This Friday is St. Patrick’s Day, a celebration of Irish heritage that stretches around the world. Here in Canada, people of Irish decent make up roughly 15% of the population, making them the 4th largest ethnic group in the country. In fact, 4.5 million Canadians identify as having Irish heritage, a number only slightly below the population of Ireland itself. The Irish influence in Canada goes a lot deeper than population numbers though. Irish-Canadians played a large role in shaping Canada into what it is today.
During Ireland’s infamous famine of the 1840s, where blight caused crops to rot in the ground, thousands of Irish refugees travelled to Canada to seek better fortunes. Their bad luck continued, however, as sickness and disease swept through many of their vessels, leaving thousands dead before they even arrived on Canadian shores. But those who did make it found Canada to be a welcoming place. After docking on Quebec’s Grosse Isle, many of the orphaned children were taken in and adopted by French families, which is why so many French Canadians today have suspiciously Irish-sounding last names.
One of the Irish immigrants who arrived during this time was a man named Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a young revolutionary and journalist who had big ideas about ending the British rule over Ireland. McGee wanted nothing more than to see a free and independent Ireland, and was fond of speaking out against his imperial rulers in his newspaper. His ideas soon attracted the wrong sort of attention, and a warrant for his arrest surfaced. With nowhere else to go, McGee fled to North America along with the thousands of immigrants who were escaping the famine.
Once McGee arrived in Montreal, he went back to doing what he did best: he started his own newspaper where he could speak out against the actions of the British in Ireland. McGee’s words found favour among his new countrymen, and he soon found himself elected to the colonial assembly, what would later become the federal government of Canada. McGee’s life as a politician softened his views, however, as he soon realized that life in Canada would be impossible without the cooperation of the British government. Where he once spoke out against them, he found himself encouraging his fellow Canadians to cooperate with them. D’Arcy McGee was so successful as a politician that he soon found himself in Charlottetown alongside John A. MacDonald negotiating the formation of Canada as independent nation where all ethnic groups, French, English and Irish alike would work together to run the country.
Unfortunately, one year after McGee helped sign the Canadian constitution into law, he was assassinated by a group of the very same Irish revolutionaries that he once supported. They felt he had lost his way and betrayed his revolutionary cause to join the British. Lucky for Canada, Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s work in unifying the country was already done. Whether your ancestors come from the Emerald Isle or not, the Irish contribution to Canada, from McGee and so many others, is worth celebrating.