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, written by Taïeb Moalla for Victor Teboul's online magazine

United Irish Societies of Montréal

Marking the arrival of the spring, the St. Patrick's day parade, a colourful event, is a not-to-be-missed rendezvous for 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 17th, 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 Saint Patrick's day parade 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 Statistics Canada, and nearly 4 million Canadians claim Irish origins. The former prime ministers of Canada Lester B. Pearson and Brian Mulroney are of Irish origin, same for 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 Émile 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 a lot. Daniel (father) was a leader of the Union nationale and Premier of Quebec from 1966 to 1968. Pierre-Marc was premier at the end of the mandate of the Parti Québécois government from October 3 to December 12, 1985. He succeeded to no other than René Lévesque. As for his brother Daniel, he also exercised this function under a liberal government from January 11 to September 26, 1994. He is also known as the official spokesman of the No side during the referendum campain of 1995.

Daniel Johnson explains us that his family has been in Quebec for six generations. "My ancestor George arrived here in 1822 before the waves of immigration caused by the Great Famine". What Mr. Johnson retains of the history of the Irish in Quebec, it is their "great vitality". "They put forward their identity and showed that they were not assimilable, all the while integrating into their host society. Today, they are present and active in several fields", he underlines. He insists on the excellent reception that the Irish have had when they arrived in Lower Canada. "The French Canadian families adopted several young orphans whose parents had died during the painful crossing."

When one asked him what there is that is Irish inside of him, Daniel Johnson answered without hesitation: "nationalism". "Even if the political context and history of Ireland and Quebec are different, I find a resonance inside of me in the desire to affirm myself and this feeling of distinct identity".

The landing at Grosse-Île

If you seek references on the Irish in Quebec, you are very likely to land on books treating of Grosse-Île (Big Island). It seems the history of the Irish is before-all marked by the painful settlement of their ancestors in Lower Canada, then in United Canada, during the 19th century.

The name of Grosse-Île is on all the lips as soon as one evokes the Irish fact in Quebec. Located about fifty kilometers away from Quebec City, it was used as a place of quarantine for thousands of Irish people who had fled their country following the famine caused by calamitous potato harvests. Several of these newcomers were affected by typhus and cholera. Thus, from 1845 to 1849, some 200 000 Irish people landed in Quebec, half of whom during the sole year of 1847.

Marianna O' Gallagher is the historian of the Irish of Quebec. Born in 1929, she is titular of a master in history from the University of Ottawa and for long time taught history to primary school pupils in Canada and the United States. Between 1961 and 1986 (year of her retirement), she was a teacher at St. Patrick School in Quebec City. In 1981, she founded a publishing house named Carraig Books - whose named she changed to Livres Carraig Books in 1995 - specializing in the publication of historical works treating in particular of the Irish fact in Quebec.

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

According to the terminology in force at the time, the British Empire regarded its Irish subjects as a "population surplus" and encouraged their departure toward United Canada, this remote English colony.

The Patriotes

Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan

Enemies of always of the English, the Irish naturally sided with the Patriotes during the 19th century. "The green color on the flag of the Patriotes was a way of recognizing the massive presence of the Irish in the ranks of the rebellion", indicates Mrs. O' Gallagher.

Doctor Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan, an Irishman, is a close friend of Louis-Joseph Papineau, the historical leader of the patriotic movement of Lower Canada. "He was the editor of a patriotic newspaper in Montreal. One had to be wary not to say bad things on the account of the Patriotes in front of him, because that irritated him much", adds the historian.

Born in Mallow, Ireland in 1797, Doctor O'Callaghan took part in the social organization of the Irish community in Quebec: he was, among other things, cofounder of Quebec Mechanics' Institutes and the St. Patrick parish, and secretary of the Society of the Friends of Ireland. In 1833, he settled in Montreal where he was in charge of editing of the Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser for four and half years; he also took care of other affairs of the Irish community, according to the description made of him on the Internet site of the National Assembly of Quebec.

A harmonious integration

In spite of the test they were put under with their arrival, the Irish integrated rather quickly into their host society. Many of them was completely francized. "That is explained by three factors: the cordial reception that the Irish received in Quebec, the mixed marriages and the frequentation of French-speaking churches", according to Marianna O' Gallagher.

The proximity between the French-speaking Quebecer and the Irish can go very far. It is admitted today that 40% of Quebecers have Irish blood running in their veins. The journalist and historian Louis-Guy Lemieux does not hesitate to affirm that "we are all Irish. Or almost!" Quoting the work of the United Irish Societies of Montreal, Mr. Lemieux explains that "several of the patronyms of old stock francophone Quebecers hide their Irish origin badly. Thus, the Aubry would owe their surname to the O'Brien, the Barrette to the Barrett, the Bourque to the Burke, the Guérin to the Gearan or Geary, the Mainguy to the McGee, the Morin to the Moran, the Nolin to the Nolan, the Riel to the Reilly or O'Reilly, the Sylvain to the Sullivan or O'Sullivan."

If one takes the example of Quebec City, the historical, architectural and artistic heritage of the Irish is impressive. In the book the Le chemin du trèfle, la présence irlandaise à Québec (The clover path, the Irish presence in Quebec City), historian Marianna O'Gallagher details this inheritance on 32 pages. One thus learns that the Saint-Jean and Saint-Louis doors were designed by architect William Lynn, trained in Belfast and a protégé of Lord Dufferin. "The richly decorated doors, of French medieval style, thus replaced the old doors of British military tradition which allowed the passage of only one car at a time", note the historian.

La Bolduc, inspired by Irish folklore

At the beginning of the 20th century, singer Mary Travers - better known under the name of La Bolduc - was inspired by Irish folklore. "She spontaneously learns to sing, play the accordion, the violin and the harmonica to entertain the nights among neighbours where she interprets Irish reels which she intermingles with turlutes, syllables and the rhythmic sounds in the manner of the Acadians. Without knowing it, by these musical loans that she adapts with great naturalness, she poses the folk bases of the Quebec chanson", claims an Internet site dedicated to the life and work of the first female singer-songwriter 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, he settled in Châteauguay to work in a cotton factory", underlines Mr. Corcoran.

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

Jim Corcoran grew up in Sherbrooke at a time when the city was almost entirely anglophone. "The Irish got along very well with the Quebecers. The catholic religion immediately brought them closer", indicates the singer who reached adulthood before learning the French language.

Jim Corcoran, now installed in Montréal, intends to be an hyphen between the French language and English language cultures. "Since 1989, I host a radio show at the CBC in which I introduce Quebec francophone chanson to an anglophone audience. I am happy with my role as a ferryman, especially when I receive several messages of British Columbians, Acadians and even South Africans who tell me their being delighted to discover another culture this way".

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.