From the Famine to the Fenians

French Canadian nationalist Henri Bourassa referred to the Irish in Quebec as “the everlasting link of union between English and French.” This unit examines the beginning of that relationship. It was inspired by the arrival in Montreal, in September 2015, of refugees from Syria – the first of thousands promised safe haven by the Government of Canada. Described by the Governor General as a “defining moment for Canada,” their arrival was an echo of another historically significant Canadian response to refugees - the  crisis of 1847, which brought  to Quebec 100 000 refugees from famine in Ireland. The National Post in fact has suggested that “The Syrians are the Famine Irish of 21st century.”

Like the Syrian refugees, many Irish died from the perils of their voyage. Like the Syrians, they carried with them “hurts from home,” associated with a history of oppression, rebellion and terrorism and like the Syrians there was concern that they might harbour threats to Canada’s security. The crisis of their destitute, disoriented and diseased condition reached its peak in Montreal where over 6000 died of typhus in the summer of 1847.No other city in North America received as many Famine refugees in proportion to its population as Montreal. Roughly 70 000 poured into the city, outnumbering the resident population by 20 000.

In this inquiry, students consider Montreal’s response to these English-speaking Catholics. Most help for the refugees came from the French-Canadian community. The Bishop of Montreal described the aid they gave to the Irish as “ a right and obligation of humanity.”  Students explore the ethical dimension of that obligation and consider as well whether it implied a reciprocal moral obligation from the refugees.

The primary source evidence of the Famine Refugee experience still has the power to shock. In the Annals of Montreal’s Grey Nuns, many of whom died caring for the Irish in the city’s fever sheds, students witness the generosity of the French-Canadian religious community towards the desperate survivors of the coffin ships. The records also document the compassion shown by French-Canadian families for the Irish orphans. More than 600 were adopted into French-Canadian homes. Many orphans kept their family names and grew up speaking both English and French – symbols of an accommodation which shaped a relationship defined by both French Canadian benevolence and Irish resilience.

The Catholic Irish became the largest English-speaking group in Montreal, one quarter of the population. In a city where the majority population was Anglo-Protestant, they were welcomed by French Canadians as Catholic allies. A repeated theme in the French Canadian newspapers was the close parallel between Irish circumstances and the French-Canadian experience of conquest and rebellion. Editors expressed the hope that Irish Catholics would help French-Canadians resist English-speaking Protestant domination. In turn, the Irish-Canadian newspapers expressed the hope that Catholic Ireland would one day enjoy the same freedoms as French Canada.

The accessibility of mid-19c Montreal newspapers in the Google News Archive made it possible for students to identify continuity and change in how the two communities adjusted to each other. By browsing French and Irish-Canadian newspapers online, and using Google Docs, they created a Virtual 19c Reading Room to share news items reporting the cause of interactions between the two communities and the consequences for their relationship. Students found reports of competition between French and Irish-Canadians for work in the dockyards, incidents of disruption and intimidation during elections, protests over plans to merge the French and Irish parishes of Montreal and  the debate over Rep by Pop.

The most significant news event was the attack on Canada in 1866 by the Fenians. Irish-Canadians were united in condemnation of British rule in Ireland. When, therefore, in the cause of Irish freedom, Fenian terrorists planned to attack Canada as a British colony, they looked to Irish Catholics in Montreal for support. Taking the perspective of a French or Irish Canadian newspaper editor, students suggest how Irish Canadians should respond to this ethical dilemma of divided loyalty. They measure the validity of their editorial opinion by reflecting on the symbolic significance for French/Irish relations of the funeral of D’Arcy McGee, Montreal’s Irish Catholic MP. McGee, who had insisted that the greatest duty of Famine refugees was loyalty to Canada, was assassinated by a Montreal Fenian in 1868. His funeral was the largest in Canadian history.                          
From the Famine to the Fenians

Dan Conner


Vancouver, British Columbia

This project investigates the relationship between the French and Irish Catholic communities of Montreal.