This March marks the first official Irish Heritage Month, a time to recognize the many contributions of the Irish in Canada.
The Irish have had notable influences on the country at national, provincial, and local levels in times of both tragedy and triumph. Recognizing the legacies of the Irish in Canada is important, it is also important to note that those same legacies and events can be complicated, at the very least.
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History should never be a rote repetition of names and dates holding little intrinsic significance. At its best, history should make us feel a full gamut of emotions: happiness, rage, disgust, fear, panic, joy. The stories of the Irish in Canada are legion — there never was a simple template that every immigrant followed — and these lived experiences have loaded emotions within them.
It is something that my students at Concordia’s School of Irish Studies wrestle with every term: the Irish in Canada were both colonized and colonizers; they were desperate refugees and part of the colonial establishment; they were poor and rich, male and female, rural and urban, violent and peaceful, desired, disposable and, at times, despised.
The “Extreme Moderate”
Take, for instance, one of our most famous Irish Canadians: Thomas D’Arcy McGee. For generations, McGee has been venerated for his role as Canada’s Irish Father of Confederation, a man who stood up for minority rights and political moderation in the face of violent extremism.
He managed to earn the enmity of both the Orangemen (extreme Irish Protestant imperialists) and the Fenians (extreme physical force Irish nationalists) during his time in politics. His biographer, Professor David A. Wilson at the University of Toronto, has called McGee “The Extreme Moderate” — a wonderfully Canadian oxymoron that is quite illuminating about just how complicated an individual can be, let alone an entire demographic. McGee was assassinated less than a year after Canadian Confederation; his funeral at St. Patrick’s Church (now Basilica) in Montreal occurred on what would have been his 43rd birthday in 1868. He was a cultural visionary who wanted Canada to have a rich national mythology and literature from which to build a sense of patriotism. He has been remembered as an emblem of toleration, compromise, and a new Canadian nationalism that looked beyond ethnicity or religious difference.
However, this defender of the Dominion of Canada was also a former Irish revolutionary who, in his youth, had embraced violence as the only means of attaining Irish freedom. He was as much a father of Fenianism as he was a father of Confederation. That repudiation of his Fenian ties is what led to his assassination on Sparks Street shortly after midnight on April 7, 1868. Today, his change in politics probably would have earned him the title of “flip-flopper.” Was he an Irish traitor or an Irish hero? It’s complicated.
“The Monstrous Regiment of Women”
Similarly, what do we make of Irish women in Canadian history like Grace Marks, Mary Gallagher, or Susan Kennedy?
Grace Marks was once one of the most notorious women in the colony of Canada. She regained public attention a generation ago through her central role in Margaret Atwood’s award-winning Alias Grace (1996) and, more recently, the much-lauded CBC/Netflix adaptation of the novel. Marks was a real person: a 17-year-old Irish immigrant in the pre-famine 1840s who was found guilty of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear. She also would have been found guilty of the murder of his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, but the powers that be decided that one fatal trial was enough. Her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on account of her age and sex; her co-conspirator, James McDermott, was not so lucky. He was hanged and, to the bitter end, said that Marks had been the seductive mastermind behind the murder plot.
Already known for the crime for which she was imprisoned, Marks was featured in Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings (1853) as both a prisoner at Kingston Penitentiary and an inmate of Toronto’s Provincial Lunatic Asylum. It was this account that inspired Margaret Atwood to write about Marks. However, her fame was based on notoriety rather than adulation. In her affiliations with murder, sex, criminality, and insanity, Marks embodied some of the very worst negative stereotypes associated with Irishness, not only in Canada, but across the Irish Diaspora. She is famous now because she was infamous then.
The same can be said for Mary Gallagher, “The Ghost of Griffintown” in Montreal, and her alleged killer, Susan Kennedy. Both women have been labelled as alcoholic prostitutes – although, like Jack the Ripper’s victims, there is little evidence in the contemporary newspapers or courtroom testimony from the murder trial that they were engaged in sex work at the time of Gallagher’s murder. Kennedy was apparently “known to police” according to the Montreal Weekly Witness, and it was assumed that she and Gallagher had been fighting over the same man, Michael Flanagan. What began with a morning of intense drinking ended with Gallagher’s bloody body lying on the floor and her decapitated head in a bucket. Kennedy was found guilty of the murder. Like Marks, her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and, also like Marks, she was eventually released and disappeared from the historical record. It is said that Gallagher’s ghost returns to Griffintown every seven years in search of her head.
Again, derogatory stereotypes about Irishness, alcoholism, hypersexuality, and violence are why we remember Gallagher and Kennedy today. The ghost story angle is also reliably popular. Women across Canada who lived atypical lives could occasionally make their way into official documented history; the vast majority, however, have left only the barest trace of a name on a census record to mark their place in the country’s past.
Pandemics, Epidemics, and Famine
Since the pandemic began, there have been many allusions made to the similarities between COVID-19 and the epidemics of cholera and typhus that affected hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants to Canada in the 1830s and 1840s.
Canadian society knew cholera was coming, but it was not until the summer of 1832 and the arrival of over 30,000 Irish arrivals fleeing the disease that the colonial immigration system was overwhelmed. Cholera was quick and devastating, killing at times in only a matter of hours; it was also highly contagious. Rumours began about Irish immigrants bringing a kind of biological warfare to Quebec and Montreal. Contradictory directives were published on how to fight the disease; being cheerful, for example, was considered sound medical advice. Overburdened hospitals had to rely on fever sheds to house thousands of sick arrivals. Everyone dreaded the arrival of a second wave, which came two years later, in 1834. Given our own recent experiences with COVID-19, much of this sounds eerily familiar.
In 1847, some 15 years after cholera had struck, the worst year of the Great Irish Famine brought over 100,000 Irish refugees to Canada, desperately seeking an escape from starvation, eviction, poverty, and typhus. For many Irish Canadians, the famine is the touchstone of Irish Heritage Month, and Grosse Île, downriver from Quebec, stands as the key lieu-de-mémoire for national remembrance. From St. John to the Gaspé, the upper reaches of the Ottawa Valley to the fever sheds at Point St-Charles and down to the Niagara Peninsula, dozens of Canadian communities bore witness to the horrors of the Irish Famine.
It was a time that saw horrendous tragedy and loss of life: overwhelmed medical staff; the charity of priests, ministers, nuns, and complete strangers; the ill-preparation of government institutions; public anger and xenophobia; death, and — for some — survival. The suffering was so intense, it is little wonder that we cling to the hopeful anecdotes: the orphans who found a welcoming home with Quebecois families, or the mother praying at St. Patrick’s Church to be reunited with her child from whom she was separated at Grosse Île, only to have a marble hit her foot, and her tiny daughter come running after it. Tales of horror often need some kind of cathartic ending in order for us to go on.
Irish Heritage Month is about both the positives and negatives in Canadian history: stories of hardship and pain as much as those of triumph, goodwill, and strength. History should never be easy. Learning more about Irish experiences in Canadian history and the legacies they have created for our society today — the good, the bad, and the complicated — is an important part of the unending conversation we all need to have about the kind of country we want Canada to be.