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Essays

Literature

Literature and Journalism in Canada

Michele Holmgren
Mount Royal College, Calgary, Alberta

Cottage occupied by the poet Thomas Moore, at Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Québec

As idea and destination, Canada became fascinating to many Irish writers and prospective emigrants struggling with political and nationalist issues of their own. Isaac Weld based his much-quoted Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada (1799) on a journey taken "for the purpose of ... ascertaining whether, in case of future emergency, any part of those territories might be looked forward to, as an eligible and agreeable place of abode". (p. iii)

Weld's vivid descriptions of Canadian forests and homesteading influenced emigrants' concept of Canada for generations. (Bentley 1993, p. 223-226) Although he decided against emigration, the "emergency" he feared came in the form of the United Irish Rebellion in 1798. A generation later, Standish O'Grady, protestant landlord and author of the Canadian long poem The Emigrant (1841), implied that threats of midnight visits to landlords by members of violent Irish secret societies were one of the reasons he emigrated to Québec: "For deeds like these, bad government at home, / With stern disgust I left my stately dome, / In far sought climes, more happy thence to roam".

The Huron Chief, and Other Poems, by Adam Kidd (1830)

Other emigrants were motivated by hope, not fear; Weld and other writers praised the opportunities Canada offered: religious freedom for Catholics and Dissenters, and land ownership free of punitive rents, tithes and taxes. As a British officer traveling through Upper and Lower Canada in 1789, the future United Irish leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald sent enthusiastic letters home: "the equality of everybody and of their manner of life I like very much". (Moore 1831, p. 79-80)

Fitzgerald's biographer, the Irish poet Thomas Moore, arrived in Upper Canada in 1804, and idealized Canadian homesteading in "Ballad Stanzas": "Here in this lone little wood... How blest could I live and how calm could I die!" (Moore 1910, p. 124) Such portraits inspired Irish nationalists to ask why Irish emigrants enjoyed such blessings abroad and not at home; in turn, Irish nationalism fed Canadian literature and journalism.

Monument to Thomas D'Arcy McGee in front of the Parliamentary Library on Parliament Hill, Ottawa

In Montréal, Dr. Daniel Tracy founded the Irish Vindicator in 1828 to support the Friends of Ireland societies, which promoted O'Connell's non-violent Catholic Emancipation movement throughout the British Empire. Poetry was welcome, especially if it supported the paper's aims: to assert Irish Catholic rights without "disturb[ing] that religious harmony which exists among all classes of Christians". (Irish Vindicator, December 23, 1828)

Adam Kidd, an emigrant from County Derry and the author of the early Canadian long poem The Huron Chief (1830) published many poems and letters in the Vindicator. Coming from a village near Slieve Gallion, he was likely the author of letters to the paper arguing for Catholic Emancipation that appeared in the Irish Vindicator under the name "Slievegallin":

Man is naturally kind to his fellow creature, unless poisoned by prejudice, by bigotry and ignorance. The Indian who enjoys the bounties of his wild inheritance, contends not for superiority over the brothers of his tribe -- every man stands on an equal footing, until he has signalized himself by some noble achievement...and then, as a matter of right, he becomes the elevated of his nation. (Bentley 1987, p. 127)

A Protestant from the north of Ireland, Kidd may have brought to Canada the tradition of political verse popularized in the United Irish songbook, Paddy's Resource (which continued to be available in the early nineteenth century). His only published book of poetry contained many poems about Irish harpers, statesmen and artists, but his idealized portrait of First Nations cultures suggests that he saw Aboriginal people as a model of religious tolerance and equal rights that both Canadians and Irish could build upon.

Bibliography

Michele Holmgren received her MA in Irish Literature from The Queen's University of Belfast in 1992, and completed her doctoral dissertation, "Native Muses and National Poetry: Nineteenth-Century Irish-Canadian Poets" in 1997, earning a PhD in Canadian Literature from The University of Western Ontario. She has published articles on Canadian and Irish literary nationalism in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature, and taught Irish and Canadian literature at several universities. She currently teaches in the Department of English at Mount Royal College, Calgary.