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Emerald Threads in the Maple Leaf: Tracing the Canadian Tapestry of Irish Heritage

As St. Patrick's Day approaches, I've decided to revisit a classic post, this time shining a spotlight on the Canadian influence of Irish heritage and its profound impact on shaping Canada. Unlike the previous global perspective, this revamp will delve into the specific contributions and traditions that have made St. Patrick's Day uniquely Canadian. St. Patrick's Day, observed annually on March 17th, holds a special place in the hearts of the Irish, who have celebrated it as a religious holiday for more than a millennium. Rooted in tradition, Irish families have historically marked this day during the Christian season of Lent. Traditionally, the morning is dedicated to attending church, followed by joyful celebrations in the afternoon. During St. Patrick's Day, Lenten prohibitions against meat consumption were temporarily lifted, allowing people to revel in the festivities with dance, drink, and feasting. This vibrant celebration not only honored the religious significance of the day but also embraced the spirit of community and joy.

Now, let's shift our focus to the Canadian dimension of Irish influence. The Irish migration to Canada has played a pivotal role in shaping the cultural fabric of the nation. Irish immigrants brought with them a rich tapestry of traditions, contributing to the diverse mosaic that is modern-day Canada. As we celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Canada, we witness a fusion of Irish and Canadian customs. Parades, lively gatherings, and the donning of green attire are just a few manifestations of this harmonious blend. Beyond the festivities, Irish contributions to Canadian literature, music, and politics have left an indelible mark.

In the true spirit of St. Patrick's Day, let's not only revel in the festivities but also take a moment to appreciate the enduring legacy of Irish influence on Canadian culture. May this celebration serve as a reminder of the interconnectedness of traditions and the vibrant mosaic that defines the Canadian identity.


Who Was St Patrick?

According to Catholic accounts, Maewyn Succat was purportedly sold into slavery in Ireland in the 4th century. Originally a non-observant Christian, he found solace in prayer during his captivity. Upon escaping, he adopted the name Patricius and believed it was his divine calling to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. One of the captivating legends associated with Saint Patrick recounts how he explained the concept of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to the Irish King and drove the snakes out of Ireland. The latter, often interpreted as a metaphor for converting pagans, is a well-known legend. In this story, Patrick reportedly used the three leaves of a native Irish clover, the shamrock, as a simple yet profound visual aid. While Patricius was never formally canonized, he is widely recognized as the patron saint of Ireland. In the 17th century, the Catholic Church officially acknowledged his feast day on March 17th, believed to be the date of his death in 461. Saint Patrick's Day has since become a prominent celebration, honoring the legacy of the man who played a significant role in bringing Christianity to Ireland.


The Irish in Canada

The Irish have significantly shaped the historical narrative of Canada, leaving a lasting imprint from their initial settlements in Newfoundland to subsequent waves of migration in the 19th century and beyond. Throughout Canada's history, the Irish presence has been constant and influential. Irish Canadians have made substantial contributions to both the societal and economic facets of Canada. Their enduring impact is evident in various sectors, highlighting their role in shaping the diverse and dynamic Canadian landscape. As integral members of Canadian society, Irish Canadians continue to contribute to the nation's identity, and their unique cultural heritage is actively expressed and celebrated. The Irish Canadian identity remains a vibrant thread woven into the rich tapestry of Canada's multicultural fabric, adding depth and diversity to the broader Canadian experience.

Map of Upper and Lower Canada
Map of Upper and Lower Canada; 1791-1841

Although claims of Irish explorers predating the Norse in Canada lack substantial supporting evidence, there is no need for such wishful thinking to underscore the meaningful contribution of the Irish to Canada. Dating back to the 17th century, the political and military ties between France and southern Ireland have fostered a longstanding Irish presence in what is now Canada. In the era of New France, it is estimated that the Irish constituted up to 5% of the population, leaving an indelible mark on the region. Notably, some surnames associated with "French Canadian" and "Acadian" roots can be traced back to Irish origins. Examples include the transformation of Reilly to Riel, O'Sullivan to Sylvain, and Casey to Caissie. The Irish influence in Newfoundland dates back to the early 18th century, if not earlier. Regular stops by "Bristol" fishing vessels in Wexford and Waterford for provisions and recruitment of Irish crews and laborers for the Newfoundland fishery further solidified the Irish presence.

Evidence from New France and Newfoundland suggests the existence of a collective Irish consciousness, particularly notable in Newfoundland, where the Irish population continued to grow until the mid-19th century. As the 18th century unfolded, smaller groups of Irish migrants found their way to the new British colonies. In the 1760s, Ulster Presbyterians established a settlement in Truro, Nova Scotia, and an unspecified number of Irish individuals were part of the Loyalist migration. This intricate web of historical movements and settlements highlights the multifaceted and enduring contribution of the Irish to the evolving tapestry of Canadian history.

The previously mentioned historical events paved the way for the significant waves of Irish immigrants that characterized the first half of the 19th century. By the 1850s, British North America had welcomed over 500,000 Irish immigrants, although a substantial number eventually migrated to the United States, where the Irish community burgeoned to 4 million within a total population of 24 million. In the present day, the descendants of these Irish immigrants constitute nearly 13% of the Canadian population, amounting to roughly 4 million Canadians as per the 2021 census. Their enduring presence has played a crucial role in shaping and contributing to the essence of "Canadian." Given their proficiency in English, the Irish immigrants were able to more actively engage in Canadian society compared to their non-English-speaking counterparts. Their arrival also brought forth a set of values, rooted in Irish heritage, which have significantly influenced and enriched various aspects of Canadian life. Today, the impact of these Irish immigrants resonates in the cultural mosaic that defines modern Canada

Nellie McClung
Nellie Letitia McClung, née Mooney, suffragist, reformer, legislator, author (born 20 October 1873 in Chatsworth, ON; died 1 September 1951 in Victoria, BC). Nellie McClung was a women’s rights activist, legislator and author who is perhaps best known for her involvement in the Persons Case.

The Irish influence has left an indelible mark on various facets of Canadian life, notably in the realm of politics. A roster of prominent Irish figures has significantly shaped Canadian politics, featuring individuals such as William Warren Baldwin, Edward Blake, Sir Guy Carleton, Benjamin Cronyn, Sir Francis Hincks, John Joseph Lynch, D'Alton McCarthy, Thomas D'Arcy McGee, Sir John Thompson, Daniel Johnson Sr, and Brian Mulroney. Beyond politics, Irish Canadians have made notable contributions in diverse fields. Businessman Timothy Eaton, suffragist Nellie McClung (nee Mooney), writer Morley Callaghan, comedians Catherine O'Hara and Mary Walsh, businessman Eugene O'Keefe, and singer-composer Stompin' Tom Connors are among the influential figures who have left their mark on Canadian society. These individuals, hailing from Irish roots, have played pivotal roles in shaping the cultural, political, and artistic landscape of Canada. Their legacies continue to resonate, underscoring the enduring impact of the Irish mind on the vibrant tapestry of Canadian life.


Migration and Settlement in Canada

Province of Canada; 1841-1867
Province of Canada; 1841-1867: In 1841, Britain combined the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada into a single colony called the Province of Canada. The colony had two regions: Canada West (formerly Upper Canada), and Canada East (formerly Lower Canada).

The migration patterns of the 17th and 18th centuries had limited lasting effects on Canada, except for Newfoundland, where many Irish individuals worked as fishermen, facing the challenging poverty they had hoped to escape through their journey to the New World. Newfoundland earned a distinctive name in the Irish language, "Talamh an Éisc" (translated as "land of fish"), a unique designation in the New World. In the 19th century, the escalating population and economic hardships in Ireland compelled a growing wave of Irish emigration, particularly after 1815. Concurrently, the expanding economy of the mainland colonies in British North America presented more promising prospects for immigrants. Initially settling in the Maritimes, many early Irish migrants moved further inland as their financial circumstances allowed. By the 1830s, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Upper Canada, and Lower Canada boasted significant Irish populations.

In contrast to the Scots or English, the Irish tended to concentrate in port cities like Halifax and Saint John. Halifax, in particular, developed a substantial and permanent Irish population by the mid-19th century. They played a crucial role as affordable labor in urban centers and contributed to numerous public construction projects, including the Rideau and Lachine canals. Even in rural areas, many Irish immigrants chose employment over, or in addition to, establishing farms. Regions such as Cumberland County in Nova Scotia, Kings, Queens, Carleton, and Northumberland counties in New Brunswick, Queens in Prince Edward Island, and a vast expanse of Upper Canada east of Toronto and north of the older Loyalist settlements prominently reflected an Irish composition during this period.

 Grosse Île
Grosse Île circa 1900-1905

The devastating Great Famine in the late 1840s forced 1.5 to 3 million impoverished Irish to flee their homeland, with hundreds of thousands seeking refuge in British North America. These immigrants, arriving in significant numbers and often in poor health, overwhelmed the quarantine facilities established to curb the spread of disease. Grosse Île, a station established across from Quebec City, bore witness to profound losses during this period. In 1909, the impact of this tragedy was commemorated with the installation of a large Celtic cross on Grosse Île, honoring the over 5,000 victims buried on the island and the additional 5,000 buried at sea. This wave of migration was so monumental that 1847 is mistakenly remembered as the time "when the Irish came." The famine migration, spanning from 1847 to 1852, signifies the final significant movement of the Irish to Canada. Famine immigrants often settled in towns and cities, and by 1871, the Irish had become the largest ethnic group in every major town and city in Canada, except for Montreal and Quebec City. This demographic shift underscored the lasting impact of the Great Famine on Irish immigration and its influence on shaping the urban landscape of Canada during that era.

The "Famine Irish," who provided inexpensive labor crucial for the economic expansion of the 1850s and 1860s, faced a challenging reception in Canada. Struggling with poverty, they were often resented by the dominant society for the urban and rural squalor forced upon them. Despite these hardships, the Famine Irish shared a common characteristic: a strong inclination to immigrate to the United States. Many initially arrived at Canadian ports due to more affordable passage, some promptly relocating south, while others worked in Canada before eventually heading to the U.S. By the 1860s, thousands had departed for the United States, establishing a migration tradition that persisted well into the 20th century.

As a result, current "Irish" districts and communities in Canada often trace their origins to periods preceding the Famine. Ontario boasts the largest population of Irish Canadians, with 1,999,985 individuals (14.2% of the population) of Irish ancestry, followed by British Columbia (627,920 or 12.7%) and Alberta (561,910 or 13.4%). In terms of percentage, Prince Edward Island (27.81%) has the highest concentration of Irish ancestry, trailed by Newfoundland and Labrador (24.32%) and Nova Scotia (20.47%). While by the 20th century, Winnipeg and select rural districts in Manitoba harbored significant Irish communities, the impact of the Irish in the West was not as pronounced as in the East. The historical patterns of Irish settlement and migration have left a lasting imprint on the demographic landscape of Canada, particularly in regions with established Irish communities.

List of provinces by Irish ancestry population

Social and Cultural Life

A prominent characteristic of the Irish, both in Ireland and Canada, lies in their division into two distinct groups based on faith – Roman Catholic and Protestant. This division is often considered so foundational that these groups are treated as separate ethnic entities. While it is a common practice to categorize Irish individuals as either Catholic or Protestant, it's important to note that religion, though a convenient identifier, is just one element within a complex set of affiliations. Catholics see themselves as representing the original inhabitants of Ireland, while Protestants are often associated with the Scots and English colonists who arrived in Ireland, particularly during various periods after 1196, with a significant influx during the Tudor era. It's essential to avoid overgeneralizing about Protestant Irish, as they are a diverse group that includes members of the Church of Ireland (Anglican), Presbyterians, and Methodists. Up until the 1830s, the majority of Irish immigrants who moved to British North America were Protestant. In the United States, Irish Protestants differentiated themselves from their Catholic counterparts by adopting the term "Scotch Irish," a descriptor used less frequently in Canada. This division based on faith has played a significant role in shaping the identity and cultural dynamics of the Irish community, both in Ireland and its diaspora, including Canada.

Due to social and political disadvantages in Ireland, Catholic immigrants arrived in Canada with few advantages, relying mainly on their familiarity with the English language and British institutions. Consequently, they found themselves starting lower on the economic and social ladder compared to other British groups. Despite these challenges, the Catholic Irish brought with them a robust connection to the Roman Catholic Church, a shared faith with the Highland Scots and French Canadians. This religious institution served as a significant foundation for the Catholic Irish, offering both institutional support and a sense of community to facilitate their integration into Canadian society. In turn, the Catholic Church adapted to the substantial Irish presence, establishing an English-speaking hierarchy that was predominantly Irish in its composition by the early 1900s. This evolution reflected the dynamic relationship between the Catholic Irish community and the church, highlighting the role of faith as a unifying force that contributed to their social and cultural integration in Canadian society.

Grosse Ile celtic Cross
Grosse Île was commemorated in 1909 with the installation of a large Celtic cross, honouring the over 5,000 victims buried on the island, and the over 5,000 buried at sea.

The Protestant Irish, in contrast, generally had more financial resources and found it considerably easier to re-establish themselves as farmers, aided by their earlier arrival in Canada when land was more readily available. They became one of the most agrarian groups in 19th-century Canada. Their Protestant religion, making them more acceptable to the dominant society, afforded them greater mobility in Canadian society compared to their Catholic counterparts. Both groups were rich in cultural traditions but with distinct differences. The Catholic Irish tended to preserve traditions emphasizing their Irish identity, while the Protestants often celebrated their contributions to British civilization. The Great Famine served as a pivotal moment in the Irish experience, and with the rise of Irish nationalism in the 19th century, it began to symbolize the negative impacts of British rule. This sentiment resonated in Canada among those who shared similar views. The erection of a cross at Grosse Isle in 1909 by the Ancient Order of Hibernians marked a crucial political movement. Although Irish nationalism in Canada started to decline, the memory of the Famine persisted. The 150th anniversary in 1997 prompted a new series of commemorations of the Famine, including a new memorial on Grosse Isle. This underscored the enduring significance of the Famine in the Irish Canadian experience and its impact on shaping cultural identity and historical memory.


Social Conservation

The Protestant Irish often emphasized their connection to Britain and their faith as a means of distancing themselves from their Catholic counterparts. The Orange Order, a secretive society with Masonic-style roots, originated in Ireland with the aim of preserving the Protestant faith and supporting British rule, perceived as inseparable. In Canada, the Orange Order played a crucial role as a vehicle for the Protestant Irish to gain acceptance from their Scots and English neighbors. Individual Orange Order lodges were established in the early 19th century across the British North American colonies, with the Grand Lodge of British North America officially consolidated in 1830. Although the Order existed throughout all Canadian provinces, it held particular influence in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. Membership in the Order often served as a pathway to political success. "Orangemen's Day," celebrated on July 12th to commemorate the Protestant/British victory over the Catholics/Irish at the River Boyne in 1690, became a symbolic event for the Order, showcasing their political and social influence. Throughout the 19th century, Orange parades occasionally led to episodes of public violence, notably in Toronto and Montreal. It wasn't until the late 1940s that the Orange Order began to experience a decline in popularity. The historical legacy of the Orange Order underscores the complexities of Irish identity in Canada, shaped by religious affiliations, political dynamics, and cultural divisions.

March of Orangemen
March of Orangemen near Metcalfe, Ontario circa July 12, 1900

Various Irish voluntary associations were established across Canada, offering avenues for the Irish to preserve their culture and identities. Entities like the Benevolent Irish Society of Newfoundland (founded in 1806 and still active) were conceived as non-sectarian organizations meant to cater to all Irish individuals. Others, such as the St. Patrick's Society of Montreal (established in 1834 and still operational), initially operated as non-denominational but eventually became denominational over time. Over the past 150 years, the term "Irish" has taken on a predominantly Catholic connotation. The Catholic Church played a crucial role as the institutional foundation of the Catholic Irish community in Canada, working to gain acceptance for its people. In the early 19th century, the Catholic Church in Canada was predominantly French Canadian. As larger numbers of Irish Catholics settled in British North America, the Church underwent adaptations. This included the recruitment of priests fluent in English and Gaelic, primarily from Ireland, to serve the growing Irish Catholic community. Later in the 19th century, the recruitment efforts expanded to include other religious orders, such as nuns and brothers, to meet the needs of the expanding Irish community. This dynamic reflects the church's commitment to serving and adapting to the evolving Irish Catholic presence in Canada.

Canada's Catholic Church exhibited a conservative character heavily influenced by the Ultramontane movement, marked by the centralization of all aspects of life—secular and religious—under the control or influence of the Church. This influence extended to the establishment of lay voluntary societies in each parish, led by local priests, encompassing literary groups, charities, and labor organizations. Some secular organizations were absorbed and brought under church control. The St. Patrick's Society of Montreal, initially founded as a secular society, underwent a shift towards Catholicism in 1856. This led to the formation of the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society by Protestant members who wished to maintain their distinct interests. The growing English-speaking Catholic community posed a challenge to the French-speaking segment of the Catholic Church, particularly in Quebec. The Church perceived itself as a safeguard against modernism and the English-speaking Protestant majority, emphasizing the retention of French as part of its mission. The emergence of English-speaking Catholics posed a challenge, and while the Church was willing to provide its faithful with Irish priests, it resisted the notion of separate services or parishes for the English-speaking community. This stance reflected the Church's commitment to maintaining unity within the Catholic community, even as it navigated linguistic and cultural complexities in a diverse Canadian landscape.

In the 1860s, Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal made the decision to transform St. Patrick's Church into a canonical bilingual parish, serving a small geographical area around the church. The Irish Catholic community in Montreal, instrumental in building the church in 1847, did not reside in the immediate vicinity of St. Patrick's and felt that they were losing not only their church but also their sense of community. In response, a delegation led by Thomas Ryan (who later became a Senator in 1867) and Thomas D'Arcy McGee traveled to Rome to present their case. Their efforts were successful, securing the recognition of St. Patrick's as an Irish parish within the same boundaries as the parish of Notre Dame. This acknowledgment of "ethnic" churches laid the foundation for the establishment of separate worship spaces for linguistic and cultural groups within the Catholic Church, initially for the Irish and later for other immigrant Catholic communities. This shift marked a significant development in the Church's accommodation of diverse cultural and linguistic identities within its congregations.

Fenian Raid
Fenian Raid, May 1870 - Across the line of Richard's Farm, Showing Battle Field Ground

Expressions of Irish nationalism or sympathy for nationalist causes in Ireland often clashed with Canadian institutions like the Roman Catholic Church and the Canadian government. In contrast to the situation in the United States, where it was possible to align oneself as a proud Irishman, a devout Catholic, and a loyal American, such harmony was more challenging in Canada, where British citizenship persisted for an extended period. Striking a balance between Irish identity in a political sense and being a good citizen proved exceedingly difficult. Given Ireland's complex political landscape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Canada's Irish population often found themselves under suspicion or perceived as disloyal. For instance, the Fenian Brotherhood, advocating for Irish freedom through armed force, gained popularity among Irish communities in the United States. However, in Canada, even though the Fenians were a minority, they were regarded as seditious by the government, deemed dangerous by Protestants, and seen as an embarrassment by the Catholic Church and respectable Catholic Irish. Fenian raids from the United States against British North America exacerbated tensions, leading to demands for loyalty from the church and 'respectable' Catholic Irish. Similarly, the later and less militant Ancient Order of Hibernians also supported Irish nationalism, albeit in a less violent manner. However, it, too, faced disapproval from the Catholic Church. The struggle to navigate Irish identity and political aspirations within the Canadian context reflects the complex dynamics that the Irish community encountered in balancing their heritage with the expectations of Canadian institutions and society.



The Irish have made a lasting impact on Canada's cultural tapestry. While St. Patrick's Day is officially recognized as a public holiday only in Newfoundland (alongside Orangemen's Day), it holds significant cultural importance throughout the country. Montreal has hosted an annual parade since 1824, and Toronto has had one since at least 1863, despite a ban from 1878 to 1988. Various other cities have also organized St. Patrick's Day parades or informal celebrations in honor of Ireland's patron saint. Across the nation, numerous cities boast Irish clubs or associations dedicated to promoting Irish culture and fostering sociability. These organizations contribute to the preservation and celebration of Irish heritage in Canada, further enriching the country's multicultural landscape. St. Patrick's Day and associated events serve as vibrant expressions of the enduring influence of the Irish community on Canadian culture.

St Patrick's Day Parade - Montreal, Quebec
St Patrick's Day Parade - Montreal, Quebec

In conclusion, the Irish Canadians have played a pivotal role in shaping the diverse cultural landscape of Canada. From their early settlements in Newfoundland to the significant waves of immigration in the 19th century, the Irish have left an indelible mark on the country. Despite facing challenges and navigating complex relationships with Canadian institutions, they have contributed significantly to the fabric of Canadian society. St. Patrick's Day, an annual celebration of Irish culture and heritage, has become a global phenomenon. While officially recognized as a public holiday only in Newfoundland, its spirited celebrations resonate across Canada. From the longstanding parades in Montreal and Toronto to the various Irish clubs and associations promoting cultural richness, the Irish influence continues to thrive. The Irish Canadians' journey, marked by resilience, cultural preservation, and contributions to various aspects of Canadian life, exemplifies the profound impact of immigrant communities on the nation's identity. St. Patrick's Day stands as a testament to the enduring connection between the Irish and their cultural roots, transcending geographical boundaries and uniting people in celebration. As we commemorate the Irish legacy in Canada, let us appreciate the vibrant tapestry they have woven into the Canadian mosaic, a story of strength, diversity, and the enduring spirit of St. Patrick's Day.

Snow capped trees, mountain and riverbank with partially frozen river in the middle

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