The Irish and the City Montreal
According to John O’Farrell, “by the end of the 1600s approximately one hundred families, natives of Ireland, were among the French population of ‘Lower Canada’”. Among these families were the first of the Irish people to navigate through the developing areas across the St. Lawrence.
That being said, it would not be until after the British conquest of the French in ‘Quebec’, that large numbers of Irish populations began immigrating towards Canada. The first Irish community in Montreal comprised mainly of former “soldiers who were part of the conquering army, as well as entrepreneurial Irish who followed and were noted in Montreal in [as early as] 1761”. These original Irish Montrealers were faced with a difficult challenge, in regards to their own integration within the long established French society and culture in Montreal. That being said it was the “migration from the surrounding countryside and the arrival of immigrants from England, Scotland, and Ireland [that] fuelled the city’s growth”. It was with help of these migrants not in spite of them, that Montreal began growing into the city we know and love today.
It was in 1817 that the first Irish Catholics began appearing within the cities records, and on March 17th, 1824 “the honourable Micheal O’Sullivan… Chief Justice of Lower Canada organized the first St. Patrick’s Parade in Montreal”. While the parade was seen as a huge success, as it “brought together the Irish elite and reflected the cordiality that existed between Protestants and Catholics,” this signaled the beginning of the Mass Irish Migration of the early-to-mid 19th century towards North America and Montreal specifically. While some historians, such as John Cooper suggest that the prosperity of the early 1820’s continued on until the beginning of the 1830’s it's hard to ignore the numbers of Irish immigrants arriving in Canada during the former decade. And while the massive waves of Irish immigrants did not arrive until the mid 1840s, it's important to note that the many of the Irish began seeking new homes within Canada prior to the commencement of “the Great Irish Famine” beginning in 1845.
As I have stated already, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ireland “was one of the poorest nations in Europe”, and the Irish increasingly looked towards foreign soil, as an opportunity for a better life. Pre-blight Irish Montreal, consisted of two groups; the Irish Catholic and the Irish Protestants. Montreal’s primarily French speaking Catholics saw the Irish Catholics as the common ally between themselves and the Irish Protestants, and vise-versa. Thus, during the early years of the 19th century, I would argue that it was the Irish Catholics who acted as the ambassadors between the different demographics within the city of Montreal. This was especially true throughout the 1830’s, which was a decade that “opened with plague and closed with rebellion”. Through the aftermath of the rebellion, which saw royalists of Lower Canada square off against the separatists, in a battle which lasted around a year, eight thousand men were taken prisoners.
With that being said, the small Irish community in Montreal did not make up a large percentage of those who fought in the rebellion. In fact, the Irish of Montreal were in their own right, perceived quite well within the community, prior to the mid-1840’s. While they did not make up a very high percentage of the “high society” within montreal, by the 1840s, Montreal’s population was around forty thousand strong. This marked the first time in the city’s history that there were more English speakers than French.
The Irish began spreading throughout the known English world (commonwealths, Colonies and Britain). In regards to Canada, immigrants would set off from the major port cities in Ireland (Dublin) or England (Liverpool), towards Canada’s East Coast. As stated by John Gallergher, in his document describing the movement of the Irish in Montreal by 1846, “Montreal [was] but a counterpart of Grossle Isle”. Although the exact numbers vary in regards to specific accounts, in 1847 alone, a hundred thousand Irish arrived on Grosse isle itself.
Overall it is assumed that more than 1.5 million people left Ireland as a result of the starvation or the diseases associated with it, between 1941-1951. But these numbers do not tell the entire story, behind the casualties of the Blight. Between 1847 and 1848, out of the 100,000 immigrants to arrive in Canada during this time, six percent died on their passage over. But these numbers do not take into account the thousands who would later die as a result from the terrible conditions surrounding both the ports of Montreal and Grosse Isle. Another 3,579 Irish died of Typhus once they had made it to Montreal. During the summer of 1847, it is assumed that Montreal had more than eleven thousand sick, within the borders of the city.’ This spread of disease can be directly correlated to the large number of Irish living together, in cramped and unsanitary conditions, after their arrival to the city. By 1850’s, the Irish who had populated the city of Montreal prior to the immigration caused by the Mass Starvation of 1845, had been thrown into the same demographic as those who had just arrived in the city. That being said, the established Irish community would eventually accept the new Irish, as their own.
As suggested by Cooper, the “history of Irish Montreal is pretty well summed up in its churches”. Prior to the ‘arrival’ of 1847, the Irish community began lobbying for a church of their own, within the city, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was not until 1941 that the plans were approved for the construction of Saint Patrick’s Church. The first signs of construction began in 1843, and by St. Patrick’s day 1847 the “Irish community now had its citadel”.
The decision to give the Irish anglophone community of Montreal their own place of worship prior to 1847, helped the situation in Montreal very much. While the Church was seen as a “common centre” for the already established Irish community, those who arrived in Montreal during it’s inaugural years, looked to St. Patrick’s Cathedral as a sign of acceptance. In Europe, the Irish were round up, kicked out of their homes, and forced to abandon their mother country, as a result of British monopoly over their own land, their crops, and their nation. After England took over ‘control’ of Ireland in the late eighteenth century, the majority of the Irish Catholics, still residing in Ireland, began losing many of their rights as a result of anti-catholic sentiment long held by England. Irish Catholics were always under the fear of attack by either the British or irish Protestant who wished to maintain the religions ascendency.
As migrants road down the St. Lawrence valley, Montreal would have seemed like a glimmering light on the horizon.
Montreal seemed as though it was place free from religious persecution, free of British land ownership, and free of cultural restrictions during the mid-nineteenth century. That being said, it is important to note just how much the influx of Irish Immigrants, affected Montreal as a whole. Within the years that followed 1847, the government could not keep up with demands of the growing city. If you were a business owner during this time, it was very likely that you would have been massively affected by the commercial ruin of the next decade. Much of the blame, for this period of economic woes, was originally directed towards the Irish. That being said unlike many other cities across Canada that also experienced high volumes of Irish Immigrants during the mid 18th century, such as Kingston and Toronto, Montreal quickly gathered itself together. With the help of the established Irish community in Montreal, new arrivals would immediately be integrated within the existing Irish community. With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Canada, Montreal seemed as though it was a perfect place to establish industry. Mostly because of its large Irish population that could be used as a cheap source of labor.
Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, Montreal experienced a steady growth in both its population as well as its physical size, similar to other cities such as Toronto, Hamilton and Kingston. Between 1861 and 1901, the Irish Catholics experienced an increase of 58% in terms of their numbers, while Irish Protestant experienced just over 109% increase in population. This steady growth has continued in Montreal until today, where there are over 160 thousand people of Irish Heritage in the city since 2001, according to Statistics Canada and their results from the census in 2001. Throughout the twentieth century, the Irish population of Montreal, can be characterized by their integration within the greater make up of the city itself. From simple beginnings as a cultural minority within the city of Montreal, the Irish population in Montreal grew exponentially both in terms of their overall numbers as well as in terms of their influence on Montreal’s society. With 375 years since the founding of the city, the Irish influence has only grown. Today we openly celebrate, the tradition of the Irish in Montreal through the festivities at the yearly St. Patrick’s Day Parade every March, which was not always the case. From their original position within the makeup of Ville-Marie, the Irish struggled to gain their community through the early years of colonization. As Montreal developed so did the Irish community of Montreal. Today Montreal represents one of the nation’s most influential cities in terms of art, culture, and social organization. We must look and celebrate the Irish, for their influence has helped build the city of Montreal into what it resembles today.
On March 19th, 2017, draped in green, the city of Montreal took to the streets in order to celebrate one of its most enduring annual traditions. This date marks the 194th anniversary of Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. With Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in attendance, this year’s festivities were “especially poignant, due to the city’s 375th anniversary celebrations”. As the entire city came together to acknowledge “the role of the Irish immigrants as one of the five founding peoples” of the city, in conjunction with the celebrations of the long history of Montreal itself, one must look back at the history of the Irish people in Montreal, in order to truly realize how much has actually changed since the very first St. Patrick’s day parade, which occurred on March 17th, 1824.