A 'New Ireland Lost': The Irish Presence in Prince Edward Island
by Brendan O'Grady
In 1780, when Donegal born Captain Walter Patterson, first Governor of St. John's Island, chose to rename the British colony, he could hardly have foreseen the appropriateness in having the Legislative Assembly call it New Ireland. Notwithstanding the Privy Council's refusal to allow the proposed name and the contemporary Britsh policy prohibiting colonization from Ireland between 1767 and 1850 about 10,000 immigrants from at leat 25 countries of Ireland came to constitute one quarter of the founding people of the province of Prince Edward Island.
The Irish immigrants found this island to an agreeable but challenging place to live. As in much of the old country, the island's cleared landscape comprised gently rolling hills and golden hills and red soil excellent for growing potatoes and for pasteuring dairy herds and fine horses. Two of the island's drwabacks were familiar to the Irish: Landlordism and sectariansim, even after the penal restrictions had eneded in 1830, bedeviled social progress and caused friction well into the 20th century. Even the "exile" syndrome followed the Irish here, for no sooner had the settlers begun to prosper than their descendants started to outmigrate, repeating the well known pattern of adventure abroad and aguish at home. Generally, the Irish shared the common lot of pioneers. They fared no better than the English, Scottish or Acadian settlers in coping with the formidable forest, wild animals, rigours of winter and endless physical toil.
In many ways a microcosm of experience in Atlantic Canada, this island's culture also has some distinctive qualities. An island only 140 miles long and 4 to 40 miles wide and inhabited by 125,000 people is a society on a human scale.In such a society, which was 90% rural a century ago, it was normal to retain and transmit inherited manners and morals. The very insularity helped to conserve cultural values. Such a place, however, culd not long remain isolated. The erosive effects of world wide instant communications, the invasions of the summer tourists and the jet age mobility of the islanders themseleves are among the factors which have profoundly shaken the old cultural foundations. Hampered as Irish studies are by the lack of documentation and first hand accounts- for the Irish relied more on oral tradition than on written statements- historians are now challenged to construct a plausible account of the Irish presence in Prince Edward Island. In that spirit, the following tentative summary is offered.
In 1767, nine years after taking possission of the island from the French, the British divided the island into 67 townships averaging 20,000 acres and awarded these estates by lottery to persons who had earned rewards for political or military services. The proprietors, invaribaly absentee landlords, were required to recruit tenants from the Protestant poulation in continental Europe or in the North American colonies - a requirement which few preprietors met. For the next century, tenants and colonial governments disputed claims. In 1875, the provincial government finally purchased the remaining estates and resold the farms to the tenants who had cultivated them.
Some early proprietors were successful colonizers. The efforts of Captain John MacDonald of Glenalladale, Sir James Montgomery and Lord Selkirk ensured that the Scots would be the island's most dominant ethnic group. Robert Clark settled a large number of Englishmen in New London while other proprietors offered land to Loyalists who fled the American revolution and Englishmen continued to some to the island in fair numbers until the middle of the nineteenth century. Recruitment efforts in Ireland, however, were not so productive. Governor Patterson and Tipperary born Lieutenant Governor Thomas DesBrisay, illictly publicized their offers in various places in Ireland but attracted few responses and during the 1820's, General Hunt Walsh's heirs employed Irish agents who managed to settle in the Foxley River area of Lot 11 some Catholic families from the midland counties now called Laois and Offaly but only the large scale colonizing plan involving Irish settlers was imitated in 1830 by a Scottish priest who wished to populate the estate he had inerited 15 miles from Charlottetown. Geberally, the Irish settlements lacked planning and leadership and the coming of immigrants was largely fortuitous.
The Irish arrivals may be divided into three overlapping groups: The Colonial Poineers (1758-1810), the southeastern immigrants (1800-1840) and the Monagahan Pioneers (1830-1850). These catagories and labels are arbitary, of course, and are meant simply to facilitate analysis. The heaviest influx of Irish settlers resulted from two unrelated movements between 1810 and 1850. The 1810-1840 wave brought immigrants princiaplly from the southeastern counties of Wexford, Waterfird, Kilkenny and Tipperary and the overlapping 1830-1850 wave brought settlers from such northern counties as Armagh, Tyrone and especially Monaghan. These 19th century immigrants were overwhemingly Catholic.
British military occupation of Ile St. jean occured in 1758 when Lord Rollo, employing a detachment of troops, many of who were from Cork, took over Fort La Joie. These soldiers and succeeding garrisons evidently included the first Irishmen to come to this island. Later, when the British colonial administration was intsalled in 1769, immigrants of the Asdendancy class were prominant if not numerous. Their function was to establish British law and institutions in this proprietary state and to ensure that it would be a loyal British colony. Among the Irish born elite in the early colonial period were several administrative officials, business agents and enterpeneurs with Irish connections, land sepculators, and an established Church clergyman. Furthermore, Irishmen were among the pioneer farmers, fishermen, shipbuilders, tradesmen and labourers. Many huddled in Charlottetown; others scattered through most of the townships inhabited before the end of the 18th century. It is possible a few Irish were survivors of the wreck of the Elizabeth off Lot 11 in 1775, for this ship had sailed from London with 14 passengers and then taken an unprecedented number of people at Cork. Of the surnames counted in the nominal census of 1798, about 10 per cent appear to have been of Irish origin.
By 1780, the island was conducting a brisk trade with Newfoundland, which partly explains how small numbers of Irish from that colony "blew in" to Charlottetown and to havens along the north shore. Much earlier,of course,transatlantic commerce between the British Isles and the North American colonies brought people and supplies to Newfoundland. Actually, every spring in the 18th century, thousands of "green men" sailed from southeastern Ireland to the Grand Banks fishery. Many of these men chose to settle at onshore bases or to try their fortune in the colonies to the south. Among the latter were those who trickled into Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Thus, even before the massive Irish emigration of the 19th century, the Irish Newfoundlanders had begun to find their way to the Maritime region.
(The French missionary) Abbe DeCaclone perceived the Irish of Charlottetown as demoralized, dispossessed and disorderly, just one part in a large tapestry. Though small in numbers, the pioneer Irish represented a mixture of state officials, soldiers and ordinary citizens. They were Anglo-Irish, Ulster-Irish and Gaelic-Irish, refugess from the American revolution and the rebellion of 1798; of Anglicans, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics.
Of the 19th century newcomers,it can be said that when they left Ireland, they took their Irishness with them. Up until the mid thirties, most of these Irish settled in the southeastern counties. About 90% of the Irish of Newfoundland came from this region. They in turn moved on to other Maritime provinces, including Prince Edwaed Island. When the European codfish market collapsed in 1815, thousands who had been eomployed in the fishery descended upon Halifax, the lumber camps of New Brunswick and work places in Quebec and New England. Many of those known as "two boaters" came to PEI. To ascertain how many came from Newfoundland to PEI is impossible for there are only fragmentary records.
The island also benefited from settlers who sometimes crossed from Pictou and Pugwash in Nova Scotia and from the Miramichi lumber camps. The traffic across the Northumberland strait was two way and helped establish year round communication with the mainland, just as the seasonal sailings of the larger vessels maintained ties between the island and Irish ports.
Passenger lists were not mandatory until 1855 (and not fully enforced then); therefore from that source there is practically no information about the names of Irish settlers. Tradition holds that the Irish settlers in PEI were mainly famkine victims. Documentary evidence, however, contraverts that notion. The overwhelming number of island immigrants came prior to the famine but even during the famine, only one ship bearing passengers striken with fever is recorded as having been quarantined in Charlottetown. The Lady Constable arrived on May 24, 1847 from Liverpool with 400 north of Ireland settlers. There had been 24 fatalities at sea and eight more died while the ship was in port. While it is true the ship did not have to face the pestilence experience in Grosse Isle and various buriel sites along the Sy. Lawrence, it is true the majority of Irish immigrants, even prior to the famine, had fled from poor conditions and localized crop failures and arrived here in virtual poverty. In fact, the founding of the Benovolent Irish Society in Charlottetown in 1825 was intended to assist such needy immigrants.
Father Malachy Reynolds, a native of County Leitrum, parish priest to Charlotteown, was also on hand to assist the immigrants from Monaghan by directing them to various Irish settlements. Arriving in very large numbers, they soon overflowed Father MacDonald's Fort Augustus patrimony and spead eastward for 30 miles.
Bwteen 1835 and 1848 immigrants from the northern counties numbered about 4,000. The 1848 census records 6,407 Irish born residents in a total population of 62,678. Speculation suggests that persons of Irish birth and descent who by that time had infiltrated virtually every township on the island may have numbered close to 15,000. The heaviest concentrations were in those settlements where the Monaghan immigrants congregated. By mid century, immigration to PEI from Ireland effectively ceased.
The Monaghan settlers were the most cohesive of all Irish immigrants in the island.Many were blood relations and all shared provincial if not county kinship. Most of them settled in central Queen's county and along its two county lines, in Kings County to the east and Prince County to the west. As relative latecomers, they usually had to accept farmlands some distance from navigatable streams or open water. Sometimes, as in the Kinora district. they luckliy occupied highly productive acerages- which in turn engendered a pride of place and a progressive community spirit. The northern Irish developed a reputation for being chuvanistic, even pugnatious and they occasionally found cause to engage the "southies" in faction fights.
This same sturdy confidence and assertiveness- exemplified in the career of journalist and Reform Party Deputy Leader, Mayo born Edward Whelan-placed many Irish (both northerners and southerbers) in the forefront of the struggle for tenats' rights. The general Irish participation in the Tenant Leage, the escheat movement and other activities designed to dissolve the propriorships and to deed the farms to the resident tillers of the soil, is amply documented. In this major sociopolitical movement, which crossed thnic and sectarian lines, the Irish were a highly vocal and visible minority. Though methods of passive resistance and political action were normally employed, there were intermittent outbreaks of localized violence.
The most notorious encounter occured on election day, March 1, 1847 and pitted 200 mainly Irish supporters of the Reform candidates against 200 mainly Scottish adherants of the Conservative candidates. The principal difference between the fracas and other election rows on the island was that by the time the contending Celts had put aside their cudgels in the field by the hustings was strewn with dozens of injured men. Three were killed, one Scotsman and two Irishmen. That this incident occured in a district imcidentally called Belfast, that one side was predominately Irish and Catholic and the other predominantly Scottish and Presbyterian, and that a contemporary controversy over the use of the Bible in the public schools was a proximate issue- these circumstances gave credence to the belief, especially among the Scots, that the Belfast riot was a critical battle in a holy war, ir at least in a contest of national pride and honour. Irish spokesmen viwed the lamentable incident as an episode in the tenant-landlord struggle, an election fight that had got out of hand. Rather than exaserbate relations between the former combatants by ordering a full-scale investigation into the causes of the Belfast riot, the Governor of the day chose to draw a veil forever over the melancoly affair. That tactful decision gave free play to the balladeers and makers of myths.
During the latter half of the 19th century, the gloomy wilderness that had once intimidated many pioneers was transformed into the "garden of the gulf" and the small colony grew into a responsible province of Canada.
The Irish immigrants (were) assimilated with minimum detriment to their Old Country culture; rarely did they retain their ancient language or leave written accounts of their experiences. They did, however, enrich the dialectical langauge, folklore and folk music of the island. Furthermore, they retained their concern for their families, their desire for land, their interest in politics, their respect for learning and their religious zeal - traditions which enabled them to live as reliable neigbours in the island's agricultural and fishing villages alongside people whose heritage was Scottish or English or French.
In 1864, an intercolonial conference held at Charlottetown eventually led to the Confederation of the Canadian provinces. One century after Governor Patterson attempted to rename the colony in honour of his own homeland, people of Irish origin conmstituted about one quarter of the island population. Then a dramatic reversal set in. Large scale and continuous outmigration reduced the Celtic dominance of the island for both the Scots and the Irish began to leave in large numbers while the English and Acadian French tended to remain at home. As a result, by the middle of the 20th century, the proportion of Scots had declined from 45 to 32 per cent and the Irish from 23 to 19 per cent while the French had increased their numbers from 10 to 16 per cent and the English from 20 to 30 per cent.
By far the favourite destination of thousands of PEI expatriates from 1880 to 1940 was New England, particularly the environs of Boston. Others migrated to such places as California and Colorado and some even sailed to South America and New Zealand. Almost eight generations after the first Irishmen came ashore and five generations after the large influx of Irish settlers, the Hiberian presence in PEI is still clearly evident.