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Migration, Arrival, and Settlement before the Great Famine

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

In the first decades of the nineteenth century the colony of New Brunswick, with its rich farm lands, ample fishery, and abundant timber resources, became a popular target of Irish migration. It is estimated that, between 1815 and 1865, 60 percent of migrants to New Brunswick were from Ireland. In the period between 1827 and 1835, alone, some 65,000 Irish migrants landed. There were several differences between the Irish migrations to New Brunswick and those to the other Atlantic colonies. First, the sources of Irish migration to New Brunswick were not primarily from the port of Waterford, as had been the case for migration to Halifax, Newfoundland, and, to a lesser extent, Prince Edward Island. Instead, New Brunswick’s Irish generally came from either Munster or Ulster, provinces whose port cities had strong ties to timber ports and merchant centres in New Brunswick. It is estimated that, between 1780 and 1845, 30 percent of Irish migrants to New Brunswick had origins in Munster and nearly 51 percent had once called Ulster home. Thus, although there were some “two boaters” who arrived from Newfoundland (many settled on the Miramichi shore and along the Gulf of St Lawrence), the Irish population of New Brunswick was definitely more diverse than that of those colonies to the east. Secondly, the Irish who arrived in New Brunswick, particularly at the ports of St Andrew’s and Saint John, often chose to move on to New England rather than to settle. In the 1840s departure rates to the United States by Irish migrants in New Brunswick could range between 50 and 80 percent; for example, it has been calculated that, of the 4,168 passengers who landed in Saint John in 1833, only 2 percent can be located in the 1851 census.

One of the most significant characteristics of the Irish migrants to New Brunswick was their religious mixture. Unlike the situation in the other Atlantic colonies, Irish Catholics never provided the overwhelming majority of the New Brunswick’s Irish population. By mid-century Catholics represented little more than 60 percent of the Irish in the colony. Prior to the Irish migration of the Great Famine, these Irish Catholics could be found in at least three regions of New Brunswick.

While Protestant Irish tended to settle the Saint John River valley, Irish Catholics could be found in great numbers along the Gulf of St Lawrence, in the entrepôt of Saint John, or in the timber-rich valley of the Miramichi River, in the northeast. After 1815 the Miramichi attracted both Newfoundlanders and Irish Catholics from Offaly, Clare, Limerick, Waterford, Tipperary, and, finally, Cork, a county where there were strong timber-trade and mercantile ties with northeastern New Brunswick. It is estimated that Irish migration – including a minority of Protestant settlers in centres such as New Bandon – stimulated the increase in Northumberland County’s population from 2,880 in 1802 to 15,823 by 1824. With its significant representation from east Munster and south Leinster, the Miramichi district resembled the other Atlantic colonies in its Irish Catholic composition but stood in sharp contrast to the southern parts of New Brunswick, where Catholics from Ulster were predominant. This distinction was strengthened by the predominance of Catholic migration from Derry and Cork to the Bay of Fundy between 1830 and 1844.

Although many of the Irish Catholic migrants who arrived in the 1820s and 1830s were small farmers, farm labourers, or paupers, those who remained in New Brunswick often elected to stay in Saint John, their original port of entry. By 1827 free land grants had ended in the colony and many of the new arrivals had too meagre financial resources to purchase land outright. Even if they did have such purchasing power, they were hampered in a variety of ways: the settlement of the best lands in the Saint John valley and Fundy shore were already occupied by earlier Loyalist and Protestant Irish migrants; provincial officials had mismanaged the distribution of crown lands; and the local agricultural societies had fewer resources and less inclination to assist the settlement of new migrants in rural areas. Irish Catholics who arrived in greater numbers by the late 1830s and early 1840s were similarly handicapped by these conditions.

One result of the difficulties of acquiring inexpensive land upon arrival was the emergence of Saint John as one of the most Irish cities in British North America. Before 1832 the popularity of Saint John among immigrants was partly the result of the absence there, in contrast to American ports, of a head tax on migrants; even when such a tax was introduced, it remained at only about half of the American rate. The migrants themselves were a mixture of Irish Catholics from Donegal, Tyrone, and Cork, largely because of the strong mercantile ties between Ulster and Munster and Saint John. Over time, cheap fares, low taxes, and the unavailability of inexpensive land contributed to the growth of a large population of Irish Catholic unskilled labourers in Saint John. The number of Irish Catholics in this category was about twice that of Irish Protestants. Until the recessions of the 1840s, Catholics would find employment in the shipyards and mills and on the wharves of Saint John and of its soon-to-be-annexed neighbour, Portland. By reason of their religion and lifestyle, they were derided as little more than a formidable and willing pool of cheap labourers. And formidable they became. By 1851, in the wake of the arrival of Irish Catholics during the famine migration of 1847, 45 percent of Saint John’s population was Irish-born, and Roman Catholics comprised the town’s largest minority group.