Irish Canadian Ancestors: From Newfoundland to Île de Grâce

Were your Irish ancestors among the fishermen arriving in Newfoundland in the late 1600s? Or were they one of the hundreds of thousands at Île de Grâce or Quarantine Island who made up 60% of all migrants to Canada between 1825-1845?

Newfoundland Catholic/Native Irish

Some of the earliest native Irish to arrive in the land that would become Canada were fishermen in Newfoundland at the close of the 17th century. In order to understand how they got there, I need to explain a little bit of the backstory.

By the late 1600s, the Irish had long been supplying food and other provisions to thousands of European fishermen who had been making Newfoundland a seasonal home for generations. Hundreds of fishing boats were regularly patrolling the Grand Banks as early as the opening decades of the 16th century; most were French, Basque, Spanish and Portugese.

The English, however, were the first Europeans to lay down permanent roots in numbers big enough to take control of this transatlantic fish trade. Newfoundland would become their first official colony in North America in 1583. Like the later Jamestown in Virginia it would take a few false starts and disasters before their domination took off, but the arrival of skilled fishermen and merchants from the West Country – particularly ports like Poole in Dorset- ensured their eventual success.

So where do the Irish fit into all this? Well Ireland had been colonised by the English centuries earlier and at this stage was a wealthy country largely ruled in the interests of an Anglo-Irish elite. The Anglo-Irish – but also native Irish merchants – grew rich supplying England’s much larger population with food and other provisions. Newfoundland – much like it did for people from places like Cornwall, Devon and Dorset – offered Irishmen an opportunity to escape and make more money elsewhere; all be it under much harsher weather conditions.

Map by Tina Riche.
©2001 Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

By the late-17th century, merchants in southern Ireland were regularly exporting pork, beef, butter, and other provisions to help supply English workers engaged in the transatlantic fishery. Ships from the English West Country travelled to ports along Ireland’s south coast to collect food – and increasingly servants and seasonal labourers- for Newfoundland.

This seasonal migration peaked in the late 1700s when more than a hundred ships and 5,000 men left Ireland’s ports for the fishery. The trade remained overwhelmingly English in control, but it was very much Irish in labour.

The vast majority of Catholic Irish in Newfoundland will be able to trace their DNA origins back to county’s closest to the ports in southern Ireland; Kerry, Cork, Waterford, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Carlow and Wexford.

As technology and trade improved, Newfoundland became an all-season colony. Irish women increasing arrived and married; by 1836 the census records that half of Newfoundland’s population is Irish in origin. Close to three-quarters of them live in St. John’s and the surrounding areas still known as the Irish Shore.

Newfoundland aside, the Scots and Scots-Irish protestants often arrived before most Catholic Irish in other parts of Atlantic Canada.

The same southern Irish populations that had been calling Newfoundland a second home for centuries did start to arrive in numbers in the Maritimes from the mid to late 19th century. But the new arrivals were not exclusively fisherman, servants and labourers. The reason is a change in circumstances back home.

In 1801, Ireland – on paper- ceased to be a conquered land occupied by England; instead it joined the Union with their neighbours in Britain. In theory this should have made life a lot easier for the Irish but in reality the experience was disastrous for the country as a whole as it just enshrined in law Britain’s ownership of Ireland’s economy. For example an earlier potato blight was successfully managed pre-Union in Ireland decades before a similar post-Union crisis led to starvation; parliament actually increased food exports to Britain at the height of the famine.

For centuries the Irish had served in foreign armies where they often achieved high rank; in the many centuries of being press ganged into England’s army they were largely cannon fodder. But the British Army – with Ireland’s new Union status – gave Irishmen and their families a way out.

British Army barracks in Ireland became safe spaces for Irish Catholic women and children while their husbands and fathers helped Britain win their emerging empire. After the French were defeated in the Napoleonic Wars, many of those soldiers were given free land in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Southern Ontario just like their Scottish, English and Welsh counterparts.

This helped the Irish climb above the discrimination that kept them at the bottom of the European heap for centuries, and it meant there were some Irishmen with enough wealth and influence in the colonies to help their impoverished brethren gain a foothold when famine brought them across the Atlantic.

As for the rest of Canada, there had always been Irish soldiers from the earliest times in the French armies in the Americas. Many Irish soldiers hid their identity from British forces by changing their names to French-sounding ones.  It’s one of the main reasons a significant number of ‘French’ names in Quebec are not found in France. By the end of the 1600s, it is believed that over a hundred of the 2,500 families in New France were Irish. But nothing could compare to over half a million Irish immigrants who arrived in the famine years.

In 1847 at the height of the Irish famine, as estimated 17,000 Irish emigrants died on ships before they reached Île de Grâce or Grosse Island quarantine station,  46 km downstream from Quebec City. Of these over 38 hundred are buried at Grosse Ile, while approximately another 5,000 are buried at the Pointe Saint-Charles sheds in Montreal.

The second major point of entry was Partridge Island quarantine station outside Saint John, New Brunswick. A small number also arrived in Halifax and other eastern ports.

Many hundreds of orphans of Irish parents or grandparents who didn’t survive the trip were placed with Francophone Catholics in Canada East, and with English-speaking Protestants in New Brunswick. In many cases they keep their Irish surnames.

During this period Irish Catholics made up 60% of all migrants to Canada. Initially most faced major discrimination, hardship and a worse situation than back home. But it is instructive that almost none wanted to return to Ireland. Once they found their way, they would have a major role in how their emerging new country would be built.