University of Guelph, Ontario
Much has been written about the rural Irish in Ontario and New Brunswick, and how their experiences suggest pronounced contrasts between patterns of Irish settlement in nineteenth-century British North America and the United States. This welcome emphasis on rural aspects of the Irish-Canadian experience reminds us that they, like most people in British North America and Canada until the first decades of the twentieth century, lived predominantly in rural areas. It has also highlighted contrasts with the Irish-American experience, which dominates scholarship on Irish immigration. But it has also sometimes understated the extent and influence of the Irish in urban Canada. After all, while it is true that the majority of Irish in Upper Canada/Canada West (now Ontario) emigrated before the Famine, and tended to favour rural areas, in many parts of British North America, including Lower Canada/Canada East (now Québec), the Irish were predominantly urban migrants.
In many urban centres the Irish-born and/or people of Irish origin comprised a large proportion of the population. Arriving in such places as Halifax or Québec, most immigrants' first, if often fleeting, contact with British North America was in an urban setting. In addition to the network of political, religious and social organizations associated with the urban milieu, there was a density of voluntary institutions established to assist immigrants in their integration within urban space. Indeed, while Irish immigrants participated in a wide range of rural institutions, and in those, such as the Orange Order, which spanned both rural and urban worlds, a high concentration of these bodies, and the vibrancy and diversity of the associational life that they nourished, was a critical feature of urban space.
The Irish tended to exert especially heavy influence in British North America, reflecting the fact that, numerically, they often were the largest immigrant group in its towns and cities. Consider that the Irish-born population of the County of Montréal stood at 19 percent of its 64,897 residents in 1844. A decade later, following the massive movements of peoples associated with the Famine in Ireland, the city of Montréal had an Irish-born population of more than 20 percent. In Québec City the proportion of Irish-born stood at 15 percent and in Toronto, at almost 37 percent. Smaller towns such as Bytown (now Ottawa) boasted 32 percent Irish-born, and even a decade later, in 1861, almost 40 percent of the population of Saint John, New Brunswick, and more than 15 percent of Halifax, Nova Scotia's residents, hailed from Ireland. In short, the Irish still mattered a lot to urban British North America -- its industries, its institutions, its politics and its cultural life.
There were often significant differences between the urban and rural Irish, not least because for many, urban life was transitory; the divergent economies of urban and rural areas were reflected in distinctive occupational profiles. In cities and towns they reflected the importance of trade, industry and service. Frequently the denominational complexion of Irish urban Canada also differed with that of rural areas: in Saint John in 1840, for instance, the roughly equal proportions of Catholics and Protestants contrasted with the more Irish Protestant complexion of rural New Brunswick. In Nova Scotia, many Protestant Irish had been living in the New Minas basin for generations when the Famine-era immigrants, most but not all Catholic, added to the already significant number of Catholic Irish residents in Halifax (a city that had, since 1786, 'The Charitable Irish Society' as a cornerstone of its dynamic Irish associational culture).
Yet these statistics offer partial insight into the extent of the urban Irish. As the twentieth century turned, in many places -- small towns such as Almonte in the Ottawa Valley, or Winnipeg in the fast-growing West -- far more people claimed Irish origins than Irish birth. In many western towns, the Irish did not enjoy the numerical dominance that they enjoyed elsewhere: historical patterns of migration (which in Winnipeg favoured the Scots), and relatively later settlement (which tended to favour English, Scottish and European settlers instead of the Irish, whose immigration had peaked decades before), contributed to this different profile.
While several aspects of urban British North America and Canada -- its economic functions, its institutional density, its concentrated populations and distinctive spatial features -- signalled differences with rural areas, they must not obscure the cultural and institutional links between rural and urban space. Irish-Canadian associational culture, whether expressed through participation in the church or the lodge, or in acts of commemoration such as Saint Patrick's Day and the Glorious Twelfth, nurtured interactions between Irish communities in cities, towns and the countryside.
K.J. James is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Guelph. He has published in the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Saothar, Scottish Economic and Social History, Textile History, and Labour History Review and has also contributed pieces to several collections on Irish and Scottish history.