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The Irish in Québec: A Political Community Which Has Survived the 19th Century
Dr. Simon Jolivet, Concordia University
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Catholic and Protestant Irish arrived in Canada towards the end of Napoleonic Wars and they became one of the major ethnic groups in Québec. Until the end of the XXth century, they were forming the third most important ethnic group in Québec, ahead of the Scots but behind the French and the English Canadians. In 1901, there were 114 842 people of Irish origins, Catholics and Protestants altogether, which numbered for about 7% of the total Québec population. Curiously, the history of the Irish in Québec is still greatly unknown. By the way, I want to congratulate the organizers of the conference of today which greatly emphasizes the importance of the Irish and Québec studies; I believe this is quite a first. So, many aspects of the Irish in Québec still need to be studied; their sense of belonging to Ireland, their integration within Canada and the British Empire, their cultural adjustment, their particular values, etc.
To say that there never have been academic works, articles, and monographs dealing with Irish-Québécois would, however, be absolutely incorrect. So far, studies on the Irish, Catholics or Protestants, in Québec have dealt mostly with the XIXth century and the Irish settlements in Montréal and Québec City. The history of those Irish immigrants who worked hard to build the Lachine canal or at the different ports of the province (sometimes in difficult conditions and at the price of their own lives) retained the attention of the researchers. The controversial history of Grosse-Île, a quarantine station situated in the Île-aux-Grues archipelago, has also been looked at by numerous professional historians and by Marianna O'Gallagher who is here with us today. The often difficult relationships in the XIXth century between Catholic French-Canadians and the Irish clergy, in regards to the control of parishes and schools were also examined, as well as the activities of major national Irish societies such as the St Patrick's Society of Montreal and the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society.
It is easy to understand why researchers were interested in those questions concerning mainly the Irish in XIXth century's Québec. Obviously, there was the need to analyze the kinship migrations and settlement schemes of the Irish in the province and in Canada. We had to start by doing these kinds of studies.
Knowing now that the history of the Irish in Québec is quite different from the one in Ontario, where historians have noted a predominantly Irish Protestant immigration settled in rural areas, academics in Québec have tried to understand the reasons that played in favor of Irish Catholic and urban settlements in the province of Québec. Although historian Donald Akenson of Queen's University, Kingston, has noted, in the case of Irish immigration to Ontario, that "the Protestant Catholic split is best described as roughly two to one", Québec studies have remarked the reverse. Two-thirds of the Irish immigrants who settled in Québec would have been of Catholic faith.
If the settlement schemes of the Irish in XIXth century's Québec deserved –and still deserve- to be studied, we must also recognize that the integration and the experiences of the Irish-Québécois of the second, third, and fourth generations are also of import to academics and amateurs historians. Until now, we must admit that almost nobody has examined the lives and experiences of those Irish-Québécois who worked and lived in Québec after 1900. Although it is tempting to believe, when reading the actual historiography, that the Irish in Québec simply vanished at the turn of the century, this view is, of course, quite ludicrous. In fact, when looking at it more seriously, not only can we say that Irish in Québec still inhabited the province after January 1st, 1900, but many of them also continued, at least in the first two decades of the XXth century, to entertain a vigorous and distinct Irish identity.
From 1900 to 1925, at a time when serious socio-political conditions erupted in Ireland, and at a time when the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland would be created, numerous Irish Catholics kept themselves informed of the events occurring in the motherland. Many of them actively supported the struggle for Irish autonomy by investing both their time and money into the cause. Thus, not only the history of the Irish immigration's waves to Québec is different from the one noted in Ontario, but the history of the integration of the Irish-Québécois in the host societies, Québec or Canadian, is different from the one that is known in Ontario.
To speak of historian Mark McGowan's ideas, the Irish Catholics of Toronto would have been well integrated into the host society at the beginning of the XXth century. They would have then labeled themselves more as English-Speaking Catholics than as Irish Catholics. By the same token, other works on the Irish in Ontario have noted that the Irish would have been less interested in the political affairs occurring in Ireland after 1900; such as the Home Rule debates, the formation of the Edward Carson's Ulster Volunteer Force, the outbreak of the Easter Rising, the conscription crisis, the Anglo-Irish War, the founding of both the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, and the Civil War of 1922-3.
To my view, this Irish-Ontarian indifference was not to be seen in Québec after 1900. Research led during my PhD studies convinced me of the probable difference of the Québec's Irish experience, in terms of their adjustment and integration within Québec's society. In fact, the Irish Catholic community was still forming a coherent and ethnically distinct community in Québec, not only in 1898, but also twenty years later. Of course, ethnic and national identities do not, and did not, mean the same thing for every individual. Between 1900 and 1920, it was sometimes hard to define exactly what it meant to be Irish in Québec. However, many entertained the belief that they were Irish (notwithstanding the various definitions that one can give to the notion of Irishness).
Because of the relationships entertained with the French-Canadian majority and because of their connections with nationalist Irish-Americans that sometimes helped them to organize patriotic manifestations, Irish-Québécois, mostly Catholics, have followed a different integration path; different from the one noticed in Ontario, at least. Not entirely disconnected from their brothers and sisters in the English Canadian provinces, Irish Catholics of Québec, and precisely the ones who actively worked within national and patriotic associations, followed a different adjustment path influenced their full integration within the province.
Concerning the Irish Protestants who settled in Québec, it appears that works are still very much needed. The numerical weakness of the Irish Protestants and the fragility of such patriotic organizations as the Orange Order, as noted by specialists William Smyth and Cecil Houston, are of course noticeable. However, we will need to increase the number of studies and researches before confirming what could have been a quicker integration of the Irish Protestants in Québec or in Canada, or to confirm their possible affinities with Anglo-Scottish business communities of Montréal and of Québec City. Lots of work is needed in this regard. Irish Protestants, we must remember, were forming an important community in Québec and is said to have formed one-third of the overall Irish immigration to Québec.
Now, one way of looking at the integration process of the Irish in Québec consists in analyzing their involvement in the Irish political events and also in their own national societies. Historian Michael Cottrell has noted, several years ago, that the Toronto's St Patrick's Day parade was one of the most visible demonstrations of Irishness. He also has written that the demise of the parade in the 1870s must be seen in parallel with the decline of Irishness within Toronto's Irish-Catholic circles. This point is interesting since it tells something about the strength of St Patrick's Days in Montréal and in Québec City in XIXth and XXth century. Not only were St Patrick's Day parades important in XIXth century's Montréal and Québec –by the way, we still have got a major parade on St Patrick's Day in Montréal– but they became increasingly significant between 1910 and 1921. The parades in Quebec City and Montreal became larger, and there were thousands of people who attended them. In the 1910s, there were record numbers of attendees, and also there were an increasing number of displays and Irish jaunting cars and all sorts of attractions. There were also political banners and patriotic songs waved and sang in the streets.
After 1900, St Patrick's Days often were the occasion for key political speeches, underlining the love and the proud feelings entertained by the Irish-Québécois for the motherland, but also asserting explicit demands in favor of Ireland's autonomy. For instance, we can read this in a special St Patrick's Day pamphlet published in Montréal in September 1913 : "The celebration of St Patrick's Day has a very special significance. Home Rule for Ireland is now only a question of weeks. Irish hearts will remember more fondly than ever the famous sites and aspects of the Emerald Isle which will now become all their own again." Behind all of these patriotic acclaims, we can note that there have also been a number of efforts made by Québec's Irish Catholics for the promotion of Irish nationalism.
After 1900, more than 20 Irish associations took part in the annual March 17th festivities. The same thing also occurred in Québec City where many organizations such as the Catholic Order of Foresters, the St Patrick's Total Abstinence and Benevolent Society, the Sarsfield Amateur Athletic Association, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians actively participated in the city's parade. These associations joined to celebrate St Patrick, and as academics such as Nancy Schmitz and Mike Cronin have noted, Irish green and golden flags, portraits of Daniel O'Connell and of John Redmond –the Irish constitutional nationalist leader from 1900 to 1918– were also prominent features in the festivities and processions.
Québec's newspapers also noticed the Irish fervor on St Patrick's Days. As a matter of fact, La Presse of March 17th, 1911 noted the attendance of thousands of people in the Montréal's parade at that same time than publishing an article on the success of the Québec City's parade, held on the same day. Le Devoir, in 1915, indicated that a number of buttons were handed out promoting the Irish cause in that year's St Patrick's Day parade. The Montreal Star, also in 1915, said that there were 9 different events scheduled (such as plays, dances, concerts) and all promoting Irish patriotism in various Montréal's auditoriums and theatres.
And in 1920-1921, at the height of the Anglo-Irish War, participants would be asked to wear, for the first time in Québec's history, Irish republican and Sinn Féin buttons as well as to wave Sinn Féin flags in the official parades. Sinn Féin was a nationalist but republican party which had been able to beat the traditional nationalist constitutional party of John Redmond in the Elections of 1918. In 1921, in Montréal as well as in Québec City, newspapers noted the absence of the Union Jack in the festivities; a flag that was commonly displayed on St Patrick's Days. In 1921, newspapers would also confirm the presence of many members of the Gaelic League and of the Self Determination League for Ireland in Canada and Newfoundland in both Montréal and Québec City parades. On that same year, the Montreal Star also highlighted the huge crowd, "the largest in many years", that attended the procession. More than 8,000 people would have marched in Montréal's streets in 1921, without counting the 20,000 persons who were actually watching the show.
Apart from the annual festivities of the 17th of March, other Irish patriotic and political events took place in Québec's two major cities at the beginning of the XXth century. Both the St Patrick's Society, a somewhat moderate and élitiste organization (but which was nonetheless favorable to Home Rule for Ireland), and the Ancient Order of Hibernians (a more radical nationalist and working-class organization) would help to foster Irish patriotism in Montréal and in Québec City.
Various activities and commemorations were organized thanks to members of these two associations. If we go back a bit, to 1898, a centenary of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 was held in Montréal on June 26th. About 5,000 of persons marched in the procession and answered enthusiastically to the political speeches given in the afternoon and that were advocating "freedom for Ireland". Organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the centenary attracted hundreds of Hibernians coming not only from Québec, Ottawa, Sherbrooke, and Montréal but also from the United States and from diverse Ontario's cities such as Gananoque, Stratford and Toronto. The speeches and the parade of June 26th, 1898, conveyed a good deal of ambiguity as not everyone attending them would publicly state its love of Irish republicanism. We must remember that the 1798 Irish Rebellion was a republican one. However, participants to this centenary held in Montréal would all be in favor of some measures of political autonomy for Ireland. It must be remember that Ireland was still attached to Great Britain since the Act of Union of 1801.
Other events, such as the erection of a Celtic cross at Grosse-Île, in August 1909, also attracted Irish-Québécois interest. It is the Hibernians of Québec City, generously helped by the United States Hibernians, who organized this celebration and the building of the Celtic cross. More than 8,000 people coming from Montréal, Québec, Ottawa, Toronto but also from the United States gathered on the island in order to attend a symbolic mass at the foot of the cross. The monument commemorated thousands of Irish immigrants who were buried on the island, mostly during the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s.
Again, political views were explicitly stated during the commemorations, notably by J.A. Jordan, author of the souvenir issue of the day. J.A. Jordan believed the British Government responsible for this human disaster and stated that this monument of Grosse-Île was honoring these "unfortunate Irish Exiles of 1847".
Now, another celebration, the one of 1913 commemorating Montréal's "Black Rock", was also organized by the Irish community. The idea was for the Irish-Québécois to re-appropriate for themselves this "sacred ground" where thousands of Irish died in conditions similar to these of Grosse-Île. Colin McMahon, who is here with us today, will probably talk about the Black Rock (or Black Stone) and the commemoration taking place on August 13th, 1913, near Montréal's Victoria Bridge.
This commemoration, like the one which was held at Grosse-Île four years before, conveyed many political messages and also a warning to any political or business bodies which would endeavor to displace the "Rock" again. Without any doubt, as Colin McMahon has written, the speeches and statements heard on August 13th, 1913 demonstrated "how politically charged Famine memory and this monument continued to be for many Irish Catholics, particularly those living in Griffintown and Pointe St. Charles."
Finally, annual celebrations of the Manchester Martyrs –even more political in tone since these were perpetuating the memories of three Fenians hanged in 1867– were held in Montréal from 1890s until at least 1920. As the Irish-Catholic newspaper of Montréal, The True Witness and Catholic Chronicle, stated in 1907 : "Each year, on the Sunday nearest the 23rd of November, the members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, headed by their band with knights fully uniformed, hold a church parade to one of the Irish Churches of the city, there to honor the memory of the Manchester Martyrs." This annual event, once again organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, was the moment to mourn over the death of the "three victims of British misrule, hanged in Manchester years ago".
If the participants attending the Manchester Martyrs celebrations –and they were for about 1,000 every year– were possibly not all republicans or, let say, in favor of complete separation for Ireland, the fact remains that setting up an annual parade in honor of the "Martyrs" proved of the strength of the Irish Catholic community of Montréal. As a matter of fact, during the same period, even the Montréal's lodges of the Orange Order were not able to organize annual parades of this magnitude. Their annual 12th of July feasts were very tiny, and, most of the time, Québec's Orangemen had to go to Ontario in order to celebrate the victory of "William of Orange" in 1690. This was a big contrast with the great 12th of July celebrations which were annually held in Toronto and which gathered thousands of participants.
Now, this presentation was not leaving enough time to talk about every particular activity organized by Québec's Irish-Catholics at the beginning of the XXth century. I could have talked a good deal more about the frequent visits of Irish nationalist MPs to Montréal and to Québec City between 1901 and 1914. I think most particularly here of the visits of John Redmond, T.P. O'Connor, William Redmond, Joseph Devlin. I could also have described the actions and manifestations organized by different political groups, such as the United Irish League (founded in 1901) or the Self Determination League for Ireland in Canada and Newfoundland (founded in Montréal in 1920). This latter League promoted Sinn Féin's ideas throughout Canada and this, at least until the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6th, 1921, which laid the foundations of the Irish Free State as well as confirming the existence of Northern Ireland.
Besides, in only a few days, on next Thursday, I am heading off to Ireland and to Great Britain with the purpose of looking at this still unknown story of the Self Determination League for Ireland in Canada and in Newfoundland. Hundreds of correspondences and letters of the chief organizer of the League, the Canadian and for a while Montrealer Katherine Hughes, are "hidden" in Éamon de Valéra's papers at University College Dublin Archives Department. These archives have never been examined yet by any Irish, Québec or Canadian historian.
There was also lot to say about the Irish Republican League of Montreal, founded after 1921, or about the Montréal's branch of the Friends of Irish Freedom; both of these associations were led by Montréal's republican John Loye.
The same thing applies also to the setting up and the later disbandment of the Irish Canadian Rangers, an overseas battalion formed during the Great War. It was initially supposed to be filled by Montrealers only but this changed in 1916 when recruits from other Canadian cities were asked to join it.
All of these different topics are dealt with in my PhD thesis that I recently defended. In sum, what is particularly interesting with these 20-minute presentations is that, despite the inevitable time restrictions, they can be improved with your questions and comments. So, I am ready to answer your questions.
National Archives of Ireland [www.nationalarchives.ie]