THE NIGHTMARE STORY OF THE IRISH FLIGHT TO CANADA
They came by the tens of thousands in plague-infested ships from a famine-stricken land. Welcomed with abuse, they survived to become publicans, priests and lively politicians, plus O’Flahertys who speak only French
THE BRIG MIDAS sailed into the harbor at Saint John, N.B., and anchored at Partridge Island quarantine station on the sunny afternoon of May 5, 1847. That was an important date in Canadian history, for after it the young country was never quite the same again.
An immigration officer went aboard for routine inspection. What he saw has been described as “the most horrible, the most ghastly, the most pitiable sight ever seen in a Canadian port.” Port officials in those days were hardened to boatloads of squalor from across the Atlantic, but they’d never seen anything like this. Hundreds of filthy, ragged, starved immigrants from Ireland were packed in the hold like blacks in a slaver. Between rows of wood n benches that served as berths were piled boxes, sacks, pails, barrels and bundles containing the wretched worldly goods of the passengers. Neither floor nor berths nor passengers had been washed since the ship left Ireland six weeks before. The straw ticks hadn’t been aired and were filled with “abominations.” The ship gave off such a fet id stench that longshoremen demanded bonus wages to board her.
Men, women and children huddled hollow-eyed in their berths, too sick with typhus to stagger on deck for their first glimpse of the land of promise. Eight children and two adults had died on the way over and many more were to die and be buried on Partridge Island in the next, few days.
The Midas was no isolated hell-ship. She was merely the first of the “fever ships” from Ireland, the forerunner of an armada of misery that in the next seven years was to fill Canada’s Atlantic ports, bringing the biggest single wave of immigration in our history. After witnessing a similar arrival at Quebec a Dr. Douglas declared: “I never saw people so indifferent to life. They would remain in the same berth with a dead Grosse Isle, Que., monument mourns the person until t he seaman dragged out the corpse with a boat hook.”
hundreds who perished there of typhus. Nine days after the Midas docked at Saint John the sailing ship Syria
made her way up the St. Lawrence to the Continued on page 31
The Irish Flight To Canada
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 24
quarantine station at Grosse Isle, below Quebec City. By May 20 no fever than thirty more ships were anchored at the island unloading or waiting to unload their cargoes of death, disease and incredible wretchedness. By the end of the year similar ships had dumped more than a hundred thousand destitute Irish men, women anJ children in Canadian ports. By 1854 Canada’s population was increased by nearly three hundred and fifiy thousand Irish.
For 1847 was the year of the typhus ep.demic, the blackest year in Ireland’s sad history, the worst year of the potato famine that within one decade reduced Ireland’s population from
8.500.000 to just over 5,000,000. An eslimated one million of these actually starved to death or died from typhus. A cotai of 1,656,044 emigrated to North America, 1,300,000 to the United States and the rest to Canada.
Ireland’s loss was Canada’s gain, although Canadians did not see it that way at the time. The newcomers were referred to by some editors as “Irish trash” or “boatloads of indolence and poverty”; 3'lie Governor-General, Lord Elgin, called the influx a “terrible scourge” and petitioned the home government to “stem the tide of misery.” Still they came, and the survivors went to work to build railways, roads, bridges, canals, sawmills and factories. 33iey cleared the land for farming. They were largely responsible for increasing Canada’s population from just over one million in 1831 to 3,689,257 in 1871.
Potatoes Were To Blame
3’he census of that year showed 846,414 Irishmen or their descendants in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick out of a total population of 3,485,761 —or 140,000 more than those of English origin and
200.000 more than those of Scottish origin. So during the period when Canada was changing from colony to nation almost one person in four in the settled area was an Irishman.
Whether their influence was good or bad is still a subject of argument, but there can be no doubt that the Protestant and Catholic Irish who came to Canada in the nineteenth century brought new and lively issues into Canadian politics.
And their influx was almost entirely due to potatoes. Without a superabundance of spuds there never would have been so many Irish in the first place, and certainly not nearly so many eventually in North America. Potatoes are supposed (by one theory) to have been introduced into Ireland from North Carolina in 1585. By 1700 they were being grown all over the country. Irishmen thrived so well on them that between 1700 and 1800 the population jumped from 1,250,000 to 4,500,000. In the next forty-five years potatoes combined with early marriages and the discouragement of emigration to increase Ireland’s population to the unprecedented high of 8,500,000.
That was almost exactly twice as many Irishmen as there are at home today and about twice as many as the economy could support. Fully one third of these Irishmen lived almost entirely on potatoes. Tenant farmers, cotters and farm laborers subsisted on patches of potatoes varying in size from a quarter-acre to five acres. They ate spuds three times a day, made
flour out of them, fed them to the pigs and even turned them into whisky. When the crop was good they had nearly enough to eat; when it failed through floods or drought or frost or insects—as it did in 1739, 1821, 1831, 1835 and 1839— they lived on charity, starved, or emigrated.
In the first half of the nineteenth century overpopulation and one-crop dependence caught up with the Irish. The cotters and laborers were desperately poor. 3’heir thatched-roofed, clay-walled huts barely kept out the weather. Speaking in the British par-
liament in 1838 the Duke of Wellington stated: “Inhere never was a country in which poverty existed to so great a degree as it exists in Ireland.” Early in 1845 an Irish member of parliament admitted that there were four and a half million paupers in his country.
On this sorry situation in the summer of 1845 a fungus growth called late blight fell like a headsman’s axe. It had ruined potato crops in North America in 1844, but since there was plenty of other food it caused no great distress. 3'here was heavy rainfall in the spring of 1845 in Ireland and the praties
came up lush and green. Weeding their fine patches the cotters noticed little purple blotches on the leaves. 3'hey’d never seen them before, and so ignored them. More rains came and the blotches got larger, leaves began to droop. By midsummer the whole potato patch was a rotten soggy mess giving off a stench that carried for miles. In some regions in the west and south the entire crop was wiped out. That winter many Irish were hungry, but few actually starved.
3’he spring of 1846 was six weeks early and the potato growers hoped for
an early harvest. They got no harvest at all. By now the blight had spread all over the island and gaunt famine stalked in its wake. Early in 1847 typhus fever, spread by lice and thriving on overcrowding and undernourishment, broke out everywhere.
The first reports of starvation came from the counties of Cork in the south and Mayo in the west. By February people were dying everywhere. In one townland near the city of Cork seven hundred of the eight hundred inhabitants were starving.
On April 17 the Roscommon Journal reported: “Deaths by famine are now so frequent that whole families who retire to rest at night are corpses in the morning and frequently are left unburied for days for want of coffins.”
By the middle of March fifty thousand deaths from starvation and disease had been reported to the constabulary office in Dublin. During March and April two thousand died every week in the workhouses alone. Thousands more perished on the roadsides and in ditches. Coroners stopped holding inquests for lack of juries. Hungry men became crazed criminals. One broke into a house in Cork and murdered two children just to get at some scraps of cake. Food riots broke out at the ports, for although the peasants starved the regular export of oats, flour, beef, pork and mutton to England continued.
The British government distributed forty-five million dollars’ worth of corn in the first six months of 1847. Supplies were shipped from the United States and Canada, but it was not enough. For hundreds of thousands the choice was: Flmigrate to the
unknown wilds of North America or stay at home and die.
In March the great exodus began. Help was forthcoming but not all of it was disinterested. Some landlords, eager to consolidate the peasants’ plots into larger farms, invoked a provision of the Poor Relief Act which enabled them to pay the passages of tenants and take over their land. Parish officials often decided it was shrewder to put up money for fares than to attempt to feed the destitute. But in many cases friends and relatives already established in North America sent money. Philanthropists helped others. One of the most remarkable of these was Vere Foster, an English diplomat and author. In 1847 Foster visited Ireland and was so shocked by what he saw that thereafter he devoted most of his time and money to the relief of Irish suffering. In all he helped twenty-five thousand single Irish girls emigrate to North America. Of these, sixteen thousand came to Canada. Foster even braved the horrors of the refugee ships to learn conditions at first hand.
The refugees swarmed to the ports of Ireland carrying their pitiable belongings on their backs. And immediately new troubles beset them. Unscrupulous agents often bought up the entire steerage space of a vessel and then fleeced the destitute passengers. They forced the price of passage up from three pounds to five pounds and then to seven pounds. They sold the travelers useless junk as “essentials in the New World,” they gave false information — “New York is directly on the route to Quebec”—and sold passages on ships not due to sail for several weeks.
The emigrants were jammed into the holds of old sailing tubs once used to transport timber and potash across the Atlantic. According to a description of one four-hundred-ton vessel, pigs on their way to slaughter had it better. The hold was seventy-five feet long and twenty-five wide. On either side of a five-foot alleyway were double tiers of
wooden shelves each ten feet wide and five feet long. Each shelf was supposed to hold six persons, allowing twenty inches each, but since two children under fourteen or three under seven counted as one adult, and infants didn’t count at all, sometimes as many as a dozen were jammed into one ten-foot space.
Since each family must take care of its own feeding arrangements the passageway was jammed with chunks of meat, sides of bacon, pots and pans, in addition to settlers’ effects. Often the only ventilation was through the hatchways, and these were battened down in rough weather. “We were shut down in darkness for a fortnight,” one survivor related.
By 1850 a few improvements had been put into effect (one regulation stipulated that “adult passengers of different sexes, unless husband and wife, shall be separately berthed”). But
LOVE OF LEARNING
The school my son’s attending Inspires me with affection.
My little twig is bending In just the right direction.
His teacher is outstanding
And keeps his schoolwork gay. Oh, how his mind’s expanding! (What’s more, he’s there all day.)
when Vere F'oster in that year took a trip incognito as a steerage passenger in the Washington he found little actual change. The medical examination, he reported, consisted of a series of staccato questions: “What’s your name? Are you well? Hold out your tongue. Pass on ... ” rattled off in one breath without pause for an answer. Only thirty of the nine hundred passengers received any water the first day out. Some were “cuffed and kicked” by the mates. To get near the cooking fires the passengers bribed the sailors. Those with no money didn’t cook. Twelve children died of dysentry and starvation.
The ships were dirty beyond belief. The only cleaning below decks was scouring with soft sandstone. An immigration official reported that the ship Elizabeth Grimmer was so filthy that “after she’d been discharged from quarantine persons could not be had to go near her for three weeks and then only by extraordinary wages.” Rats scurried about the holds, biting children and stealing the passengers’ meagre supplies of food.
Many emigrants had typhus when they came aboard and the lice soon spread it to others. Few of the ships carried doctors. One hundred and thirty-six persons perished aboard the ship Avon on the way over. Of the four hundred and eighteen aboard the Alderberon thirty-four died before they reached Canada. In April 1847 alone seventy-five fever ships cleared for Quebec carrying twenty-two thousand Irish. Many of them never made it.
North Atlantic storms took additional toll. Many ships were blown off course or wrecked. Vessels headed for Quebec finally docked at New York or even New Orleans. Many piled up on the rocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Lonely stone monuments are still to be seen on desolate beaches, such as the one at Cap des Rosiers, Que., in memory of “Those Who Were Shipwrecked.” The passengers who managed to make shore were taken in by the Canadien fishermen. To this day there are residents in these areas
BREAD HAS NEW IMPORTANCE IN CANADIAN DIET
French Toast and savory or sweet sandwiches similarly dipped in seasoned egg and milk and fried to tempting golden color, will make a notable main dish or substantial sweet course.
Meat or Fish Loaves and patties you have liked for their open, porous texture, have probably been made with a good percentage of fluffy soft breadcrumbs in the egg-bound mixture.
Enriched Bread Assures Higher Intake of
Stuffings—their flavor is legion, but their chief base is bread! Dice and toast the bread sometimes, for a delightful ddlerence.
Scallops—small toasted bread cubes layered with fish, poultry, white meat or vegetables and all layers moistened generously with a good cream or cheese sauce—are among the finest casseroles; be sure the top layer is a thick covering of big soft crumbs that have been tossed in melted butter or margarine, the whole dish baked until golden topped and thoroughly hot.
Croutons—cubes of crisp leftover toast or newly-toasted diced bread—add to the appeal of a bowl of soup.
Sandwiches are "musts” for the carried lunch—excellent, too. for serving at home meals. Don't overlook the endless variety of double-decker sandwiches. Dainty sandwiches remain the best friend of the successful hostess.
Afternoon Tea Treat— spread toast with butter or margarine blended with sugar and a flavor-giver like ground cinnamon, grated orange rind, grated maple sugar; or use a honey or maple butter. Reheat the toast in the oven after spreading. Delicious !
Practically everybody eats bread —in greater or lesser amounts each dav. If that bread is enriched white bread, made (as it must he, to bear that label) from enriched flour, then the dailv intake of "protective” food elements is greater than it was before enriched bread was introduced last February.
Three important B vitamins (thiamine, niacin and riboflavin) and the useful mineral, iron, are now being added to Canada's fine white flour. Whole wheat bread is also, of course, a good supplier of these important vitamins and iron.
No Added Calories
How is the new enriched loaf difieren t from its predecessor?
Only in one thing—its greater nutritional value. The new bread is the exact equal of the old, as the likeable, broadly useful, low-cost energy food that may play a part in every meal of the day. But the new bread has added vitamins and iron, which are rated as ’"protective” food elements. These add no calones to the loaf, are not fattening. Their function is to promote and help maintain sound health.
Naturally, bread offers very great scope for the easy inclusion (at no added cost) of these necessary vitamins and iron to the common diet.
Why not check up, then, on a few of the many ways m which you might include enriched bread in dailv meals — beyond the basic serving of bread and toast?
Fondues—how good they are, with their big soft cubes of bread, savory custard and a character-ingredient like cheese!
bread slices spread with butter or margarine, pressed into muffin pans and baked (or thick oblongs of bread scooped out to take a filling and similarly treated), add attractiveness and bulk to footls like creamed salmon, curried chicken and mushrooms, eggs and cheese à la King, etc. Food with a flair!
died in quarantine or in immigrant hospitals in Quebec City or Montreal.
Eastern Canada has many stone and metal reminders of this greatest mass suffering in Canada’s history. At Saint John harbor a Celtic cross marks the burial grounds of hundreds. At Point St. Charles in Montreal a huge rough stone with an iron fence around it was erected by the workmen on Victoria
Louis has since made quite a name for himself in Canadian politics.
Montreal had had a considerable Irish community since the beginning of the century and the new immigrants added greatly to it. In 1851 one fifth of the population of 57,715 was Irish. Still more came until in 1857 those of Irish origin claimed to make up one third of
the total population of Montreal.
Many of the Catholic Irish girls married French - speaking Montreal boys. Hundreds of orphans from the ships were adopted into Canadien homes (one priest reported bringing thirty orphans ashore and having them “taken up” within half an hour). Advertisements in Montreal newspapers indicate that the Irish were prominent in the wholesale and retail trade. Between 1851 and 1864 about a dozen Irish lawyers and doctors were advertising in each issue of one newspaper alone.
About half the immigrants mostly Protestants from the north of Ireland — kept right on to Upper Canada. Many traveled up the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers by flat-bottomed boats while others made their way as best they could on foot, by oxcart or by stagecoach. But still hunger and want pursued them, as this item from the Kingston Herald in June 1850 reveals: “What is to be done towards relieving the numbers of immigrants who, having arrived here, are unable to proceed further for want of means? Every evening numbers are left on
our wharves who know not how to provide food for themselves and their families . . . We call upon some wealthy citizens to step forward and take a lead in devising some means of relief for those truly unfortunate people.” The 1851 census shows Kingston to have 4,396 Irish-born inhabitants out of a total population of 11,585.
An account from Ottawa tells how between June 1847 and May 1848 hundreds of Irish were arriving each week at the landing place at the juncture of the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River opposite where the Union
Station now stands. They were in a frightful state and found what shelter they could under bushes, old tents and upturned boats. The area was described as being “knee-deep in filth.” Typhus spread through the city causing hundreds of deaths. The population of Ottawa, then Bytown, showed 2,486 Irish-born out of 7,760 in 1851 and in surrounding Carleton County more than one third of the residents were from the Emerald Isle.
In his book, The Great Migration, Edwin C. Guillet states: “Citizens of the lake ports recalled with horror the sight of sick lying in groups on the open wharves and actually overrun with rats.” Toronto got a supply of Irish to the extent that in 1851 more than one third of the population of 30,775 was Irish-born. Hamilton had about the same proportion of Irishmen. In these and other cities the newcomers picked up what jobs they could as ditchdiggers, domestic servants and coachmen. Many got into the traditional “Irish occupations” of policeman and bartender. A number of families followed the old-country tradition that one son enters the priesthood. Before long many Irishmen established themselves in the trades, in business and professions.
Some newcomers sought out relatives and friends on farms. One man named Cooper visited his brother near Brampton, Ont., and gave him typhus from which he died. Many hired out as farm laborers. A letter from John Clark, of Peel County, describes how a man could work for three years at twenty-five pounds, about a hundred and twenty-five dollars, and then buy land for himself. According to a publicity brochure put out by the Ontario government in 1883 many of these did exceptionally well. Patrick Gaerty from Monaghan, Ireland, worked as a farm hand in Peel, set up for himself and within a few years had land and equipment worth twenty-five thousand dollars.
Many of the Irish trekked north in groups to the less settled portions of the province where free land was offered. Simcoe, Victoria, Renfrew, Grey, Huron and other counties received thousands. Peterborough County which had been pioneered by earlier Irish immigrants (principally the Peter Robinson settlement of 1823-25) had 4,216 Irish-born out of a population of 15,237 in 1851 and gained a thousand new Irish before the 1861 census. During the Winnipeg boom of the Eighties many Ontario Irish moved to Manitoba.
Such a predominance of settlers from a country always noted for political strife and religious upheaval naturally had a tremendous influence on Canada. But unlike many of their countrymen in the U. S. the Canadian Irish did not try to fight the old country’s battles by remote control. The Fenian movement, founded by Irish-Americans to support the cause of Irish independence, never got anywhere in Canada. When zealots from south of the border visited Montreal to stir up trouble they spoke to empty seats. In a speech in 1866 that great Irish-Canadian booster D’Arcy McGee stated: “I venture to say that they (Irish-Canadians) yield a larger aggregate of sterling worth, character and influence than the millions of our countrymen in the U. S. put together.”
On the other hand they did bring their religious discord with them. About half the immigrants were Protestants from the north of Ireland and about half were Roman Catholics from the south. They opposed each other in everything.
Most of the Protestants joined the already large and powerful Orange
Lodge and voted Tory almost to a man. The Catholic Irish usually took the other side. One community in Victoria County was typical of many. Just north of the town of Omemee is a concession road known as the “Orange Line.” North of it in Downeyville lived the Catholic Irish while south of the line was solid Orange. It wasn’t too safe for a “papist” to show his nose south of that line unless accompanied by friends well armed with shillelaghs.
On the Glorious Twelfth of July the Orangemen from L.O.L. 646 and other lodges got out their drums, white horse, peaked caps, ribbons and sashes and paraded through the streets. The boys from north of the Orange Line naturally came down and tried to break it up. Old-timers recall street fights that lasted for days. One story from nearby Peterborough (a city full of Irishmen) tells how a rash individual snatched the orange ribbons from a pretty lass during the parade. The Orangemen chased him downtown where he took refuge in a hotel. Then they brought a two-wheel cannon, old but still usable, trained it on the hotel and threatened to blow the place to pieces if the miscreant wasn’t delivered into their hands. He was delivered. During an Orange parade in Montreal in 1877 a man named Hacket was killed in the street fighting.
Area The English Took Over
Politics were considerably livelier then than now, for which some historians give the Irish full credit. Professor A. R. M. Lower states in his book Colony to Nation: “That Donnybrook atmosphere still so marked in the public life of Ontario is attributable to the Orangemen.” On election days both sides filled the town with banners and bands. Many landholders suspected of intending to vote the wrong way were forcibly prevented from getting near the polls. One old-timer described how a white chalk mark was put on the coattail of a man who voted “wrong” so that he could later be beaten up.
Some historians consider the Orange Lodge to have been the most potent force and the toughest pressure group in Canadian politics. They claim that vital political questions were apt to be decided along strictly religious lines. Orangemen deny this and take credit for keeping Canada loyal to the British crown through trying times. Whatever the political significance of it, certainly between 1845 and some time in the 1890s there were more Irishmen in the country than any other English-speaking group.
But the Irish predominance was short-lived. By 1854 economic conditions had improved in Ireland and the population had shrunk to numbers the land could support. Emigration stopped. By 1901 there were more Englishmen in Canada than Irishmen. Few Irish came to Canada between 1901 and 1911 when the opening of the west brought thousands of English and Scots into the country. By 1941 the 846,414 of Irish origin in 1871 had increased to only 1,267,702 or just over eleven percent of the total population, compared with 25.8 percent of English origin.
So the Irish influx was as brief as it was violent. And if it hadn’t been for spuds it never would have happened at all. The abundance of spuds produced the surplus Irish; the lack of spuds drove them here. Nobody can say exactly what their influence has been. But one thing is certain —without them our nation would be a lot less melodious, humorous, rugged and lively. For whatever else the Irish may be they are rarely dull. ★