The Irish of Quebec: at the crossroads of two cultures

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This is an unofficial translation of the French language article Les Irlandais du Québec : à la croisée de deux cultures, by Taïeb Moalla.

Marking the arrival of spring, the Saint Patrick's parade, an colorful event, is a not-to-miss rendez-vous of tens of thousands of Quebecers and federal and provincial political personalities of all parties, in addition to those who are of Irish origin.

It is on March 17, date of the death of Saint Patrick in the year 461, that the Irish celebrate their patron saint. Present in North America since the 18th century, this popular festival is widespread everywhere in the world where Irish people have settled. In Montreal, the first parade of Saint Patrick's day took place in 1824. It holds in that a longevity record in North America.

The Irish and their descendants took an important place in the political and cultural life of North America. Nearly 300 000 Quebecers are of Irish origin, according to Statistique Canada, and nearly 4 million Canadians claim Irish origins. The former primer ministers of Canada Lester B Pearson and Brian Mulroney are of Irish origin, just like Daniel Johnson, father, and his two sons, Pierre-Marc and Daniel who were all three Premiers of Quebec. In the artistic world, one finds the poet Emile Nelligan and the singer Jim Corcoran. The influence of the Irish is also notable in the United States with John F. Kennedy, Henry Ford, Robert Redford, John Wayne or Warren Beatty.

The Johnsons in the history of Quebec

The Johnson family influenced the history of contemporary Quebec much. Daniel (father) was a chief of the national Union and Prime Minister for Quebec of 1966 to 1968. Pierre-Marc was in his turn at the end of the mandate of the government of the Québécois Party of October 3 at December 12, 1985. He succeeded no one other that Rene Lévesque. On his side, his/her Daniel brother also occupied this function under the liberal government of January 11 at September 26, 1994. He is also known to have been the official spokesman of the camp of Not at the time of the countryside chief clerk of 1995.

Daniel Johnson explains us that its family is in Quebec since six generations. "My George ancestor arrived here into 1822 before even the waves of immigration caused by the Great Famine" what Mr. Johnson retains more in the history of the Irishmen of Quebec, it is their "great vitality". "They put forward their identity and showed that they were not assimilable all while being integrated into their company of reception. Today, they are present and active in several fields ", it underlines. It insists on the excellent reception from which the Irishmen with their arrival in Low-Canada profited. "the French Canadian families adopted several small orphans whose parents had died during the painful crossing"

When one asks him what there is of Irish in him, Daniel Johnson answers without hesitation: "nationalism". "Even if the political context and the history of Ireland and Quebec are different, I find resonances at home in the desire to affirm myself and this feeling of distinct identity"

The landing at Grosse-Île

If you seek references on the Irishmen to Quebec, you are likely good to fall on books devoted to Gross-Island. It is that the history of the Irishmen before-all is marked by the painful establishment of their ancestors in Low-Canada, then in thePlain one, during the 19th century.

The name of Gross-Island returns on all the lips as soon as one evokes the Irish fact in Quebec. Located at around fifty of kilometers of Quebec, it was used as place of forty to the thousands Irishmen who had fled their country following the famine caused by calamitous potato harvests. Several of these newcomers were reached typhus and cholera. Thus, of 1845 to 1849, 200 000 Irishmen unloaded in Quebec, of which the half during the only year 1847.

Marianna O' Gallagher is the historian of the Irishmen of Quebec. Born in 1929, it is titular of a control in history of the University of Ottawa and it a long time taught the history with the pupils of the primary education in Canada and the United States. Between 1961 and 1986 (year of its retirement), it was professeure in St.Patrick School in Quebec. In 1981, it based the publisher Carraig Books - which will change name into 1995 to become Livres Carraig Books - specialized in the publication of historical works carrying in particular on the Irish fact in Quebec.

The memory of 5 the 000 dead ones whose bodies were thrown over edge during the crossings and that of the deaths in the Gross-Island (at least 5 400 victims for the only year 1847) still work the collective conscience of the Irishmen. "It is a thing which one does not forget. But with time, the memory starts to soften ", recognizes Mrs. O' Gallagher. According to historian's, the Irish establishment is certainly marked by this chaotic installation, but it is not a question of the only element of the history. "There was a massive Irishman arrival between 1815 and 1830. The church St Patrick in Quebec was built in 1832 on the street McMahon, that is to say about fifteen years before the Great Famine. Also, the secondary school St Patrick in Quebec was inaugurated into 1842", says it.

According to the terminology into force at the time, the British empire regards its Irish subjects as a "surplus of population" and encourages their departure towards thePlain one, this remote English colony.

The Patriots

Enemies of always of the English, the Irish naturally lined up side of the Patriots during the 19th century. "the green color in the flag of the Patriots was a way of marking the massive presence of the Irishmen in the rows of the rebellion", indicates Mrs. O' Gallagher.

Doctor Edmund Bailey O' Callaghan, an Irishman, is one of the close relations of Louis-Joseph Papineau, historical chief of the patriotic movement. "It was the editor of a patriotic newspaper in Montreal. One did not have especially to say evil of the Patriots in front of him, because that irritated it much ", adds the historian.

Born in Mallow (Ireland) in 1797, Doctor O' Callaghan took share with the social organization of the Irish community in Quebec: he was, inter alia, cofounder of Quebec Mechanic' S Institute and the parish St Patrick, and secretary of Society of the Friends of Ireland. In 1833, it settled in Montreal where it was in charge of the drafting with Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser during four years and half; it was also occupied of the businesses of the Irish community, according to the made description of him in Internet site of the French National Assembly of Quebec.

A harmonious integration

In spite of the tests undergone with their arrival, the Irishmen were integrated rather quickly into their company of reception. Much of them was completely francized. "That is explained by three factors: the cordial reception that the Irishmen received in Quebec, the mixed marriages and the frequentation of the French-speaking churches ", according to Marianna O' Gallagher.

The proximity between the French-speaking Inhabitants of Quebec and the Irishmen can go very far. It is allowed today that 40 % of the Inhabitants of Quebec have Irish blood which runs in their veins. The journalist and historian Louis-Guy Lemieux do not hesitate to affirm that "we all are of the Irishmen. Or almost! "Quoting work of United Irish Societies of Montreal, Mr. Lemieux explains that" several Québécois patronyms pure wool hide their Irish origin badly. Thus Aubry would owe their surname in O' Brien, the Bar in Barrett, Bourque in Burke, Guerin in Gearan or Geary, Mainguy with McGee, Morin in Moran, Nolin in Nolan, Riel in Reilly or O' Reilly, the Sylvain in Sullivan or O' Sullivan. "

If one takes the example of the town of Quebec, the heritage historical, architectural and artistic Irish is impressive. In its book the way of clover, the Irish presence in Quebec, the historian Marianna O' Gallagher details this inheritance on 32 pages. One learns as well as the Midsummer's Day doors and Saint-Louis were designed by the architect William Lynn, train in Belfast and one protected from Lord Dufferin. "the richly decorated doors, of French medieval style, then replace the old doors of British tradition military which allowed the passage at the same time only one car", note the historian.

La Bolduc, inspired by Irish folklore

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Mary singer Through - more known under the name of Bolduc - was inspired by the Irish folklore. "It spontaneously learns how to sing and play of the accordion, the violin and the music with mouth to brighten taken care of neighbors where it interprets especially" real "Irish whom it intermingles with" turlutes ", of the syllables and the rythmés sounds à.la.mode acadian. Without the knowledge, by these musical loans that it adapts with great naturalness, it poses already the folk bases of the Québécois song ", indicates an Internet site devoted to the life and the?uvre of first auteure-compositeure-interprets of Quebec and French Canada.

Jim Corcoran: "I am happy with my role as a ferryman"

For Jim Corcoran - who combines folk, blues and rock'n'roll - the inspiration was already found: "There always was an little bit of Irish in my music including at my beginnings. The Irish culture and art were always present at home", he declares.

Song writer and performer, he was born in Sherbrooke in 1949. His grandfather arrived from Ireland in 1906. "At the time, it settled in Châteauguay to work in a cotton factory", underlines Mr. Corcoran.

Even if it admits that it is not the traditional folklore which inspired it the most, Mr. Corcoran explains why in fact "the songs of author with a strong amount of social conscience" always made it vibrate. "I think in particular of Bothy Band which marked the years 1970. Its members were virtuosos. I can also quote Chieftans which influenced me much ", specifies it.

Jim Corcoran grew in Sherbrooke at one time when the city was almost entirely anglophone. "the Irishmen got along very well with the Inhabitants of Quebec. The catholic religion immediately brought closer ", indicates the singer who awaited the adulthood before learning the French language.

Jim Corcoran, now installed in Montreal, intends to be a feature of union between the cultures english-speaking and French-speaking person. "Since 1989, I animate an emission with CBC [ the English radio of Radio-Canada ] in which I present the French-speaking song québécoise at an anglophone audience. I am content with my role of frontier runner more especially as I receive several messages of Britanno-Colombians, Acadian and even of South-Africans who say me being delighted to discover another culture thus "

To know more


  • CLIFT, Dominique et MCLEOD-ARNOPOULOS, Sheila, Le fait anglais au Québec, Montréal, Libre Expression, 1979, 277 p.
  • LEMIEUX, Louis-Guy, Un amour de ville, Montréal, Les éditions de l’Homme, 1994, 359 p.
  • O’GALLAGHER, Marianna, Grosse-Île-Porte d’entrée du Canada, 1832-1937, Sainte-Foy, Carraig Books, 1987, 188 p.
  • O’GALLAGHER, Marianna, Le chemin du trèfle, la présence irlandaise à Québec, Sainte-Foy, Livres Carraig Books, 1998, 35 p.
  • VEKEMAN MASSON Jeannette, Grand-maman raconte la Grosse-Île, Ottawa, Les éditions La Liberté, 1981, 188 p.