more alike than they are different.

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The story of the Irish in Canada is one of gradual reconciliation between the two kinds of Irish, as it is in the Irish Republic, where the Catholic majority has gone to enormous lengths to reassure their fellow countrymen about their place in the community; two of five Presidents have been Protestants. Canadians of Irish descent take as much pride in the great Irish figures of Protestant tradition, from Burke, Swift to Yeats as they do to the heroes of their own faith, Daniel O'Connell and the architects of the Irish republic.

The Irish Canadians are first of all Canadians but Irish identity is an undying flame that persists through generations. The emblems of Irishness are known to all Canadians. There is the harp, a pleasing instrument which has been received with considerable success in this century, on a model designed by James Eagan in Dublin in the 1820's. There is the shamrock, a minute trefoil supposed to grow only in Ireland (but) turns out to be not a species of one plant but several. St. Patrick is said to have used it in a sermon as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. And finally, there is St. Patrick himself, whose demotion from the Catholic calandar has been ignored by Irish of all faiths. Scholars may argue there was no such person or if there was, that were two or three of him. Or that the Latin hymn and confession attributed to him were written by someone else of the same name, or that he was English or Welsh. It is reported by Hubert Butler in his fascinating book on Irish hagiography, Ten Thousand Saints that in the 1960's, a woman studying the question of Patrick's autheticity was advised by a policeman to leave Ireland before she came to harm.

The sea divided Gael. It is part of Irish Canadian identity to feel one with the emigrant and expatriate Irish of other countries. Irishness is an identity with the Holy land and a diaspora. The dispersion that brought the Irish to Canada carried them to many counties. The continuing concerns for the fortunes of the homeland is not always helpful to Ireland. Expatriate views of what is happening in Ireland are likely to be coloured by stories told by an ancestor who emigrated a century ago, stories handed down. Onsolete resentments and enmities become fossilized in this way, taking no account of later Irish history; and some Canadian Irish, more generous than thoughtful, have been rempted to send money to Irish factions, thereby adding fuel to the flames which the Irish of the homeland are anxious to quench.

If the home country is a holy land, then the forms of religion carried from there are doubly holy. Irish Catholics seem more Catholic than the Pope, aware they have earned a special grace by keeping the faith through penal times and every kind of adversity. In Ireland, the universal Church was cornered into thinking of itself as a beleagered sect. Irish Protestants, for their part, strive to be more upright and more unbending than other reformed Christians, upholding law and morality against all corners, especially Rome. This is most noticable among dissenters, who suffered the same disabilities as Catholics under the Penal Laws.

In Canada, Irish Catholics, who saw themselves as the elect of their faith, sometimes came into collision with French Canadians who were equally sure they were God's chosen. Struggles for control of parishes and dioceses in Quebec and Minitoba during the 19th century had roots in these attitudes as well as anxieties about language. In the same period, Irish Protestants, working through Orange Lodges, tried hard to teach their new countrymen their own fiery intolerance. They were not entirely successful.

The more genial aspects of Irishness are less controversial. The Irish have been too impoverished through much of their history and too dependent on the potato to make much contribution to the arts of the table though there is no cause for the English to condesend to them on this score. Irish soda bread and Irish stew are well known in Canada though such traditional fare as barm breac, a currant loaf eaten at Halloween and colcannon, a mash of potatoes and other vegetables, is not often found.

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What of the Irish language, which many propagandists since the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893 have seen as an essential prop to Irish identity. Although most of the immigrants to Newfoundland in the 18th century were probably Gaelic speakers, as were many Irish immigrants to other parts of what is now Canada, there is no Gaeltacht anywhere in the country, except in Nova Scotia where a few hundred decendants of Scottish highlanders still use the Gaelic of Scotland. Gaelic speaking Irish families who came to Canada seem to have lost the language within a single generation. Many Gaelic words are still in use among communities originally settled by Irish people, especially in Newfoundland.

Proponents of Gaelic argue that since the language is the most distinctive thing about Ireland, its disappearance would extinguish Irish identity. No one could deny that access to the ancient and modern literature of Ireland in Gaelic is of enormous interest to all who feel themselves to be Irish. But the number of scholars in any generation who are conversant with classical and old Irish as well as the modern dialects must be small; and much Gaelic literature is in any case becoming accesisble in English translation. These Irish Canadians who know no Gaelic at all are no worse off than those who have acquired a smattering in Irish schools. Irish identity depends only indirectly on Gaelic. Its neglect in Canada has not resulted in any loss of Irishness, any more than in Ireland.

Knowledge of the Gaelic and Celtic past is still essential, not only as a matter of ethnic self-esteem but because the profound Gaelic influence on Western civilization has so long been neglected in favour of classical Hebrew influences. As Nora Chadwick remarks, "It has said that the marriage of the vigorous culture of temperate Europe and the civilization of the Mediterranean was solemnized during the early Middle ages." The contribution of the classical world has not been in doubt since the Rennisance and has sometimes been exaggerated. It is time that the contribution of prehistoric Europe, and more particularly that of the Celts and their forebears was recognized adequately."

With Gaelic literature and art, we are in the presence of the body of a imaginative and intellectual work comparable in range and profundity with the achoevement of classical antiquity. The Irish scholars who discovered this marvellous heritage in the 19th century displayed a missionary fervour in desciminating it. The regeneration of the Irish had to begin with this work of restoring their self-esteem, not only in Ireland but in the new world as well. Nicholas Flood Davin in his book The Irishman in Canada, published in 1877, declared that his objects are to "sweep aside misconceptions, to explode cherished fallacies, to point out the truth and to raise the self-respect of every person of Irish blood in Canada.

Bad morale affected some of the humbler Irish much as it has affected American blacks and Canadian native people in our own time. Thinking themselves worthless, many turned to crime and drunkeness.

The wretched condition of the Irish throughout the 18th century can hardly be exaggerated. Many kept their pride through it all, as the good Bishop Berkeley note in 1749: "In my own family a kitchen-wench refused to carry out the cinders, because she was descended from old Irish stock. Never was there a more monstrous conjunction than that of pride with beggery; and yet this prodigy is seen every day in almost every part of the kingdom. At the same time, these proud people are more destitute than savages, and more abject than negroes." He went on, "he negroes in our plantation have a saying: 'If negro was not a negro, Irishmen would be negro.', and it may be affirmed with thruth that the very savages of America are better clad and better lodged than the Irish cottagers throughout the fine fertile counties of Limerick and Tipperary."

But the Irish had not come to the end of their troubles yet. The desperate rising of 1798 was to be followed by the calamity of the Great Hunger in 1847 and its attendent plague of typhus. This was the worst disater of the country in terms of loss of life.

Considering what they suffered, it is amazing that the Irish showe such resilance.