From 1825 to 1845 nearly half a million Irish immigrants came to British North America, many of whom were escaping the plight of mono-crop failures as tenant potato farmers. In 1845, a new strain of potato blight spread through Ireland, and in three years nearly 800,000 people were dead.
An officer wrote to London Times reporting the grisly details of the brutal conditions found in Ireland,
From 1845 to 1850 another 300,000 Irish refugees arrived in British North America. When the first few "coffin ships" arrived, great pity was expressed by British North Americans towards the suffering of the Irish, yet these sentiments were quickly replaced by fears of the effects of great numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants on colonial society.
Fever, [dystentry], and starvation stare you in the face every-where - children of ten and nine years old I have mistaken for decrepit old women, their faces wrinkled, their bodies bent and distorted in pain, the eyes looking like those of a corpse. Bodies are found lifeless, lying on their mothers' bosoms. I tell you one thing which struck me as particularly horrible: a dead woman was found lying on the road with a dead infant on her breast, the child having bitten the nipple of the mother right through in trying to derive nourishment from the wretched body. Dogs feed on the [half-buried] dead, and the rats are commonly known to tear people to pieces who, though still alive, are too weak to cry out....Instead of following us, beggars throw themselves on their knees before us, holding up their dead infants to our sight. (Cited in Donald Mackay, Flight from Famine, 1990, p. 245)
Great Famine 1847. Illustrated London News
Nativism against Irish Catholics, saw their religion as corrupt and conspiratorial, and their race as barbaric, ignorant and intemperate. (Scott W. See, "An unprecedented influx": Nativism and Irish Famine Immigration to Canada", American Review of Canadian Studies (December 2000), p. 437) At times the idea that the Irish would spread communicable disease was extended to the moral realm, with one newspaper noting that the Irish should be sent to the countryside as soon as possible to avoid "moral contamination" in the cities. (See, p.442) In 1830, the Orange Order came to Canada. Started by Ogle R. Gowan, the fraternity was dedicated to Protestant dominance over Roman Catholics, and giving patronage to its own members. In the later nineteenth-century violent clashes came to typify relations between Orange and so-called Green groups on important religious days.
By 1851, Irish Catholics comprised one quarter of the Toronto's population. (Scott W. See, "An unprecedented influx": Nativism and Irish Famine Immigration to Canada", American Review of Canadian Studies (December 2000), p. 434) Irish Protestants could at times out-number Irish Catholics in the city that was known to some as the "Belfast of North America". Racist responses grew with the great influx of poor Catholics in the 1840s. In 1847, over 1,000 Irish Catholics died in the shanties built in the feverish poor district of Toronto called Cabbagetown.
|St. Patrick's Society, Toronto, Speech. Internet Archive|
In his 1992 Social History article "St. Patrick's Day Parades in Nineteenth-Century Toronto: A Study of Immigrant Adjustment and Elite Control", Michael Cottrell notes that parades and processions for the commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne and the feast day of St. Patrick were linked to ethnic political and economic struggles. Cottrell suggests that from the forming of the St. Patrick's Society in Toronto in 1832, the celebrations grew from "low-key affairs - concerts balls and soirees - which brought together the Irish elite to honour their patron saint and indulge their penchant for sentimental and self-congratulatory speeches", to more sectarian public rituals of the 1860s. (Cottrell, p. 60) St. Patrick's day increasingly became associated with Irish Catholicism, as Protestants expressed nativist sentiments after the 1840s, and in the 1850s the Catholic Church itself focused the celebrations around the church mass.
|"St. Patrick's Day Arch", Quebec City. Andrew Merrilees, LAC|
Church services did not remain completely apolitical. In 1855, Father Synnott pleaded to his Toronto congregation,
Go on then, faithful, noble and generous children of St. Patrick, in your glorious career...keep your eyes ever fixed on the faith of St. Patrick which shall ever be for you a fixed star by night and a pillar of light by day - forget not the examples and memorable deeds of your fathers - be faithful to the doctrines of your great apostle. A voice that speaks on the leaf of the shamrock - that speaks in the dismantled and ruined abbeys of lovely Erin - yea a voice that still speaks on the tombstones of your martyred fathers and in the homes of your exiled countrymen - be faithful to the glorious legacy he has bequeathed to you. (Mirror, 23 March 1855, cited in Cottrell, p. 62)
|Coat of arms of Young Men's St. Patrick's Association|
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)Museum McCord
It may be that the growing scale of parades as well as their tendency towards drunkeness provoked the Orange Order to clash with the parade in 1858, which resulted in violence and the death of a Catholic man from a wound by a pitchfork. This incident prompted the creation of the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Canada, whose mission was "assisting...their distressed members, attending them in their sickness, and, in case of death, defraying their funeral expenses." (WS Niedhardt, DCB) By 1863, they had also organized for paramilitary self-defence.
|St. Michael's Cathedral, TO, 1887|
Credit: Canada. Patent
and Copyright Office / Library
and Archives Canada / PA-028762a
Here another speech was delivered, by the president of the Hibernian Benevolent Society, denouncing the British government in Ireland. He told the crowd that, "three-fourths of the Catholic Irish of this country would offer themselves as an offering on the altar of freedom, to elevate their country and raise her again to her position in the list of nations. Nothing could resist the Irish pike when grasped by the sinewy arm of the Celt." (Irish Canadian, 18 March 1863, cited in Cottrell, p. 58) After all of this formal speechifying, the main procession broke up "into smaller parties and soirees which lasted late into the night." Cottrell emphasizes that St. Patrick's Day was the one day a year which Irish Catholics could "claim the city as their own and proudly publicize their distinctiveness on the main streets." (p. 59) In the process, Irish identity was reinforced, and associated with Home Rule or Catholicism depending upon the times and circumstances.
Despite these large processions in the early 1860s, the links between the Hibernian society and the Fenians, who sought Irish independence through attacks on British North America, resulted in several years without parades. The violence of the late 1850s had seen previous events cancelled, and with the Fenian raids of 1866, suspicion of the Irish community, and incarceration of suspected Fenians, many Irish-Canadians wished to maintain a low profile. (Cottrell, p. 69) The rounding up of Fenian sympathizers within the Hibernian Society further reduced their stature within Toronto's Irish-Canadian society.
Historians disagree as to the nature of the decline in St. Patrick's day parades in Toronto. Rosalyn Trigger has taken issue with Cottrell's suggestion that 1877 was the last public celebration of the day for more than a century. Noting that several large parades in the 1890s occurred, Trigger questions the argument that the decline of parades from the 1870s represent Irish assimilation. Drawing on American research, Trigger notes that while anti-Catholicism was a factor, the desire to send money to those suffering in Ireland prompted some Irish to abandon the parade out of frugality. (Rosalyn Trigger, "Irish Politics on Parade: The Clergy, Naitonal Societies, and St. Patrick's Day Processions in Nineteenth-century Montreal and Toronto", Social History, 37:74, 2004, p. 196) Trigger agrees, however, with Canadian researchers who argue that in the 1880s and 1890s, Irish nationalism was diminishing in Toronto as Irish-Catholics hoped to participate in society, but retain their faith. Hopes were turned from Home Rule for Ireland to greater rights for Catholics in Canada.
|Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1984-4-849|
The meaning behind St. Patrick's day in Canada certainly fluctuated with the circumstances of Irish-Canadians, and was adapted to the needs of the community, and altered by international events. The day was central to Irish-Canadian identity, with themes of Irish Home Rule, or rights for Catholics in Canada entering into the discourse when these issues were imminent. On the 17th of March 2014, Canadian pubs will be abuzz with glossy-eyed Canadians in emerald attire, perhaps swaying to a Irish reel or two. Few will consider the historical context of the Irish in Canada: the flight from famine; violent nativist resistance; and interesting ways that Saint Patrick's Day has changed over the years.