Canada's Impact on its 19th Century Irish Immigrants


Most of this website explains the impact of the railway on Canada. Since the Irish immigrants of the late 1840s and early 1850s were by far the largest group to enter Canada, there is more data available for them than any other group. We can use the Irish experience to show the impact of Canada on its immigrants.

 

Where in Ireland did they come from?
Where did they live in Montreal?
What did these immigrants work at?
Who worked?
How did the Irish community change?

 

Where in Ireland did they come from?

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Professors Olson and Thornton used the surname “Ryan” to track Montreal’s immigrant origins in Ireland before and after the Famine of the late 1840’s.

Most of the Irish in Montreal came from the southwest of Ireland. This community did not reflect the population distribution in Ireland. Nor did the Montreal Irish reflect the areas hardest hit by the Famine. The Famine was worst in the west but not the southwest. Perhaps Montreal’s existing community encouraged relatives to follow them, or perhaps shipping routes explain the origins of Montreal’s Irish community.

Where did they live in Montreal?

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IRISH CATHOLIC POPULATION DISTRIBUTION IN MONTREAL

What did these immigrants work at?

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1852 Census

ETHNIC ORIGINS OF RAILROAD WORKERS

 EASTERN TOWNSHIPS SECTION OF THE GRAND TRUNK RAILWAY (GTR)

Irish
Catholics
Irish
Protestants
Scots English French
Canadians
British
Canadians
75% 6% 8% 4% 4% 2%

 

  • The Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) was being extended from Montreal through the Eastern Townships into the United States as far as Portland, Maine which is an ice-free port.
  • Seven percent of the workers were under 16 and 45% were under 25.

 Young boys would do “light” work such as leading the many horses on the building sites.

TIMBER

Given the migratory nature of the timber industry, it is difficult to trace the workers via the census. However, this too was heavy and dangerous but well paid work for the times. Many Irish immigrants in Canada lived in rural areas. In the United States, Irish immigrants tended to flock to the cities.

 Rescuing Timber Workers Marooned on a Raft on the Ottawa River

Who worked?

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The timber workers worked in large gangs and lived in shanties. Most of the work was conducted in winter when logs could be dragged to rivers to wait for the spring floods.

Many Irish immigrants were able to own their own land because they could work in the winter in the woods and farm in the summer.


U
nlike the timber shanties of the time or the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) of the 1880s, many women and children as well as men worked on the GTR in the 1850’s. The GTR’s policies created work for women and girls.


“Board the men we will not,… you may give  high wages
to the men and let them do their own purveying [feeding and
lodging]”
Walter Shanly, the Irish born General Manager of the GTR

 

 

 


HIGH WAGES BUT WHO WOULD COOK AND CLEAN FOR THE MEN?

  • The different ethnic and religious groups lived in small shanties of about 9 workers.
  • Irish women and girls cooked for all the ethnic groups and this work was a good source of cash for them.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • 60% of the Irish workers were accompanied by their families because as recent immigrants, Irish women and children probably had nowhere else to go.

19th century women and children worked hard on the family farm

How did the Irish community change?

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The large Famine migration of the late 1840’s changed the religious mix of the Irish in Canada. Before the Famine, the Canadian Irish community was approximately balanced between Protestants and Catholics, but after the Famine, the Catholic population became the larger.

Percentage of Irish Who Signed the Montreal Wedding Register 1820s-1910s

Literacy

  • Women were less literate than men.
  • The Famine influx of the 1840’s reduced the percentage of men and women able to write their names when they married.
  • Access to schools and a greater demand for literacy at work meant that by the 1900’s the Irish Catholic community of Montreal were universally literate.

 

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