Migration, Arrival, and Settlement before the Great Famine

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Irish Catholics/Mark G. Mcgowan

In the 1991 census, over 3,780,000 Canadians identified themselves as of Irish ethnic origin, either wholly (725,660) or partly (3,057,695), figures that make the Irish the fourth-largest ethnic group in Canada. The story of when, why, and how the Irish community was planted in Canada is closely intertwined with the history of the country itself. (See table, below.)

After the Reformation, Irish Catholic migration was first directed to non-British jurisdictions, including Spain, France, the Low Countries, and the German principalities. Often the Irish Catholic nobility, members of defeated Irish armies, and clergy offered themselves in service to many of Europe’s Catholic monarchs. It was from these early migrants that Canada received its first Irish settlers. In the seventeenth century, Irish resident in France were among those sent to colonize the St Lawrence valley. In 1700 there were approximately one hundred Irish-born families among the 2,500 families registered in New France, along with an additional thirty families of mixed Irish and French backgrounds. Irish Catholics were present as well at the fortress of Louisbourg on present-day Cape Breton Island; some of

People of Irish origin in Canada
Total Irish of Canadian
Year Male Female population population
1871 846,414 24.3
1881 957,403 22.1
1891 Ethnicity data not collected in a compatible form
1901 988,403 18.4
1911 540,279 510,105 1,050,384 14.6
1921 565,402 542,415 1,107,817 12.6
1931 630,495 600,313 1,230,808 11.9
1941 646,823 620,879 1,267,702 11.0
1951 724,352 715,283 1,439,635 10.3
1961 881,091 872,260 1,753,351 9.6

Source: David A. Wilson,The Irish in Canada, Canada’s Ethnic Group Series, booklet no.12 (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1989).

these were stonemasons employed in the fort’s construction.

New France was also frequented by Irish Catholic merchants in the employ of France and by Irish Catholics serving in the French army and navy. It is estimated that there were nearly 35,000 Irish in the French military in the seventeenth century. Charles Latouche McCarthy, for example, was the son of Irish émigrés to France. Born at Brest in 1706, McCarthy was a decorated captain in the French navy. He ventured to Quebec in 1737, where he married Angélique-Jeanne Guillimin, the daughter of a local councillor on the Sovereign Council. McCarthy spent much of the rest of his career in defence of French Canada during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–47) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Although it was once thought that Irish soldiers belonged to distinctive Irish Catholic units, it is more likely that they were interspersed among French troops. As early as 1757 Governor Pierre Rigaud de Vaudreuil raised an Irish company consisting of deserters and Irish prisoners of war who had served in the English army; this company, however, was soon transferred to Europe. The authorities of New France also encouraged the Irish, among others, to promote desertion among those of their own nationality serving in the British army in North America. French colonial records dating from the mid-eighteenth century confirm that there were several Irish families and individuals who had deserted the English colonies for New France in order to practise their Catholic faith.

Many of these Irish soldiers, settlers, and deserters eventually adapted to French-Canadian mores and even their Irish names were transformed. Timothy Sullivan, a physician in Montreal, for instance, had been with the Spanish Dragoons and taken prisoner by the English. Like many other Irish Catholic deserters, he came to New France via New England, appearing first on the colonial records in 1718. He married the widowed mother of Marguerite d’Youville (founder of the Grey Nuns), and eventually frenchified his name to Sylvain. A case has been made for the Irish origins of other French-Canadian names, including Aubry (O’Brennan), LeHaye (Leahy), and Riel (Reilly).

Although Irish migrants, merchants, and fisherman also appeared in Newfoundland in the seventeenth century, and in Nova Scotia in the 1740s, the principal Irish Catholic migration to what was to become British North America took place between 1815 and 1845 and was directly tied to changes in Ireland itself. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, agricultural prices fell and the Irish textile industry, which had enjoyed trading advantages in the disrupted wartime markets, faced stiff international competition. Industries shut down, unemployment rose dramatically, and capital investment and urban growth stagnated. Further, economic decline was exacerbated by developments in the Irish landholding system. Rural Ireland was characterized by a system of landholding dominated by Protestant owners of estates at the top and predominantly native Irish Catholic cottiers (tenant farmers with tiny patches of land for subsistence) and rural labourers at the bottom. In between were a group of middling and small tenant farmers, both Catholic and Protestant. Tenants unable to earn enough from their crops to pay their rents faced eviction, while landlords and small farmers looked to such alternatives as cattle and sheep to restore the economic viability of their lands.

These stresses of agricultural life were complicated even more by a dramatic population explosion; between 1821 and 1841 the Irish population increased from 6.8 to 8.2 million. Larger families meant either smaller plots for farmers’ children or no land at all. While this rapid population growth applied pressure on tenants to subdivide, the crash of farm prices made it necessary that landlords combine smaller plots into larger holdings to accommodate herding and livestock breeding, a lucrative alternative to cereals, root crops, and flax. A final ingredient for agricultural disaster was the unwillingness of landlords and their “head tenants” to reduce rents. Landlords still had to make their own contributions to the ever-increasing taxes needed to help the poor, and evicting tenants for non-payment of rents provided an opportunity to merge the smaller holdings into pasture lands. Thus, the combination after 1815 of falling prices, population pressures, the inability of tenants to pay rent, the movement to “enclose” lands for pasture, and increased evictions and subsequent landlessness convinced many Irish that there was little future for themselves and their children in rural Ireland. Migration appeared to be a possible solution to the economic decline, poverty, and growing violence.

Protestants and Catholics responded differently to the lure of migration. Protestants were better able than their Catholic neighbours to pay the expensive fares to North America. They also had added incentive to leave, including a fear of the rural violence often perpetrated against them by Catholic secret societies and a general feeling that their status as the religious minority made them exiles in their own land. Attracted by offers of land grants in British North America, some of the most enterprising young Protestants left Ireland. Irish Catholics, generally from among the middling and small tenant farmers, also increased their levels of emigration by the early 1820s, when fares between British North America and British ports dropped substantially. Destitute Catholics from the cottier and labourer groups, however, tended either to stay put in Ireland or to take advantage of the low fares to Great Britain.

Irish Catholic migration to Canada after 1815 is notable for its regional character and the complex relationship between the state of economic hopelessness left behind in Ireland and the “pulls” of forestry, fishing, and farming in the British North American colonies. Each colony was settled by Irish from different regions of Ireland and for different economic and social reasons.