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Note: This is a slightly altered excerpt from my MA dissertation. If any of my regular readers would like to see the whole thing, let me know and I can email a copy to you.
In the nineteenth century millions of Irish Catholic immigrants flooded into the United States, utterly transforming American society. Along with the Germans and Scandinavians who came in at their side, and the Eastern and Southern Europeans who would follow later in the nineteenth century, the Irish played a major role in transforming America from a Protestant nation largely derived from British sources into a much more pluralistic entity.
Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Irish immigrants to America came from the ranks of the rural peasantry, Irish America was an urban world. Few of the immigrants, or their descendants, ended up relocating to rural America, instead staying in the cities to provide much of the muscle that allowed America to transform itself into an industrial superpower. As a result of this, there has often been a tendency in the historiography of Irish emigration to consider this a historical inevitability, the only path available, a viewpoint expressed most melodramatically by the great William Shannon in The American Irish as, “the Irish rejected the land for the land had rejected them.[i]”
There is a certain romantic appeal to such statements. Unfortunately, they are just not true, as a look at the experience of Irish immigrants to America’s northern neighbor shows. Although the raw numbers of Irish immigrants arriving in the United States were much larger, the Irish had a major demographic impact on Canada. In 1847 alone, the year of the Great Famine, over 90,000 Irish immigrants arrived in Canada, which at the time had a population of approximately 1.5 million people, with a roughly even split between Francophones and Anglophones[ii]. The Irish almost entirely chose to settle in English-speaking Canada, which meant that in the space of one year Anglo-Canada experienced a nearly 10% surge in its population. What is interesting about the Irish presence in Canada is that, despite its formidable size, it never provoked the same sort of inter-communal conflict that became quite common south of the border.
The Irish settled in urban areas in America not out of a simplistic rejectionism, but because it was the best option available to them. In contrast to the Irish in the United States, the majority of the Irish who immigrated to Canada settled in rural areas. It would be easy to explain this away by noting that about two-thirds of Canada’s Irish immigrants were Protestants (indeed, the proportion of Protestants in Canada’s Irish-born population was virtually the same in 1870 as it had been in 1830[iii]. This would seem to be behind much of the difference as, after all, the Irish Protestants who had arrived in America in the eighteenth century had, for the most part, settled in rural areas[iv]. Although there is an attractive neatness to lay the difference in settlement patterns at the feet of the Irish Protestants, the statistics simply don’t back it up. The overwhelming majority of Irish immigrants settled in the colony of Upper Canada, later known as Ontario, and there the proportion of Irish-born that lived in the five main towns (Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Kingston, and London) was only marginally higher than the 8.2% of the population of the colony that lived in the urban areas[v].
Clearly there was a difference in the experience of settlement, so how to explain it? Many Irish would have passed through the towns, as they were obviously the main entry points, as in the United States. The main difference is that they didn’t stay. Part of the reasoning behind this is that, because of their comparatively small size, the towns of English-speaking Canada did not have similar levels of availability of unskilled employment as their more dynamic urban counterparts to the south. There is also the fact that, because the area had been settled for much less time than in the eastern parts of America, agricultural land was still comparatively easy to obtain. Also, it was easier to access because, once the immigrant had reached the towns of Ontario it was not as much of a journey to reach areas where land was available as it would be to get to the Midwestern frontier from America’s Atlantic sea ports. Government policy also played an important role in moving the Irish into rural areas. 1847 saw Montreal and Quebec experience terrible cholera and typhus epidemics after ships bearing destitute Irish immigrants arrived and the quarantine system, struggling under sheer weight of numbers, collapsed completely. Afterwards, the fear of any repeat led to the establishment of a complex service to funnel immigrants away from the towns to the countryside, where it was believed that it would be easier to find work for them as well as limiting the chance of any more disease epidemics[vi].
After the early crises of the Famine period, the Irish population in Canada is remarkable for its unremarkability, for the way in which it assimilated relatively easily[vii]. They were much quicker to abandon pronounced cultural traits (with the exception of religion) than their American counterparts[viii]. In the towns they were not ghettoized[ix], in the countryside they lived and worked alongside Protestants, and their Irish Nationalism tended to be milder than among Irish-Americans[x].
[i] Shannon, William The American Irish, London, 1966, p.27
[ii] Tucker, Gilbert “The Famine Immigration to Canada, 1847,” American Historical Review, Volume 36, Issue 3 (April, 1931), p.548.
[iii] Akenson, Donald Harman The Irish in Ontario: A Study in Rural History, Montreal, 1984, p.27. Catholics made up 34.5% of Canada’s Irish-born population in 1842, and 33.8% in 1871.<
[iv] Patrick Griffin “The People with No Name: Ulster’s Migrants and Identity Formation in Eighteenth-Century Pennsylvania” William & Mary Quarterly, vol.58 (2001) p.587-614, is a good article on the topic of the early Irish Protestant settlement in America, which was largely concentrated in Pennsylvania before spreading south along the Appalachian Mountains.
[v] Akenson. p.42. The proportion of Irish-born in the five towns of Upper Canada was 9.5% in 1871.
[vi] Tucker, p.543
[vii] This is a generalization, as anti-Catholicism was not unknown in Canada. Orange Orders were active amongst the large Ulster Protestant communities, and anti-Catholicism was used to ram road through Confederation in New Brunswick in 1867 by discrediting the leader of the anti-Confederation faction, Timothy W. Anglin, on the basis of his Irishness and his Catholicism. (see William M. Baker “Squelching the Disloyal, Fenian-Sympathizing Brood: T.W. Anglin and Confederation in New Brunswick, 1865-6” Canadian Historical Review, Volume 55 (1974) p.141-158)
[viii] Mannion, John J. Irish Settlements in Eastern Canada: A Study of Cultural Transfer and Adaptation, Toronto, 1974, p.165
[ix] Akenson, p.45; the Irish in Toronto did not live in slum tenements, but in single-family homes, and were not perceived as an economic threat by the local population.
[x] Ibid. p.41