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Migration, Arrival and Settlement: The Great Famine and Beyond

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

The Great Famine of the 1840s witnessed the migration of hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics to the major urban centres of the eastern and central United States. Between 1846 and 1850, the United States received over 700,000 Irish, the majority of whom were Catholic, and close to one million more would join them by 1860. Unlike the experience of the United States, however, the famine dispora heralded the closing phase of Irish Catholic migration to British North America. Between 1846 and 1850, only 230,000 Irish came to the Atlantic colonies and the Canadas. In the year 1847, known popularly as “Black ’47,” some 104,000 Irish migrated to Britain’s North American colonies. While many of these landed at the ports of Halifax and Saint John, few settled in Atlantic Canada, instead travelling on to the United States. Most of the famine migrants – about 80,000 – disembarked at Quebec.

The famine migrants varied slightly from the Irish who had come between 1815 and 1845. When the potato famine struck Ireland for three consecutive years, 1846 through to 1848, the most severe levels of illness, starvation, and death were recorded in the central, western, and northwestern counties. These areas were heavily populated by Roman Catholics and so it is not surprising that the levels of Irish Catholic migration were slightly higher after 1847. The arrival of more Irish Catholics from the western counties also meant an increase in the number of Irish-speakers, particularly among the west Cork migrants who arrived in Saint John. Unlike their Catholic cousins from Ulster who arrived at the same time, they were disadvantaged in the colonies by their poor English.

The famine migrants at Saint John were a diverse lot in terms of their counties of origin, though there were large concentrations from the traditional source counties of Cork, Tyrone, and Donegal. Among the migrants in Upper Canada, the situation was much the same. At St Paul’s parish in Toronto, for example, cemetery records for 1849 and 1850 indicate that recent Irish Catholic migrants originated in all of Ireland’s provinces: Munster, 36 percent; Ulster, 25; Connaught, 20; and Leinster, 19. This heterogeneity is confirmed by the counties of origin of the orphan children left at the Grosse Île quarantine station, opposite Quebec, in the summer of 1847. Of the 319 orphans whose counties of origin can be identified, nearly one-third came from Connaught, almost 30 percent from Leinster, and just over 18 percent each from Munster and Ulster. There is only one interesting anomaly among this group of orphans: at least one-sixth of those identified came from County Roscommon in Connaught, a region severely devastated by the famine.

Although the famine migrants were described by non-Irish observers as destitute, impoverished, and illiterate, such a characterization is misleading. Fares to British North America were higher, naturally, than those to Liverpool and about ten to twenty shillings lower than fares to the United States; thus, British North America’s Irish arrivals, unless subsidized by landlords, were generally of better means than many of their neighbours. It has also been pointed out that there is a correspondence between low rates of migration and excessive pauperism, meaning that the poorest of the famine victims were less likely to be able to leave. There were, however, hundreds of migrants whose travel was subsidized by their landlords as a means of relieving the poverty and potentially explosive situation at home. At least 6,000 of the Irish arriving at Quebec were paupers travelling on such subsidies. All in all, however, it would appear that observations concerning Irish “destitution” should be weighed cautiously against Irish standards of penury and their relationship to a person’s ability to travel.

Negative public images of the Irish Catholic famine migrants were fostered in part by their experience in the quarantine stations of Partridge Island and Middle Island, New Brunswick, and Grosse Île, Quebec. From the spring of 1846 to December 1847, Partridge Island in Saint John harbour handled about 25,000 Irish immigrants. Medical authorities were charged with inspecting the migrants and then allowing the healthy ones to proceed to Saint John while the diseased were quarantined on the island. The island itself became overcrowded, festering with typhus and cholera, in a sense more a hindrance to recovery than a help. It is estimated that 600 persons died on Partridge Island, and nearly as many, 595, expired once they arrived in the port and were admitted to the Saint John’s Almshouse Hospital. Another estimate suggests that perhaps as many as four persons per day died on Partridge Island.

Grosse Île, located 48 kilometres from Quebec City, had been used as a quarantine station since the deadly cholera outbreak of 1832. By 1847 facilities on the island could not accommodate the numbers of Irish migrants, particularly those who were seriously ill. This meant that ships anchored in the harbour became floating crucibles of death; hundreds of migrants died before leaving the ships. The sheds on the island itself were crowded and filthy, and patients at varying stages of disease were intermixed. The Quebec Mercury reported that, for the period between 10 May and 24 July 1847, 1,458 men, women, and children had died in the Grosse Île hospital, and that 4,572 had died either on the ships coming from Britain (2366), on ships anchored at Grosse Île (721), or in tents near the healthy (27). Dr George Douglas, the chief medical officer on the island, spoke of forty to fifty deaths per day in the hospital, and he estimated that, in 1847, 5,424 migrants were buried in a mass grave on Grosse Île. Those who left quarantine were by no means out of danger because of the incubation period of the diseases they had contracted either aboard ship or on Grosse Île; within weeks Irish migrants were falling ill in Quebec, Montreal, and Toronto.

Derogatory stereotypes of Irish migrants were also encouraged by the tendency of the migrants themselves to congregate in the major urban centres of the colonies. Since so many of them carried infectious diseases, municipal officials were forced to scramble to arrest the spread of illness to the general population. This situation was especially acute in Toronto. In 1847, 38,560 Irish migrants proceeded inland as far as Toronto. While most moved on to other parts of the colony and to the United States, those who remained became identified with misery and disease. Even the city’s Roman Catholic bishop, Michael Power, succumbed to typhus as a result of work among his Irish Catholic flock in the “fever sheds.” In total, 3,048 migrants died in Upper Canada, and an additional 863 expired along with Bishop Power in Toronto alone.

The rural- and urban-settlement pattern of Irish Catholics and Protestants had already been established prior to 1845, with Irish Catholics slightly less represented in rural areas than their Protestant cousins. After 1845 the famine migrants did not alter this pre-existent settlement grid appreciably, except perhaps in such port centres as Hamilton, Toronto, Montreal, and Saint John, where the actual number and proportion of Irish Catholics increased. In Toronto, for example, the famine migration meant a slight rise in the Catholic population, from about 17 percent of the city’s total population in 1841 to 23 percent in 1848 and finally to 26 percent in 1851. In Halifax, the Catholic population, with its majority Irish component, rose from 35 percent of the city’s population in 1837 to 42 percent in 1851.

There can be little doubt that the famine migration was a human catastrophe, given the thousands of lives lost. Greedy Irish landlords, laissez-faire economic policies and free-trade dogma on the part of British politicians, reliance on a single crop – the “lumper” potato – unscrupulous ships’ captains, and unprepared officials and medical personnel in the colonies all played a part in the tragedy. What cannot be accepted, however, is the argument that the Great Famine was the significant initiation point for Irish Catholic settlement in Canada. Still, the famine’s ability to conjure up popular myths of persecution and destitution in the Irish Catholic mind cannot be underestimated. Reinforced by the American media and scholarly writing, the legacy of the famine has been pervasive in the popular culture of Irish Catholics in Canada.

The high numbers of famine migrants, particularly in 1847, were an aberration in the process of Irish migration to British North America. Irish emigration from Irish ports and Liverpool and Glasgow to British North America dramatically declined after 1849. From 1850 to 1854 only 116,833 came, followed by 18,165 from 1855 to 1859; 15,724 from 1860 to 1864; and 22,693 from 1865 to 1869. There are no accurate ways of determining how many of these migrants were Catholic, but by 1871 the Protestant-to-Catholic ratio nationwide – roughly two-to-one – had not changed appreciably. One must conclude, therefore, that Catholics still made up a minority of those Irish migrants who stayed.

British North America may have become less attractive to the Irish because of the increased immigration taxes that were imposed on migrants after 1848. Another reason for the decline was that by the 1870s only Derry, in Ulster, had regular commercial ties with Canadian ports, a fact that did little to facilitate Irish Catholic migration. Still another was the attractiveness of the United States and Australia as destinations for emigrants. Furthermore, unlike the Irish Catholic community in Canada, that of the United States was dominated by famine migrants. As a result, Irish Catholics were more likely to follow the migration “chain” to their family members in the United States than risk migration to Canada.

The fact that some prominent Irish Catholics in Canada were less than positive about what awaited their countrymen in the New World – both Canada and the United States – likely did nothing to enhance Canada’s appeal as a home for departing Irish. For example, Bishop, and later Archbishop, John Joseph Lynch of Toronto was deeply troubled by the crime, disease, and poverty so prevalent among the Irish in North American cities, to say nothing of the threat posed to Catholics by the “irreligious element of the country.” In an 1864 pamphlet titled “The Evils of Wholesale and Improvident Emigration from Ireland,” he articulated these concerns and his wish that his fellow bishops in Ireland would discourage migration. Although forced to defend himself against clergy who did not share his views, Lynch persisted in discouraging Irish Catholic migration to the cities.

With the great migrations of Irish Catholics to Canada having ceased by the middle of the nineteenth century, the first Canadian census of 1871 is most informative regarding the demographic and socioeconomic status of Canada’s core group of Irish. Just four years after Confederation, some 846,414 Irish constituted a little over 24 percent of the young dominion’s population. Some 38 percent of these Irish Canadians were Roman Catholics. Of all of Canada’s Roman Catholics, however, the Irish comprised approximately 23 percent, a distant second to the dominant French Canadians, who made up 70 percent. As was the case in the colonial period, Irish Catholics constituted the majority of both the Irish and the Catholic populations of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. In New Brunswick Irish Catholics were slightly more than half of each population (50.8 percent of Irish and roughly 53.2 percent of Catholics). In Ontario and Quebec, patterns of settlement had not changed substantially since the 1840s and 1850s. In Quebec the Irish comprised about 10 percent of the population, of which about one-fifth lived in Montreal and one-tenth in Quebec City. The rest were scattered about the province in towns and rural areas. To the west, in Ontario, Catholics were slightly over-represented in the cities although the general Irish representation in urban areas and town and villages was under 22 percent of the whole population.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the few Irish migrants who came to Canada hailed from Ulster and generally settled in central Ontario and the Canadian west. Some of these were part of organized migration schemes. By the 1870s the dramatic decline in Ireland’s population – some two million left in the decade after 1845 – temporarily alleviated the population pressures on the land. However, a brief period of rising farm prices was disrupted in 1877 by a series of potato crop failures in the west of Ireland. While some landlords elected to evict tenants who could not pay rents, other landlords in Connaught revived ideas of subsidizing the migration of tenants to Canada. In 1880 Archbishop Lynch of Toronto, with the support of several leading Irish Catholic lay leaders, became actively involved in a joint scheme between Westminster and Ottawa to create a “New Ireland” in Manitoba. Both Lynch and his episcopal colleague Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché of Saint-Boniface envisioned a Catholic agricultural colony in southern Manitoba under the watchful eye and prayerful encouragement of local clergy. By 1883 growing unrest in Ireland and Lynch’s quarrels in Canada with the governing Conservative Party had killed the Manitoba project. Similar efforts by others, however, continued. In 1882, during a period of widespread evictions, the Duke of Bedford arranged to transport former tenants to Manitoba and the North-West Territories (Saskatchewan and Alberta). Some 5,522 Irish, mostly paupers from western counties, settled from Toronto to the Great Plains before opposition by Irish shopkeepers and nationalists as well as from Canadian politicians terminated the enterprise. Its demise marked the last mass migration of Irish Catholics to Canada.

Because of the sharp decline in Irish migration after the 1850s, Canada’s western provinces never had significant numbers of Irish Catholic pioneers. Some Irish did migrate west along the new railways that connected eastern and western Canada, although, with the industrial boom under way in central Canada’s industrial heartland, there was little incentive for Irish Catholic immigrants, or those Irish Catholics born in Canada, to venture to the prairies for work. By 1911 the three prairie provinces and British Columbia accounted for only 19 percent of Canada’s Irish population, while Ontario accounted for 57 percent. Moreover, between 1911 and 1961, the west’s share of the country’s Irish population never strayed significantly from the range of 25 to 27 percent. Of these Irish, few were Catholic; the percentage of Irish Catholics in terms of the total Irish population in the four western provinces ranged from a high of 21.5 in Alberta to a low of 11.8 in Manitoba. Western Canada’s Irish Catholics were even widely outnumbered by other Catholics. After 1911 people of Irish Catholic origin in the west were a small minority among French-Canadian, aboriginal, German, Ukrainian, and Hungarian Catholics, and in 1921 francophones comprised nearly one-third of the Catholic population in the three prairie provinces. Thus, despite some movement from east to west, eastern Canada still was home to most of the country’s Irish Catholics.

Yet there were some nodes of Irish Catholic influence in the west, and these tended to act as focal points for the small numbers of Irish Catholics scattered across the region. In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, John J. Leddy emerged as a leader of Irish Catholics on the prairies. Like many in his community, he was born in Ontario and moved west during the first great wave of migration to the prairies that ended in 1914. Leddy helped to create a network of Irish Catholic elites through his contacts in the Knights of Columbus; he tried to wed the fortunes of Saskatchewan’s Catholics to those of the provincial Conservative Party; and he was instrumental in the founding of St Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan, a centre of higher learning for the English-speaking Catholics of the west.

In Manitoba, Irish Catholics increasingly looked to laymen and clerics in Winnipeg for leadership. In Winnipeg there was, from 1915, an Irish Catholic bishop, an institute of higher education, St Paul’s College (founded in 1926), and a weekly newspaper, the Northwest Review (Winnipeg, 1885–?). Eventually, the Review would serve Irish Catholic farmers and urban tradesmen and shopkeepers from Kenora, Ontario, to the Rocky Mountains.

The unspectacular rates of migration to western Canada in the twentieth century have certainly reflected the general decline in migration from Ireland to Canada over the same period. There was a steady trickle of migrants from Ireland in the early twentieth century, notably tradesmen and female domestics who arrived during Canada’s industrial boom prior to the World War I and in the brief economic recovery of the 1920s, the latter period coinciding with civil war in Ireland. Later, Irish migration to Canada declined as a result of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the outbreak of World War II. Even after the war, the rate of Irish migration was unremarkable. In the 1950s, during the height of Canada’s post-war immigration boom, little more than 4 percent of arrivals came from Ireland.

In recent years, the decline in Irish immigration has continued and indeed even accelerated. In 1988, for example, the federal Department of Citizenship and Immigration noted that immigrants from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland numbered only 1,574, or less than 1 percent of the 161,929 immigrants seeking permanent residence in Canada. A few years later, in 1992, only 663 people of Irish birth (179 from Northern Ireland and 484 from the Republic) immigrated to Canada. These Irish constituted less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the 252,842 immigrants arriving in Canada that year. Unfortunately, census statistics do not cross-reference religion and ethnicity, and so precise figures for Irish Catholic immigration are not available. Yet, given that the recent Irish immigrants have come largely from the overwhelmingly Catholic republic, Catholics likely constitute a much higher percentage of Irish immigrants than they did in the nineteenth century.

Many Irish Catholic migrants in recent years have been young men and women seeking domestic and clerical work, small business opportunities, employment in the professions, or higher education. In the 1970s many Irish musicians came to Canada to test an entertainment market already tapped successfully by the Irish Rovers. In 1972, for example, the McManus Brothers, a four-man band from Donegal, emigrated and subsequently brought four more siblings and their parents to Canada. Such evidence of chain migration is not uncommon in the contemporary Irish Catholic migration experience.

Of the nearly 4 million Canadians who identified their ethnic origin in the 1991 census as either wholly or partly Irish, Ontario claimed the largest number, 1.7 million or over 45 percent of the total. The Irish of Newfoundland, however, constituted the second-largest provincial ethnic group; numbering 118,235, they were the only Irish group to rank above third place in any province. The 1991 census showed a small increase of just over 161,000 Canadians of Irish origin since 1986, when they numbered 3,622,285. However, in 1986 about 81 percent of those claiming Irish ethnicity said that it was one of several of their ethnic origins, and in 1992 nearly the same number made this claim. This fact reflects the low levels of recent Irish migration to Canada and the ongoing trend for Irish Canadians to intermarry with other groups. Given current trends in Irish immigration, the survival of a sense of Irish identity, however amorphous, will depend on increases in the number of Canadians claiming Irish ethnicity as one their “multiple” origins.