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Following the financial collapse in Ireland at the close of the first decade of the 21st century, thousands of young Irish people are once more turning to Canada in hope of better days and a more secure future just as so many of their ancestors had done in previous centuries. Canadian historians Cecil Houston & William J. Smyth refer to the previous Irish immigrants as a people who “disappeared” and are “forgotten”!

By the mid-19th century Canada had become one of the main destinations for ‘surplus tenants’ being cleared from rundown, economically redundant estates throughout Ireland. Over 90% of Irish land had been confiscated from the dispossessed Irish during the shameful Elizabethan and Cromwellian plantations of the 16th and 17th centuries and redistributed to English and Scottish adventurers and soldiers of fortune.

The eventual result of these clearances of the land was that by the 19th century most of the landowners were absentees living the high life in England on the profits of their Irish estates while leaving the management of their Irish estates to unscrupulous agents or middlemen.

The so-called ‘surplus tenants’ of these estates were described by Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant Townsend at the close of the 18th century as “amongst the most wretched people on earth”.

By the 1840s, the Irish, who had once owned the land, had been reduced to little more than slaves in the very fields their ancestors had previously owned. The most destitute and desperate Irish peasants  realized that subsidized fares on lumber ships (returning empty to Canada)  from Liverpool together with the promised availability of financial aid to purchase cheap land represented the most likely (if not only) chance to escape oppression and starvation at the hands of their British landlords and  rulers at home in Ireland.

The extent of Irish migration to Canada was not a matter mentioned by the history books I read at school in Ireland which dealt with emigration in this period mainly in the context of migration to America. Consequently, it may surprise some, as indeed it did me, to discover that the number of Irish emigrants to Canada in 1846 and ’47 – the worst years of the so-called ‘Famine’ – outnumbered those to the U.S. by more than three to one: 103,091 to Canada and 31,572 to the U.S.

However, these were not the first Irish to migrate to Canada. It is difficult to say precisely when the Irish first made their way to what was known by the 18th century as British North America. Although the period in which the Irish had the most visible and recognised effect is certainly the 19th century, they had in fact made their presence felt in Canada long before then.

It is acknowledged by historians that in 1536, fishermen from Cork first worked the waters off Newfoundland and throughout the following centuries, as the number of Irish fishermen working these waters increased, many began to winter-over in the Maritimes and eventually settled there on a permanent basis.

The Canadian Census of 2006, revealed 4,354,000 Canadians of full or partial Irish descent, i.e. approximately 14% of the total population.  Almost half of these (1,988,940) live in the province of Ontario, home to the only Gaeltacht (Irish language speaking area) recognized by the Irish government outside of Ireland! According to the same census, of the remainder:  618,120 of Irish descent live in British Columbia; 539,160 in Alberta and 406,085 in Quebec. Together these four provinces/territories claim over 3.5million of the 4.3 million Irish Canadians accounted for by the 2006 census. To put this in context, the 2011 census in Ireland revealed a total population of 4.5 million people 12% of whom are non-Irish, i.e. more people of Irish descent live in Canada than do in the Republic of Ireland!

The story of Irish migration to Canada is not a joyful one. Like migrants from any nation attempting to resettle in a new host country, the Irish in Canada started at the bottom and gradually worked their way up the ladder at the cost of not just their sweat and blood, but quite often with their very lives! Only the most strenuous, menial and thankless work at the lowest wage was available to the newly-arrived immigrant.

Throughout the 19th century in America and Canada Irish labour built the canals and dams, the bridges and railways, and worked the farmlands and forests. Countless thousands of Irish navvies are believed to have died of cholera and malaria while building the Lachine and Rideau canals and large numbers of Irish worked at building Quebec’s Victoria Bridge near Windmill Point where 6,000 Irish victims of the 1847 typhus epidemic are believed to be buried in unmarked graves.

Many of the orphaned children of these unfortunate Irish, together with orphans of the tragic Irish victims who never made it further into Canada than the doomed quarantine stations such as Grosse Ile, were adopted into French Quebec families. In this way they became culturally and linguistically Quebecois.

Although some of the older orphans insisted on retaining their Irish names, many had their names changed to that of their new guardians or to what was perceived as a French equivalent, e.g. Riley to Riel, Casey to Caissie, etc. Of the Irish who survived Grosse Ile, boatloads of sick – many terminally ill and/or carrying contagious diseases – were dumped at Quebec and Bytown (later Ottawa) and at port settlements on Lake Ontario inc. Toronto and Kingston.

In these fast-growing settlements they established Irish communities in shantytown or ‘ghetto’ areas known variously throughout Canada and the U.S.A. as Little Irelands, Cabbage Towns and Shamrock Cities. The best known of these was Montreal’s Griffintown, named after a Kerry couple who first leased the land on which the settlement was built. According to author S.D. Driedger in An Irish Heart, in Griffintown “between 1815 and 1847, at least a quarter of a million Irish emigrants had trod its streets, shaking off the sorrows of Ireland as they made their way west, while thousands of unfortunates, struck down by cholera and typhus, had breathed their last in its fever sheds…  (Griffintown) would become the mythical heart of the Irish of Montreal and, some would say, of Canada… The Griffintown Irish would retain an ardour for Ireland that became renowned across North America… They also helped forment one of the country’s most violent strikes and some of its wildest elections, shaping, through their solidarity, the future of Canada”.

Many of these Irish – whether because of adoption by French families, or through name changes, or being classified as ‘British’ – became what Houston & Smith refer to as a people who “disappeared”, are “unknown” and “forgotten”! However, as revisionist historians re-examine the statistics and often biased historical accounts of previous centuries, the importance of the Irish in the growth of the Canadian nation has taken on a far greater significance than previously realized.

Saskatchewan newspaperman and author, N. F. Davin, emphasised in his book The Irishman In Canada, the importance of  the “part the Irishman has played in clearing the forest, in building up the structure of our civic life, in defending the country, in battling for our liberties, in developing our resources, in spreading enlightenment, in the culture of literature and art”.

The cultural influence is most certainly evident in the combination of French, Scottish and Irish traditions which makes up much of the best Quebecois music. According to Reiner & Anick in Fiddling Across America, the affinity between Anglo-Celtic (especially Irish fiddle and Scottish dance styles) and French fiddle music dates back to the 17th century.

The Irish influence has been acknowledged by and can be heard in the early recordings of the finest Quebecois music from the “Queen Of Canadian Folk Singers”, Madame La Bolduk (Mary Rose-Anna Travers), through the renowned fiddlers Joseph Allard and Jean “Ti-Jan” Carignan to the best Quebecois music of today as played by my buddies in La Bottine Souriante and Genticorum.

The music carried by the banished Acadians in La Grand Derangement which saw thousands of French speaking people deported by the British from the Maritimes to Louisiana and coastal stop-offs in between in the 1760s in hope of neutralizing the possible threat of Acadian military action in the Seven Year’s War (a.k.a. the French and Indian War). The word Acadia, itself an abbreviation of Arcadia – a name from Greek mythology given by a French explorer in the 17th century to the entire American Atlantic coastline north of Virginia –  was further abbreviated and colloquialized to “Cajun” by the Acadians who ended up in Louisiana. The Cajun culture which developed since then in S.W. Louisiana also acknowledges their centuries-old Irish influences. Hey, but that’s another story for another day.

To appreciate the background to the songs which illustrate my tales of Irish emigration to Canada, it is necessary to examine some of the history of Ireland at the time, the extremely difficult conditions of their migration by way of Cork via Liverpool across the Atlantic, and their gradual integration with and acceptance by the other peoples of Canada.

In placing these stories of Irish migration to Canada I am reminded of historian Donald Akenson’s statement in his book The Irish In Ontario: A Rural History that “much of what we view as Irish history is a local subset of a much larger, general pattern, and that this is as true in emigration history as in any other area. In particular, Irish migration patterns from roughly 1600, which, for want of a better term is often called ‘the expansion of Europe’ “.

Credit: Ron Kavana, http://www.aliasronkavana.com/#!forgotten-people/crv