Unit 4 Immigration

Chapter 3 The Irish Catholics, 19th Century


Ask yourself:

  • What hardships did they face and how were they treated when they arrived on our shores?
  • How did the 19th century exodus of Irish compare to the current scene in which thousands of young Irish, following the global economic troubles of 2008 to 2013, came to Canada for a better future?

Fleeing poverty and disease, thousands of Irish refugees, mostly Catholic, fled their homeland for Canada. You will explore the conditions they encountered in Canada, and examine the new Irish immigrants of today.

Although the term “boat people” first became a popular label for the thousands of refugees fleeing Vietnam in the late 1970s there have been many similar group of immigrants. Perhaps the earliest were the Irish who came in the 19th century. In recent years Canada has another influx of immigrants from Ireland. While Canada has been a destination for Irish emigrants (note the use of “emigrant” not “immigrant”) for centuries we shall look at two peak periods. The first section looks at a period of Irish immigration in the 19th century.


This really happened

The Great Hunger (often called The Irish Famine)

Ireland was a largely Catholic country and controlled by Britain since 1801 as part of the United Kingdom. Except for six counties (now making up Northern Ireland) most Irish were Catholic living on small farms renting land from (largely English) landlords. It seemed that the Industrial Revolution in Britain had passed them by. While Catholics had been systematically discriminated against there was slow progress. In 1829 the Act of Emancipation allowed Catholics to run for Parliament. The population had grown significantly in this period due to the abundance of potatoes: a vegetable originally brought from the Americas. It became a staple of the poor, especially in winter. But it was unreliable and many times in the 18th and early 19th centuries there were crop failures of varying degrees of severity.

A blight that had originated in North America and spread to Europe resulted in a series of failed potato crops in Ireland from 1845-1852. The mass starvation weakened thousands of survivors who then died of cholera. The deaths, plus the emigration that occurred, resulted in Ireland’s population going from about 8 million in 1841 to about 2 million by 1860.

Ironically during the years of the famine Ireland still exported large quantities of food to Britain while Irish tenant farmers were going bankrupt and being tossed off their small farms by the landlords. The situation was summarized by a poem written by Miss Jane Francesca Elgee, a well-known and popular author and mother of the famous playwright, Oscar Wilde. The poem was published in 1846 in The Nation Newspaper.

Weary men, what reap ye? Golden corn for the stranger.
What sow ye? Human corpses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see you in the offing
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger's scoffing.
There's a proud array of soldiers—what do they round your door?
They guard our master's granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping? 'Would to God that we were dead—
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread.

Source: Duffy, Sir Charles Gavan (1888), Four Years of Irish History 1845–1849, Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co

An old painting depicting a scene of Irish people waiving goodbye, some crying, as Irish emigrants set sail from the country. enlarge image
Emigrants Leave Ireland, engraving by Henry Doyle (1827–1893), from Mary Frances Cusack's Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868.

Many of the “starving Irish” emigrated to North America but their troubles did not end with the decision to leave Ireland. Of the hundreds of thousands that immigrated to North America many died en route. Weakened by hunger they fell prey to disease. Cholera was one of the most serious of these. It struck repeatedly around the world many times in the 19th century. People suspected of having this and other diseases were quarantined at Grosse Ile, Quebec, an island in the St. Lawrence River. The following table gives you a sense of the suffering based on the arrivals to Grosse Ile from 1825 to 1847:

Source: http://www.irishfamine.ca/

ImmigrantsAdmitted to HospitalNumber of DeathsCholeraFever and DysenterySmallpoxOther
Immigrants Admitted to Hospital Number of Deaths Cholera Fever and Dysentery Smallpox Other
425,490 14,533 3,934 290 4,648 722 726

More would die in future years and many died en route. Perhaps 20,000 died of typhus in the “coffin ships” crossing the Atlantic.

Action 1  

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Rank the Evidence

Which of the following pieces of evidence hits you hardest emotionally? Use the following scale to help you rank the evidence.

Scale for rank


Artifact 1 ›

The Irish peasants came to North America in overcrowded and unsanitary ships known as "coffin ships." Cabin passenger Robert Whyte recorded the horrifying conditions in the steerage section of a ship. "Passing the main hatch, I got a glimpse of one of the most awful sights I ever beheld. A poor female patient was lying in one of the upper berths—dying...She had been nearly three weeks ill and suffered exceedingly until the swelling set in, commencing in her feet and creeping up her body to her head. Her afflicted husband stood by her holding a "blessed candle" in his hand awaiting the departure of her spirit."

Artifact 2 ›

Ships flying the flag of disease were forced to dock at the quarantine station on Grosse Isle, an island located in the St. Lawrence, downriver from Quebec City. For many Irish immigrants it would be their only glimpse of the new land. In 1847, 50 people a day died of typhus at Grosse Isle. Dr. George Douglas, the medical officer in charge erected a plaque to mark a mass burial site “In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5,425 persons who, fleeing from pestilence and famine in 1847, found in North America but a grave.”

Artifact 3 ›

“The year 1847 shall be remembered in our history as the year of emigration. Close to 100,000 unhappy souls left Ireland to seek their break on the banks of the St. Lawrence. To compound their misery, fever decimated them at sea, in quarantine stations, in the villages, towns and country of the colonies of British North America.” La Minerve, January 3, 1848 (quoted in Canada: A Peoples’ History, vol. 1 D. Gillmore and P. Turgeon (CBC 2000 p. 249)

““We lay at some distance from the island the distant view of which was exceedingly beautiful. However, this scene of natural beauty was deformed by the dismal display of human suffering that it presented – helpless creatures being carried by sailors over the rocks on their way to the hospital, boats arriving with patients - some of whom died in their transmission from their ships. Another, and still more awful sight, was a continuous line of boats, each carrying its freight of dead to the burial ground and forming an endless funeral procession.” Ibid p. 248

Artifact 4 ›

About 30% of the starving Irish fleeing the famine were Protestant. Among these were John and Mary Willis and their five children. From Limerick in the west of Ireland they sailed on the Jesse, but one son was sick and had to be left behind. In the 56-day journey across the Atlantic, 26 passengers died in horrible conditions, including their 18-year-old son and their 10-year-old daughter, Martha. They were quarantined in Grosse Ile for thirteen days where Mary Ann Willis, the 17-year-old daughter died. The three remaining members were released to sail to Québec before travelling inland to Toronto. But the tragedy is not over. Both Mary’s husband and her remaining son would die of fever in Brantford, Ontario. Mary was alone and we know she stayed with a local family. There the historical record ends.

A photo of a metal plaque in a rock commemorating the Irish famine. The words “Famine” by Rowan Gillespie, dated 29th May 1997 are inscribed along with a quotation not completely shown in the photo. enlarge image
Memorial plaque to victims of the potato famine in Ireland

Credit: Bryan Wright

Metal statues of emaciated sufferers from the Irish famine are affixed to the boardwalk beside a river. enlarge image
Memorial sculpture to victims of the Irish Potato Famine - Dublin, Ireland

Credit: Bryan Wright

Between May and October of 1847, over 38,000 Irish Famine emigrants arrived from Ireland at a time when the city's population was just 20,000 people. The Toronto Waterfront witnessed one of the greatest human tragedies in the history of the city. Yet unlike later decades there was little anti-Catholic resistance as this largely Protestant city, led by its Catholic community, did what it could for the refugees.

Action 2  

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Was it a genocide?

Some have called the Irish Potato Famine a form of genocide. Conduct a research project to determine the extent that is true. Be sure to look at Unit 2 on genocide in Voices into Action.

Action 3  

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Take a look

White Pine Pictures produced in its Scattering of Seeds series, The Force of Hope: The Legacy of Father McGauran. This looks at Grosse Isle.

In the Historica Canada Heritage Minutes, series one features the plight of Catholic orphans from the Irish Famine, adopted by families in Québec.

Recent Immigration in the 21st Century

In the early years of this century much of the world experienced an economic boom. Some countries such as Greece, Italy, Iceland, Ireland, and the United States overestimated their economic health. From 2008 to 2013 they suffered from perhaps the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment, especially among young people, soared. Ireland was one of the more damaged economies. As a result many young Irish men and women have looked elsewhere for work opportunities.

Source: The first article is excerpted from the Toronto Star, Saturday, April 7, 2012.

Ian Matthews has spent recent weeks waving goodbye to his friends. Over the past month or so, he’s been to seventeen going-away gatherings.

“It’s such sad news for our country,” he said. “In Ireland, you can just meet someone and tell them your life story and they’ll actually remember it. It’s a special thing. We Irish are like no one else in the world that way and it’s sad we have to move abroad for work.”

A 29-year-old trained chef, Matthews is poised to join the exodus and say goodbye to his family in Swords, a small bedroom community on the outskirts of Dublin. He’s moving to New Zealand to work for a restaurant that has promised to pay him $40,000 a year. “I can’t even make enough in Ireland to help out my mother who raised me, and that’s a shame,” he said on a recent evening, pacing a local soccer field where he spent much of his youth.

Matthews and his friends are part of the biggest wave of emigration Ireland has seen in decades.

During the twelve months ending April 2011, 76,400 Irish left the country, according to Ireland’s Central Statistics office. For comparison’s sake, that would almost be as if 1 million Canadians picked up and left Canada. The mass departure, which some now estimate has reached 2,000 per week, may eventually rival Ireland’s historic and scarring 19th-century migration, when a potato famine forced more than 1 million to forge across the Atlantic. “We are losing our young, our best and brightest,” said David Monahan, 48, a Dublin artist whose latest project features dozens of portraits of Irish, days before they leave the country. “It’s affecting our future economy, but also our sense of community.”

The current shortage of skilled tradespeople in Western Canada is so dire that the B.C. Construction Association is returning to Ireland this month to hire 600 people, said the group’s vice-president.

Current photo of a young Irish man stands peering beyond the camera, with Vancouver in the background. enlarge image
Carpenter Daniel O’Sullivan who immigrated to Vancouver, Canada from Galway Ireland in 2009

Credit: The Canadian Press
Photo: Darryl Dyck


Carpenter Daniel O’Sullivan, of Galway, Ireland, came to Canada in 2009 and now works in Vancouver.

In fact, even if one-in-five students graduating from high school in B.C. during 2013-2016 were to pursue a trade, there still wouldn’t be enough workers to fill shortages in the province’s construction industry, said Abigail Fulton.

Not everybody agrees with the recruitment drive, especially the province’s labour leaders who argue employers can find skilled, unionized Canadian workers to fill immediate, vacant positions.

Yet, a consensus is developing that there will be a shortage of skilled workers in the coming decade, as proponents of the liquefied natural gas industry, hydroelectric projects and oil and gas pipelines push their proposals forward.

“There’s lots of evidence to suggest we’re not doing enough to train construction workers in skilled trades in British Columbia, and if even half these projects come through we’re going to have a crisis unless we start now to deal with the problem,” said Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour.

The provincial government’s own statistics indicate there will be more than one million job openings over the next decade, and more than 153,000 of those will be among trades, transport, equipment operators and related occupations. Retirements will be responsible for two thirds of the vacancies, and new economic growth will be behind the remaining third, states the British Columbia Labour Market Outlook 2010-2020.

In the B.C. construction industry, about 30,500 jobs were expected to go unfilled by 2012, according to the association’s own statistics.

To address some of the problem, the association is organizing and hosting the Western Canada Construction Job Expo October 31, 2012, in Belfast and November 2 in Dublin, where it will represent about 30 employers, half of them from B.C., said Fulton.

Wanted will be workers in more than 50 construction trades, from bricklayers to framing carpenters, power-line technicians to welders. Even architects and structural engineers are in demand.

The trip won’t be the first for the association, which made its first visit in March 2012. Fulton said the association learned the Irish apprenticeship system was one of the best, and skilled tradespeople would be able to transition to Canada and earn their Red Seal, an interprovincial standard of excellence in the trades. She said the association also learned there was an abundance of tradespeople.

The Irish economy crashed in 2008 and still hasn’t recovered, and last year’s job expo drew 20,000 people, she said, adding unemployed tradespeople lined up outside the job fair, down the street and around the corner for as long as two days. “Listen, these folks are over there, we know their apprenticeship system is excellent, they’re looking for work and we need workers,” she said. But the province’s labour leaders aren’t as excited as Fulton about the expo. “There are British Columbians and Canadians that probably could do those jobs,” said Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council. He said skilled, unionized workers are available, but some companies don’t want to hire union workers, so they turn to other sources. Sinclair also questioned why businesses are turning to the Irish who he alleged are ending up as indentured workers, especially if they are coming to Canada on temporary visas. “A guy . . . who owns a business, a construction business, said to me, ‘I like Irish workers because they have to work for me for two years and can’t quit.’ Daniel O’Sullivan, twenty-seven, who came to Canada from Galway about four years ago and now lives and works in Vancouver as a carpenter, agrees, saying he began his apprenticeship at the age of sixteen or seventeen and was fully qualified and was earning good money by the age of 20, but then the economy collapsed. When he left, out of his group of 20 friends who worked in the trades, only two had jobs, so some came to Canada and others left for Australia. “Back home a trade, when I was younger, was a first option, and here it seems it’s the last option, for young guys, in my trade. I can only speak for my trade,” he said. He said he likes the Canadians he works with and said they’re good at what they do but construction in B.C. is seen as being at the “bottom of the barrel in line of careers,” noting there’s more emphasis on going to university or college.

Source: The Toronto Star, Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Action 4  

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Stop and think

How would you feel if unemployment was so high in your home country that you had to leave your family and friends to seek work in a foreign place?

How will you treat new immigrants to Canada who you meet at school, on a team or in the workplace? Will you welcome new foreign students and invite them to join you and your friends for lunch or coffee?