Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Pure Laine Irlandais

Quebec in 1755, pre-conquest

In 1534, Jacques Cartier, an experienced Breton pilot from St. Malo, sailed across the North Atlantic and claimed Canada for France.

Cartier needed no Medieval model for inspiration: expeditions under Cabot and Verrazano had recently returned with certain news that there was land beyond the Western Sea. Cartier had himself already sailed to Newfoundland.

Still, it is interesting to notice just who St. Malo was.

Malo was the chief disciple of St. Brendan.

And, yes, he accompanied Brendan on his voyage.

Cartier must have grown up with the legend. It was a sort of divine charter for all the seamen of St. Malo.

When he came to the New World, Cartier described its bounteousness in words also reminiscent of Brendan. Of the Northumberland Strait, Cartier writes, “The grounds … are very fair, and all full of peason, white and red gooseberries, strawberries, blackberries, and wild corn, even like unto rye, which seemed to have been sowed and plowed. This country is of better temperature than any other that can be seen, and very hot.” (Hakluyt, loc. 65). In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he sees “great store of vines, all as full of grapes as could be, so that if any of our fellows went on shore, they came home laden with them.” (loc. 146). Of the Gaspé, he comments, “This country is hotter than the country of Spain” (loc. 75).

Such is Eastern Canada in the summer, if you stay only for the summer. But note, this justifies Brendan's account of the bounty of the “Land Promised to the Saints.” It need not be understood as fanciful, for we know Cartier's account was factual.

One also begins to understand, from Cartier's logs, why the Medieval Irish might have remembered the Canadian East Coast, as in the Voyage of Bran or the Voyage of Mael Duin, as “The Land of Women.” When Cartier's men first encounter natives in the Gaspe, their reception is very different from that received by the Vikings at the hands of the Skraelings (presumably Beothuks) further north. The women, Cartier recounts, “came very friendly to us, rubbing our arms with their own hands.” (loc. 74). This intimate form of greeting is repeated almost everywhere they go. In Hochelaga (Montreal), “all the women and maidens of the town gathered themselves together … and as many as could came to rub our faces, our arms, and what part of the body soever they could touch, weeping for very joy that they saw us, shewing us the best countenance that possibly they could” (loc. 161).

And first impressions, it seems, in this case did not lie. Among the Indians, Cartier reports, “Everyone weddeth 2 or 3 wives.”

But we are getting ahead of ourselves: before marriage, young maidens are kept in a “common place,” “as harlots free for every man that will have to do with them, until such time as they find a match.” “Very wantonly they sport about,” Cartier continues, trying to sound disapproving, “shewing whatsoever God hath sent them” (loc. 176-7).

At least twice, Cartier is offered young girls as gifts (loc. 135, 145).

Champlain, many year later, encounters a similar greeting among the Hurons. “[A]s I went out of the cabin to escape the fleas [mosquitoes], of which there were large numbers and by which we were tormented, a girl of little modesty came boldly to me and offered to keep me company” (Champlain, Voyages, p. 283).

It must have been very trying for the Irish monks. And for Bran’s sailors before them.

On his third expedition, Cartier's men sent back two ships loaded to the water line with diamonds and gold. It was once again just as St. Brendan had claimed: there were precious stones lying everywhere, for the picking.

Canadian gold and Canadian diamonds

Sadly, the bounty, enough to make everyone in Brittany rich, turned out, on inspection back in Europe, to be quartz and iron pyrite. This caused a common idiom to enter the French language: “faux comme les diamants du Canada.” “As phony as Canadian diamonds.”

But it does seem to justify one more detail of the Brendan account. Quartz outcroppings and iron pyrite are everywhere on the Canadian Shield. In claiming there were riches there for the taking, Brendan and his shipmates might have simply made the same mistake.

There are other hints, in early French chronicles, that Christians had been here before. In 1604, landing in Minas Basin, three or four leagues north of Cape Split, Nova Scotia, Champlain, eerily, finds a wooden cross, so old that it is covered with moss, and the wood mostly rotted (Champlain, p. 113). According to conventional history, there should have been no Europeans there before this time.

Might the local Indians have been influenced to do this by the Irish long ago? In 1675, when Récollet Father Chretien Le Clercq was sent to the Indians of northern New Brunswick and the Gaspé, he was surprised to discover that they already venerated the cross. The custom was so prominent that he called these Indians “Cross-Bearers.” “They bear it figured upon their clothes,” he writes, “and upon their skin, they hold it in their hands when travelling..., and place it at both ends of their houses as a mark of honour...” Le Clercq's own conclusion is that “this people have formerly received a knowledge of the cross, evangelism, and Christianity, which was lost by the negligence of their ancestors.” He also thought they showed some prior knowledge of writing. 

Sketch of LeClercq by LeClercq

The Indians themselves told him the cross came originally from a man who arrived from across the sea and settled among them, healing many (Mulloy, p. 141-2).

The cross is a simple enough image; it could easily have emerged here in Eastern Canada independently, with no Christian connection. Most modern anthropologists are not impressed by Le Clercq's evidence, and assume just that. But Le Clercq's reporting is generally extremely accurate; at a minimum, he is not making this up. And the location seems about right for influence by Great Ireland. According to the Norse, the Irish lands were south and west of Newfoundland.

Whatever the truth of the time before Cartier's arrival, however, there were certainly more Irish coming now--with the French. There were Irish in Brittany; it is possible the name “Cartier” itself is a version of the Irish “Carty” or “Carthy,” as in “McCarthy.” We know that there were Irish in early Quebec, in Acadia, and in Louisbourg. Their presence has been established through Irish names, or notations such as “Irlandais,” on settler lists. By this method, we can estimate that about 5% of habitants in New France were originally Irish: 130 out of 2,500 families in the 1700 count. But sadly, we know almost nothing about them except their names. They were simple, common people, and few records were kept regarding the common people in those times.

We are left to speculate; and so that is what we will do.

Cartier's sixteenth-century settlement failed. It was the Sieur de Champlain, early next century, who actually founded New France. In Ireland, this was just after the Nine Years' War. It was a time when many Irish were fleeing to the continent to escape the conquering English. It was also the beginning of the Ulster Plantation, in which many thousands of Irish were left landless and without a living. In those times, before America was America, France was the nearest refuge; and, in particular, the provinces of Brittany and Normandy, nearest to Ireland, from which most of the settlers for New France came.

And so, with the first French settlers no doubt came some Irish—the more so since these Irish were likely to be in dire economic straits and in need of land. Most came as farmers; some apparently came as stonemasons for the building of Fort Louisbourg. There were also Franco-Irish colonies on the southwest shore of Newfoundland by the middle of the 18th century, settled from St. Malo (“'Une Grande Liaison': French Fishermen from the Ile Royale on the Coast of Southwestern Newfoundland, 1714-1766 – A Preliminary Survey,” Newfoundland Studies III: 2, Fall, 1987).

Sadly, the history of Ireland did not end there. The Irish rose again against the English in 1641, the Confederation War, and battle raged for ten years before Oliver Cromwell crushed the Catholic Irish. In victory, Cromwell decided to clear Ireland east of the Shannon: the Irish were to be sent “to Connaught or to Hell.” To be Irish east of the Shannon became the crime of high treason.

So what to do with all these excess Irish? Connaught was already overcrowded, and Hell would not have them. One clever strategy employed was to take them alive, and ship them to the New World as slaves. After all, as the English state papers put it coldly in 1742, this was “a great benefit to the West India sugar planters, who desired men and boys for their bondsmen, and the women and Irish girls … To solace them.”

I use the term “slaves” here controversially. You might have heard of this huge wave of Irish settlement in the New World as “indentured servitude.” It was not that. According to the 1927 International Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, who ought to know, “slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” Indentured servitude, by contrast, is a contract, involving specified rights and duties for both parties.

These were slaves.

Firstly, they were transported without consent on their part.

Secondly, in the New World, they were bought and sold as property.

Thirdly, there were no legal limits on what their masters could do with them, up to and including killing them (Akamatsu, p. 105).

The one distinction between them and the black African slaves who followed was that the Africans were enslaved for life, while the Irish usually had to be released after a set term, of from seven to twenty years.

This was not always to their advantage. Since, at a known future date, all ownership rights were lost, slave owners had no incentive to keep them alive past that date. You might as well work them to death. As one overseer explained, “Oh, the niggers are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything” (Rhetta Akamatsu, The Irish Slaves, p. 10).

Children born during this period of slavery were also automatically slaves, and their term did not end when their parent's did (I use “parent's” in the singular advisedly. Think about it.).

This Irish slave trade actually began in the days of Elizabeth—just as soon as England had New World as well as Irish colonies. But it received a huge assist from the events of the 1640s and 1650s. During the Nine Years' War, 300,000 Irish were transported, mostly able-bodied men from the losing side. This was estimated by Sir William Petty to be one in six of all Irish adult males at the time (Rhetta Akamatsu, The Irish Slaves, p. 3). During the 1650s, under Cromwell's ethnic cleansing campaign, over 180,000 were transported, most of them below the age of 14.

The system was simple: the Irish were thrown off their lands. Then anyone found vagrant was transported. In 1655, the entire town of Lackagh was sent into slavery, including two priests (Akamatsu, p. 19).

On the voyage across, records suggest, about 37% died, sometimes chained by the neck and legs (Akamatsu, p. 10). This is rather worse than the mortality rate among black Africans in the later “Middle Passage”: 25%. But then, African slaves were worth more than the Irish: up to 50 pounds, versus 5 pounds. They were worth taking better care of. as cargo, or as possessions. The governor of Virginia in 1671 estimated that four in five of the “indentured servants” who did make it across died before their term of service expired (Akamatsu, p. 98).

Up until 1660, there were more Irish slaves than free citizens in America. Up until 1700, there were more Irish slaves than black slaves in America. This Irish slave trade subsided over time, but it continued, in a small way, right up to the end of the 18th century; thousands were transported in the wake of the United Irishmen Uprising in 1798.

Most Irish ended up in the sugar plantations of the West Indies, where slave labour was in greatest demand. But many were sent to Virginia, and some as far north as New England.

Now, for an Irish slave in New England or New York, in which direction did freedom lie?

Extent of New France (French claim)

In the South, one might head for the mountains; or join an Indian tribe. But in the Mid-Atlantic and Northern States, the best opportunity lay North. Irish slaves who could escape their masters and make it to the French colonies were free. And better than that: they were in a place where their religion, if Catholics, was not only legal, but celebrated, and among people who like themselves had no special love for the English.

A Western paradise indeed.

An estimated ten percent of “indentured servants” in Pennsylvania managed to escape their bondage (Akamatsu, p. 60). They had one advantage here over black slaves: it was easier for them to blend in when on the run. We frankly have no good evidence of it, but one can imagine, if not assume, that an informal early Underground Railroad to New France ran at this time. We know at least of some Irish women bound for slavery in Virginia who were intercepted at sea by the French warships Le Brilliant and L'Heureux, and released to freedom in Quebec (O'Gallagher). The captain of L'Hereux was an Irishman named Darragh (

In the 1680's the Williamite Wars commenced: between James II, the Stuart king of England, a closet Catholic, and William of Orange, a Protestant claimant supported by Parliament in London. Catholic Ireland rose in support of James, and the bloody part of the fight took place mostly there.

When the outnumbered Catholics lost, they made terms by which the Irish soldiery could choose whether to enter service for England, or for their French allies. The two royal standards were placed in a field, and units marched out of besieged Limerick towards the one, or towards the other.

By a margin of ten to one, the Irish chose France and exile. Twenty-five thousand officers and men left for France and never returned.

Wild Geese flying to Canada

These were the original “Wild Geese.”

They began a tradition: as things grew grim in Ireland, generation after generation, young men of all classes would take ship for France and for other Continental powers, to serve in their foreign legions.

For a time, this suited everyone. The Irish, especially the Irish upper class, preserved their martial traditions—and in any case, needed some way to make a living, unable to own land or practice a profession at home. The French liked to see themselves as the leader of the Catholic world, the King of France styling himself as “His Most Christian Majesty.” So they welcomed fellow Catholics under their royal parasol. In any case, they were in the habit of employing up to 20% foreigners in their military. And the English saw no problem with this. After all, each Irishman who voluntarily exiled himself to fight for France was one less Irishman they had to worry about in Ireland. The English did not want or even permit Catholics in their army, for they feared Catholics with guns.

We have records of a good two dozen French army regiments over the years with Irish names. These would have been commanded by Irish officers; but apparently, ordinary Irish foot soldiers could and did also serve in other French regiments.

St, Marguerite d'Youville, foundress of the Grey Nuns

Some of them must have served in New France. And some of soldiers, on ending their term of service, must have settled there. McCarty is one Quebec name traceable to the Wild Geese: Charles Latouche McCarty (or McCarthy) emigrated from France in 1737 (Wilson, “The Irish in Canada,” 1989; Marianna O'Gallagher, “The Irish in Quebec”). He fought with the Irish regiments in the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War. Marguerite d'Youville's stepfather, Timothy O'Sullivan dit Sylvain, born in Cork, had served sixteen years as Captain of Dragoons in the Irish Brigade ( His daughter went on to found the Grey Nuns, and to become a saint of the Catholic Church.

The presence of Irish soldiery in America would have been especially likely at times of conflict with England. It is not just that more soldiers of any sort would be there at such a time. According to O'Callaghan's History of the Irish Brigades, Irish regiments within the French Army claimed a traditional right to be first to battle whenever the English, their enemies, were in the field (p. 616). This also suited the French.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, England again began to allow the Catholic Irish to enlist in her armies. After this, the two, Irish Catholics fighting for England, and Irish Catholics fighting for France, would occasionally come face to face in battle. Lucky for the French. When this happened, the French found, the Irish tended to defect to them en masse (O'Callaghan, p. 628).

In Montreal, in 1757, Vaudreuil formed a separate New World Irish company out of such deserters (O'Gallagher).

There were therefore no doubt Irish fighting for France in the Seven Years' War, the war in which Wolfe won Quebec on the Plains of Abraham. Unfortunately, however, the records of the French War office for this period are missing ( Revolutions and their resultant disorder are such inconvenient things. The Regiment de Berwick, part of the Irish Brigade, under FitzJames, apparently served (Peter Mackenzie, “French Military Units in North America,”

Standard of the Berwick Regiment, an Irish regiment of the French Royal army.

In 1755, a unit arrived at Quebec, usually said to be part of the Bearn Regiment; that is, a regular French company based in the province of Bearn, in the Pyrenees bordering the Basque country.

And it may indeed have been the Bearn Regiment that marched off the boats in Quebec.

But, mysteriously, the same regiment is later seen below the ramparts of Fort Oswego wearing the traditional red and green uniform of an Irish brigade. Moreover, a French deserter identifies it to the English as an Irish unit (Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan, “Papers Relating to the First Settlement and Capture of Fort Oswego, 1727-1756”). When the regiment's fallen officers are listed in official documents after the siege of Fort Carillon, the names indeed seem rather Irish: Macarti (McCarthy), de Patrice (FitzPatrick), Duglas (Douglas), de Moran (Moran), Paure (Power), de Coni (Cooney).

Their subsequent history also sounds like the behaviour we would expect from an Irish unit, given its right to be first at the fight when the English were in the field. In 1756 they defeated and burned out the British at Fort Oswego. They captured Fort William Henry in 1758. They fought in the epic defense of Fort Carillon the same year. In 1759, they were back at Quebec to win in the Battle of Beauport. They fought on Plains of Abraham, then retreated to Montreal. They charged with fixed bayonets at the Battle of Sainte-Foy. They seem to have been first in line wherever the British appeared.

Why might an Irish regiment be confused with the Bernaise? It may be due to the lost records—the Bearn identity may simply be mistaken. Or there may be another reason. Although for many years the English saw no problem with the Irish serving in foreign armies, they were a bit put out to face a troop of well-drilled Irish cavalry lined up with Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. They soon thereafter made it illegal for the Irish to serve in foreign armies. Those who did became officially guilty of treason under English law.

Accordingly, the French had some reason to protect the true identity of their Irish soldiery, and indeed to hide the details of their Irish recruitment networks. This may also be why the French pressed, on their surrender at the end of the French and Indian (Seven Years’) War, for a clause expressly pardoning anyone who had “left the service of their sovereign,” or “carried arms in North America” (

This was hardly necessary for French soldiers.

Nor was it needed for Vaudreuil's Irish deserters, who had already been shipped off to the European front.

There must have been others.

Shared banner of the French Irish brigades

The French were unable to get the English to accept this clause. To the latter, priorities were priorities: nothing was more important, no doubt, than the opportunity to hang an Irishman or two.

At some risk from the victorious party, the obvious course for any Irish soldiers in French service at this time was to fade into the mass of the French settlers in the countryside, where the English generally could not understand what anyone was saying.

This would have been a new Irish influx in addition to the 5% Irish population recorded in 1700.

When Montreal capitulated, a French unit at Fort de Chartres, on the Mississippi River in what is now Illinois, still held out. The commander refused to surrender for a full year, until directly ordered to do so by the French king. The commander was an Irishman named Richard McCarthy (

The full extent of the Irish settlement in New France is then obscured by the tendency of the Catholic Irish to intermarry and assimilate—the same tendency that had allowed them to swallow up invading foreigners for so many centuries at home. They usually Francized their names. There is a “Caissie, Irlandaise” on the records for Port Royal—his birth name was obviously “Casey.” Tadhg Cornelius O'Brennan pops up in the Ville Marie (Montreal) census for 1663. At his marriage, to one of the Filles du Roi, his parents' names are given as “Connehair Aubrenam” (Conor O'Brennan) and “Honoree Jeannehour” (Honora Connor). Perhaps an attempt to regularize the Irish as French names—or perhaps the parish clerk is simply entering them phonetically, given a French ear. The same man is, in his death notice, the process of assimilation complete, recorded as “Pierre Aubry.”

Following the same process, the Irish name Moran became Morin, Reilly became Riel, Barrett became Barette, Burke became Bourque, Geary became Guerin, McGee became Mainguy, Nolan became Nolin, Sullivan became Sylvain, Leahy became LeHaye. There are many “French” names in Quebec that are not found in France.

The often-quoted bottom line from all this is that 40% of French Quebeçois can claim at least some Irish blood. In Quebec, journalist Louis-Guy Lemieux remarks, “We are all Irish. Or almost!” (Taieb Moalla, “Les Irlandais du Quebec: a la croisée de deux cultures”). As elsewhere in Canada, this has been largely forgotten: most Irish-Quebeçois no longer know they are Irish.

We see the same process in Newfoundland, or in the rest of “English” Canada; and it probably stems from many of the same factors. The Irish in Canada see themselves simply as Canadians. Or Canadiens.

Irish soldier in French service, 1740.

Yet it is not that the Irish Quebeçois have lost their own roots, their own culture. It is that Quebec has gained it. The two strands, French and Irish, have interwoven to create something new in the New World, so that Quebec folk life is something quite distinct from France. Wikipedia shares the common view, for example, that “France and Ireland have had the biggest impacts on contemporary Quebec cuisine.” Quebec traditional music is unmistakably Celtic, complete with step-dancing. A Quebeçois friend once theorized to me that the rate of assimilation of Irish and French in Quebec was based on one factor above all: whether their home town had one fiddler, or two. If only one, they met and romanced at the local dances.

I suspect that anyone who has lived in Quebec is familiar with a certain shade of green, seen frequently there on older doors and windowsills. This is the wildest of speculations, but I do wonder where that came from? Might it be a distant folk memory from original Irish settlers, who had been traditionally forbidden to wear the colour, because of its nationalist associations, at home?

By God, proud of homes they owned themselves, they were going to paint their personal castle doors here green!

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