The Untold Story

Irish History
by Province


Prince Edward Island

New Brunswick




"Gentle as the Snow on a Rooftop:
The Irish in Nova Scotia to 1830


Terrence M. Punch

When, on 17 January, 1986, the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax marked its two hundredth anniversary, its historian, Robert P. Harvey, summarized its past record, drawing attention to the long established and large community of Irish origin in a province where the Irish have been neither the largest nor the most vocal of the several long settles ethnic groups: in part, this is a tribute to the success of the Irish in gaining acceptance into the mainstream of Nova Scotian life. A factor contributing to this was the manner of their arrival and their adaptability. It is appropriate that the title of my essay should be "Gentle as the Snow on a Rooftop.

When Acadia was still a French colony, there were already some Irish there. At least one Acadian family name arrived from Ireland in the name of Robert Kuessey (Caissy or Quessy) in 1665. Many Irish came ti the shores and were lost in the general population. Though the numbers of Irish in the province before the founding of Halifax was small, their numbers can be documented.

The recognizable Irish settlement of Nova Scotia began with the founding of the garrison town of Halifax. If a low profile has been one characteristic of the Irish community here, another feature has been its identification with the urban areas. Ireland was an agricultural country and many farming people emigrated yet in Nova Scotia their settlement patterns reveals continued movement to towns and their environs. There were many reasons for this: past experience, present poverty, personality and the prevailing circumstances in the host communities.

The Irish, even before the Great famine, had already become a people "more interested in escaping from Europe than in what faced them in America". What terrors could Halifax hold for one who had scraped together a few schillings to escape the grinding poverty of a tiny potato plot in a land incapable of carrying its human population? Some Irish came out from districts where farming had been conducted against a backdrop of unrest, uncertainty and incipient violence. Some had decided to turn their back on the land altogether. Others arrived and tried to maintain a farm but were defeated by their ignorance of large-scale farming. The Nova Scotian expert, Titus Smith, recognized that the Irish were used to land which "required a different mode of cultivation, so that they are often necessarily somewhat awkward at their business." Unskilled in the ways of the new countryside, few Irish newcomers were ready to "adopt the difficult expedient...of attempting to farm wilderness land without capital."

The second factor to be considered here is the financial condition which led to Irish migration. Some who arrived in the port were forced to stay there because they were too poor to go farther. Eventually, however, many of the destitute moved on to the "promised land" but there was always a sprinkling of "hard cases" in evidence during the emigration era; "from Halifax and St. John's these debilitated, half starved human beings wandered down the coast until they reached a large city, usually Boston-where charitable institutions would shelter them. Contemporary records supply numerous tales of misfortune and hardship."

The third factor was the Irish need for constant social contact. "The gregariousness, which is so noticeable a feature of Irish character, accords ill with pioneer life." In Ireland the pattern of small-holding had enabled people to live within sight and sound of their neighbours, but this was not always possible in North America, and many Irish people could not endure the isolation of a forest clearing or a rocky seacoast. Halifax, with its old Irish community, was one of the towns to which outlying Irish were attracted. This urban concentration encouraged chain migration of people to join acquantances who had preceeded them. Return to the Top

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In 1830, Nova Scotia changed its land policy. Previous to that, land had been granted free (apart from sporadic effots to collect quiterent), but now free grants were reserved for service pensioners, all others being expected to buy land. The price of land did not have to be very high to deter the Irish from purchasing it.

There were concentrations of Irish people in the coastal towns of Nova Scotia. Pictou was a major immigration port for the region and there were enough Irish there to require a resident Priest. The same was true in Sydney. Smaller towns such as Arichat and Liverpool received parties of Irish immigrants from at least the 1780's. Halifax, however, has been the focus of most studies of the Irish in Nova Scotia.

Halifax was established in the 18th century after some months of confusion and busy decision making. The restoration of Louisbourg to France in 1748, greatly angered the New Englanders instrumental in the capture of the fortress. Moreover, the merchants of New England feared a reneal of raids on their valuable fishing operations out of Canso by French privateers based at Louisbourg. At the same time, the British wished to force the Acadians to pledge allegiance to Great Britain and to intimidate the Micmacs into making peace. In light of this, it seemed necessary to spend public funds on the town and garrison. The British, anxious to allay criticism of the (Aix-la-Chapelle) Treaty both at home and in New England, made generous promises of land and provisions to prospective settlers in Halifax.Probably owing to the pressure of time, those supervising the recruitment and supply of of intending immigrants.

Some at least of the departing settlers made their way back to England, while others, more numerous, sailed off to New England on one or other of the American vessels that visited the new town. Faced with the disapearance of about 40% of the settlers, among them "the greater part of the more respectable elements", Halifax authorities had no high opinion of most of those who remained. Into the vacuum left by the departing settlers came "foreign Protestants from the Rhine, Switzerland as well as New Englanders and Irish. If the New Englanders "gradually became the core of the English speaking population", the Irish Catholics became Halifax's first distinct minority group.

Among the original settlers were 66 Irish families and an indeterminable number of Irish servants, perhaps mounting to 200 in all. In 1752, there were 262 persons with Irish names.

It appears that the Irish residents of early Halifax were not as docile as the British authorities would have wished. The minutes of the Council of 2 July 1751 mention that a group of Irish Catholics at Halifax had combined and were planning to go over to the Indians and the French. The incident was not an isolated one. (Many Irish went over to the French, considered the emeny by the British). A Rev Stiles of Boston stated in 1760 that Halifax had nearly 3,000 people, 1/3 of which are Irish and many of them Roman Catholic.

For the first dozen years after the foundation of Halifax, many of the Irish inhabitants evinced tendacies which did not endear them to, nor inspire the confidence of the authorities: correspondence with the French with whom the British were contesting the hegemony of America; conducting themselves in a manner that enabled even a visitor to pereive their Catholic religion; and speaking a language that the jurist Jonathan Belcher recognized as Irish Gaelic. The Irish concentrated in the south end and for years, the neighborhood was known as Irishtown while its failure to develop may reflect an official wish to prevent the growth of a potential source of discontent in the capital. Return to the Top

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The 1790's witnessed the arrival in Nova Scotia of several groups of people who had been born in northern Ireland, and who arrived under the auspices of the colonizer. Alexander McNutt, himself a native Ulster. Governor Charles Lawrence had become interested in attracting English speaking Protestants to his jurisdiction and was advertising in New England.

The substantial influx of Ulster people was restricted by the British government after a few years. Nonetheless, enough had come into the prvinince to make an imprint on the future Colchester County. While many and possibly most of the descendants of these settlers prefer to trace their origins through generations in Ireland to a time when their ancestors lived in southwestern Scotland as many as 120 years after their arrival in Nova Scotia half of them claimed an Irish ethnic origin at the time of the 1881 census. The group arrivals of the Ulster settlers diversified the Irish component of the Nova Scotian population and supplied an example of people of Irish birth reaching the province in an organized party. Beyond that, their coming must remain merely an incident in the story of the Irish in Nova Scotia. The central events of that tale may be resumed in the setting of Halifax at the end of the Seven Years War. (1756-1763).

The snow-gradual Irish arrivals-continued to land gently on the roof-Nova Scotia-during these years. It is striking, as oone leafs through the marriage records of St. Paul's, the only Church permitted to solemmize matrimony in the town at the time, that the three ethnic strains equally represented are English, German and Irish. One may wish to argue that Catherine Fitzpatrick and John Maloney and their like were all Anglicans, though it appears most unlikely. Beyond dispute, however, the names of Irish people, few of whom grace the passenger lists, or appear in the land records of the 1760's. In 1767 Nova Scotia took stock of the population and found there were 2,000 Irish born people among a population of 11,679 and that 979 of the former were located in Halifax. Although there were some Irish people in all of the 11 counties, the greater concentration was urban. The same return reported that 667 Haligonians were Roman Catholic, most of whom can certainly be found in the Irish population.

If anything, the proportion of the Roman Catholic population would tend to be under-estimated. This is understandable when one considers that the anti-Catholic legislation of Great Britain had effect in Nova Scotia. The notices circulated to attract settlers in Britain , Europe and New England had always specified that land and provisions would be supplied to Protetstants. The earliest acts of the Nova Scotia Assembly (opened 1758) included measures forbidding English speaking Catholic subjects the services of ordained clergy, and closed to them the professions of teaching and law. They might not hold land unless it had been given to them by the crown, nor might they act as guardians of any minor who had a Protestant relative.

These laws were not enforced strictly and exceptions were made in specific cases. Their existence, however, did serve as a dampening influence on the Catholics and must have encouraged at least some of them to dissemble their faith. That this was the sucessful policy of a minority can be best seen from a study of about 1778-79. Presumably the 360 property owners include the more affluent portion of the residents. Among the 360 appear 30 names of men who were both Roman Catholic and Irish.

Records of the Nova Scotia probabte court, which, after 1759, served all parts of Nova Scotia not specifically included within another country, begin in 1749. Between then and 1784, when measures of Catholic relief had begun in Britain and its colonies, about 50 Irish people had produced wills probated; about half of these testators were Catholic. The latter seemed to have pursued occupations which invloved personal rather than real estate which indicates the Irish took care to obey the letter of the law yet made their living by means of a liberal interpetation of its restrictions. We find testators describing themselves as fishermen, mariners, labourers, artisans and traders.

There was considerable pro-French sentiment among the Irish while a French presence continued in the region. After about 1760 this French influence was removed and the Irish adopted a cautious policy of public assent to British wishes, while privately adhering to their personal beliefs and reservations.