Working towards Irish Unity




The meaning of Irishness: a letter from the diaspora

Gabriel McCaffrey (@gabefin) is an Irish immigrant in Canada. He wrote a dispatch for us in the run up to St. Patrick’s day 2024.

As we approach St. Patrick’s Day, and living in Canada, I wanted to share some thoughts on the Diaspora community here and how it experience’s the reality of life as Irish in Canada. To put a context around this community’s identity and involvement with Ireland today, a little history is essential.

The history of the Irish in Canada is multi-faceted. It includes those who arrived in the aftermath of An Gorta Mor, oftentimes described as a famine. Of course, famine usually happens in a society where due to war, pestilence or climate catastrophes, there is a sudden and sustained lack of food. As we know there was no lack of food in the Ireland of 1845-49, just a political decision to remove food during a single crop failure.

In any event, the largest number of Irish people arrived via the quarantine station of Grosse Île in the St Lawrence River, near Montmagny, outside Quebec City. There is today, a beautiful Celtic Cross monument on the island, dedicated to the memory of the thousands of Irish who sailed across the ocean, only to die of Typhoid and other diseases there. The statistics tell the cruel story. In the worst years from 1845-1848, over 5,000 Irish died in quarantine there.

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Immigrants’ nationality


The data for this period does not separate the English, Irish and Scottish arriving in Québec. Only the ports where they boarded is known. Between 1829 and 1851, 696 129 immigrants arrived in Québec. Of these:

  • 191 820 (27.5%) were from English ports
  • 407 818 (58.5%) were from Irish ports
  • 75 102 (10.8%) were from Scottish ports
  • 21 389 ( 3.2%) were from elsewhere in the world

It can safely be asserted that at least 60% of immigrants coming from the British and Irish Isles between 1829 and 1851 were Irish. As many traversed via Liverpool and other British ports, the number of Irish immigrants was higher.

Anyone from Ireland who is conscious of this history, who comes to live in or to visit Canada should feel moved to travel to Quebec City and take a river taxi from Montmagny to Gross ÎÎe to see the monument, to learn the history and spend a few moments in silence at the “Wall of the names of the dead”. I found several names of my clan and that of my wife. See this link for the full list of names.

Because of the high numbers of children left orphaned, many Quebec families of French ancestry adopted these orphans, raised them, and let them keep their names. Hence today we have many French speaking Quebecois who are very conscious of their Irish ancestry and who participate in annual events around St Patrick’s Day. Some famous Quebeckers with strong Irish backgrounds include former Prime Minister Brian Mulrooney, former Premier of Quebec Province, Jean Charest, and many others.

Canadians of Irish Background

Since, the mid 1800’s the Irish have continued to arrive in Canada. There were periodic settlements, before and after the famine as well, sponsored by rich landowners in Ireland, for the main purpose of clearing out their landholdings, for the more profitable raising of livestock and creating wealth through larger farming operations.

One of these was the Peterborough settlement in Ontario. In an effort to alleviate poverty and unemployment in Ireland, the British government in 1825 sponsored a settlement of Irish emigrants in the Newcastle District of Upper Canada. Peter Robinson (Not the DUP leader of 2008-15), later that province’s Commissioner of Crown Lands, was appointed superintendent and in May, 2,024 persons sailed from Cork. 

A few settled elsewhere and disease thinned their numbers, but by September the remainder were gathered in temporary shelters on the site of Peterborough. Under Robinson’s supervision, free rations were distributed until November 1826, cabins erected, and 1,878 settlers successfully established on land in the Peterborough region.

It should be noted, for historical accuracy, that none of these people were arriving in lands empty of people. There were Indigenous people there before any European settlers arrived, and they were displaced with a combination of terror, ruthlessness, disease, and British law (so that made it legal?).

The Irish continued to immigrate to Canada, with notable peaks in the late 80s (my personal experience) driven by the economic downturn that occurred before the booming Celtic Tiger economy in the South of Ireland in the mid 90s. to the late 2000s, followed once more by a bust. Today, once again, and for the past several years, there is a new influx of younger people who cannot find or afford housing in Ireland, and they are being displaced across the world in search of better social and economic opportunities. Canada gains their enthusiasm, their skills and education, their commitment and drive. Ireland has lost this cohort, and they may never return.

It is also worth noting, for political assessments of the Irish in Canada, that Canada was a loyal member of the British Empire and of their wholly misnamed Commonwealth. As such it has monuments and tributes throughout society to British history, wars, Kings, Queens and associated obsequious people, who like dressing up and putting fancy titles and letters after their names. As such it was an extremely attractive option as a life destination, at one time, for certain people from the North of Ireland who brought with them, their culture of parading, sectarian violence, and racism. Thankfully, the Orange Lodge in Canada is almost an amusing footnote of history today, but at one time, especially in Ontario (Toronto in particular) they were powerfully socially and politically.

The Grand Orange Lodge of British America was established in Toronto in 1830, and it expanded steadily so that there were over twenty lodges in 1860, 31 in 1880, and 56 by 1895. At the turn of the century Toronto was nicknamed “The Belfast of Canada”. Historian Hereward Senior has noted that the Orange Order’s political ideal was expressed in the word “ascendancy.” “This meant, in effect, control of the volunteer militia, of much of the machinery of local government, and substantial influence with the Dublin administration. It meant the ability to exert pressure on magistrates and juries, which gave Orangemen a degree of immunity from the law. Their means of securing ascendancy had been the Orange lodges which provided links between Irish Protestants of all classes. This ascendancy often meant political power for Protestant gentlemen and a special status for Protestant peasants.” In the context of Toronto, such ascendancy was sought through the Corporation (as the administration of the city of Toronto was known). By 1844, six of Toronto’s ten aldermen were Orangemen, and over the rest of the nineteenth century twenty of twenty-three mayors would be as well. 

“Ascendancy,” or control of this legal and political machinery, gave the Orange Order a monopoly on the use of “legitimate” violence. Between 1839 and 1866, the Orange Order was involved in twenty-nine riots in Toronto, of which sixteen had direct political inspiration. Several Canadian Prime Ministers were Orangemen including Sir John A MacDonald and John Diefenbaker. John A MacDonald played a corrupt role at the trial of a Patrick J Whelan, a Fenian sympathiser, who was (improperly according to many) convicted of the assassination of D’Arcy McGee in April 1868.

This Orange presence is critical to understand the circumstances in which Irish nationalists or people from a non-Orange background found themselves when they arrived here. This made Canada a vastly distinct experience from settling in the USA, a place where they had actually rebelled against the crown, fought a war of independence, and had a natural tolerance, even an enthusiasm for Irish republican struggle for freedom.

That’s a synopsis of the historical context.

In Canada today, Irish Canadians, along with the Irish Diaspora globally, there are people striving to promote the campaign for Irish Unity, via a Border Poll as envisioned and tantalisingly promised under the Good Friday Agreement. Towards that end there are various Irish Canadians actively working to educate our own ethnic community, the local Canadian politicians, and the wider society. Some very satisfying results have occurred. For example in the Canadian parliament last months (March 2024) a government party MP, Chandra Arya, put on record his support for the idea of Irish Unity, upon the occasion of the accession to the office of First Minister by Michelle O’Neill.

Much work has yet to be done, and the particular history of Canada and of the Irish in Canada, makes this a more challenging task for those of us engaged, than in our neighbouring American Republic to the south. But although the work can be, at times, difficult, the rewards are coming.

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An Irish emigrant, who left Ireland in the 1980s during the significant exodus triggered by the economic and political instability that was caused by the policy failures and corruption of the governments of Haughey and Fitzgerald. 

He settled in Canada, becoming an executive in the software industry. He remained concerned with the future of Ireland and actively campaigns in the Irish Diaspora for the end of partition via a border poll, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.