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Migration, Arrival, and Settlement before the Great Famine

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Irish Catholics/Mark G. Mcgowan

The nature of Upper Canada’s Irish Catholic community has been hotly disputed recently. Scholars who tend to focus on the famine as a pivotal event in Ontario history have often described Irish Catholics as semi-literate, impoverished, oppressed, and diseased. These impressions are refuted by those who emphasize the pre-famine character of Irish Catholic settlement and who highlight the rural concentration of Irish Catholic migrants and their cultural accommodation to their surroundings.

Irish Catholics in Upper Canada formed a minority, outnumbered almost two to one by the Protestant Irish. The first significant wave of migrants reached Upper Canada after 1815; they were single men looking for employment in the forest industry of the upper Ottawa valley and on the canal and public-works projects of the colonial government. Particularly attractive to Irish Catholic males was work on the Rideau canal between 1827 and 1832. Canal workers and their families settled along the route of the canal in squalid, makeshift dwellings, first in the “lower town” of Bytown (Ottawa) and later on the Rideau route to Frontenac County. Canal work was dangerous and numerous Irish workers either lost their lives from falling rocks and trees or succumbed to malaria, transmitted by the mosquitoes that thrived in the eastern Ontario swamps. Since this labour was seasonal at best, Irish Catholic men and their families often travelled to the United States when contracts expired or used their meagre savings to purchase small farms locally.

When they were at work in the forests of the Ottawa valley, the lives of Irish Catholics were punctuated by episodic violence between themselves and French Canadians, with whom they competed for the best cutting and rafting jobs. Known as “Shiners,” Irish Catholic lumbermen were subject to manipulation by less than scrupulous timber barons, who employed them as henchmen, thugs, and political supporters. By the mid 1830s residents of Bytown loathed the seasonal arrival of the Shiners, fearing outbreaks of ethnic, sectarian, or politically inspired violence. While the violence perpetrated on the frontier by these workers has been well documented, less is known about their origins or eventual destinations. What is certain, however, is that stereotypes of the Irish Catholic as someone possessing a pathological need to fight and drink is in desperate need of revision. The dangerous working environment in the forest industry and the all-male culture that pervaded life in the woods and “on the drive” easily facilitated outbursts of passion and violence among the many ethnic groups employed there.

From the 1820s to the early 1840s single male labourers were joined by greater numbers of Irish Catholic families intent upon continuing their agricultural lifestyle in the New World. They settled right across the colony, from the townships of the Bathurst District in the east through to the farm lands of present-day Middlesex County in the west. In such townships as Montague (Lanark County), Irish Catholic farmers arrived later than Loyalists and many Irish Protestants. They attempted to settle close to Catholic churches in Merrickville or Smith Falls, but usually they could be found on back concessions engaged in mixed farming. The planting of wheat and oats was supplemented by the sale of hardwood or by the seasonal labour that farmers could supply to nearby lumber camps in the Ottawa valley. Yet in North Burgess Township, close to Montague, farming was a marginal enterprise on thin and rocky soil, and so Irish Catholic farmers there sustained themselves by raising pigs and selling pork products to local timber companies.

Some pre-famine Irish migrants did attempt more concentrated rural settlement along sectarian lines. In the 1820s and 1830s Irish Catholic migrants in Biddulph Township, near London, in the townships north of Rice Lake near Peterborough, and in what is now Simcoe County created tightly connected pockets of Catholic settlement. Such concentrations also existed in the townships of Adjala and Mono, which straddled the boundary of present-day Simcoe and Dufferin counties. Irish Catholic migrants arrived there as early as the 1820s from the port of York (Toronto) and the previously settled King Township in York County. Although the land grants were interspersed randomly between Protestant and Catholic farmers, by 1851 noticeable sectarian concentrations had occurred. Either by purchase or exchange, Irish Catholics had congregated in Adjala Township while Irish Protestants had become the overwhelming majority in Mono. The erection of St James Church in Adjala in 1830 may have acted as a community focus and hence as a magnet to attract further Irish Catholic immigrants. Curiously, however, this Irish Catholic settlement was not replicated by pioneers in the nearby Gore District of present-day Peel County in southern Ontario. There, Irish Catholics did not establish ethnically homogeneous settlements. With the exception of a few Catholic farmers situated close to St Patrick’s Church in Wildfield, most Irish Catholic farmers were interspersed among Protestant farmers in the central and northern sections of the Gore. These dissimilarities in settlement patterns between the Gore and Adjala underscore the diversity of Irish Catholic rural homesteading in Upper Canada.

Some families and individuals could not afford to purchase land outright, and their numbers swelled with the arrival of many paupers in the 1830s. In rural areas, the poorest migrants benefited from small two-hectare plots granted in 1833 by Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne, while civil works and road construction helped those who remained landless to subsist. Others without land simply remained in the ports and service centres: Bytown, Kingston, York, and Hamilton. In these towns, some Irish Catholics engaged in small business and journalism or took clerical work, and others intermarried with the local elite. The majority, however, were employed in labouring jobs. In Bytown’s lower town, in Hamilton’s east end, or in York’s waterfront and “Don flats” area, Irish Catholics formed temporary urban villages close to the wharves, canals, warehouses, mills, and factories. Periodically, their numbers would be augmented by rural Irish Catholic labourers in search of wage work. These squalid areas offered stereotypes that were frequently drawn upon by the host Protestant majority in the nineteenth century and perpetuated by historians and popular writers in the twentieth century.

As with Irish Catholic migrants in Lower Canada, fragmentary records suggest that the Irish Catholics of the upper province had heterogeneous origins. Marriage records, for example, indicate that by the 1850s Irish Catholics in Toronto hailed from practically every county in Ireland, with strong representation from Clare, Limerick, Cork, Tipperary, Waterford, Cork, Kerry, and Wexford. Similarly, of the thirteen couples married between 1837 and 1844 in St Patrick’s parish in Wildfield, Peel County, only two hailed from the same county and, in total, thirteen different counties of origin were recorded in the marriage register.

An extraordinary chapter in the history of Irish Catholic migration to Upper Canada concerns the Peter Robinson settlement projects of the early 1820s. The British undersecretary of state for the colonies, Robert John Wilmot Horton, hatched these projects to rid Ireland of its “redundant” population and to offer the British North American colonies the people that they needed to build stable economies. Malthusian in its conception, Horton’s scheme anticipated the migration of some 985,000 Irish in eight years, commencing in 1823. Peter Robinson, brother of Upper Canada’s attorney general, John Beverley Robinson, agreed to bring the first groups to Canada. Horton instructed Robinson that the migrants ought to be Roman Catholics unable to work in Ireland and to pay the passage themselves. In 1823, with government assistance and the approval of local landlords secured, Robinson set sail from Cork with 568 migrants, the vast majority of whom were Roman Catholic. Most came from within twenty-four kilometres of Ballyhooly, Castletownroche, Liscarroll, and Churchtown in County Cork. Robinson settled this first group in the Bathurst District near Shipman’s Mills, now Almonte in Lanark County.

In 1825 Robinson was instructed to concentrate his efforts in the Blackwater River valley in northeast Cork, the scene of frequent violence between secret agrarian-based societies and local authorities. The Irish population explosion between 1801 and 1841, subsistence farming by Irish Catholics on ever-shrinking plots, and the dwindling opportunities for farm labourers made migration attractive. Equally alluring were the reports coming back from the first wave of government-assisted settlers. Michael Cronin of Huntley Township, Carleton County, reported that “Mr Robinson our superintendent is uncommonly humane and good to us all. He at first served us our bedding and blankets and all kinds of carpenters’ tools and farming utensils, and sending people which are in the habit of building log houses with the whole of us, and each man’s house is built in the course of two days. And Mr. Robinson promises us a cow to the head of each family next September . . . This is as good and free a country as any in the world.” The offer of free land and provisions was too hard to resist. Robinson, assisted by local landlords and parish priests, was inundated with applications. He gave preference to families with four to five members, farmers, and unemployed artisans. Most prospective emigrants were from Cork, with a few from Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford. In May 1825 Robinson set sail with 2,024 Irish migrants, the vast majority again being Roman Catholic.

This second group was not settled with the first. In 1824 the so-called Ballygiblin riots had broken out at Morphy’s Falls (Carleton Place), sparked by local Protestant colonists in the Lanark military settlements who resented what they felt was the preferential treatment given to Robinson’s new Catholic arrivals. Reports of violence and at least one death in a brief skirmish at Shipman’s Mills convinced Robinson to settle the second group in south-central Ontario, in what is now Peterborough County. In 1825 the new Robinson settlers were divided among 403 lots in the Newcastle District, with the most significant concentrations occurring in Emily, Ennismore, Douro, and Otonabee townships.

The Robinson enterprise proved too costly for the British government to continue, the average expenditure being between £12 and £60 per family. In any case, reports to the crown regarding Robinson’s settlers had not been glowing. Although government agent James FitzGibbon had released the Irish Catholics from blame for the Ballygiblin riots, the settlers were accused of not being productive and of migrating to the United States for more lucrative employment. Robinson defended his settlers with statistics, asserting that not only were they productive but that those few who did migrate to the United States usually returned. His arguments failed to convince the Colonial Office, however; the Robinson experiment would be the last government-sponsored migration of Irish Catholics until the 1880s.

In summary, it is difficult to ascertain just how many Irish Catholics lived in Upper Canada prior to the famine migration. In 1834 Bishop Alexander Macdonell estimated that in Toronto and in Adjala and Trafalgar townships there were 6,381 Catholics, most of whom would have been of Irish origin. Collectively, London, Kingston, Bytown, Peterborough, and Perth had just over 18,000 Catholics, of whom most would have been Irish. In total, Macdonell’s diocese contained 52,428 Catholics, or approximately 16 percent of Upper Canada’s population.