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Rural Communities

The Rural and Agricultural Context of the Irish-Canadian Experience

Cecil Houston
University of Windsor, Ontario

Ireland: The Haunted Ark, edited by Cecil J. Houston and Joseph Leydon (1996)

The agricultural and resource economy framed most of the Irish experience in Canada. That was as true for Waterford people in the Newfoundland fisheries of the eighteenth century as for the Canadian-born children of Ontario's Irish pioneers who farmed the western grass prairies in the late nineteenth.

England's imperial needs for fish, timber and grain created the context for most rural Irish settlements: fish for Caribbean plantations; wood for ships of commerce and war; and wood and grain for commerce, war and growing industrial towns. The harvesting of timber left land open and bare for farming. At the onset of settlement, lumbermen and farmers were one and the same, and in areas poor for farming, that relationship lasts still.

Calling card of George Walker, Belfast (June 18, 1907)

The Irish were partners in the imperial economy and their prominence in Canadian rural life was not exceptional. Irish merchants were leaders in the overseas expansion. Irish learning and Irish know-how was on par with the best. Irish experience in the overseas plantation of people and settlement was as old as England's. Irish models for farming, community infrastructure, architecture, clothing, industrial processing, tools and all else were well tested in frontier conditions. Irish people adapted and Irish practices were adaptable to new environments.

The Irish in Canada were agents of a modern agricultural and resource-driven commerce, not peasants in economies of self-sufficiency. In most cases, they had the requisite skills and essential prior experience, owned the technology needed, and understood well the imperial market and its strategic needs. Irish emigrants to rural economies in the New World were decisive opportunists, not paupers shovelled out.

The McCabe List: Early Irish in the Ottawa Valley, by Bruce S. Elliott (2002)

The Irish fit their lives to many environments. They used intensive garden spade culture in the most severe maritime environments and promoted extensive grain culture and animal husbandry in the better farm regions inland. Their relative success as farmers, lumbermen and fishermen was no different than that of their counterparts from Britain, Scotland and America. They moulded their production within environmental and market constraints, and their family's labour. They adopted best practices wherever they found them, often from fellow countrymen who arrived before them.

The Irish in Canada recreated the familiarity of an Irish world of rural places and small town services. Richard Braithwaite could write home to County Antrim in 1849 about his village of Cannington, Ontario, as "a lively place. There is a grist mill and distillery and four merchant shops and 2 schoolhouses at the place and the English church one mile and a half from it." Cannington had its catholic counterparts. Protestant and catholic areas were common. Rural sectarian friction was well known, but it played out in a rural context of dispersed communities of not only two, but many 'ethnic' strands.

Letter from the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland, proposing a visit to examine Canadian research and educational methods (June 12, 1919)

Researchers have wondered whether the protestants were more successful than the catholics, or northerners more successful than southerners. The controversy will not abate because it has not been possible to fathom the diversity of contextual factors and personal encounters that determined success in past times -- date of arrival, capital in hand, length of tenure, the lot drawn, the lot's locational advantage, the spacing and number of children, personal ambitions, business cycles, the force of circumstances. Nor has it been possible to rid the discussion of insistent stereotypes and narratives that were created to make the Irish, of all origins, seem different and less important partners than others in England's imperial enterprise. In the project to end the stereotyping, the research of a not-far-distant future may help.


Dr. Cecil Houston is Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Windsor, and has served as the President of the Canadian Association for Irish Studies. He has published widely on Irish-Canadian history and culture, including collaborative works with William J. Smyth.