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Urban Communities

Politics and the Irish in Rebellion-era Montréal

K.J. James
University of Guelph, Ontario

Funeral procession of the Honourable Thomas D'Arcy McGee, Montréal (April 13, 1868)

Many urban Irish cultural institutions incorporated Catholics and Protestants, and their politics were dynamic and far from mere reproductions of social institutions and divisions found in Ireland. Irish immigrants did not align themselves exclusively -- in their political orientations or cultural associations -- with fellow-religionists. Even after the middle of the nineteenth century, when there was a greater tendency for Irish associational culture to be aligned with sectarian cleavages, factionalism and fierce conflicts within Catholic and Protestant organizations belied the unity of these populations. The experience of Saint Patrick's Society of Montréal, one of Irish Canada's oldest and most storied institutions, offers us insight into an associational culture that originally cut across denominational cleavages. Even after it was re-established as an exclusively Catholic institution in 1856, it suffered from internal division.

No mere vehicle for camaraderie and commemoration (though these were among its functions), Saint Patrick's Society of Montréal was founded in 1834 with a political motive: to counter the emerging "patriote" party in Lower Canada (itself supported by a broad range of Irish Canadians). To this end, the Society forged instrumental links with other fraternal groups with sympathetic political orientations (such as the Saint Andrew's Society of Montréal) and directed harsh criticism against Irish Canadians in the opposing movement (including several who were prominent in the St. Jean-Baptiste Society).

The Uncounted Irish in Canada and the United States, by Margaret E. Fitzgerald and Joseph A. King (1990)

At the Society's annual commemorations of Saint Patrick's Day in Montréal, in colourful pageantry and florid rhetoric, both Catholic and Protestant members shared values of loyalty to the Crown. These were given clearest expression during the Rebellions of 1837-38, when the Society became a vanguard movement in defense of the colonial government. It also crafted initiatives to aid new immigrants, with the aim of incorporating them within its political alliance. Over time, as sectarian divisions sharpened in the 1840s, especially with the arrival of Famine migrants, the complexion of the society turned a Catholic hue: indeed it was re-established in 1856 as an officially Catholic body, on the advice of Father Patrick Dowd.

Father Patrick Dowd, pastor of Saint Patrick's Church, Montréal

Dowd was pastor of Saint Patrick's Church, established to serve Montréal's Irish Catholics in 1847. While the associational culture of many Irish people, Catholic and Protestants, was supported by a vibrant parish and congregational life, it would be wrong to assume that they were insulated from broader contacts, especially in urban Canada. Still, Dowd, like many other clerics, was an active promoter of church-based social institutions, and he supported the Saint Patrick's Temperance Society, established in 1850, and the Saint Patrick's Orphan Asylum, opened in 1851. In sponsoring these institutions, Dowd insisted upon their independence not only from Protestant associational networks, but also from French-Catholic institutions -- illustrating that in British North America, the Catholic Church encompassed a number of ethnic bases, often tenuously.

Arrival of the Irish-Canadian pilgrims from Rome, with Father Dowd addressing the multitude from the rectory of St. Patrick's Church, Montréal (Canadian Illustrated News, August 25, 1877)

But the authority of clerics -- even those as energetic and popular as Dowd -- could not quiet subsequent conflicts which raged amongst members of the Catholic Society after 1856. For even in its Catholic phase, the Society was divided by intense fac tionalism, illustrated by Dowd's efforts to root out 'Fenian' sympathisers within the Society in the 1860s. Its history bears testament to the weakness of viewing inter-communal dynamics within Irish Canada solely through the lens of the Orange and Green. The associational life of the urban Irish in Canada was rich and varied, defying easy generalization, and demanding analysis of the range of identities, loyalties and antagonisms that marked the politics, social and cultural life of Canada's Irish population.


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.