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Mi Famine Irish Canada Grosse Ile And The Irish Memorial National Historic Site

Why did the Irish come to Canada?

When people think of Irish immigrants from centuries gone by, many instantly think of America and the cultural melting pots of New York City and Boston, but the worldwide Irish diaspora know better. 

Millions of men and women around the world know that other emigration hotspots like Australia, New Zealand and, in this case, Canada became homes from home for hundreds of thousands of Irish.

Nowadays it’s simply an accepted fact that thousands left the Emerald Isle at various flashpoints in history but what made them leave?

Why did the Irish come to Canada? 

Pre-Famine

Almost all stories of mass Irish immigration, before the 20th and 21st centuries, can be split distinctly into pre and post famine.

Pre-famine immigration from Ireland to Canada came mainly via shipping and industry. Although a small group of Ulster Presbyterians, also known as Scotch-Irish, emigrated and setup in Nova Scotia in the 1760s the first recorded Irish in Canada came as far back as 1536!

These hardy souls were Cork fishermen and they ended up settling in Newfoundland in a journey that set a precedent.

Over the course of the next 100 years various groups of seafaring Irish, mainly from counties Waterford and Wexford, made the journey across the Atlantic for jobs and opportunity. So much so that it’s estimated that up to 5% of New France (the name for the original Canadian colonies until 1763) was Irish in the 18th century. 

The Great Irish Hunger

If pre-famine immigration to Canada was a small, but steady, trickle then the ravages of the Great Irish Hunger resulted in a deluge of human movement that hasn’t been seen in Ireland since.

The famine, caused by a blighted potato crop (Ireland’s main food source at the time), lasted from 1846 to 1852 and devastated the country and her people. 

Millions fled the Emerald Isle as mass graves, overrun poorhouses and destitution dominated the landscape and many turned to Canada for their escape.

It’s estimated that 1.2 million Irish landed in Canada between 1825 and 1970 but almost half arrived during the famine years. That gives some indication as to the sheer scale of numbers sailing across the Atlantic in dreaded “coffin ships”.

Another indication is the story and legacy of Grosse Isle, used as a quarantine zone just outside Quebec, during this influx. For many Irishmen and women, Grosse Isle was their first interaction with the New World yet thousands arrived dead or dying.

It’s estimated that in 1847 alone the island certified over 84,500 new immigrants and up to 50 souls died every day within the confines of the immigration centre. This specific site was so important in the Irish Canadian immigration story that memorials have been erected to honour those lost both on the island and at sea. 

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20th Century and Modern Day

Although things slowed considerably post-famine the 20th and 21st centuries have also seen a steady flow of Irish across the vast expanse of ocean between the two countries.

This stream swells as and when economic hardships return to the Emerald Isle and Canada maintains it’s image as a new world full of opportunity, hope and jobs when needed. 

This constant growth, combined with the legacies of previous centuries, means that up to 13% of Canadians now claim some form of Irish history and heritage within their family tree. 

Legacy of the Irish in Canada

Every country, especially those in the new world, have been impacted by their immigrant populations and Canada is no different.

A quick search for the most “Irish” parts of Canada will reveal a strong presence in eastern regions like Ontario and Newfoundland as the new arrivals naturally gravitated towards ports, cities and areas of high employment.

This legacy can also be felt outside of geography. Famous Irish-Canadians include Elias Disney (father of Walt), Denny Doherty, Sir John Thompson, Louis St. Laurent, Brian Mulroney and Thomas D’Arcy McGee and the ripple effect continues to this very day. 

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