ATLANTIC CANADA'S IRISH IMMIGRANTS

Partridge Island and the Harbour of Saint John, 1844.

Immigrants bound for Saint John landed at this Island.

 

Irish immigration is often presented as a tragic epic in which victims of famine were forced to flee their homeland. The truth is otherwise. It is a tale of how hope and hard work gave Atlantic Canada its stalwart Irish population.

 

Most of the Irish left of their own free will and financed their sea crossings themselves. While there was some compulsion during the Great Irish Famine of the mid 1840s, the main driving force was economic self-betterment. Far from being powerless victims, most Irish planned their departure carefully and were highly knowledgeable on the economic advantages which Canada offered. Here is a summary of some of the key points: 

 

  • Each of the four Atlantic Provinces has its own individual story. The fishing trade with Britain attracted the Irish to Newfoundland from the eighteenth century, while the timber trade brought the main immigrant stream to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island a century later.

 

A load of logs being drawn by a team of horses

in York County, New Brunswick

 

 

 

  • The Great Irish Famine in the 1840s represented the tail-end of the Irish immigration saga. The Irish had been coming to Atlantic Canada for some 100 years by this stage. In other words, most of Atlantic Canada’s Irish arrived before the Famine struck.

  • The Irish should not be mourned as victims. They took the logical response of people who were caught up in dire economic circumstances. They emigrated to achieve a better standard of living and to be part of a more egalitarian society. Far from being a great tragedy full of pitiful victims, this saga is about thrusting, brave and well-organized people who grabbed their opportunities in Canada to the benefit of it and themselves.

  • The Irish were Canada’s principal colonizers. By the late 1850s they were the largest immigrant group in both Newfoundland and New Brunswick and equalled the Scots in Prince Edward Island. Only in Nova Scotia, where they were eclipsed by the earlier Scottish takeover of much of the province, were the Irish in a minority.

 

St. Patrick's Day Parade, Halifax, NS, 1919.

Attracting a very large crowd, the parade was

lef by three beautiful white horses which wore

green saddles as well as green ribbon streamers.

 

 

 

  • The main Irish influx to the Atlantic region began with the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, when Britain and Ireland were plunged into a deep economic and agricultural depression. Irrespective of the type of employment they sought, the shortage of labour in the Atlantic region worked to their advantage, since they could command much higher wage rates than was possible in Ireland.

  • The early take-up of much of Nova Scotia's good agricultural land by Loyalists during the late eighteenth century meant that it attracted relatively few Irish immigrants who mainly arrived after 1820. And as better transport systems developed, the Maritime Provinces faced increasing competition from Upper Canada's much better land, and few of them came to Atlantic Canada after the mid 19th century.

  • There were plenty of stumbling blocks and they were not always made to feel welcome, but the Irish were outstandingly successful pioneers. And that success greatly benefited the development of Atlantic Canada.