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Irish History
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Nova Scotia

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The West


Irish Emigrants to Canada: Whence They Came

by Cecil J. Houston and William J. Smyth

Two decades ago, Nicholas Flood Davin's 1877 work The Irishman in Canada,remained the most detailed account of Canada's Irish settlers. In the academic vacuum at the time, stereotypes of the Irish, often borrowed from studies in the United States, were presented in lieu of analysis. No one tried to evaluate the relative importance and experience of the Irish in the cultural mosaic of the former British North America. Happily, those lacunae are now being overcome as scholars drawn from the displines of English literature, history, geography and folklore have inter alia made tremendous progress in the relatively short period of 20 years. In the process, they have yielded a rich, authoritative and stimulating body of scholarship on the Irish in Canada that differs from its American counterpart.

The focus of most Canadian-based researchers has been on the transfer of material culture from Ireland to Canada, or on the location, size, status and mobility patterns of Irish communities in their new homeland. The poltical activity of the Irish has also been examined. The Atlantic provinces, Ontario and Quebec have been best served by these recent studies, with the Prarie provinces and British Columbis under-represented, even when one bears in mind the relatively smaller numbers of Irish who settled in the western region. Despite the rich body of scholarship on the Irish in eastern and central Canada, there are, however, relatively few examples of detailed investigation of Irish origins of the immigrants, with the exception of Punch, O'Gallagher and O'Grady and the wider ranging studies of Elliot and Mannion. The micro-analyses of these authors have drawn heavily upon graveyard, parish and shipping records on both sides of the Atlantic, and they have contributed greatly to our knowledge of the social, religious and regional background on a relatively small and select group. These specific geneological studies are further limited in that, with the exception of O'Gallagher and Elliot, they have all focused upon Irish in the Atlantic provinces, concentrating upon a group drawn primarily from only one region in Ireland: the southeast. Extrapolation of general trends and themes from these micro-scale srudies, however, is fraught with danger unless the more general patterns of emigration- which are not confined to the southeast- are borne in mind.

The fact that so many of the Irish in the Atlantic provinces originated from southeast Ireland was consequent upon the provisions that linked ports like Waterford, New Ross and Youghal with Newfoundland, Nova Scotia. Outward-bound supplies of salt pork and flour were frequently accampied by, at first, seasonal fishery workers.,and later, permanent emigrants availing themselves of the transportation links and encouraged by word of the opportunities that lay across the Atlantic. Mannion has estimated that in the three decades prior to 1836, about 35,000 Irish landed in Newfoundland, and of that number, an unknown percentage moved on as "twoboaters to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Punch has estimated that approximately 7,000 Irish died in Halifax and New Brunswick during the nineteenth century, and that virtually' all of those arrived in the period 1800-1845: it is upon these two groups that many of the generalizations about the Irish in Canada have been based. Though the meticuolous investigations of Puinch and Mannion we know a vast amount about the kinship and marriage links that characterized these Irish communities at home and abroad. I'he parishe's and often the towns of their home regions have been identified, and frequently the ships upon which they travelled have been traced in the records. For no other part of the Canadian Irish population do we have such rich information.

(Terry Punch) depicts the regional background of the Halifax Irish Catholics The immigrant source areas were very much restricted to the southeast. More than half of the Halifax Irish-Catholic population had originated in Munster, almost all of them the three adjoining counties of Kilkenny, Waterford, and Cork. There were no immigrants from the north-west nor the northeast nor from I)ublin. As Punch recognized, "it is possible to make a generalization that south Kilkenny, Waterford, south Tipperary and east Cork - adiacent areas in a band about 75 miles east to west and 30 miles north to south - were the major source of the Irish in Halifax. Mannion makes almost precisely the same point with reference to the Irish in Newfoundland, attributing the origins of the majority of them to a forty-mile radius of Waterford city. Because these emigrants were Catholics the records relating to them could be traced in parish registers. The (Catholic Irish communities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and the other large cities of the northeastern tJ.S.A. have much in common with these early pre-Famine Canadian communities.

The Atlantic provinces of Canada have a clearly defined Irish component in their ethnic composition and that component has been well served by modern scholarship. Arguably, it is in the Atlantic provinces of Canada that one finds expression of the most authentic Irish culture in the whole country. Certainly, the outports of Newfoundland have contained until recently startling, vital expressions of a culture transferred from Ireland more than a century and a half ago. Insulation from mainstream North American life conspired to preserve these isolated pockets of Irish heritage. One cannot apply conclusions drawn from these specific instances to the experience of the Irish in the rest of the country.

Two divergent regioni factors, the one the emigrants fround and rhe onethey left combined to produce a complex and varied mixture in the Canadian Irish. No one Irish commmunity develope ]ike another. On the one hand the geographical region of origin influenced the kind of people who were able to come linguistic, religious and economic conditions varied greatly from place to place in Ireland, even short distances and the type of emigrant leaving, even from the same port, was by no means constant What they found on their arrival in Canada contrbuted to te experience of different groups: variations in natural resources, opportunities for social mobility and the extent of ethnic intermixing have all operated upon the incoming Irish population and after several generations the accumulated effect could be striking. Geography mattered and it is therefore necessary to pose the question "Who are the Canadian Irish?" and "Where did they come from?"

The regional and religious characteristics of the Irish in Atlantic Canada stand in contrast to the more general pattern of emigration from Ireland to Canada. In the critical pre-Famine period, 1825-1845, approximately 475,000 Irish landed in British North America.They constituted 60 per centof all arrivals in that period. There were more Irish emigrants to Canada than to the united Statesthen though considerable migration from Canadian ports to American destinations somewhat diminished the Irish impact on Canada.It must also be stressed that the pre-famine period is the formative period for the development of Irish Canada. The consequences of the Irish were significant in the American case but the belief that the same held true for Canada is a mistaken hangover from the period in which the American sterotypes dominated our perception. The number of Irish who came to the Maritimes was small. The vast majority bypassed Newfoundland and Halifax for New Brunswick and Quebec and especially Ontario. The vast majority did not come from the southeast.

Ulster, not Munster, was the geographical pivot of Irish emigration to Canada. This is especially demonstrated in the work of William Forbes Adams.

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