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Peter M. Toner
University of New Brunswick, Saint John
The Irish who came to British North America had an integration saga which varied as much as their own backgrounds. Depending on where they originated, and where they landed and eventually settled, there was a kaleidoscope of situations to confuse future generations.
Oddly, the earliest Irish to land and settle left an indelible imprint on the demographic character of Newfoundland, whereas some of the later arrivals in other parts of Canada left little or no impression except to the very astute observer. This was the case of the trickle of Irish who drifted into New France before the Conquest. The major stream of Irish immigration was during the first half of the nineteenth century, and this is the period in which the Irish were most visible. Plainly put, in some parts of the country the Irish blended seamlessly, while in others they continue to stand out.
This can be most clearly seen in any detailed study of Irish settlement in Canada. At the time of Confederation, Canada was a rural country that most Irish migrants had by-passed. In the Census of 1871, nine out of ten Canadians lived outside of the cities and major towns. Even a casual glance at the rural demographic landscape will show pockets of Irish which in many cases inundated the previous population. A reflex response would dismiss the stereotype of the Irish as an urban proletariat, but it is much more complicated, as further examination of the data would reveal. The Irish immigrants were not uniform in origin or in their cultural and educational background. The most painfully obvious distinction which cannot be avoided is religion. In Ireland, religion was code for many distinctions of class and power, and to a certain extent, this was brought to Canada by the immigrants. In 1871, one in three Catholic Irish lived in the cities and the major towns, and an analysis of their occupations would confirm that the Catholic Irish were the only candidates for consideration as an urban proletariat.
By contrast, the proportion of Protestant Irish to live in those same centres was close to one in twenty, and a far smaller proportion of those would have been working class. In the rural environment, Catholic Irish were less often farmers than their Protestant brethren, and did less well when they were. Naturally, there were exceptions, without which there would be no rule. For the Catholic Irish, this would vary as well according to origin, those from the North and East doing better than those from South and West. One could go further and attribute some measurable differences in integrative performance to language background and literacy; those who were fluent and literate in English had on average an easier passage. Immigrants from Irish-language areas in Ireland either "stuck" in the ports of entry or settled in a few rural pockets.
It should not be assumed however that the Irish were therefore isolated from the mainstream. The large numbers of Irish pre-empted this possibility. One of the earliest, and later one of the most powerful, non-government institutions in this country was the Orange Order. This fraternal organization was a product of the experience of Ireland, but became part of the experience of Canada as well. In Canada, the "Lodge" adapted to the political environment, but managed to maintain fundamental principles brought here by the immigrants. There was no equivalent for the Catholic Irish, and even their Church was often more concerned with being seen to be other than "Irish". When it came to other social and economic issues, the Irish presence could be obvious.
Especially during the 1830s and 1840s, Irish schoolteachers were common, many having been displaced by the Irish National Schools system. The system itself was a model for education reformers here, and so too were its standardized textbooks.
The stereotype of the Irish as being prone to litigation has been used to explain the Irish preference for a legal career, and the Irish Constabulary was held up as the model police force. Possibly on the flip side of the coin, Irish activity in organized labour was obvious from an early period, as was the Irish impact on organized politics. In fact, the political background in Ireland had conditioned the Irish to participate actively in politics in Canada, and the immigrants of both religious persuasions were often a motivated and disciplined political weapon in the hands of those who could successfully court it.
Because of these political inclinations, the Irish integration into the mainstream of Canadian society became divided. Most Protestant Irish identified with the "British" connection, and were accepted as such by Canadians of English or Scots background. In consequence, an Irish origin could be quietly forgotten. This could not be the same for the Catholic Irish. They arrived preceded by a reputation for rebellion, rum, and Rome. Although many Catholic Irish valiantly attempted to demonstrate a propensity for domestication, others defiantly resisted assimilation of the sort accorded their Protestant brethren. Their origins were badges permanently on display. In time, and erroneously so, in Canada "Irish" became a label that was increasingly "Green", rather than partly "Orange". This misperception was damning for Catholic and Protestant alike, and tended to mask the large contributions made by all Irish immigrants.
For the most part, this has been put behind us. All those of whatever Irish background can now retrospectively see the significance of the Irish contribution to Canadian life. This should be a mark of honour for Canadians of Irish origin, but also for all Canadians, and for the Ireland which provided this contribution.
Peter M. Toner was born in New Brunswick, and his forebears hail from both County Londonderry and from County Derry, Ireland. He was educated at St. Thomas University (Chatham, New Brunswick), and the University of New Brunswick (Fredericton). He holds a doctorate from University College Galway, National University of Ireland. He has taught at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John, for 35 years.