Playing the Indian Card

Saturday, May 06, 2017

The Irish in Canada

I am not sure ethnic histories are a good idea. They tend to exclude. We are all brothers.

When I was in graduate school, I signed up for a course on the Holocaust. On the first day, introducing the course, the distinguished visiting scholar informed us that “the Jewish question is at the centre of all European history.”

I think I stayed until the end of the lecture. Next day, I dropped the course.

I do not mean to downplay the Holocaust. And I do think the Jews have been influential out of all proportion to their numbers. But I doubt my Irish ancestors ever saw a Jew, and I doubt they spent much time pondering the Jewish question. In exaggerating the Jewish experience, their experience was being marginalized. What were they, chopped liver?

And now here I am, and aren’t I saying, “the Irish question is at the centre of all Canadian history”?

Yeah, I guess I am.

I think I need to say, therefore, a few words in my defense.

The Jewish story has already been told. The Jewish experience in Europe, fascinating as it is, and important is it is, has not been suppressed or ignored. It has been thoroughly reported, novelized, filmed, dramatized, mimed, and sung about.

Not so the Irish in Canada.

In Canada, we have grown up hearing about the “Two Founding Nations” – English and French. We have all heard a great deal too about the “First Nations.” We may know about the UE Loyalists. More recently, we have been treated to Ken McGoogan’s How the Scots Invented Canada.

By contrast, the Irish Canadian experience has been oddly absent from the library shelves; especially considering how large and important it has been. Throughout the nineteenth century, most immigration to Canada was from Ireland. Between 1825 and 1845, 60% of all arrivals were from Ireland—and this was before the Great Famine. There is room for a lot of information unknown to the average reader, without resorting to humbuggery, drumbeating or massed trumpets. This is also why I presume stressing the Irish experience in Canada is no slight to any other group. 

I cite for example the Black Rock, aka the “Irish Commemorative Stone” in Montreal. It was the first memorial for the typhus epidemic of 1847, raised only in 1859. You knew, at least, about the typhus epidemic of 1847? The potato famine, and all that.

Granted, this was not the moral atrocity of the Shoah. It was as much an act of God as of man. But tellingly, and troublingly, the unhewn rock in Montreal belatedly raised to remember the dead of the typhus pestilence features nothing to indicate that its victims were Irish.

When it was dug up, the ground around, a mass grave of 6,000 unknown Irish Catholics, was given, logically enough, to the Anglican Church. The ceremony of consecration was conducted by an Anglican minister. Catholic clergy were not invited. No mention at the service, any more than in the stone’s inscription, of the nationality or religion of those interred.

It is hard to see this happening with any of the many Holocaust museums: no mention that the victims were Jewish.

What is going on here?

I grew up partly in a pretty Irish area of Canada―Leeds County, Ontario. It is here my Irish ancestors had settled. Growing up, it was clear to me that most of the names of my neighbours, and my relatives, were Irish. Even the local rural accent was Irish—so British visitors often informed me on hearing it. But I had heard nobody local ever make this point. There was not a breath about of the Irishness of the place. I even heard denials when challenged: no, we were Canadian, or British, or Scottish, or “mongrels.” 

I always wondered why.

Living then in Montreal as a teenager, I was warned by my parents never to go near Point Saint Charles or Griffintown. Living in Kingston, Ontario, later, I was cautioned never to buy property north of Princess Street. There was no reason given; these were just “bad neighbourhoods.” I suppose they were; they were poor, for what little that is worth; but they were not the only poor neighbourhoods. And poverty was considered no excuse, either, it seems, for moving there. And if you speak of opportunities for vice, they were not even in the running. John Maguire boasted of Griffintown, at its worst, that despite its poverty, “not a single house of ill-fame is to be found in the entire district” (The Irish in America, p. 220). There are areas of Montreal, or Kingston, of which that much could not be said.

But Griffintown, Point St. Charles, and north of Princess Street were, tellingly, the old Irish neighbourhoods. This was a past that must not be acknowledged.

This secret Irishness became a puzzle for me personally; a knot I needed to untie, something I felt I owed to my ancestors and myself. There is something to be said, after all, for coming out of the closet. I feel now that if I had known at a younger age just how Irish my background was, and what being Irish meant, I might have been spared a lot of trouble finding my path. It could have cleared up a lot of confusion. Perhaps this is true of others too.

It cannot only be that my parents, being middle-class Irish, did not want to be confused with more working-class Irish; although that was perhaps some of it. Those Irish ghettos were places our relatives, if not our direct ancestors, had escaped from, off the coffin ships, penniless and plague-ridden. Nicholas Flood Davin refers to the Irish in Canada as “a nation of helots” (The Irishman in Canada, London, 1877, p. 3). It is human nature to internalize this, so that the Canadian Irish themselves might come to see Irishness as cause for mortification. To many in the New World, denying one's Irishness might have felt like moving up.

But that by itself surely cannot explain it. The Highland Scots also came desperately poor, yet proud of their heritage. So too seem the Italians, or the Portuguese. Jews have no problem being spotted in Kensington Market, on Spadina, St. Urbain, or along the Main.

It may have been that for the Irish in Canada, their history had become too painful to remember. That too makes sense. On the other hand, why has this motive never overcome the Jews, who dwell on the Holocaust, who even offer graduate courses on it?

And remember the Memorial Stone. It is not just the Irish who seemed eager to suppress the Irishness of the Irish; the authorities felt the same impulse. There was something especially troublesome about being Irish. It was the ethnicity that dare not speak its name.

Have you ever seen the flag of the Riel Rebellions? The rebellions in the Northwest, in 1870 and 1885, supposedly involving the grievances of the M├ętis and the Indians? The flag run up the flagpole by the insurgent governments of Red River and Assiniboia?

Contemporary sources say it featured a fleur-de-lys, an Irish harp, and a shamrock, on a background of green.

Now what ethnicity does that suggest?

What have we not been told?

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