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Essays

Literature

Young Ireland

Michele Holmgren
Mount Royal College, Calgary, Alberta

Thomas D'Arcy McGee (1868)

The Irish nationalist Thomas Davis saw Canada as a model for Irish self-government. Referring to the Upper and Lower Canada rebellions of 1837-38, he wrote an editorial in the Young Ireland paper The Nation where he imagined Canada saying, "Sister Ireland, my chains are breaking. Why sleepest thou, oh! my sister...?" (November 12, 1842).

The Young Ireland movement was founded in part to support Daniel O'Connell, this time in his campaign to repeal the Act of Union and restore Ireland's parliament. It set patriotic or historical subjects to traditional tunes, and even faction fighters' songs, to encourage the Irish to see what was common to all of them, in spite of different religious or ethnic origins. Envisaging a nation that tied together disparate ethnic, linguistic and religious groups was a challenge that both Irish and Canadian nationalists faced: a lesson not lost on Young Ireland member Thomas D'Arcy McGee.

Front page of the January 12, 1858 issue of Thomas D'Arcy McGee's New Era, Montréal

After the Famine, Young Ireland grew more radical, and McGee was forced to flee Ireland in 1848, after helping organize a failed rebellion. In setting up newspapers in Boston and then in New York, he witnessed the desperate poverty and discrimination endured by his fellow emigrants. Frequent speaking tours of Canada gave him the opportunity to contrast their situation with that of Irish Canadians, and he was impressed with the relative prosperity of Irish communities in Québec. In 1857, he set up another newspaper, the New Era, in Montréal, and its editorials revealed his shift in interest from Irish politics to developing a Canadian nationalism that evolved from the cultures of emigrants:

We believe the fragments of all old nationalities are and ought to be politically absorbed in the new, but we believe the new patriotism itself must perform the part of solvent, and by its genial and generous atmosphere mould the materials already existing on the soil.
("An Exception Answered." New Era, January 26, 1858)

In editorials entitled "Canadian Nationality -- Literature," "The Future of Canada," and "A National Literature for Canada," the New Era explored the idea of Canadian identity well before Confederation, and McGee acknowledged his debt to Irish nationalist literature: "We have seen an era made in Irish literature, and we speak from experience; for we were an humble pupil of the men who made it." ("A National Literature for Canada," New Era, June 17, 1857)

Daniel O'Connell, for the O'Connell Centennial, (Canadian Illustrated News, August 7, 1875)

In the one Canadian collection of poetry published in his lifetime, Canadian Ballads (1858), McGee applied the principles of Young Ireland's Irish patriotic verse to his own writing, creating drinking songs, anthems and ballads out of what he considered defining moments in Canadian history. Irish interest in Canada had come full circle: a vision of Canadian equality and tolerance had inspired Irish nationalists, who in turn provided a model of literature for Canadians wishing to find a national identity based on the shared history of different emigrant groups.

Bibliography

Michele Holmgren received her MA in Irish Literature from The Queen's University of Belfast in 1992. She 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.