The Untold Story


Irish History
by Province

New Brunswick


Nova Scotia




Leaders in History

Thomas D'Arcy McGee

Timothy Warren Anglin

Beaurivage: The Development of an Irish Ethnic Identity in Rural Quebec: 1820-1860

by D. Aidan McQuillan

Of the millions of immigrants who came to Canada over the last 200 years, some adjusted and were assimilated into Canadian society while others retained elements of their cultural heritage and developed a distinctive ethnic identity. Scholars have studied their patterns of assimilation and ethnicity in other parts of Canada more fully than in Quebec. This may be due to the larger number and greater variety of immigrants to the other provinces, especially in the Wesr. Quebec attracted relatively few immigrants and many of them moved on later to Ontario and the American midwest. But of those who remained on the lower St. Lawrence, the principal obstacles to assimilation with French Canadians in most cases were differences in language and religion.

Immigrants to Quebec in the 19th century were overwhemingly Anglophone; they came from the United States, Britain and especially from Ireland. The Americans and British were mostly Protestant so it is easy to understand why they were not assimilated into the dominant Francophone and Roman Catholic community of Quebec. The experience of Irish immigrants is more difficult to determine. On the one hand, Irish-Protestant immigrants were not assimilated for the same reasons as the British and American immigrants. On the other hand, there were some Irish Catholics who intermarried, adopted the French language and became indistinguishable form French Canadians, apart from their surnames (a brief glance through the register of the National Assembly confirms the survival of some fine old Irish surnames in every political sphere in Quebec). But there were also Irish Catholoc immigrants who remained apart and developed a distinctive ethnic identity. This essay is a preliminary attempt to explain why some of the Irish Catholics were not assimilated into the French Canadians, despite strong similarities in the culture and history of both.

It may be well worth noting at the outset that the Irish were the most numerous immigrants in the population of lower Canada throughout the 19th century: in 1844 they accounted for 6.3% of the population in the province, while immigrants from Scotland represented 1.9%, from England and Wales 1.9% and from the United States 1.7%. Even in 1861 the Irish were still more numerous than all the immigrants from Scotland, England, Wales and the United States combined. After 1871, Irish representation in the total population declined, partly because some of them had begun to be assimilated and partly because the major migration of the Irish to Canafa had peaked several decades previously.

There were two distinguishable waves of Irish immigration to Canada in the 19th century. Everyone is familiar with the massive exodus that followed the potato famine of 1845-1849. Although a considerable number of the famine emigrés came to Canada, the great majority of them went to the United States. The famine migration accounted for only a small proportion of the Irish immigrants to Canada. The earlier and more important migration was spread over three decades, from about 1814 to 1844, with peak years in the mid 1820's and the early 1830's. The Irish immigrants in those decades were frequently tenant farmers who had operated small farms in Ireland. They were ambitious individuals, anxious to escape the constraints of tenant farming and improve opportunities for their children. These were the Irish immigrants who fanned out and settled in pioneer communities along the fringes of the St. Lawrence Valley in the 1820's and 1830's.

Two societies coexisted warily in Lower Canada, to which the Irish came in 1820's and 1830's. The great majority was French speaking, Roman Catholic and rural, living on their long-lot family farms of the seigneurial lands along the lower St. Lawrence. Sixty years earlier, when, following the British conquest, French colonial officials withdrew, a leadership vacuum had developed within this community. The vacuum was subsequently filled by the Roman Catholic Church and the clergy became custodians of the French Catholic national ideal. The other society which emerged as a consequence of the conquest was Anglophone, Protestant and principally urban. It included government administrators and bureaucrats in Quebec City intent on keeping Quebec firmly within the British empire. The other society also included financiers, many of them Scots and New Englanders, who took control of the financial institutions in Montreal and Quebec City. The administrators and financiers were the elite in the province and were regarded with distrust and occasional outright hostility by the French Canadian majority. Of the two societies, the Irish Catholic immigrant had much more in common with the latter than with the former.

Of all the groups of immigrants who came to Quebec in the 19th century, the Irish Catholics were the most assimilable. Lingusitic differences aside, they had much more in common with French Canadians than American, Scottish, Welsh or English immigrants. The Irish and French Canadians shared the same religion; thus one major impediment to intermarriage and biological assimilation did not exist. Both groups were rural oriented, moulded and directed by the clergy. They had little experience of urban living and neither group had been swept up in the industrial revolution. Their rural economies were similar, based on wheat production for export to the British market. Agricultural technology in both countries was poor, if not backward. The population of Ireland and Quebec had exploded in the second half of the 18th century so that the agricultural resources were overburdened. The threat of famine was eventually realized in Ireland in the 1820's and Quebec during the 1830's. When the wheat harvest failed in 1838, many French Canadian farmers adopted potatoes as the major staple crop. The two societies were linked closer than ever by the disaster of 1845-49. The fungus which destroyed so much of the potato crop in western Europe and created the Great Famine in Ireland originated in the Lower St. Lawrence Valley, where it wrecked similar havoc. Finally, both groups shared a common feeling of anitpathy towards Britain, the colonial overlord, who dominated so much of their political and economic life.

Given the vigor of the Catholic-Protestant antipathies in the 19th century, a natural alliance should have developed between immigrant and habitant against the powerful Protestant elite which dominated Quebec during the 19th century. The alliance did not always develop but instead, deep rifts occasionally emerged between the Irish-Catholic and French-Catholic communities. In the process, the Irish developed an ethnis identity and a sharpened sense of community. To understand this, the case of Beaurivage is a good example.

Beaurivage is located about 40 miles souteast of Quebec City. The area was first settled in the early 1820's. The pioneer farmers who settled there were mostly Roman Catholic althouh about 1/4 were Protestant. The early Catholic settlers could have attended mass at St. Gilles but the distance was considered too great. In 1828, the new parish of St. Sylvestre was created though a Church was not built until 1831. A French Catholic priest Fr. Gauvreau was appointed and replaced by the Irish born Fr. Nelligan who had a powerful influence on the development of the community during his tenure from 1836 to 1851. During the 1830's, an Anglican mission was established by the Rev. R.R. Burrage from Levis and in 1840, the first resident Anglican pastor was appointed. The Protestant community also included the Methodists and the Prebyterians, was affliiated with the larger Protestant settlement in the neighbouring communities of Leeds and Kinner's Mills.

During the 1830's and 1840's, most settlers were busy with the tasks of felling trees, clearing stumps and roots and establishing crops on the thin hilly soils of Beaurivage. There were, however, occasional flare-ups in the community. For example, in 1839. Bishop Signay appointed a French Canadian priest from the nearby parish of Ste. Marie de Beauce to investigate complaints by the French Canadian parishoners against the Irish pastor. The French objected to Fr. Nelligan's decision as to how parish funds should be spent and whether a new presbytry should be built in the parish. Though the Bishop's decision was upheld, the priest had become a lightening rod for conflicts between his Irish and French parishoners. During his 15 years, Fr. Nelligan drew upon his considerable diplomatic skills to molify and protect the sensitivities of the Francophone minority. Even though Irish Catholics outnumbered the French by two to one, the latter resented Irish control of the board of Church wardens. The Irish, for their part, resented the French-Canadian objection to local decisions and their habit of appealing to the church hierachy, which, of course, was French.

The years following Fr. Nelligan's departure in 1851 proved turbulent for the Irish Catholics. The new pastor, Fr. O'Grady, did not have his predecessor's diplomatic skills and his leadership in the parish was ineffective. Two major events occured during his term, the Corrigan Affair and the 1858 elections. (These) were carthartic in the development of the ethnogenesis within the Irish Catholic community. Although the Catholic Irish were in a majority within the parish, by the end of the decade, having aroused antipathies of both the local Protestant and French communities, they behaved like an embattled minority within the parish community.

The Corrigan affair erupted as a conflict between Irish Catholics and Protestants and involved French only marginally. One of the judges at a local agricultural fair in October, 1855 was Hugh Corrigan, a well known Orangeman from nearby Leeds. Corrigan had frequently taunted Catholics about their religion and boasted in local taverns of his prowess as a fighter. When Corrigan awarded outragously low grades to the livestock of a Catholic farmer, a brawl ensued, sticks were raised and Corrigan had his skull cracked. Next morning, he made a legal disposition to Laurent Paquet, Justice of the Peace, in which he identified his attackers. Following his death the next day, Paquet issued warrants of arrest for the accused.

What followed was a amazing display of solidarity within the Irish Catholic community. The accused went into hiding. Searches for them were conducted by officers of the law assisted (not entirely legally) by Orangemen from Leeds and nearby Inverness. The lightening raids on Catholic homes, however, failed to produce results. By late November, no arrests were made and the authorities offered a reward of $1,800 for information on the wherabouts of the accused. No one came forward. On December 21, the army was brought in by the Grand Trunk Railraod to assist the police in a sweep through the rolling farmlands of St. Sylvestre. But on Christmas Eve, the troops withdrew empty handed. As a final insult to the chagrined forces, their train was deliberately derailed as it pulled away from Craig's Road Station. A grim reign of silence had descended on the Irish community and not one individual expressed any interest in the increased reward offered by the police.

Either because of cold weather or boredom, the accused gave themselves up in mid January and were brought to Quebec City in February. Conflicting evidence was presented and the court case which ensued was a farce. Corrigan's testimony was discredited when Paquet changed his testimony. It is not entirely clear whether Paquet backed off because of pressure or threats from within the Irish Catholic community. In any event, his change of heart was highly suspect and he lost his commission as Justice of the Peace. A mistrial was declared and the accused acquitted.

Fr. O'Grady's inability to keep his compatriots out of trouble became apparent again during the election of 1858. In the election, the Irish Catholics attempted to elect one of their own to the Legislative seat for Lotbiniere County. Although there were only 300 electors in St. Sylvestre, some 2,700 votes were cast for the Irish Catholic candidate. Poll rigging was an old trick and the names which appeared on the poll register included not only many of the local dead but also such famous names as George Washington and Napolean. Fr. O'Grady was aware of these irregularities and may indeed have been involved in the fraud. He was forced to leave the parish secretly within a few days, never to return.

The Irish, however, would not relinquish their pastor without a fight. They continued to hope he would return and when the Bishop appointed a French Canadian to the vacancy, the Irish declared, "We did not want a French Canadian parish priest in a church built by the Irish". When Fr. Drolet arrived to replace Fr. O'Grady, he found the church and presbytry locked and no-one would give him the keys. The new priest gained entry on the arm of the law and supported, ironically, by Orangemen from Leeds. The Bishop intervened and interdicted some 46 parishoners for obstructing their new pastor. Those interdicted were excluded from Church activities and readmitted only after they begged pardon from their pastor. Worst of all, if any of the 46 would die without repenting, they would be denied a Catholic burial. That quickly brought the offenders to heel and restored French Catholic ecclesistical authority. But it did not endear Dr. Drolet to his parishoners.

In the following year, a Protestant from Leeds, Dr. MacFarlane, drove his wife, a Catholic, over to St. Sylvestre for religious services. It was winter and a storm developed so that Fr. Drolet invited the MacFarlane's to spend the night at the presbytery. The doctor's horse, of which he was so proud, was put up in the pastor's stable. During the night, however, someone entered the stable and cut off the horse's ears, mame and tail. This savage act of reprisal was in the tradition of the secret societies which terrorized rack-renting landlords and their estate managers in Ireland during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Several inferences can be drawn from these events in Beaurivage during the 1850's. The Irish Catholic community was sufficiently large to warrant the appointment of an Irish Catholic pastor and the priest played a significant role in the community. (a strong local leader was often critically important in the formation of an ethnic identity among immigrants in North America in the 19th century).When the Irish Catholics lost their leader, they continued to harbour resentment against the French ecclesiastical authorities and so the maming of the horse was as much a mark of their disdain for Fr. Drolet as it was their animosity towards the mixed marriage of the MacFarlane's or the sheltering of a Protestant in the Catholic prebytery. Most likely, however, the Catholics felt a bitter resentment because local French Catholics, in the person of Fr. Drolet, had entered into an unholy union with the Orangemen against them. The Irish Catholics had developed the mentality of an embattled community. Out of such cradles of ressentiment are keen ethnic identities forged.

The events in Beaurivage during the 1850's should be viewed within the long-term perspective of the community. The years before 1850 represented a pioneer phase when immigrants were busy clearing the woodlands and establishing their farms. But one that struggle slackened, social conflicts began to emerge and the 1850's proved critical in the development of a strong ethnic identity among Irish Catholics. The remainder of the 19th century was a period of retrenchment. Although Irish Catholics continued to dominate affairs on the local council and the board of churchwardens, their numerical superiority eventually gave way to that of French Canadians. Community divisions in Beaurivage emerged along religious lines-as they emerged elsewhere in the province in the 19th century. The sustained emigration of Anglophones since 1920, both Catholic and Protestant, created serious problems in sustaining two separate English speaking school systems in Beaurivage by the late 1960's. This factor, combined with an increasingly aggressive Francophone political viewpoint on the one hand and the diminuation of the Orangemen's inflamatory rhetoric on the other, resulted in Irish Catholic nuns teaching in the Protestant school system, as the two Anglophone communities merged. Thus, in the 1970's, the division were along lingusitic lines. Again, as in the beginnings of this Irish community in rural Quebec, the basic size of the community, the critical mass necessary to sustain a viable community, was of overwhelming importance. Note: Quebec's education system is now divided along lingusitic lines so there no longer are any religious school boards.

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