Remembering Ontario and Quebec's Irish Pioneers

Remembering Ontario and Quebec's Irish Pioneers

Posted on September 17 by Lucille H. Campey in Non-fiction, Recent Releases
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The Irish immigrants who made homes for themselves in mid Canada during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are the subject of my latest book. They achieved extraordinary success. Feats of physical endurance were commonplace. Their pioneering achievements were phenomenal, but, because so much attention has been given in recent times to the suffering the Irish experienced during the Great Irish Famine of 1847, their story has not been told properly.

 

What is not fully appreciated is that generations of Irish came to mid Canada long before 1847 and settled across Ontario and Quebec. They founded many communities and had an immense impact on the economic development of both provinces. By the end of the nineteenth century they would be the largest immigrant group in Ontario and, in Quebec, the Irish outnumbered the combined total of Scottish and English immigrants.

 

Why has history short-changed them? Part of the problem is that the Irish quickly disappeared as a recognizable ethnic group. They were rolling stones, always looking for somewhere even better to settle. The prospect of a better life had brought them across the sea to Canada, but the niggling feeling that even better prospects were theirs for the taking caused them to keep moving locations. This was especially true of those Irish who had first settled in Quebec and eastern Ontario. Once the better climate, job prospects and land to be had in south western Ontario and the United States became known, they were off.

 

The Irish ability to up sticks so readily played to their strengths. They were remarkable networkers and had developed a fund-raising technique that was almost unique to them. People in Ireland often paid for their sea crossings using money sent to them by family and friends who had already settled in Canada. This meant that, however poor you might be, you had a helping hand to a better life from someone in Canada who sent you the money for your passage. According to the Quebec Immigration Agent, a good many Irish immigrants had their fares paid this way.

 

Their moving on tendency was brought home to me when I read about the farewell gesture made by Irish Anglicans who had been living near Frampton, south of Quebec City, in the 1830s. Just before moving to an unknown destination, probably in the United States, they planted forget-me-nots around their church. They would have known that these forget-me-nots, being rampant self-seeders flowering early in the season, would put on a wonderful display of blue flowers. They were really saying “this is a good place, we were happy here and please remember us.” As my recent book makes clear, tenderness and courage were essential ingredients of Irish pioneer life.

Lucille H. Campey

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 30, 2014

Lucille H. Campey

Lucille H. Campey was born in Ottawa. A professional researcher and historian, she has a master’s degree in medieval history from Leeds University and a Ph.D. from Aberdeen University in emigration history. She is the author of fourteen books on early Scottish, English, and Irish emigration to Canada. She was the recipient of the 2016 Prix du Québec for her work researching Irish emigration to Canada.