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Irish History
by Province


Nova Scotia

New Brunswick




Another New Ireland Lost: The Irish of New Brunswick


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 20% of the provincial population. The reasons behind this drastic decline are obscure and have not been studied in amy scholarly manner. In fact, a full-scale study of the Irish of New Brusnick 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.

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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.

Spouse selection reveals further differences between Irishmen on the basis of religion. In this sample, all of the Irish Catholic men had Catholic wives. A very few Protestant Irish had Catholic wives. But nine out of 10 Irish Catholics had Irish wives, whereas less than two out of three Irish Protestants had Irish wives. The Scots fell between the two groups of Irish in spousal selection and the English seemed to have shared the Protestant Irishman's lack of concern for ethnicity when selecting a spouse. When place of birth is taken into consideration, the disparity becomes even more obvious. Irish born Catholics selected Irish wives in 95.1% of the cases as opposses to 78.4% for Irish born Protestants. Of New Brunswick born Irish Catholics, 85.2% had Irish wives but the rate for Irish Protestants born in New Brusnwick fell to 52.0%. Irish Protestants, especially those born in New Brunswick, did not feel the same ethnic imperative when it came to selecting their wives and instead seem to have followed denomonational patterns.

In terms of occupation, further distinctions emerge between the Catholics and Protestants of the sample. Neither religious group ranked high in terms of professional or business occupations. Agriculture was the occupation of 53.8% of the Protestants and 47.8% of Catholics. Skilled trades accounted for 14.8% and 13.5% respectively but 10.9% of the Protestants and 21.0% of Catholics were listed as unskilled labour. Of the Catholics, 36.4% were either skilled or unskilled labour as oppossed to 28.4% of the Protestants. The sterotype of the Catholic Irishman as more proletarian can be upheld by this data, if not in an overwhelming fashion. But it shuold be remembered that the bulk of the parishes in the sample are rural. There are too few towns and villages for any clear conclusions. But the parish and town of Chatham provide some idea of what the urban Irish populatin might be like. The population was 41.2% Irish, of whom 87% were Catholic. It would seem there were enough Irish to create their own community, because 15.5% of the occupations were listed as business as professional, which was over three times the rate for the remainder of the sample. Part of the reason may be that Chatham was the seat of a Catholic Bishop. Even so, the majority of the listed occupations for the Irish of Chatham are skilled and unskilled labour. Chatham was exeptional in the sample because it seems as if the Irish had a community in most accepted sense of the word. But it might be suggested that in many of the rural areas, the Irish and especially the Catholic Irish, did not constitute a separate community but rather lived on the fringe of the established community.

The principal handicap of this sample is that it does not include the important Irish community in Saint John. It would be necessary to inclde a few wards of that city in order to form any informed judgement on the whole of the Irish population of New Brunswick. Even so, a few conclusions can be drawn. By 1871, the Irish of New Brusnwick, apart from their numerical importance, had sorted themselves out reasonably well. The two religious groups were generally separated in geographical terms with the Catholics predominating in the cities and on the north shore, especially the Miramichi. Southwestern New Brusnwick was Orange territory, with a healthy sprinkling of Irish Catholics. Only Saint John had a large proportion of Irish born and even there the majority of Irish were native norn. The Irish population of New Brusnwick, therefore, had been established prior to the arrival of the refugess from the famine. The Protestant Irish were better established, at least in traditional terms. Their higher proportion of nuclear family households and higher rate of farmers distinguished them from the Catholic Irish. It would also seem that the Protestant Irish were more determined to blend into the population, by marrying outside their own group and by becoming Baptist, a denomination rare in Ireland. This in turn meant the Catholic Irish retained a greater sense of their "Irishness" and this was carried over into the generations born in the prvince. The higher rate of unskilled labour amongst the Catholic Irish meant that they had set down fewer roots and would be more prone to migration again.

This may well acount for the decline of the Irish in New Brunswick. By 1941, they had dropped to less than 20 per cent of the population, a drop which involved a decrease in recorded numbers to 68,801- which was 68.3% of their 1871 numbers. The actual decline was probably not as steep as these figures indicate. The Catholic Irish probably migrated in greater numbers and the effect of their slightly smaller families may have resulted in slower growth. The Protestant Irish, on the other hand, may have migrated but it would seem as if their high rate of intermarriage with the English and Scots is indicative of the higher rate of assimilation. It is possible, indeed probable, that a large proprotion of Irish Protestants simply became "English" or "Scots" while the Catholic Irish remained Irish. So, many of the Scots and English of New Brusnwick have more Irish roots than they probably know or want to remember. By 1941, the proprotion of Catholic to Irish had been reversed. The Catholics had become the majority and their sense of ethnicity remained stronger than that of their Protestant cousins. The broad pattern of denominational settlement had not changed dramatically but the Orange districts were somewhat less Orange.

One typical Irish characteristic remained among the Irish of New Brusnwick at this time. land was an extermely imortant possession of the Irish and it held a strong symbolic significance. By 1941, the Irish farmers of New Brusnwick, compared with the English and the Scots in all three Maritime provinces, had the largest, least valuable, least profitable, most populous and most independent farms of all. The Irish love of the soil was as enduring as their numerical strength was fleeting. Perhaps further study will reveal even more intriging characteristics of the Irish and their cultural continuity in the province whose original propsed name was New Ireland.

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