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Irish Background

William J. Smyth
National University of Ireland, Maynooth

Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement: Patterns, Links, and Letters, by Cecil J. Houston and William J. Smyth (1990)

Mass migration was the distinguishing feature of population movement in the nineteenth century; more people moved greater distances then than at any previous time in history. It has been estimated that at least 44 million persons left Europe for overseas destinations in the years 1821-1915; a disproportionately high number, some 6 million, were from Ireland.

Within this context the position of Irish migrants was one of singular and early importance. Approximately one million Irish landed in Canada in the century before the First World War, three quarters of them before 1855, and almost half a million in the years 1825-45. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Irish migrants had outnumbered the combined numbers of English, Scottish and Welsh arrivals. Building upon this demographic base, the Irish ethnic group had attained a numerical strength second only to those of French ancestry at the time of Canadian Confederation in 1867. The majority of Irish migrants to Canada arrived in the pre-Famine period and as such they remain regionally distinctive among the contemporaneous global Irish Diaspora.

Cork harbour (1852-1869)

An Irish presence in Canada had, of course, been registered prior to the nineteenth century with Protestant settlements from Ulster being created in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and a Catholic population from south east Ireland establishing a foothold in Newfoundland in the late eighteenth century. However, these settlements were of miniscule proportion compared with those created between 1815 and 1845. More than half of the Irish arrivals in this latter period were Protestant and Ulster was the home region of the majority.

By the 1830s migration had embraced all Irish counties, as a mania to leave Ireland developed among those who had the monetary or family support necessary to finance the journey and attendant settlement expenses. It would appear that prior to the 1840s most Irish migrants to Canada were self-financed and emigrant remittances were of a lesser significance than they were for the American Irish in the later nineteenth century. Likewise, direct assistance from landlords or government did not equate with that provided to post-Famine migrants to Australia and New Zealand.

"England, Scotland and Ireland", by Charles William Jefferys (1869-1951)

Throughout the 1830s the average number of Irish arriving in Canada was in excess of 20,000 per annum, but an indeterminate proportion of these would have proceeded directly from the Canadian port of disembarkation to the United States. The peak year of Irish migration to Canada was undoubtedly the Famine deluge of 1847, when more than 100,000 Irish arrived, many of them destitute and ill. At the quarantine station of Grosse-Île some 5,000 died and a similar number was reputed to have perished in Montréal, with several hundred more dying in Kingston and Toronto.

Changes in navigation laws reduced Famine traffic in subsequent years, and in 1848-54 migration fell to pre-Famine levels. Thereafter, the bulk of trans-Atlantic Irish migrants sailed to the United States; only a trickle made their way to Canada and increasingly, that trickle was drawn from the Ulster heartland which had provided the charter migrants of the early part of the century. Throughout the twentieth century Canada attracted only a small fraction of the Irish migrant stream; Britain and the United States remained the primary destinations.


William J. Smyth is the President Emeritus of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth and a former Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Ireland. A geographer by profession, he has published widely on the Irish in Canada in collaboration with Professor Cecil Houston, University of Windsor. His primary field of interest is Ulster migration to North America.