These prominent Canadians have more in common than a place in Canadian history. They, like nearly four million Canadians, are of Irish heritage. Perhaps the luck o’ the Irish contributed to their success! When we observe St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, we do more than honour St. Patrick, who promoted Christianity in Ireland; we celebrate the Irish presence in Canadian history.
Some argue that Irish explorers like Brendan the Brave arrived in Canada before the Norse. With little evidence to support their claims, this may be so much blarney, but it does not diminish the significance of the Irish who began coming to Canada in the 17th century.
Though the Atlantic Provinces have strong links to Ireland, the strongest Irish-Canadian connections are in Quebec, where 40 percent of the population claims Irish ancestry. Canada’s port of entry was Quebec City. Many Irish immigrants, lacking the resources to travel further, settled in the area, integrating with the French-speaking population. They bridged the cultural gaps between the French majority, whose religion they shared, and the English minority, whose language they spoke.
The largest influx of Irish immigrants began early in the 19th century, when a deteriorating economy and growing population wreaked havoc in Ireland. The Great Famine of the 1840s drove approximately two million people out of Ireland, hundreds of thousands of them to British North America. The preferred destination was America and thousands of Irish who came to Canada left by 1860.
Most of Canada’s Irish communities were established before the famine. Of those who came during the famine, nearly a quarter didn’t reach their destination. Thousands died of starvation or disease in the putrid holds of the “coffin ships" or succumbed to fever, typhus and dysentery soon after they arrived. Quarantined, they languished in ships anchored off Grosse Ile. Within reach of help, they were “left still enveloped by reeking pestilence, the sick without medicine, medical skill, nourishment, or so much as a drop of pure water."
The “famine Irish" who survived provided cheap labor to fuel the economic growth of the 1850s and 60s. Like all of Canada’s immigrant settlers, they persevered in the face of adversity, establishing themselves in all areas of Canadian life. The contribution of Irish traditions and folklore add colour to the rich mosaic of Canadian cultural diversity.
Perhaps the best-known Irish tradition is St. Patrick’s Day, which is celebrated in Canada with parades, music and more than a few pints in the many Irish pubs across the country. Since 1824 Canadians have been wearin’ the green and shivering in the cold at the annual parade in Montreal, North America’s oldest St. Patrick’s Day parade. The celebration, which rivals Dublin’s own, venerates St. Patrick as the embodiment of freedom, forgiveness and love. St. Patrick’s story mirrors that of the Irish who came to North America and achieved prominence, for St. Patrick arrived as a stranger, adapted to his new home and developed into a leader who was a beacon of righteousness to the indigenous people.
St. Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in Britain in about 385 AD. He was kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. He was a non-observant Catholic but during his six years of enslavement found solace in prayer. After escaping to Gaul, he assumed the name Patricius and studied with St. Germain. Believing he was called to convert the pagans of Ireland to Christianity, he returned to Ireland.
According to legend, Patricius used the three-leaved shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity (father, son, holy ghost). In a legend that is probably metaphorical, Patricius drove the snakes (pagan symbols) out of Ireland and into the sea to drown. Patricius died on March 17, 461. Since then traditional Irish emblems, such as shamrocks and wearing green, the national colour of the Emerald Isle, have come to symbolize Patrick’s saint’s day.
For Canadians, a commemorative holiday provides an opportunity to celebrate all who struggled, and sometimes perished, trying to make a new life and those who welcomed strangers to a new land. In this sense, on St. Patrick’s Day, everybody is, indeed, Irish. Erin Go Braugh! Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is Associate Editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia.