Ireland and Canada enjoy a long history of friendship, with approximately 4.5 million citizens claiming to have Irish ancestry, writes Gerry Breen, as the country prepares to celebrate a very different ‘Canada Day’ on July 1st.
Canada Day falls on 1st July and it is the day when celebrations take place throughout the country, as well as in various locations around the world attended by Canadians living abroad. It marks the anniversary of the act that came into effect on 1st July, 1867, creating the country of Canada and bringing its initial four provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia into a confederation.
This year the celebrations may be muted because of the coronavirus, but whatever form they take, Irish people deserve to share in them for a number of reasons.
It was an Irishman born in Co. Louth who is recognised and revered as the Father of Confederation. He was Thomas D’Arcy McGee, who had a remarkable life as a journalist, poet and politician.
There is also a long history of Irish emigration to Canada and approximately 4.5 million Canadians claim to have Irish ancestors, which represents about fourteen per cent of the population of the country.
The first Irish settlers to arrive in Canada came in the 17th century when the French brought with them Irish soldiers.
In the 18th century, Irish fisherman used to sail to Newfoundland and Labrador to fish off the coasts and many settled in the province. By 1850, more than 500,000 Irish people arrived in Canada. However, many of them continued onwards to the United States.
Between 1750 and 1830, and particularly between 1793 and 1815, large numbers of Irish people, including many Irish speakers, emigrated to Newfoundland, which was known colloquially simply as an tOileán ‘the Island’. There is an account dating from 1776 which describes how seasonal workers from Cork, Kerry, and elsewhere would go to Waterford to take passage to Newfoundland, carrying with them all they needed. By 1815 it is reckoned that the Irish in Newfoundland numbered more than 19,000.
Many people have described St. John’s, the provincial capital, as one of the most Irish places in the world outside of Ireland itself. As early as 1731, it was reported that the majority of the male population in Newfoundland were Irish.
In 1806, The Benevolent Irish Society was founded as a philanthropic organisation in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Membership was open to adult residents of Newfoundland who were of Irish birth, regardless of their religion.
Of course, Irish emigration was not confined to Newfoundland, and it is not surprising that there was a St. Patrick’s Society in Montreal which started the tradition of a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in that city in 1824.
The Irish language was once widely spoken on the island of Newfoundland before largely disappearing there by the early 20th century. The language was introduced through mass immigration by Irish speakers, chiefly from counties Waterford, Tipperary and Cork, and Newfoundland subsequently became the only place to have a distinct Irish-language name outside Europe: Talamh an Éisc (Land of the Fish).
The Irish spoken in Newfoundland was said to resemble the dialect spoken in Munster in the eighteenth century. The Irish presence in Canada was so strong that at one time there was an attempt to make Gaelic the country’s third official language.