The Book!

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Banks of Newfoundland



In the wake, so to speak, of Columbus, his fellow Genoese Giovanni Cabotto concluded that the wisest way to reach China sailing west would be to stick to the northern latitudes. If, after all, the Earth is a sphere, the distance west to Asia would be greatest near the equator, and shortest near the poles.

In any case, it seems there might have been an inconvenient continent in the way further south.

So began the quest for the fabled Northwest Passage.

John Cabot, as the English called him, secured letters patent from King Henry VII, and, in 1497, following the familiar northerly route from the west coast of Ireland, arrived somewhere. We are not sure where: perhaps Labrador, perhaps Newfoundland, perhaps Cape Breton. Newfoundlanders are certain he reached Bonavista—apparently, after all, an Italian name, meaning something not too far off from “Land Ho!” (“Beautiful Sight”). There were only so many Italian early explorers in these parts.

Newfoundland stamp, 1947. 

Of greater immediate importance, Cabotto spotted the teeming fish life of the Grand Banks, where the Labrador Current stirs the Gulf Stream—Canada’s first great article of commerce. From that time on, European fishing boats probably visited regularly.

Sadly, at this time, Ireland was in no condition to join in the piscatorial jamboree. England’s Henry II had rudely invaded and declared himself King back in the 12th century. For a time, what with the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses and whatnot, England was busy elsewhere. But when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, with despotism one of his core values, the fate of Ireland, a small country next to a bigger country, was sealed. The sixteenth century in Ireland was given over to the four pale riders of the apocalypse.

In case you missed the reference.

Small nations next to large nations have suffered conquest from the beginning of time. But there has always been something especially energetic about the English vindictiveness towards Ireland. As Edmund Burke writes: “All the penal laws ... were manifestly the effects of national hatred and scorn towards a people whom the victors delighted to trample upon and were not at all afraid to provoke” (letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe).

Nor, contrary to much modern thinking, did this have anything in particular to do with religion. The English invasion of Ireland, and laws discriminating against the Irish, predated the Reformation. The very first English settlements banned the Irish from all trades. The Statutes of Kilkenny, passed in 1366, already banned the Irish from “English” churches. Irish styles of moustache, beard, horsemanship, or dress were illegal (Spencer, “A View of the Present State of Ireland,” 1597). A statute of Edward IV made it legal for any Englishman to kill any Irishman on his own authority (MacManus, p. 400), as well as to seize his property. Even after the Reformation, Edmund Spencer does not see religion as the only awkwardness with the Irish. He cites three issues, in this order: customs, laws, and religion (Spencer, 1597). And, when Mary I, Catholic and a friend to Catholics, came to the throne, she was no more a pal of Ireland than her Protestant predecessors. She did her best to have them all evicted.

So why did the English hate the Irish so? Nicholas Flood Davin considers it a question of land: the Irish had it, and the English desired it. But this does not quite tally. For most of the time the English were in Ireland, there was lots of free land freely available in the Americas, for free. There was little real need to take it from the Irish. It had to be for the sheer sport of it.

Burke holds it to be from contempt. “Every measure was pleasing and popular just in proportion as it tended to harass and ruin a set of people who were looked upon as enemies to God and man; indeed, as a race of savages who were a disgrace to human nature itself” (letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe).

This does seem to capture a certain feeling of later days, of the Irish as a “nation of helots,” in Davin’s phrase. Yet it too does not quite seem to fit the facts. The very early Statutes of Kilkenny, which set up a system of apartheid in Ireland, actually give this justification for downtreading the locals: “many English of the said land [Ireland], forsaking the English language, manners, mode of riding, laws and usages, live and govern themselves according to the manners, fashion, and language of the Irish enemies.”

Spencer later cites exactly the same concern.

The Irish Problem.

Unable to say exactly why this is happening, Spencer seems to blame original sin. The Solons of Kilkenny say simply that it is “contrary to reason.”

And yet, one does not often avidly imitate the language, manners, fashions, and usages of a culture one utterly despises and finds inferior.

One problem may be that these two particular cultures, English and Irish, were unusually incompatible in their interests. The Irish had always looked for leadership to their poets, artists, scholars, and monastics. They were and are an idealistic bunch. The English have always been, by contrast, a hard-headed and pragmatic lot: a “nation of shopkeepers,” in Napoleon’s phrase, saving their greatest admiration for competent accountants. You see such a divide, and such contempt, on many college campuses, between the liberal arts students and the engineers: C.P. Snow's “Two Cultures.” To the English, the Irish appeared (and appear) frivolous, indulgent, lawless, probably technically insane, wild in the way artists are wild. To the Irish, the English appeared porcine, dead on the inside, robotic, and not in serious contention for eternal salvation.

Yet this, too, does not seem sufficient. While some engineers may view poets and philosophers with contempt, few actually wish them dead. And again, you do not avidly imitate a culture you despise.

I think Spencer may be closer to the mark when he cites Genesis. It seems something as fundamental as that. Whether or not one accepts the Bible as Holy Writ, it is at least a collection of the best wisdom about human nature from several thousand years of mortal thought.

But our Biblical model may not be the sin of Adam and Eve, the original sin, but that of Cain.




Why does Cain kill Abel? Because he believes God favours his brother. “The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry...” (Genesis 4:4-5).

In the real world, despite all softheaded protestations of human equality, God does seem to favour some of us, and not others, with special gifts of grace: greater intelligence, greater musical ability, greater athleticism or physical grace, greater beauty, greater charm, greater eloquence. And the rest of us, if we are for just one moment honest, do not like it. Envy explains much in human affairs. I am reminded of an exchange I once had with an open anti-Semite, which at the time shocked me. Still does shock me, or I would not remember it. He pointed out that the Bible said the Jews were God’s chosen people. And he continued “That’s exactly why we have to keep them down. If we don’t, they'll control everything.”

Here is Cain’s sin, applied as the honest explanation for anti-Semitism.

An Irishman, according to Punch

Might it not also be the key to anti-Hibernianism? To Hiberniophobia?

After all, this sin of envy is so fundamental a part of human nature that it appears in the Bible as the second sin of history—that is, presumably, the second most fundamental sin. Third, if you count Lucifer’s pride. Arguably, it is also the sin of Pilate and the High Priests when they crucified Jesus: they knew he was innocent, and knew he was from God, and because of this they killed him.

It is one of the great secrets: we most hate others not when we think they are less than we are, but when we think they are better than we are. Perhaps especially if we think they are morally better.

But of course, most of us are not going to be as honest as my anti-Semitic acquaintance. Because, after all, if we were, we would be admitting they are better than we are, and that’s just what we cannot accept or tolerate. So we will always couch it in claims like Hitler’s “untermenschen” (subhuman) for the Jews―despite the historical truth that German Jews in the 1930s were better educated, more accomplished, and wealthier than the German average. In what sense could they really have been “subhuman”? Only in the sense that they weren’t. And this was their great fault.

This is awkward. After all, I am Irish myself, so it sounds bad for me to say it. But, by the nature of this particular sin, nobody not Irish is likely to say it. Except perhaps the Jews. Accordingly I am forced, tragically, against my will, by my commitment to truth above all to admit that the Irish are really a quite wonderful bunch of talented folk. They can sing, they can dance, they can tell jokes, they can compose a rhyme on a dime, they can climb moonbeams.

Deal with it.

So the Irish may be guilty of the sin, in English eyes, of being just too wonderful, yet not numerous enough to get away with it. In fact, nothing less seems capable of explaining the irrational animus. As Burke implies, the English tried to harm to the Irish even when it seemed against their own interests to do so.

The Reformation then simply gave the English another handy club with which to cudgel the Irish.

Beginning in 1607 the religion-based Penal Laws were introduced: a set of restrictions, in the words of Edmund Burke, “as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” Samuel Johnson wrote, “There is no instance, even in the Ten Persecutions, of such severity as that which the Protestants of Ireland exercised against the Catholics” (MacManus, p. 454). Irish Catholics were thenceforth unable to hold public office, unable to own guns; their homes could be searched without warrant; they were required to pay fines for not attending Anglican services; they were denied priests. Catholic-Protestant intermarriage was prohibited; Catholics could not vote; Catholics were barred from the professions; Catholics could not live in town or city; conversions to Catholicism were forbidden; Catholics could not buy land; Catholics could not be educated, could not attend school or university, even abroad, or be taught in their own homes; Catholics could not inherit land from a Protestant; but if one heir of a Catholic converted to Protestantism, all the land must go to her or him. Catholics could not own valuable horses, and were obliged to sell any horse they owned on demand for no more than five pounds. And so on and on—to try to give the complete list begins to sound like a rant. The morbidly curious are referred to Edmund Burke’s Tracts Relative to the Laws against Popery in Ireland, 1760-65.

This was in part a basic struggle between English and Irish values. To the English, it was obvious that one’s religion should come second to such practical considerations as one’s livelihood and the requirements of one’s sovereign. Englishmen, after all, had accepted Henry VIII’s new religion in obedient droves. Yet to the Irish, this was a perversion of values, an abomination of desolation. The overwhelming majority of the native Irish stayed Catholic, and could not be persuaded by these worldly inducements, no matter how severe, to surrender the faith.


Irish of the 16th Century.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of the Irish were directly affected by these Penal Laws. Even, in fact, Irish Protestants. Almost half the Protestants in Ireland since the Reformation have chosen Presbyterianism, not Anglicanism, and others Methodism—and some of the some of the same laws applied to them as well, as “Dissenters.” So even those Irish who were personally convinced by the arguments of the Reformation were largely not to be convinced by these material concerns.

It was a hard thing, however, because over time it reduced the great majority of the Irish to landless near-starvation. Or, for a large minority, starvation straight up.

As if just to show that being Protestant were not enough, so long as one were still willfully Irish, the English followed this up with a series of laws to limit Irish trade—laws that affected Protestant Anglican as much as Catholic. Ireland was barred from producing or exporting tobacco, glass, silk cloth, meat, butter, cheese, cattle, sheep, cotton cloth, linen, hempen cloth, woolens, wool, and, of course, fish—essentially, all of Ireland’s industries as soon as they appeared. Ireland was forbidden to build ships, and any foreign trade had to be through English ports in English ships with English crews (MacManus, pp. 483-92).

The result of all this as of 1597 is described by Edmund Spencer:

“they weare brought to such wretchednes, as that anye stonye herte would have rewed the same. Out of everye corner of the woode and glenns they came creepinge forth upon theire handes, for theire legges could not beare them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spake like ghostes, crying out of theire graves; they did eate of the carrions, happye wheare they could find them, yea, and one another soone after, in soe much as the verye carcasses they spared not to scrape out of theire graves; and if they found a plott of water-cresses or shamrockes, theyr they flocked as to a feast for the time, yett not able long to contynewe therewithall; that in a shorte space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentyfull countrye suddenly lefte voyde of man or beast” (Spencer, “A View of the Present State of Ireland,” 1597).

To be fair, Spencer blames the Irish.

All this being said, of course, the Irish of the time were no doubt primarily prevented from exploiting the wealth of the New World by their utter preoccupation with the Jewish question.

Over time, however, as individuals, many Irish made it across to Newfoundland. The very devastation that made it impossible for Ireland as a nation to profit from the Newfoundland fisheries made it desperately necessary for the Irish as individuals to get there.

Fishing ships from Exeter and Plymouth and other Western English ports discovered that, due to Irish poverty, supplies at Waterford were cheaper than at home—and Waterford was an easy stop on their way along the Irish Coast to the Grand Banks. Irish crew members, three-quarters-starved as they commonly were, were also cheaper to hire.

So, early on, a great number of Irish seamen came to be involved in the Newfoundland fisheries.

The fishing boats would go out every spring to the Banks, and return with their catch every autumn. Obviously, this could not be fresh fish. They had to be somehow preserved to last the season and the passage. The captains set up stations on the shore to dry the catch, preserving it for the homeward passage. Then they began leaving crew members over the winter, to set up the drying stations, to guard them, and to maintain them for the next season. The crewmen, almost always Irish, built shanties and homes.

Sometimes fishing captains would go bankrupt. Sometimes, as a result, they did not return the next summer, and overwintering crewmen were stranded in Newfoundland without pay.

Sometimes unscrupulous captains, or those in danger from their creditors, might also find it advisable to abandon crew members onshore for the sake of being able to carry home more fish.

Sometimes, too, starving Irish came over on their own dime as passengers for the sake of a job, any job. They would arrive in spring, and the inshore fishing would provide food, and they would be able to eat for the summer. Passage over was cheap—the fishing boats were riding empty. Passage home was not—the fishing boats were loaded with valuable cargo. So they stayed, through the harsh winters, and made a new home.

Soon—as early as 1681—ship captains figured out a profitable sideline. Since their ships came over to the Grand Banks empty in the spring, they began offering free passage to poor Irish women. On arrival, they would sell the women as brides to the lonely men in the outports, in exchange for fish.

English women, no doubt, were not so often in such straits that they could be lured out.

And so, despite official prohibition, settlement began, and it was primarily Irish. Specifically, it was mostly from Waterford and Wexford—it has been estimated that over 90% of Newfoundland’s Irish come originally from within 40 miles of Waterford town limits.

By 1720, official concern was raised about the number of “Irish Papists” settling in the country. By 1742, the Irish outnumbered the English in almost every settlement from St. John’s to Placentia. By 1765, Governor Palliser estimated that three quarters of the population was Irish (“Annual Return on the Fisheries and Inhabitants, etc., at Newfoundland for the year 1765,” Keough). By 1780, the Irish were two-thirds of the passengers coming out to Newfoundland each year. By 1798, the English governor claimed with alarm that nine-tenths of Newfoundlanders were Irish.

This was a real problem.

For centuries, as with the rest of Canada, England and France vied for ownership of Newfoundland. However, the English government for most of this time discouraged settlement in the new land. Claiming ownership of real estate, or erecting any building not directly related to the fishery, was illegal in British Newfoundland right up to 1813.

On the face of it, this seems odd, especially as ownership of the colony was disputed, and possession is nine points of the law.

The reason sometimes cited was that the British government wanted to protect the interests of the Devon fishermen, who saw shore settlements as competition for their own homeland fishing fleets. But why would this matter? Why would the interests of subjects in Devon be worth more than the interests of subjects in Newfoundland?

Because Devonians are English, and the majority of His Majesty’s subjects in Newfoundland were Irish. Irish were to be given no quarter.

The Irish were no more considered equal here than they were in Ireland. This is made explicit in an order by Governor Dorrill in 1755: all ships’ captains were required, on pain of the “greatest severity,” to return all crew and passengers they brought with them in the spring when they sailed home in the fall, because “a great number of Irish Roman Catholics are annually brought over here” (Michael J. McCarthy, The Irish in Newfoundland). In 1767, Governor Palliser ordered that all Irish houses in Newfoundland be pulled down. In 1766, the governor was concerned about “poor Irish women” coming across (McCarthy, ibid.). In 1770, Governor Bryon affirmed that “No man or woman who is a Papist and did not fish or serve in this harbour during the summer shall be permitted to remain here during the winter.” An order in 1777 strictly prohibited transporting any women from Ireland.

And yet they came. Worse, they stayed and bred.

The Penal Laws were applied in Newfoundland just as in Ireland—if inconsistently in both places. As in Ireland, Catholics could not hold office, bear arms, legally own real property, or run public houses. They paid a special tax. Their children had to be baptized in the Anglican Church, and their marriages solemnized there (Keough, The Slender Thread).

The Catholic Irish, of course, had to do without priests. The French RĂ©collet father Baudoin writes in 1696 that “they have not a single minister of religion” in all their settlements (Prowse, p. 218). In 1755, an Irish priest was “hunted down” in the Conception Bay area: “The priest himself eluded authorities, but premises in which Mass had been said were burnt to the ground, and Roman Catholics who were known to have attended a Mass were subjected to harsh fines, and even exile” (Lahey, Raymond, “James Louis O’Donel in Newfoundland: The Establishment of the Roman Catholic Church,” Religion in Newfoundland and Labrador: The Beginnings. Hans Rollman ed., Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1993, p. 87). Similar priest hunts are recorded the same year at Harbour Grace and Carbonear. Homes and storehouses there too were burned down in punishment; attendees were exiled. Even local residents whose property was apparently used without their knowledge or permission had their buildings destroyed. The community of Renews still displays a flat “mass rock” reputedly formerly used as an altar for secret outdoor midnight masses. Local traditions speak of a priest who lived in Witless Bay disguised as a fisherman, and of another who was hidden in a cellar in Toad’s Cove (Keough).

Mass rock, Renews


This caused a certain amount of disaffection.

In 1752, a group of ten Irish men and women killed a magistrate, one William Keene. The motive was apparently both robbery and revenge. Robbery was one thing, and understandable; but revenge was another. It meant Keane was killed because he was a magistrate. This made it a civil insurrection! Even worse, it appeared that some other Irish knew something was up in advance, and none had informed. It all called for a crackdown on “popery” in the island. Four of the ten conspirators were hanged, and two of the bodies displayed in public as a warning to others. In 1794, two Irishmen were hanged, drawn, and quartered for another mob action that looked like insurrection: they tried to rescue a neighbour being press-ganged by the British Navy.

But, after all, was life in this New World really so bad? Perhaps not. Although the laws might have been the same, here the reach of the arm of English government was much shorter. For much of the island’s history, the governor of the colony was simply the captain of the first fishing ship that sailed into St. John’s that year. He generally had more on his mind than micromanaging the lives of onshore settlers; he was there for fish, netted, salted, and stowed. For even longer, the English governor went home to England every winter, and islanders were left for half of the year to manage their own affairs. Even were this not so, there was no way the tiny apparatus of government in St. John’s could closely supervise what went on in all the outports up and down the coast. They were accessible only by sea, and from the highlands any non-local vessel could be seen coming a long way off. If the authorities did find out something to one’s detriment, one could, in the worst case, probably slip away by small boat at short notice; or even take passage on a departing fishing vessel and be gone forever. A folk tradition held a group of “Masterless Men” always lived in the hills behind the shore settlements in complete freedom from the law, led by a man named Peter Kerrivan (Tammy Lawlor, “Secret Masses at Midnight,” Culture and Tradition, 2001).

This was the first, the original Wild West.

And there is the matter of land. Davin maintains, and I too believe, that nothing matters more to the Irishman historically than the land. In Newfoundland, because there was no legal settlement at all, nobody else owned the land either, or much cared about it. In practical terms, many land-starved Irish could no doubt clear and farm their own little secret plots. In Ireland they were, at best, still tenants risking eviction if the crop failed―or extra rent if it was too abundant.

If this were not attraction enough, there were always the French nearby—the Catholic French. For much of this time, the French were established in Placentia and points west—as they remain today in St. Pierre and Miquelon, just offshore.

For the English, this was not a fortunate thing. They settled along the North Coast, from Conception Bay west. This kept them as far as possible from any French raids, which were frequent (Birkenhead, The Story of Newfoundland, London, 1920, p. 82).

For the Irish, the situation was somewhat more ambiguous. They happily settled from St. John’s south along the Avalon Peninsula. This put them in between the English and the French. At worst, they probably cared far less whether they lived under English rule or French. At best, the French colonies offered safe haven should the English authorities prove difficult.

As early as 1697, thirty Irishmen are known to have fled Conception and Trinity Bays to join the French at Placentia. At the time, this would have been a significant portion of the Newfoundland population. In 1710, two Irish defectors arrived in Placentia with news of English war preparations (Francis Parkman, A Half-Century of Conflict, Vol. 1, loc. 268).

The French take St. John's again: 1762

Repeatedly, during war, the French were able to take and hold St. John’s and the Avalon settlements with little trouble. They could almost count on it: even if everything else went wrong on the North American front, they would probably end the war in possession of Newfoundland. In 1694, in order to convince them to stand against a French attack, English Captain Holman was obliged to threaten the residents of Ferryland with seizing their catches and burning down their houses (Prowse, p. 213). When, in 1696, during King William’s War, d’Iberville attacked the “English” settlements in the Avalon Peninsula, Father Baudoin, d’Iberville's chaplain, reports that the Irish settlers and seamen as often as not joined the French in the assault. D’Iberville faced little resistance anywhere.

Accordingly, the English authorities had reason to view the Irish as “spyes, corupting & debauching his Majties Servants, and other his subjects to desert their Service and bring in a French power” (Capt. Michael Richards, Hearings at Fort William, 9-12 March 1702, Keough). “When the Enemy makes any Incursion upon us they [the Irish] doe take up armes and informe our Enemy and prove very treacherous and our greatest Enemy” (Remarks of Naval Officer Cummins in relation to Newfoundland, received at the Colonial Office via the House of Commons 25 February 1706, Keough). In 1738, Protestant English Newfoundlanders are said to “dred the consequense that may attend them in case of war” from the heavy Irish settlement (Van Brugh to Commissioners for Trade, 6 November 1738, Keough). In 1750, Governor Francis Drake writes that the Irish “are notoriously disaffected to the government, all of them refusing to take the oath of allegiance when tendered to them” (Drake, “Answers to the Queries Contained in His Majesty’s Instructions,” 22 November 1751, Keough). Governor Palliser in 1765 laments that the local Irish “always did and always will join an Invading Enemy.”

Obviously, the small Newfoundland Irish settlement had grievances against the home government.

Accordingly, one would surely have expected the colony of Newfoundland to have joined with the other English colonies in the American Revolution, would one not?

There was certainly fear, among the Protestants, that the Catholic Irish would rise. A number of the leading citizens of Renews wrote to the governor in 1778, “we are more in danger from some of them [Irish inhabitants], than from the Americans, as they are determined to plunder the Stores & turn Rebels” (Petition from the merchants and principal inhabitants of Renews to Montagu, 29 July 1778, quoted in Wileen Keough, The Slender Thread).

Yet nothing happened.

Nor, indeed, did it happen in Ireland, even though the Continental Congress also sent several letters to the Irish people, and invited Ireland, as well as Newfoundland and Quebec, to join the rebel colonies (Article XIII, Franklin’s proposed Articles for Confederation and Perpetual Union, 1775i). Instead of rising in arms, the Catholic Irish towns of Cork and Limerick even offered private rewards to those signing up to fight the American rebels.

What had happened?

The Plains of Abraham had happened. Sir Guy Carleton had happened. Although the French, as usual, held St. John’s and Newfoundland at the end of the Seven Years’ War, England found itself in possession of a large, new, solidly Catholic, colony in the New World.

So what did they do?

They made Catholicism legal. At least here, in this North American context.

Among other things, this proves one point. The English never hated the Irish because they were Catholic. They only hated Catholics because they were Irish.

This offered hope to the Catholic Irish of Newfoundland. To Catholics, the new United States offered nothing. Nothing but a closer Protestant government with a better reach.

There were, indeed, many Irish in America; but they were, at this time, almost exclusively Irish Protestants, the “Scots-Irish” of the US interior and South. The Catholic population of the thirteen rebel colonies was only about 1.6%. And most of the colonies had anti-Catholic laws just like the Penal Laws of England and Ireland.

But this republican rebelliousness was clearly not shared at first by their Catholic compatriots. After all, the last time the English got up to a revolution, they ended up with William of Orange and the Battle of the Boyne. The time before, they got Cromwell. The French Revolution, in turn, when it came, quickly turned murderously anti-Catholic in the Vendee. Royalism seemed historically to protect Catholics; revolution always seemed to favour Protestants. Joining another majority-Protestant power in rebellion did not seem in their interest.

And in Newfoundland, there were too few Protestant Irish to cause a real fight.

The British authorities seem to have noticed. Newfoundland, and Quebec, during the American Revolution, demonstrated that, in the context of the New World, Irish and Catholics might actually be usefully loyal. They were not going to side with the available enemy, so long as that enemy was Yankee or French Republican and not Catholic. So the anti-papist policies start to peter out in the 1770s and 1780s, in Newfoundland and in Ireland.

Bishop O'Donel

In 1782, in Ireland, although most restrictions on Catholics remained, Catholic priests and bishops were again allowed. In 1784, only two years later, Governor Campbell declared “freedom of conscience” in Newfoundland as well. The first Catholic chapel was built, and the first legal priest arrived, James Louis O’Donel (Prowse, p. 363). O’Donel was given by Rome the special authority, normally allowed only to bishops, to administer the sacrament of confirmation (ibid.). For centuries, no Newfoundlander had been able to share in this sacrament.

In 1796, O’Donel was formally and legally named bishop.

Partly, no question, this sudden loosening of restrictions on the Catholics was due to the fact that the English authorities did not really need any extra enemies at that moment.

By 1778, the British were at war with America, France, Spain, and Holland. They could no longer afford to be quite so high-handed with their remaining colonies, for they needed the colonies to take on their own defense.

In Ireland, Protestant settlers were allowed to arm and organize as the Irish Volunteers.

But the English may have trusted the wrong faction. The American Revolution did indeed quicken the hearts of many Irish Protestants. Lord Shelburne observed that in Ireland at this time, “in every Protestant or Dissenter’s house, the established toast is success to the Americans.” Edmund Burke, the great Irish parliamentarian, came early at Westminster to favour of the American rebels.

Although Protestant, these Irish volunteers saw themselves as Irish, not English; and, given the laws restricting Irish trade, their loyalty was not unquestionable. The English government, dependent upon 100,000 armed Irishmen in case of French invasion at such a difficult moment, had little choice but to offer concessions—in Ireland, and in Newfoundland.

Leaders of the United Irishmen

Despite these concessions, in 1798, there was a general insurrection in Ireland, led by a secret society called the United Irishmen. It was Protestant-led; but they advocated religious equality and Catholic emancipation, and so gained the attention now of Catholics as well. At the same time, according to the nervous estimate of Governor Walgrave, nine tenths of the population of Newfoundland was Irish (letter to the Duke of Portland, 1798).

Again Newfoundland did not rise. But when the rebellion in Ireland failed, many of its adherents were forced to flee: some to the United States, and some, if a few, to Newfoundland (Maguire, John, The Irish in America, loc. 356). The strongest element of the 1798 Irish rising, after all, was in Wexford, and almost all the Irish in Newfoundland were from the same area. The outports of Newfoundland would have been a good place to disappear.

These men were not yet prepared to give up the fight; either in Ireland or in Newfoundland. In Ireland, there was a later rebellion in 1803. In Newfoundland, beginning in February, 1800, rumours of disaffection spread through St. John’s. Forty to fifty members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, serving as the local garrison, secretly swore the oath to the United Irishmen, “to be true to the old cause, and to follow its leaders of whatever denomination.” The password was “Liberty or Death,” and the rebellion was to begin at 11 PM on the evening of Saturday, April 24. The time, according to an informant, was chosen because there was then a special service underway in the Anglican church. The officers would be present, and would not be carrying their weapons (Maguire, loc. 357). The conspirators, their own arms at the ready, were to meet behind the powder shed at Fort Townshend. This would give them immediate command of the garrison’s stores of ammunition, and, if they could quickly seize the fort, of the heights above the harbour. The plan was to descend on the church, kill all the officers who would not throw in with them, and then ...

Fort Townshend


What was to happen then is not clear. Perhaps Newfoundland would have been declared an independent republic, like America or France. Perhaps the fight would be taken to Ireland, as the Fenians later dreamed. More probably, the soldiers would have just righteously looted, then escaped to the rebel colonies to the south.

April 24 came. Eleven o’clock came. Nineteen soldiers showed up behind the powder shed. The rest were delayed by a function taking place at Fort William, which meant they could not slip away without being noticed. Nineteen did not seem like a terribly impressive number. Perhaps if they waited a little longer?

They could not know what had happened to their colleagues. Had they been found out?

Then worse happened. The alarm was heard on Signal Hill. Somehow, their plans had indeed been discovered. Deciding now the cause was lost, the nineteen Irish rebels scattered into the woods.

Over the next two weeks, the authorities managed to gather up sixteen. Two informed on the rest, five were hanged right there at the powder shed, and seven were sentenced to be shot later, at His Majesty’s convenience.

Three more Irish rebels are apparently still out there, waiting their chance. Including the arch-villain Murphy. Something might still happen at any time.

For the next few months, the English Newfoundland authorities were on tenterhooks. Having every reason to fear their own garrison, they quickly swapped troops with Halifax. Even so, they could not tell how far the conspiracy went, or whether its main blow had yet fallen. It was not auspicious that the two claimed ringleaders had not been caught. This suggested that they had some help and support in the community. Up to 400 local citizens were suspected of complicity, as well as residents of the Irish outports down the Avalon coast “almost to a man.”

The suspense grew worse as winter came. After the shipping season, sealed off by iced-in harbours, with no hope of aid from the homeland or the fleet, the authorities would be utterly vulnerable. Even a small insurrection could probably finish them all.

But spring came. The ice receded. The sun shone, and the fishing fleet returned.

The Irish dog had not barked.

The Newfoundland English believed they knew where credit lay for their salvation: with the new Catholic bishop, James O’Donel. The Newfoundland historian Prowse calls him the “saviour of their lives” (p. 364). Some even say he was the very one who informed on the St. John’s mutineers; others claim it was a mysterious scarlet woman in Ferryland.

There is no question that O’Donel opposed the uprising, and did whatever he could to keep the peace over the fall and winter. He wrote to his priests that they “should use every means to turn aside their flocks from the vortex of modern anarchy...[and] oppose with all the means in their power all plotters, conspirators, and favorers of the infidel French, … for the aim of this conspiracy is to dissolve all bonds, all laws, by which society is held together...” (Diocesan Statutes of 1801). That seems clear enough.

Diehard Irish rebels will no doubt fault O’Donel, and the Church hierarchy in Ireland, with here betraying the cause, and the interests of their flock. But the bottom line is this: O’Donel was ethically bound by the Catholic doctrine of the just war. War is an intrinsic evil. To be just, it must be meant to prevent some greater evil, and it must bear some reasonable chance of success.

This was certainly not the case in St. John’s in 1800. Granted that the local Irish could have overwhelmed the English magistrates. What then? The population of the island was 17,000 to 20,000. The next spring, England need only have sent a few men of war, and it would have been all over, with awful loss of life and probably of freedom.

And were the motives of the rebels pure? By this time, the French Republic, the model and ally of the United Irishmen, had turned on the Catholic Church. Churches throughout France had been seized, shut, or converted into “Temples of Reason.” Priests had been exiled or executed. Rome itself had been invaded, and the Pope held captive by revolutionary armies.

Crediting O’Donel and his priests for the failure of the uprising may be giving too little credit to the Newfoundland Irish themselves. It seems likely that the opinions of the Irish clergy and the opinions of the Irish laymen moved in sync. Indeed, Maguire, writing in the 1860’s, observes that “in no part of the world is there a more complete union of clergy and people than exists between the Catholic people and clergy of Newfoundland” (loc. 360). In the intimacy of the outports, under shared experiences good and bad, there would be little room for strongly different class consciousnesses to emerge.

The Irish in Newfoundland may not have had much. But they may have felt they had more than the folks at home, and that the future looked promising if things went as they were going. The Catholics had been allowed their priests and their sacraments, and even a bishop. Carleton had permitted full religious liberty in nearby Quebec; by this time they had a legislative assembly in which Catholic Irishmen could vote and hold office. Did that boat look worth rocking?

There is much wisdom in Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Princess and the Pea. By comparison with the Newfoundland Irish, the American colonists who revolted, many of them slaveholders, and the Irish Protestants who led the United Irishmen, many of them large landholders, were historically pretty well off, even privileged. But a sense of grievance emerges not when one is badly treated, but when one is given treatment worse than one has come to expect. When the only life you know is terrible enough, you are terribly easily pleased.

And the lack of a rebellion in the winter of 1800-01 seems in turn to have further convinced the Newfoundland and the British authorities that they might be able to trust the Irish “papists” after all.

Pitt and Wellington strangling the English constitution in giving rights to Catholics.

In the meantime, restrictions against it lifted, the Irish presence in Newfoundland continued to grow. In 1803, new regulations were passed by the British parliament requiring better conditions for passengers on board English ships bound for the New World. This was meant to make matters better for emigrants, who until then were often shipped over like cattle. But this also made the transatlantic crossing too expensive for the Irish poor.

A loophole left ships bound for Newfoundland exempt. As a result, passage to Newfoundland was both significantly more awful, and significantly cheaper, than the alternatives. Poor Irish therefore poured into Newfoundland. In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, 30,000 to 35,000 new settlers arrived.

Like cattle, of course. Accounts are of ships arriving at St. John’s with many passengers dead. Some were expected to somehow provide their own food and water for the passage. Some had bread and water, tightly rationed. Swinging cats was often not feasible (Keogh, The Slender Thread).

In 1813, landholding in Newfoundland became legal, a further incentive to come from away. At the same time, the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 boosted the Newfoundland fishery, as competitors for the English market were cut off by blockade. Meanwhile, the American colonies were closed by war to Irish settlement, diverting yet more of it to Newfoundland.


Dr, Cluny Macpherson of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in Egypt, 1915.

In 1806, the Benevolent Irish Society was founded in St. John’s—the first philanthropic organization anywhere in North America. The full significance of this may not be immediately obvious. Recall the recent history, at that time, of Irish voluntary associations: the United Irishmen had been formed in Belfast in 1791, barely 15 years earlier. This was a secret non-denominational society pledged to end English influence over Ireland. In reaction, the Orange Order was also formed, in 1795. This was a secret society pledged to preserve the British connection and “Protestant ascendancy”: a clear dissent from the United Irishmen. The Benevolent Irish Society can be seen as a Canadian Irish response. Like the United Irishmen, it admitted all religions. But it pledged its members to “behave as good and Loyal subjects, zealously to exert themselves in support of the Laws of our Country.” Its members were sworn to attend church regularly, but “to avoid all controversy on Religious or Political subjects.” It was public, not secret, and had “no further object in view but to succor the distressed and promote Benevolence and good will to all Men.” (“Rules and Constitution of The Benevolent Irish Society,” 1806).

Unofficial but traditional Newfoundland flag: green for Irish, pink for English, white for peace.


This has become the Canadian Irish way, and the Canadian way. The Dudley Do-Right thing; the be nice and polite and always follow the rules thing; the one Canadian characteristic that foreigners find most astounding. The constitution of the society reads almost like a Mini Carta of subsequent Canadian politics.

Besides all the good work the Society accomplished directly, it gave the Irish a civil society and a forum to develop the skills of cooperation, negotiation, debate, and parliamentary procedure they needed for later electoral participation. It gave them a political voice and the ability to organize for their interests. And, probably most importantly, it created a model of Irish unity and a place for the Irish to congregate socially apart from the many sectarian organizations: the United Irishmen for the revolutionaries, the Orange Lodge for Protestants, the “Yellowbellies” from Wexford, the “Wheybellies” from Waterford, the “Clear-Airs” from Tipperary, the “Doones” from Kilkenny, and the “Dadyeens” from Cork—all active in Newfoundland. All of which had an unfortunate habit of meeting at any public gathering and trying to club one another into submission.

The Benevolent Irish Society was happily later imitated elsewhere in Irish Canada, notably in Halifax and in London, Ontario. Relations between the different strains of Irishmen in Canada have not always been tranquil, but one would like to think that this Benevolent Irish Society created a new Irish-Canadian model, and indeed a new Canadian model, of peace, order, and good government.

Non-Canadians may now wish to puke.

Also in 1806, Newfoundland had its first newspaper, the Royal Gazette; started, inevitably, as it seems almost all Canadian newspapers have been started, by an Irishman, John Ryan. At first, despite the publisher having recently voted with his feet as a United Empire Loyalist, it was under great suspicion as a possible Irish plot, and each issue had to be submitted to the government before being published. But it was a stride forward.

Our story must now move on. Too much by now was happening elsewhere. But before we leave the banks of Newfoundland, a postscript. According to the English governor, the population of Newfoundland was, in 1798, nine-tenths Irish. He may have been exaggerating; nobody had an accurate count. On top of that, the greatest Irish immigration came after that time, from 1803 to 1820.

And since then, there has been little immigration to Newfoundland from anywhere.

One would therefore naturally assume, would one not, that the overwhelming majority of Newfoundlanders today would be Irish? The Newfoundland accent is Irish; the Newfoundland music is Irish. Newfoundland is “the most Irish place outside Ireland.”

One would be wrong.

The latest Canadian census shows the ethnically Irish population of Newfoundland to be only 20%. For comparison, 40% identify themselves as “English.”

Where did all those Irish go? Fort MacMurray?

The answer is probably mostly found in another demographic category on the same census. The ethnicity of 53% of Newfoundlanders is “Canadian.”

On this census, ethnicity is self-reported.

In other words, the great majority of the Irish in Newfoundland have embraced “Canadian” as their ethnic identity. In contrast, virtually all those who were originally English see themselves still and forever as English. Along, quite probably, with a few of the Irish.

This illustrates the essential point about the Irish in Canada. They are the great Canadian secret. Scratch a Canadian, and he bleeds green.


i “Any other and every Colony from Great Britain upon the Continent of North America and not at present engag'd in our Association shall may upon Application and joining the said Association be receiv'd into this Confederation, viz. [Ireland] the West India Islands, Quebec, St. Johns, Nova Scotia, Bermudas, and the East and West Floridas; and shall thereupon be entitled to all the Advantages of our Union, mutual Assistance and Commerce.”



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