Irish Night on the Hill, 23 November 2022, Remarks

Failte romhat, a chairde, welcome everyone. Tá an-athas mór orm, I’m delighted to see you all here. Good evening ladies and gentle, friends of Ireland. What a thrill to have you all here this evening.

This is our third Night on the Hill. The first two were organized by Jamie and my dear colleagues Jim Kelly and Michael Hurley. Tragically, both passed away in their prime. Earlier this year, I was shocked to get a phone call saying that Jim had died suddenly last St Patrick’s Day. It is impossible to reconcile his wife Anne and their two daughters, Orla and Ciara, to their loss. That is permanent, eased only by loving memories.

However, it was some comfort to recall to Anne how many people Jim had touched in Canada with his humanity, his warmth and his professional integrity as a diplomat so proud to represent his country. Knowing Jim’s love for Canada and the Irish in Canada, he would be well chuffed about our gathering this evening. We remember him this evening.

There is no better place for a Parliament than on a Hill. I love this Hill. At the confluence of the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau Rivers, this Hill was always a meeting place. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional territory of the Anishinabek and the Algonquin.

We recall too that it was John Egan from Galway who played the instrumental role in securing the land at Maniwaki for the reserve at Kitigan Zibi in 1853. Egan arrived here in 1830, penniless. He became the Ottawa Valley’s leading lumber baron. He helped to develop Bytown through lumber, stream boats and rail connections, and as a leading politician. Egan entertained Governor General Lord Elgin during his visit to Bytown as part of the campaign to make it the capital city of Canada.
Egan sold land at half price to the Irish. That is why we had such strong Irish settlement in the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys. I’d like to recognize our Irish friends here from Brennan’s Hill, Martindale and Venosta in Gatineau and from Douglas.

The Duke of Wellington was born in Dublin and raised in Trim. Most of his soldiers were Irish. Without Wellington, there would have been no Rideau Canal. No canal, no Ottawa. 

Michael McBane is here, a great local historian. Thank you Michael for all your research on this region’s Irish Heritage. It is thanks to Michael that we know that Famine Irish emigrants died of fever on this hill, men, women and children, in 1847. Thanks to Michael too, we know that some 300 hundred of their remains lie in Macdonalds Gardens Park. We are working to commemorate that site.

Thanks to Canadian compassion, like that of Sister Bruyère of the Grey Nuns, most of the Famine Irish survived in Bytown as well as all along the St Lawrence River, from Quebec and Montreal to Kingston, Toronto and Hamilton. Through such Canadian compassion, the Irish found hope here. Through the opportunities in Canada, the Irish found success here.

The Irish gave much to Canada too. Irish and French workmen built the Parliament complex. In the halls of Parliament, Thomas D’Arcy McGee could marvel at the outcome of the negotiations for Confederation in 1867. His friend, Lord Monck from Tipperary, was the Governor General who played a key role in steering those negotiations to success.

Indeed, the first three Governor Generals after Confederation were Irish; Monck, Lisgar and Lord Dufferin. Monck bought Rideau Hall. Lord and Lady Dufferin added the Ballroom, the Tent Room and skating rinks there, making it the centre of social life in Ottawa. They were part of a long line of Anglo-Irish Governor Generals, Lieutenant Governors, officials and soldiers who shaped Canada, from Guy Carlton to the Duke of Wellington.

Thomas Ahearn, son of an Irish born blacksmith, brought electric lighting to Parliament. With his genius for invention and his command of the science of electricity, he brought electric power to Ottawa, electric trams, an electric car and even invented the electric oven. His son Frank Ahearn owned the Ottawa Senators when they won the Stanley Cup in 1923, 1924 and 1927.
Frank and his daughter Lilias lived at 7 Rideau Gate. She became vice regal consort to her father-in –law, Governor General Vincent Massey, and accompanied him to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Today their home is the Government’s official guest house. In three generation, the fabulous Ahearns went from blacksmith, to business empire, to Rideau Hall itself. That says something about them. And it says something great about Canada too.

So we are working on a Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail. Call it reverse colonization. By the time we’re finished, Ottawa will be Canada’s leading Irish town. I’d like to welcome newly elected Mayor of Ottawa, Mark Sutcliffe. Great to see him here and have to chance to brief him on our plans to promote the city’s Irish heritage.

I’d also like to recognize Robert Kearns and William Peat from the Canada Ireland Foundation. They have been working for years to promote the Irish Story in Canada and have fantastic plans for the future. We deeply value our collaboration with you.

Grant Vogl of the Bytown Museum is here too. Grant and his team at the Bytown Museum do such great work promoting Ottawa’s great heritage. We’re looking forward to taking our work with them forward. Celebrating the Irish story in Canada is an exciting journey of discovery.

This night is also about friendship. Saying thanks to all our friends and supporters. And working together to build the relationship between Ireland and Canada.

Canada has been a great ally to Ireland. Next year, we celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Canadians played a key role in our peace process. Canada was a founder member of the International Fund for Ireland in 1986. Canadians supported the talks process. Judge Peter Cory became a legend for tackling the issue of collusion in Northern Ireland, a wonderful man of compassion and impeccable integrity. General John de Chastelain played a key role on the Decommissioning Commission in taking the gun out of Irish politics. Al Hutchinson helped consolidate the new policing as Police Ombudsman.

Our Peace Process is a work in progress. We are working to restore power-sharing, to remit the damage caused by Brexit. Our future faces challenges that are daunting but exciting, the prospect of unification. That is journey where Canadian support will be vital. Because in Canada we learn that divergent loyalties can happily the same space in peace and stability.

I would like to say a special thank you to my wife and our small team at the Embassy for all that they do promoting Ireland in Canada. They have worked really hard to make this event happen. The team was led by Second Secretary Sally Bourne and she did a terrific job pulling all this together. A warm round of applause and thanks to them.

We have to say goodbye to John Boylan, our Deputy Head of Mission and I know a friend to many of you here. We will sorely miss you John, thanks for your outstanding contribution and best of luck for the future to you, Deirdre and your family.

I would like to acknowledge the Sue Healy school of Irish dancing, and dancers Nora and Nessa Healy, Joely Henderson, Rosalie Boisselle, Hannah Clegg, Ainsley Smith, Lauren Mortimer, Anna Jackson and Adele Stanton-Bursey. Thank you!
Piper Ross Davison, thank you! That’s a genuine set of pipes he’s got there, Uilleann pipes! None of this blowing in a tube stuff!

I would like to pay a particular tribute to my friend James Maloney, Member for Etobicoke. It has been my honour and pleasure getting to know him and to count him as my friend. Thanks to his leadership and support of the Parliamentary Friendship Group, March is officially Irish Heritage Month. And we have great plans for the future. James, the floor is yours.

I am honoured to introduce Senator Robert Black. If his devotion to farming and agriculture is anything to go by, he definitively has Irish genes!

I am now honoured to call on his honour, Kevin Waugh MP. Kevin distinguished himself in his great speech on the Second Reading of the Motion to Irish Heritage Month. In fact, he proved his Irish credentials by breaking into song!

Eamonn McKee




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I’m adding Rideau Hall to the Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail

On the hunt for the Irish heritage of Ottawa, or as I like to call it the Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail, the more I look the more I find.  Like the fact that the first three Governor Generals after Canadian Confederation were Anglo-Irish. I am proposing to add Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General, as a candidate for inclusion on the Irish Heritage Trail in Canada’s capital city.

And from my latest discoveries, I’m going to propose 7 Rideau Gate, the Canadian Government’s official guest house, as well as the actual wrought iron gates to Rideau Hall, both with strong claims to deserve inclusion. More on those anon, but here’s Rideau Hall’s claim to Irish heritage (we’re not just handing them out to anyone!)

We know that Thomas D’Arcy McGee was a founding father of Canadian Confederation in 1867.  Indeed, Canada’s Confederation and the political settlement underpinning it were the result of the influence of Britain, Ireland and the United States, the latter two as warnings on how not to run a country.  D’Arcy McGee’s knowledge of Irish history, British politics, and his aversion to the United States were the source of much of this influence.[1] 

What appears to have been forgotten is that after Confederation, the first three Governor Generals in the premiere Dominion of the Commonwealth were Irish, more precisely Anglo-Irish.  They all played a role in developing the function of that office, the representative of the British sovereign monarch in Canada.

The last Governor General of Provincial Canada and the first Governor General (GG) of the Canadian Confederation was Charles Monck, 4th Viscount Monck.  Born in Templemore, County Tipperary, and educated at Trinity College Dublin, he served for a time as MP for Portsmouth.  As GG to Provincial Canada from 1861 to 1867, Monck diffused tensions with the US that threatened war and strongly supported Confederation throughout its negotiation at the Quebec, Charlottetown and London Conferences, working hard to ensure consensus.   

As his biography says on the GG’s official website: “Lord Monck’s skill as a diplomat in Canadian-American relations was matched by his ability in promoting Confederation.  He helped build ‘The Great Coalition’, the consolidation of the Reform and Conservative parties that was key to the colonies’ pursuit of federalism.  In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, he was a tireless promoter of unity and played a leading role in the preparations for a federal union.”  “I like him amazingly”, wrote John A. MacDonald of Monck, “and shall be very sorry when he leaves, as he has been a very prudent and efficient administrator of public affairs.”[2]

Monck lived in Quebec during this time.  When he became GG of the Confederation he travelled to Bytown and chose Rideau Hall as the GG’s official residence, purchased for $82,000 in 1868.  As a keen horticulturalist, he did much to develop the gardens and grounds.  After his duties in the new Confederation ended, he returned to Ireland to serve as Lord Lieutenant of County Dublin from 1874 to 1892 (not to be confused with Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; the Dublin position was abolished in 1922).  He died two years later in Enniskerry, aged 75.

Monck was succeeded by John Young, 1st Baron Lisgar.  He was Anglo-Irish, born in Bombay.  His father was William Young of Bailieborough Castle, Country Cavan.  The castle was known as Lisgar House, hence John’s title.  William had bought the castle in 1814 and laid out the plans for the town of Bailieborough. His son John was MP for Cavan for twenty-four years, rising to Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1852 to 1855 (essentially running the country on behalf of the British Government) under Prime Minister Robert Peel. After stints in colonial service in Greece and New South Wales, Young was appointed as the second GG for Confederated Canada, serving until 1872.

In his time as GG, Young was raised to Baron or Lord Lisgar in 1870.  He faced crises provoked by Fenian raids into Canada and the Red River Rebellion led by Louis Riel. In both cases, he strongly counselled against executions to avoid creating bitterness and division.  He worked closely with PM Macdonald to ease tensions.   The Red River Rebellion had been sparked by the transfer of Prince Rupert’s Land (the incomprehensively large territory that drained into Hudson Bay, ranging from Alberta to Nunavut) from the Crown to the Confederation.  Riel demanded land rights on their holdings and autonomy for the Métis.  In 1870 Manitoba was created after negotiations with Riel but Métis demands failed to materialize and Riel was exiled to the US in 1875[3].

Lisgar helped ease long standing tensions with the US that had their roots in the American War of Independence, had flared up in the War of 1812 and had festered ever since.  He travelled to Washington to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant.[4]

According to his official GG biography:   “In both conflicts, Lord Lisgar was a wise mediator who helped lessen some of the potential bitterness. He also prevented the execution of the captured Fenian invaders by sending a sternly worded telegram to those who were ready to apply quick justice.”  It goes on to say that “Lord Lisgar and his wife, Lady Adelaide Annabella Dalton Lisgar, added many important traditions to Rideau Hall. They held the first recorded New Year’s Levee in 1869, while he was Administrator, and organized Christmas and Garden Parties. And in 1872, the noon gun firing on Parliament Hill was established, and the Governor General’s Foot Guards army regiment was created. The first duty of the new regiment was to provide a guard of honour for Lord Lisgar on his departure from office in June of the same year.”[5]

The third Anglo-Irish GG was Lord Dufferin.  Because of the pandemic, I only recently met the Governor General, Her Excellency Mary May Simon, at Rideau Hall.  After our meeting, in which we discussed the Irish contribution to Canada of course, we were given a tour of Rideau Hall, including the opulent Ballroom with its massive Waterford crystal chandelier (1200 pieces), and the Tent Room with its startling marquee-like interior of alternating vertical white and pink stripes.  These magnificent additions to Rideau Hall were the work of the Lord and Lady from Ireland, one of the more consequential occupants of the Governor General’s Residence.

Frederick Temple Blackwood, the future Lord Dufferin, was the only son of Price Blackwood, 4th Baron of Dufferin and Clandeboye in what is now Northern Ireland.  The Scottish Blackwood family had settled in the area to the east of Belfast city on the southern shores of Belfast Lough in the early 1600s. 

Frederick’s mother Helen was a granddaughter of the famous Irish playwright, satirist and MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  He was a very devoted son and built Helen’s Tower to celebrate her, a wonderful folly in the Clandeboye demesne based on the traditional Scottish tower.[6] 

As a young student, Frederick visited Clonakilty in West Cork to see the wretched conditions of the Great Famine and raised money for relief of the poor and starving.  He was a student at Eton College which he hated, and left after two years without a degree.  Not that he needed it: with the early death of his father, he became Baron of Dufferin and Clandeboye in 1841.

Frederick cut a dash as a young aristocrat with his good looks, kind heart, and charm.  By 1850 he was a member of the House of Lords.  Some years later he sailed in the North Atlantic and his humorous travelogue, the popular Letters from High Latitudes, demonstrated his fine writing skills.  He turned to diplomacy where he was involved in the negotiations at the end of the Crimean War.  He had a distinguished and influential series of postings in Lebanon, Syria and India.

In the meantime, Frederick had married a distance cousin, Hariot Rowan-Hamilton of nearby Killyleagh Castle (the Blackwoods had a keen eye for a good marriage that enhanced their position). They would be blessed with twelve children in all.  She would prove to be an adept diplomat herself, and they were the quintessential power-couple.  In 1872, Frederick now Lord Dufferin, travelled with his wife to Rideau Hall to take up his appointment as Governor General. 

The Dufferins remodelled Rideau Hall adding both the Ballroom and the Tent Room. He also built rinks for skating and curling for public use.  They hosted balls, theatre, and concerts, making Rideau Hall the centre of social life in the young capital city.  He created the GG’s Academic medals to reward scholarly achievement.

Dufferin was keenly political and an admirer of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald.  He watched the young Confederation’s parliamentary business closely and solicitously.  Within the Privy Council he felt it was his right to engage on substantive matters with Ministers.  As he put it, “Within the walls of the Privy Council I have as much right to contend for my opinion as any of my Ministers, and in matters of the moment, they must not expect me to accept their advice merely because they give it but must approve it to my understanding and conscience.” 

Dufferin commuted Ambroise Lépine’s death sentence for killing Thomas Scott during the Red River Rebellion.  Though Scott was the son of one of his tenants back in Ireland, Dufferin considered him a ruffian. Like his fellow Anglo-Irishman, the Duke of Wellington, Dufferin kept a wary eye of US’s interests in Canada, and urged facilitating Canadian self-government as much as possible to ward off the US, noting that Quebec “has in great measure saved the English population from Yankification.”

The Dufferins were very taken with Quebec, no doubt its Francophone ambience appealing to both of them.  They were horrified when the City started to demolish its old walls, campaigned to stop it, and raised funds to preserve them.  They created a promenade, Dufferin Terrace with views of the St Lawrence, an enduring landmark in the city.  Thanks to their invention, Quebec was in a good position almost a century later to become a UNESCO world heritage site.

Dufferin and his wife visited every Province, including Indigenous communities from whom they received gifts of native craft and art. He strongly endorsed the Prime Minister’s plan for a cross-Canada railway.  They went out of their way to attend events where they had a chance to meet all walks of life and not just the social elite. Lady Dufferin published her letters to her mother as My Canadian Journal and considered their time in Canada as the happiest of their lives. This was reciprocated by the Canadians.  The popularity of this Irish couple in Canada is shown in the number of streets, schools and places named Dufferin.

Monck, Lisgar and Dufferin were the Confederation chapter of a long and influential Anglo-Irish legacy in colonial Canada stretching back to its most formative period during and after the American War of Independence.  Figures like Guy Carleton Baron Dorchester (born in Strabane), in Quebec and then GG of Canada, his brother Thomas (also Strabane) as a military leader and first Lt Governor of New Brunswick, Richard Bulkeley the founding father of Nova Scotia and John Parr, Lt Governor of Nova Scotia (both from Dublin), and Walter Prendergast (Foxhall, Donegal), first Lt Governor of St John’s Island (PEI).[7]  Perhaps most consequential of them all, as I have written elsewhere, was the Duke of Wellington (born in Dublin, family from Trim) without whom there would have been no Ottawa at all.

Collectively, the first three Anglo-Irish GG’s made significant contributions at a critical period of the new Confederation, bringing experience, confidence and an abiding sense of affection for Canada to their roles and the office itself. They literally left a physical mark in Rideau Hall but left too a legacy in the functioning and public perception of the office of Governor General.



11 November 2022

[1] The prolific D’Arcy McGee was admitted to the Royal Irish Academy on the strength of his 1863 A popular history of Ireland.   See Michele Holmgren’s treatment of D’Arcy McGee’s literary influence in her Canada to Ireland, Poetry, Politics, and the Shaping of Canadian Nationalism 1788-1900.


[3] Riel returned to lead the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, was caught and executed.  His execution generated the deep and long lasting bitterness that Lisgar had striven to avoid in the aftermath of the Red River Rebellion.

[4] Lisgar welcome the first British royal to the Confederation in 1869, Victoria’s son Prince Arthur.  Prince Arthur would return as GG and commission Wilhelmina Geddes to create the magnificent WWI memorial stained glass window in St Bartholomew’s, the chapel of the GG and the GG’s Foot Guards, installed in 1919.


[6] Since the 36th Ulster Division trained there, the tower served as the model for the Ulster Tower in Thiepval to commemorate Ulster’s fallen in World War I. Helen’s Tower is available to rent for a holiday.

[7] The second Lt Gov of PEI was Edmund Fanning, born on Long Island but apparently of Irish parents.


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Memorial Service and Rededication of the Restored Geddes Window

Remarks at St Bartholomew’s Church, Ottawa, 6 November 2022

Eamonn McKee, Ambassador of Ireland

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go leir. I am honoured and delighted to a part of this service today as we rededicate this wonderful stained glass window by Irish artist Wilhelmina Geddes.

I want to pay particular thanks to Reverend Father David Clunie for inviting me to be a part of this restoration project. I thought at first he was just looking for money but I quickly realized that what he really wanted was my endorsement as the Irish Ambassador. He rightly intuited that this was a really important dimension to this endeavor.

Since our first meeting at the home of our neighbors Rob and Joanne Nelson, this has been great, a certain highlight of my time here. I have to say as a civil servant you do not often start a project and get to see it finished! But here it is less than two years later and how wonderful. The detail and clarity is amazing.

We should acknowledge too the restoration team who must have a special feeling for this window and they cleaned and restored it piece by piece. They have done a wonderful job.

Thank you then to David, his fundraising committee and all the supporters of this wonderful piece of Irish art, newly restored and good for another one hundred years.

The Geddes Window was commissioned in early 1916 when so much was in flux in Irish society and in art. Geddes was an artist working in the medium of stained glass, at the Túr Gloine studio in Dublin, part of a revival of artisanal craft and the medieval world. As Reverend Clunie noted, the medieval motif makes this work ageless.

When I approached my colleagues back at Headquarters, they immediately recognized the significance of this project and gathered funding to support it.

We hosted a reception last Thursday at Residence to mark the completion of the restoration. We premiered David’s wonderful documentary on the history of the Geddes Window. Beautifully done and soon to be online and available to the public. Well done David and all the volunteers who shared in its making.

As a result of the restoration, St Bartholomew’s and this Geddes Window will be a gem in the Bytown-Ottawa Heritage Trail on which we are working. We hope this will help make more people aware of this treasure, both here in Canada and in Ireland.

We will also put Rideau Hall and Rideau Gate on our Irish Heritage Trail. Call it reverse colonization!

These Church walls bear the names of Governor Generals. The first three after Confederation in 1867 were Anglo-Irish: Viscount Monck, born in Tipperary and educated at Trinity College Dublin; Lord Lisgar whose father was from Bailieborough in Country Cavan; and of course Lord and Lady Dufferin, Frederick and Hariot Blackwood, probably the most consequential couple to live at Rideau Hall as they transformed the function of that office.

The last private family living at No 7 Rideau Gate, now the Government of Canada’s official guest house, were the Ahearns. Lilias Ahearn Massey grew up there and became vice regal consort, attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. From her Irish-born blacksmith great-grandfather, her grandfather Thomas and father Frank Ahearn, to that august role was but three generations

The Geddes Window represents a time in Ireland’s history when local loyalties and aspirations, hopes and fears collided with global events and the outbreak of World War I. The struggles in Ireland were projected onto the wider screen of European hostilities.

Ulster loyalists resisting Home Rule joined the Ulster Volunteer Force and then the 36th Ulster Division to fight for King, country and little Belgium.

Irish nationalists insisting on Home Rule joined the National Volunteers and then the British Army to fight for home rule for Ireland and little Belgium.

Irish Catholic Canadians joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force King, country, and home rule for Ireland.

They all fought and died for what they believed were noble causes.

The noble cause of Irish freedom also called to Irish patriots who fought for Ireland in the streets of Dublin in 1916 and paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.

We honour our patriot dead at our Garden of Remembrance. There in 2011, Queen Elizabeth II paid her respects. It was an historic peacemaking gesture in reconciling Ireland and Britain. In this year of her passing, we remember her too.

So this window is part of the mosaic of our shared history. Irish, British, and Canadian. Nationalist, unionist, and Commonwealth.

We remember today the 200,000 Irish men and women from all traditions who enlisted in the Great War and the 35,000 who fell.

To what degree they were betrayed by the great powers that led them to such horror and sacrifice remains a live historical debate. That debate enhances our memorial of them. It serves to remind us that war is a solemn and grim business.

That as all soldiers know who must put their lives on the line, the greatest honour is reserved for the peace makers.

We are honoured today to have with us a soldier and a peace maker, John de Chastelain. He and his fellow members of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning helped take the gun out of Irish politics.

It is the peace makers who strive to avoid conflict until all other options are exhausted.

And when that fatal price is paid in the fight for our beliefs, we honour the fallen, we remember them.

Thank you.

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On Guard: How One Irishman and a Pot of Spanish Silver Transformed Canada

Canada on Guard: How One Irishman and a Pot of Spanish Silver Transformed Canada

I find Canadian history endlessly fascinating.  The historical narratives of Canada and Ireland constantly weave through the imperial framework of British interests, more often than note criss-crossing each other.  Every book I pick up, every little snippet I learn opens up a new vista on this interplay between the three countries.

So it was that Alastair Sweeny’s new history of Ottawa was a happy find last Saturday in Perfect Books on Elgin Street: Thomas MacKay, The Laird of Rideau Hall and the Founding of Ottawa (University of Ottawa Press, 2022).  Combined with familiar volumes on my bookshelves and the hyperlinks of Wikipedia, the story of Ottawa’s founding provided a vital key to unlocking how Britain’s imperial interests shaped Canada, just as they had for Ireland.

England’s conquest of Ireland was strategic: to secure its western flank from attack by its European competitors.  For the Tudors at the close of the 16th century, the Spanish Army in Ireland supporting the rebellion of The Great O’Neill confirmed their worst fears.  Likewise, General Hoche’s abortive French expedition to Ireland in 1796 and General Humbert’s landing in Mayo in 1798, validated the strategic rationale for Ireland’s occupation.  Ireland’s nubby Martello towers around all the Ulster coast (bar Ulster) are monuments to that old anxiety.

By the same token, it is hard to imagine the development of Canada without the decisive intervention of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.  He had the authority, the manpower and, critically, a huge pot of Spanish silver to realize his vision of Canada as a strategic bulwark to defend Britain against Europe and the United States. That is the fascinating story that sets the scene for Alastair Sweeny’s new book.

Famously, the Duke of Wellington was said to have retorted about his Irish origins that ‘being born in a stable did not make you a horse.’ [1]   Nonetheless, it remained a fact that not only was he born on Merrion Street in Dublin and raised in Ireland, but his family also had deep roots there going back at least six generations.  His Cowley (later Colley[2]) forebears arrived from England around 1500 and successive patriarchs were members of the Irish House of Commons.  Their lands were near Trim and Wellington was raised there and in Dublin, leaving when he was twelve to go to Eton (where he was deeply unhappy).  Whatever about his alleged distain, Wellington led many Irish into battle wherever he fought and as Prime Minister delivered Catholic Emancipation in the face of ferocious opposition from his own Tory party and the king. As as Freemason, Wellington belonged to his Lodge in Trim.

As I have written elsewhere[3], generations of Anglo-Irish imperial soldiers and administrators made their careers in North America and had formative influence on the development of British North America as the French departed in 1763 and the American War of Independence ended in 1783. 

Like many of them, Wellington joined the British Army when an elder brother inherited the family estate.  Yet without ever serving in British North America, it was Wellington who wielded the greatest influence on the colony’s development.[4] 

Wellington’s vision for Canada was triggered by outrage at the events of 1812.  The titanic struggle between Britain and France for global supremacy had been going on for a century, with episodes fought in North America, Ireland, the Atlantic, the West Indies, the East Indies, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.  Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Syria in 1798, for example, had been an attempt to access Asia and take control of India, thereby directly threatening British hegemony in Asia and the world.  Nelson’s naval victory at The Battle of the Nile quickly put paid to that ambition.[5] 

“The Napoleonic Wars of 1800-1815 were a global, not just a European struggle,” writes Dominic Lieven in Russia Against Napoleon.  The battles were fought in Europe during the climactic phase of this global contest because successive British naval victories had confined Napoleon there.  The stakes could not have been higher.  “It was in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras that Britain consolidated its hugely powerful global empire, both territorial and commercial…. Napoleon’s attempt to create a European empire was simply a last, heroic effort to balance British imperialism and avoid defeat in France’s century-long conflict with Britain.  The odds were very much against Napoleon, though by 1812 he had come seemingly very close to success.”[6]  In June 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée of almost 700,000 men invaded Russia. 

That same month, with the British Empire’s future on a knife edge, the United States declared war on the UK and invaded its territory in British North America. As Sweeny notes, that the American Ambassador in Paris was on the campaign trail with the Grande Armée helped cement the impression that the US was taking advantage of Britain’s peril (the Ambassador froze to death in Poland and the return leg). To Wellington, the US attack was a grievous stab in the back.  Britain had to divert some of its best troops to defend Canada, as well as part of the Navy to ward off the US-backed privateers plundering British merchant ships in the North Atlantic.

After the disaster of Napoleon’s Russian invasion and then Waterloo, writes Sweeny, “Wellington’s problem was no longer France, it was the United States.  Everything had to be done, from diplomacy to money power to fortifications, to prevent the Americans from capturing British North America.”[7]

Thanks to the Napoleonic blockade, Canada was already substituting for the loss of Baltic lumber to build and repair Britain’s navy.  Hemp for ropes and sails were vital to the British Navy: a frigate required fifty tons every two years.  Most of that came from Russia, a supply line that had been threatened by Napoleon.[8] Canada’s supply of hemp was limited but could be encouraged longer term. As an imperial strategist, Wellington became convinced that the key to Britain’s global military security was British North America.  He decided to fortify Canada, ensure that it had secure transportation links along the St Lawrence linking Kingston, Montreal and Quebec, was capable of defending the coast and trade routes across the North Atlantic from a base at Halifax, and had a strong settled population of loyalists along the St Lawrence in the vulnerable Ontario region. 

Wellington was uniquely placed to carry out his plan.  As Master General of the Ordnance in 1818, Commander-in-Chief in 1827 and Prime Minister from 1828-1830, he had the authority to order British Army engineers and sappers to help build vital infrastructure. [9]   To finance his endeavours, and by a bizarre twist of history, the Admiralty had a treasure of Spanish silver beyond Parliamentary control.  Thanks to Sweeny’s indomitable sleuthing we now know that in 1808 Napoleon’s banker proposed and the British accepted a deal to split a vast consignment of Spanish silver, minted in Mexico, and transported by a fleet of twenty-six ships of the Royal Navy.  The Admiralty’s share of the silver was kept offshore to avoid destabilizing the British financial system.[10]  By 1818, Wellington was free to spend it in Canada. 

Without the need for Parliamentary approval or oversight, spend it he did.  In return for free transportation for the military on the proposed canals, Wellington subsidized the building of the Lachine Canal at Montreal, which opened trade along the upper St Lawrence and the Ottawa Rivers.  The canal was built with mainly Irish labour under the direction of Scottish master stone mason and building contractor Thomas Mackay (from Perth, Scotland).

Wellington also sanctioned the building of the Rideau Canal to link the Ottawa River to the St Lawrence at Kingston and thereby protect supply lines between Montreal and the Great Lakes in the event of an American attack across the St Lawrence. While mainly for military reasons, it made commercial sense too.  The US plan to build the Erie Canal, linking the Hudson to the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence, threatened to snuffle out Montreal’s export trade with Europe by providing easy access to New York. 

Thanks to the superb quality of his work and management of large projects, Mackay won the contract for the Rideau Canal.  Irish labourers again featured strongly in his workforce.  Mackay built the first stone building in Ottawa, the canal site’s commissary, today the Bytown Museum.[11]  Both he and his partner, John Redpath, were handsomely paid, literally with barrels of Spanish silver coin.  Redpath invested his in Montreal, but Mackay decided to put down roots in Bytown and develop it: building fine homes at Rideau Hall and Earnscliffe, an industrial complex and housing in what he called New Edinburgh, and laying out Rockcliffe Park for prized housing development.  Soon he and other figures like Governor Dalhousie were intent on making Bytown the capital of a new and vital partner in Britain’s global imperial system.

The same logic informed the decision to build the Welland Canal, to which Wellington lent his support, his own money, and his name.[12]  The Welland was planned to link Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, across the Niagara peninsula. Without Wellington’s backing and his Spanish silver, not to mention British Army engineers and sappers, the building of the Lachine and Welland canals would almost certainly have taken longer, and the Rideau Canal would never have been proposed. No canal, no Ottawa. While built for military reasons, their value as vital arteries for trade and the development of the economy were clearly understood at the time. They indeed proved vital to Canada’s economic development in the 19th century.  Even today the Welland Canal is a key part of the St Lawrence Seaway, which handles upwards of fifty million tons of cargo each year between the Great Lakes, domestic markets and overseas ones in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

To protect these transportation routes, fortifications were built at key points, including sixteen Martello towers: five at Halifax, four at Quebec, six at Kingston, and one at St John. Militia units were established to protect the canal locks and dams, as well as to be ready to repulse any American incursions across the St Lawrence or up the Richelieu River from Lake Champlain.[13]  Halifax boomed with the decision to make it a strategic harbour for the defence of its North Atlantic waters and the coast of British North America against US intentions.[14] 

As Wellington downsized the British Army after Waterloo in 1815, soldiers were offered land, supplies and tools “to form a loyal and war-like population on the banks of the Rideau and Ottawa.”[15]  Indeed, the British Army and its Royal Staff Corps played a vital role in surveying and building roads to connect the population centres along the St Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, and establishing fortifications and logistical depots. 

As Sweeny writes in his fascinating book on Mackay and the founding of Ottawa, the names of the men Wellington dispatched to Canada to realise his vision “resonate today in the names of hundreds of Canadian towns, cities, counties, streets, schools, and universities”: Charles Lennox the Duke of Richmond, George Ramsay the Earl of Dalhousie, Sherbrooke, Aylmer, Kempt, Murray, Colborne, Bagot, Maitland, Lennox, Drummond, Cathcart, and Arthur.  “They were all Wellington’s men.  Along with them came hundreds of his staff officers, including Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers.”[16] 

Under Wellington’s stewardship and with the active support of the British Army and Navy, Canada was a hive of activity.  Canals were being built.  New towns were being established, linked by new road networks.  Land was being allotted and settled by demobbed soldiers, subsidized as settlers.  The lumber industry thrived, and with it the provisioning business so vital to the livelihoods of merchants and farmers.  Immigrants flooded to British North America thanks to cheap passage on the ships heading there for cargoes of lumber.

All of this economic activity drew Irish immigrants to Central Canada, about twice as many Protestants as Catholics in the first two decades of the 19th century, mainly to farm.  Catholic immigrants came to build the canals in the 1820s and 1830s, and then settle the land.  They also arrived in numbers to British North America as soldiers, journalists, administrators, priests, businessmen and merchants, lawyers and politicians. The Irish lumber baron John Egan boosted the Irish presence in the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys.  He not only gave them employment in the lumber industry but offered them land to farm at half price.[17]

One has to remember too that most of Wellington’s army in the Peninsular War in Spain had been Irish, most of Nelson’s navy were Irish sailors, and Irish soldiers had been a sizeable presence on the field at Waterloo.  Indeed, for most of the 19th century, one third of the British Army were Irish, and Irish Catholic at that.[18]  Many of them found their way to British North America either as part of their units or as settlers.[19]

Wellington’s strategic vision of Canada’s value to Britain’s global security was ultimately correct.  Britain had beaten Spain as its chief global competitor in the 15th century.  It had ultimately beaten France, its chief rival in the 18th and 19th centuries, first in North America on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec and then decisively in Europe at Waterloo.  Once the United States gave up its predatory intentions toward Canada, it was a key diplomatic and trading partner with the UK, part of an Anglophone Atlantic sphere of influence.  The support of North America as a whole proved decisive in the defeat of Britain’s chief 20th century rival, Germany, in two world wars.  What Wellington could not have anticipated was that his own chief rival in America, the United States, would by the mid-twentieth century eclipse the British Empire.

Before Wellington’s strategic decision to bolster Canada with the Rideau Canal and Bytown, the area was Algonquin territory.  The confluence of the Rideau, Ottawa, and Gatineau Rivers had been a gathering point for Indigenous people where they met seasonally to exchange news, trade, pray and feast.  ‘Ottawa’ comes from the Algonquin adawa meaning to trade and Odawa is the name of an Anishnabe people.  Where the Rideau River cascaded into the Ottawa in two great waterfalls, they made offerings.  Samuel de Champlain too admired the plumes of mist but prosaically called them curtains, hence ‘Rideau’. Pioneer lumber baron Philemon Wright had established a small settlement on the northern bank of the Ottawa at the confluence with the Gatineau River.  The Algonquin came to trade with the strange new settlers led by Wright, lacking the information to understand that they were the tip of a vast imperial machine that would take their land and crush their civilisation.[20]

Ottawa exists today because of Wellington’s order to build the Rideau Canal, which in turn created the means to settle the whole area.  In Colonel John By, Thomas Mackay and John Redpath, he had the men capable of doing it.  Occasionally, British Army engineers and sappers were needed to tackle tricky problems, and the mainly Irish workforce provided the muscle and skills to build the 47 locks and 52 dams.[21] A Celtic cross stands today at the head of the Canal to honour all those who died through disease and injury, including Irish, Scottish, French, and Indigenous workers. Everyone risked malaria but it took a devastating toll on the most exposed Irish: “The lock sites on the Cataraqui River were hit hard by the malaria epidemics, which killed almost five hundred men, mostly Irish immigrants.”[22] 

By 1832, the Rideau Canal was completed, at a cost of $800,000: about as much, Sweeny reckons, as the value of the silver cargo of one ship.[23] 

Wellington certainly deserves to have Ottawa’s main thoroughfare named after him in the capital city of a country he did so much to defend against America’s territorial ambitions, bolster its administration, sponsor its settlement, and boost its economic development.  His intervention also created the conditions which encouraged the Irish to immigrate to British North America, establishing Irish settlement patterns up to the last great wave of Irish emigration during the most disastrous year of the Great Irish Famine in 1847.[24]  Thereafter, large scale Irish emigration to Canada ends.  The US was the new destination for waves of mainly Catholic Irish who saw themselves as political exiles, not mere economic emigrants.[25]   By then, Irish settlement patterns in Canada were well established and the Irish themselves had already made a deeply felt, if somewhat occluded, impact on the development of Canada.  Like Canada itself, the chief architect of this legacy was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and his pot of Spanish silver.

Like Canada, Ireland was shaped by British imperial interests.  Fears that it would be swept up in French Revolutionary fervour convinced London to abolish the Irish Parliament 1800 and to bind Ireland to Britain in the Act of Union 1800. Yet the same drive to bind Canada as an ally led it to succor the relationship, granting it responsible government in the 1840s and Confederation as the first Dominion of the Commonwealth in 1867. Had Britain taken a similar tact with Ireland, our history would have been very different. 

All of this has led me hear in Canada’s national anthem the echoes of its colonial history:  “True patriot love in all of us command, With glowing hearts we see thee rise, The True North strong and free!  From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

Eamonn McKee


26 October 2022

[1] Born Wesley but later taking his mother’s name Wellesley.

[2] Wellington’s grandfather, Richard, changed his surname from Colley to Wesley after he inherited the estate of his cousin Garret Wesley in 1728 (Wikipedia).


[4] Wellington earned his spurs with long service in India.  He won fame fighting Napoleon’s forces in Spain in the savage war there.  More than 70% of his Peninsular Army were Irish.

[5] For a very lively account, see Juan Cole’s Napoleon’s Egypt, Invading the Middle East.

[6] Lieven, Russia against Napoleon, The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace, (Viking, 2009), pp 16-17.  Lieven’s book is a declared attempt to correct western accounts that underestimate the significance of Russia’s victory and the logistical achievement of chasing Napoleon all the way to Paris. The logic behind Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was shared by Hitler: only by being truly unchallenged in Europe could either hope to defeat Britain.  See Timothy Snyder’s incomparable Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

[7] Sweeny, p 49.

[8] Sweeny slightly overstates cutting off the British Navy’s supply of hemp as being the predominant reason for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

[9] Wikipedia.

[10] Ibid, pp 134-5.

[11] Bytown got its name from Col. John By, the British Army engineer overseeing the canal’s construction.  It was changed to Ottawa in 1855.

[12] Ibid, p. 54.

[13] As had happened in the French and Indian Wars; see Fintan O’Toole’s William Johnson, White Savage.

[14] Thomas Raddall, Halifax, Warden of the North, p 167.  In an ironic twist, the plans of the new fortification there were drawn up by Colonel James Arnold, son of Benedict Arnold, the arch US traitor.

[15] Sweeny, quoted p 49.

[16] Sweeny, p. 48.

[17] Michael McBane, John Egan, Pine and Politics (Ottawa, 2018).  Egan was also instrumental in the land grant for the Algonquin reserve at Kitigan Zibi in the Gatineau Valley at Maniwaki.

[18] Thomas Bartlett, Ireland during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1791-1815, pp 74-75, in the Cambridge History of Ireland, vol. III.

[19] Historian Michael McBane tells me that one of his forebears on this mother’s side perfectly illustrates this pattern: John Kearns (Catholic, b. Enniskillen, Ireland, 1777; d. Plantagenent, Upper Canada, 1863).  As a young soldier, Kearns, saw action during the Irish rebellion of 1798. He served in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars in the West Indies, Spain and the Netherlands. He joined the Duke of Wellington’s Army in 1811 and was present at many battles during the Peninsula Wars. He immigrated to Upper Canada in 1818.  He held the rank of Colonel in the Prescott Militia and participated in the Battle of Saint-Eustache during the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837.  He represented Prescott in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada at York (Toronto) from 1836 to 1841 as a Conservative.

[20] Sweeny, pp 12-14.

[21] Ibid, p 144.

[22] Ibid, p 141.

[23] Ibid, p 136.

[24] Mark McGowan, Death or Canada, The Irish Famine Migration to Toronto, 1847 (Novalis, 2009). Donald H Akenson, The Irish in Ontario (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1984), 28-34.

[25] See Kirby Miller’s classic study Emigrants and Exiles.


Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, A Novel for Our Times

The Brilliance of Joseph Valente’s Dracula’s Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood

There is a core idea at the heart of this brilliant book. It is not declared but clearly signaled. That Bram Stoker deserves to be esteemed in the company of James Joyce. That consequently Dracula is no mere schlock popular novel but an exegesis of colonialism itself and the blood racism at its heart. That both Joyce and Stoker foresee a future in which society is at peace with multiple identities, hybridity, and alterity.

Joyce found his medium in the quotidian, a day in the life of Dublin city. Stoker found his medium in the Gothic horror genre. Both refracted their Irish identity through their fiction which offered a humane and liberalizing proposition for a better society. Joyce saw the future beyond the constraints, imperatives and narrowness of Ireland. Stoker, more cryptically and covertly, presented his prescription for imperial societies at large and Britain in particular.

Joyce departed Dublin for the intellectually conducive and liberating environs of Europe. Stoker departed Dublin and entered the belly of the racist beast in London, the metropolitan imperium. He became a very effective manager of the Lyceum Theatre, apparently in thrall to the magnetic personality of leading actor Henry Irving.

In one way, Stoker’s message is the more powerfully relevant for today. Valente holds that Dracula deconstructs the obsessions of blood purity, the notion that British cultural superiority and political dominance, as he puts it, were grounded in Anglo-Saxon blood purity. Victorian England was profoundly anxious that that purity was at risk of degeneration by invasions of the ‘Other.’

The ‘Other’ primarily of course being the Irish, introduced into the heart of the metropolitan centre by the Act of Union of 1800. First a wave of Anglo-Irish decanted from their Irish parliament to Westminster and then a flood of enfranchised and poverty stricken Catholic Irish immigrants.

For Valente, these are the metro-colonials, of which Stoker was a prime example, those from the colony but now of the metropolitan center, or at least in it, and hardly accepted by it.

Valente argues that Dracula the character is not merely an avatar for an invading species, a reverse colonization from the East that would ruin Anglo-Saxon blood purity through contagion and threaten its global predominance. Nor is Dracula merely a metaphor for the Anglo-Irish aristocracy that sucked the life blood of their Catholic Irish tenantry. Dracula is not even a Fenian in count’s clothing, though Stoker himself made such an annotation in one of his drafts.

Rather Dracula is the doppelganger of the racialist blood-obsessed English themselves. The group hunting Dracula, dubbed by Valente the Little Englanders, must embrace hybridity, alterity and even Irish Catholic iconography, in effect ceasing their obsessive racist eugenics. Only then can Dracula be killed. Or more accurately, as the novel describes it, fade into dust, no more than a phantom now dispelled by their conversion.

Meanwhile, it is Wilhelmina Murray Harker who emerges as the true hero, the dominant hybrid herself (deconstruct her name, as Valente does) that even in her destruction by and of Dracula pleads for pity for him. That is a moment of ethical transcendence that in her capacious forgiving embrace supersedes even Christianity itself.

Valente sees Dracula the novel as a meditation on racism rendered by a metro-colonial writer uniquely placed at the intersection of multiple identities and crisscrossing loyalties. Stoker is Anglo-Irish in Ireland, Irish in England and Anglo-Celt in his heart. Rather than confer on Stoker multiple acceptances in Dublin and London, his hybridity merely confers multiple exclusions and derisions. Stalwart in the face of these social and physic assaults, as only a true Victorian gentlemen could and should be, Stoker poured his insights and secular ecumenical conclusions into his Gothic horror novel. Valente superbly if at times densely excavates this. Though published some years ago, his insights remain vital and thrilling.

Valente’s presentation of Stoker’s vision in which racism is as definitively excised as is Dracula at the book’s conclusion, remains disturbingly relevant to this day. Stoker’s imagined future is sadly prophetic rather than realized. If anything, we have stepped backwards in recent years. The battle against the blood obsessions set out in Stoker’s brilliant if cryptic thesis in Dracula continues today against renewed atavistic and populist forces. White nationalism, with its anxieties fed by cynical political, financial and autocratic propagandists, has in turn promoted Brexit, Trumpism and Russian adventurism in Ukraine, to name but three current frontiers.

If and when you finish reading Dracula’s Crypt, reread at least the introduction again. It will reveal the depth and richness of Valente’s insights and analysis. I’m off now to reread Dracula just in time for Halloween.


Ottawa, 20 October 2022

PS Maybe if Stoker had moved to Canada instead of London he would have been less conflicted but then we might not have had Dracula!


Filed under Anglo-Irish, Ireland

Tadhg O’Brennan, a great candidate as the first recorded Irishman in Canada

Tadhg Cornelius Ó’Braonáin, or in English Tadhg O’Brennan, known as Tec Cornelius Aubrenan, was the first known Irish-born immigrant to Canada since we do not have any names for the fishermen who had settled earlier in Newfoundland. He arrived in what was then New France in 1661 aged 45 and married Jeanne Chartier on October 9, 1670 in Notre Dame Cathedral in Quebec City.  They had two children, Madeleine Therese Aubry, born August 8, 1671 in Vercheres and Francois Aubyn born October 31, 1677 in Lachenaie.  He died aged fifty-five 1687 and is buried Pointe-aux-Trembles. 

Born around 1616, it appears that Tadgh was from a parish near Castlecomer, County Kilkenny.  In a thoroughly researched paper published in 2002, Louis Aubry, one of his descendants, suggested that his father was Connor O’Brennan who held lands in Kilkenny.  He further speculates that ‘Diasonnay’, the phonetic record of Tadgh’s birthplace recorded on his marriage certificate, is probably a parish called Dysert near the river Dinin, a tributary of the Nore River just north of Kilkenny city.  There he finds Dysert Bridge where the two rivers called Dinan converge. 

In his Irish Names of Places, PW Joyce writes that Dysert is found commonly in Ireland, meaning hermitage.  Dinin could be daingain meaning a stronghold, not usual to find at a confluence of rivers. Thus Diasonnay can reasonably read as ‘Dysert-on-the-Dinin.” 

Dysert at the River Dinin is just south of Castlecomer, the ‘Castle at the confluence’ and indeed it is where the Dinan, Cloghogue and Brokcagh rivers meet.  Because of its strategic significance, the Anglo-Norman Lord, William Marshall, established a stronghold there around 1200.  Marshall had married the daughter of Dermot McMurrough, the Leinster king who had invited Henry II to invade Ireland thirty years earlier.  Marshall had been his right hand man and the marriage, along with claims to Leinster, was his reward for lifelong service.  Marshall’s arrival forced the O’Brennan’s into the hills around Dysert.  Aubry quotes the following from the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquarians:

“But the O’Broenains were not extirpated or even subdued; they retreated before the feudal tenants of the Earl Marshall to the hills around Castlecomer; ‘where, in the land of the Dinin,’ surrounded by bogs and woods, they retained a stormy independence until later in the reign of the First Charles, when in 1635, a jury presented that the O’Broenains held their lands ‘manu forte’ [by the strength of their hand, or force of arms].”  

However, the O’Brennan’s were unable to hold their lands in the face of the brutal onslaught of the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland in 1650.   After infamous massacres and much destruction, the conquest ended in 1652, with sporadic guerrilla war finally petering out a year later.  Lands held by Catholics were seized as spoils of war for his officers and as part of the extirpation of Catholicism by the New English, fanatical Protestant regicides. This was the foundation of Anglo-Irish Ascendancy taking shape, encompassing the New English with the surviving Old English who traced their roots back to the Norman invasion at the end of the twelfth century. Catholics were ordered to “hell or to Connaught” and under the Penal Laws made legal aliens in their own country.

It is likely that Tadhg was one of the many Irish soldiers allowed to leave for France after the Cromwellian invasion.  In France, and though likely illiterate, Tadgh would have learned French, essential to his decision to move to New France.  New France had been established by Samuel de Champlain with the intention of creating a non-sectarian and egalitarian society in contrast to France and its prolonged religious civil war that saw some two million die.

We do not know much about Tadgh’s life in Quebec.  Clearly he was a hardy fellow, a soldier of fortune by force of circumstance. He would have had stories to tell not just of own tumultuous his life but of the ancient and still vibrant Gaelic culture in which he had been born and raised.  His family lineage and his life story were in themselves a plumb line that reached deep into Ireland’s history.  A fitting character then to have the honour of being the first known Irishman in Canada.


Ottawa, 14 October 2022

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Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland

Fifty Irish Lives in Canada: It’s Complicated and That’s Great

Fifty Irish Lives in Canada is a project I have launched profiling the lives of the Irish in Canada, with the aim of picking from those profiles fifty lives of Irish born people who made a contribution to Canada or lived lives emblematic of the Irish immigrant experience. It was inspired by the Royal Irish Academy’s publication, Irish Lives in America. I want to thank the RIA for their advice on this project. Along with a group of the leading historians of the Irish in Canada, we are working to compile some of these profiles, with a release date next March, Irish Heritage Month in Canada. Only when we have a critical mass of profiles can we consider picking the representative Fifty.

The following comprises (I) an overview essay (II) a history of Canada and the Irish in Canada in 250 words and (III) a list of some of the candidates for the Fifty Irish Lives Project.

The profiles being readied for publication next March will be less than 1000 words and the list here is a selective indication of what is to come. On the list you will find at least one governor, military officer, provincial founder, business leader, bishop, educator, rescuer, murderer, labour leader, brewer, explorer, botanist, statesman, actress, journalist, novelist, and the founder of a legal system.

What they have in common is that they were all born in Ireland. We have to start somewhere. Collating the impact and contribution of Irish Canadians in an immense task for another time.

The Irish helped make Canada what it is today. That contribution is complicated. Because it was made over three hundred years of tumultuous history. Because the Irish came from all walks of life, competing religious and political beliefs, and loyalties that converged and divided over time. It is complicated and all the richer for that.

To note, what follows are living documents that will be continuously amended and updated.

Eamonn McKee


13 October 2022

I: Overview, The Irish Contribution to Canada

The Irish contribution to Canada is as epic and magnificent as it has been low-key. It was low-key because the Irish had to fit into a complex society comprising a dominant Anglophone, Protestant elite with the crown as its sovereign, a Catholic Francophone Province, and an Indigenous society whose hold on their own land was quickly being usurped, with devastating consequences for them.

Most times, Canada and its settlement project was an enriching environment full of challenges and opportunities for the new arrivals. Sometimes it meant that the imperial Irish, the Anglo-Irish Ascendency that had conquered Ireland and seized its lands, carried on careers in Britain’s North American colonies. Sometimes, it meant Catholic Irish becoming Anglican or Presbyterians a Methodist. Sometimes, the Irish just dropped the O’ and the Mc.

When did it start? The Medieval epic tale, the Voyage of St Brendan, confirms that the eponymous monk explored much of the Atlantic seaboard around Ireland, Scotland and Iceland. Because they embarked without necessarily thoughts of return, it is possible that early Irish Christian monks sailed far enough west to reach Newfoundland. However, there is no evidence of it.

We know that the Vikings under Leif Erikson settled in Newfoundland at l’Anse aux Meadow. We also know that the Vikings from Norway who settled Iceland took sheep and women from Scotland and Ireland on their voyages to Iceland. Perhaps some Irish women was among Erikson’s hardy band in Newfoundland but she is lost to history.

The first significant migrations of Irish were to the cod banks of Newfoundland in the 17th century. So familiar was it to them that they gave it an Irish name, the only one outside of Ireland, Talamh an Éisc, land of the fish. Along with English and French, they settled there and elsewhere in Atlantic Canada in growing numbers throughout the 18th century. To this day, Newfoundland shares exceptionally strong kinship ties with Waterford and Wexford but also southern parts of Kilkenny, Carlow and Tipperary.

The first recorded Irishman in Canada, then known as New France, was Tadhg O’Brennan. His was an ancient Gaelic line with deep roots around Castlecomer in Co Kilkenny. They had managed for four hundred years to hold onto some of their lands against the depredations of the Norman invaders. However, the Cromwellian invasion was overwhelming and Tadhg departed for France and in 1661 for Quebec, aged 45, where he married and had a family.

In the second half of the 18th century, Anglo-Irish officers and administrators took leading roles in the founding of the Canadian colonies, applying skills and often prejudices hard won in their conquest of Ireland from the early 17th century onwards. They had family roots in Ireland’s conquests, from the Tudor wars to the Cromwellian and Williamite settlements. They had taken land by the sword from the Gaelic Irish, like the O’Brennans, and imposed an alien system of governance, religion, and law. The Anglo-Irish learned how to colonize in Ireland, often brutally and with deep sectarian convictions about Catholics and natives. Men like Guy Carlton, his brother Thomas, John Parr, Richard Bulkeley and Walter Patterson applied their skills in Canada, their political acumen honed by navigating Ireland’s complexities.

The Anglo-Irish also intermarried with the Gaelic Irish elite giving them links and insights into a culture that shared many precepts with the Indigenous of Canada. Over the generations, the Anglo-Irish regarded themselves as Irish though not native like the Gaelic and largely Catholic Irish. After all, Richard Bulkeley’s ancestor on his father’s side, Lancelot, arrived in Ireland in 1613 as Anglican Archbishop. The Anglo-Irish aristocrats took pride in their Irish Parliament, were loyal to the Crown but haggled endless with London for the betterment of Ireland’s trade and development. By the end of the 18th century they had developed their own sense of nationality.

Famously some Anglo-Irish aristocrats like Henry Grattan, Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and Lord Edward FitzGerald became advocates for Irish independence, became even republicans in the mold of the French Revolution. The young Lord Edward in his travels in Canada rhapsodized about the possibilities it offered as Edenic and egalitarian. Irish patriots and poets helped shaped the imaginative landscape of Canadian writers.

Such dreams ended when London decided that its imperial interests demanded the abolition of the Irish Parliament. In a narrow window of fright at the possibilities of a republican neighbour they achieved that aim in 1800. That act sent Ireland on its way to deep sectarian division, economic decline and eventually the catastrophe of famine.

In summary, when family property and prospects did not come their way at home, the Anglo-Irish looked to British North America for careers, land, money and adventure, true-blue believers in the Empire like Dominick Daly.

Protestant Irish farmers, often of Scottish origin who had settled in Ulster in the plantations of the 17th centuries, outnumbered Catholics by two-to-one up to the 1830s. By the 1820s Irish Catholics began arriving in number finding work in the rough lumber business, building canals, and farming on land of course taken from the Indigenous. Some like John Egan who found great wealth and esteem were instrumental in encouraging Irish settlement in places like the Ottawa and Gatineau valleys. From colonization at home to being part of colonel settlement in Canada. Survival can be complicated. Many Irish born helped build a country and at times make contributions that in hindsight added to the woes, even the decimation of the Indigenous.

The story of the Irish in Canada is complicated. That’s history. Let’s not uncomplicate it.

The Catholic Irish were a minority in a predominantly Protestant Canada and doubly so in Quebec as a minority amidst the dominant French Catholics. With leadership from their own priests, bishops, journalists and politicians, the Catholic Irish organized mutual support, established schools, built magnificent churches as statements of pride, and mobilized politically.

For women, immigration offered at least some release from the restrictions at home. By the mid-19th century, more women were crossing the Atlantic than men. However, it had added perils. In a patriarchal society women were not expected to be educated, were expected to marry and where upwards of twenty per cent were expected to fall into prostitution. The acceptance of this fate infuriated writers like Anna Murphy. Women writers like Mary Anne Sadlier through fiction addressed key issues in their lives.

In this kind of society, putting food on the table when a husband died left few and often dreadful choices. Prison and the insane asylum were often the fate of rebellious or the unfortunate. Gracie Marks’ hard life saw her at the age of fifteen convicted of a double murder. Yet in the list here we see women like Ellie Chapman and Catherine O’Hare who fought their way to a certain kind of freedom. Women like Belinda Maloney, Ellen Dease and Ellen Dinon, in religious orders, founded schools and gave the first real opportunity for proper education to generations of girls and young women.

The patriarchy wrote the history and only saw themselves there. One of the challenges of the Fifty Irish Lives in Canada will be re-writing women into the historical record.

Another key point of this project is to embrace the history not try to reshape it. The Irish were very much a part of the colonial settlement project. Two Irishmen, Palliser and Macoun, encouraged the ‘settlement’ of the Northwest. The Royal Irish Constabulary served as the model for the police force to enforce it, the NW Mounted Police, later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Irish nationalist and supporter of women’s suffrage, Nicholas Flood Davin has earned profound moral distain for his report that established the Indian Residential Schools system.

What is so striking about the Irish in Canada is they came from all walks of life in Ireland and all the traditions that share our island. His relative James Gowan more or less single-handedly created the Canadian criminal justice system. Imperialists and nationalists. Catholics and Protestants. Orangemen and Irish rebels. Landlords and labourers. Protestant aristocrats and Catholic bishops.

Out of the Irish cauldron, many Irish reached across home-grown sectarian divides and determined that Canada would be different. A deep-dyed Orangeman like Ogle Gowan could in Canada reach across the sectarian divide in seeking Catholic political support.

Catholic Bishop like Michael Fleming imported the tactics of Daniel O’Connell to better the miserable conditions of the Irish of Newfoundland and in the process reshape the Province’s politics. Episcopal leaders like Archbishops Lynch and Connolly were mindful to council restraint and avoid sowing religious divisions in Canada. Avoiding the sectarianism sowed at home inspired John Egan just as it would Thomas D’Arcy McGee and fellow Irish journalists and politicians in their contribution to the founding of Confederated Canada. They helped create a model that inspired Irish nationalists at home until the paradigm shifting Easter Rising of 1916.

In the contribution of the Irish to Canada we see the talents of an undivided and variated Ireland at work. As we plan our own future in Ireland, Canada and the Irish contribution here is an inspiration, complications and all. The value lies in its complications.

The research phase of our Fifty Irish Lives in Canada project is well in progress. The list below is just a rough-hewn teaser of the profiles to come. More will be revealed in time!

II: A History of Canada and the Irish in Canada in 250 Words

The establishment of Canada was shaped by beaver hunting (felt for the global hat industry; leading to exploration westward), relations with the Indigenous, climate, the fact that its river systems run east-west where in the US they run north-south, the co-existence of French and English settlers, the withdrawal of France and rule by Britain, tensions between large Protestant and Catholic populations, lumber extraction, mass European immigration, relations with the US, participation in WW I and WW II, and the fossil fuel industry. Politically and constitutionally Canada was shaped primarily by events in and awareness of developments in Britain, Ireland and the United States (notably horrified reaction to the civil war and the Fenian threat of invasion).

Most Irish immigrants arrived before the Famine, two-thirds of them were Protestant and the Orange Order became the dominant social and political association in English-speaking Canada up to the 1970s. Irish settlement patterns are deep and precede Great Famine immigration which was tragic and short-lived, with most refugees heading to the US. The Irish in Canada were determined to become good Canadian citizens, while cherishing their Irish identity. They have made an enormous and largely unregistered contribution to the development of Canada. Canada was the future that Ireland never had, due to the abolition of the Irish parliament in 1800, the failure to restore it in the subsequent 120 years, and the paradigm-shifting Easter Rising. Ireland and Canada today embrace the diversity and rights of their historical identities and of their contemporary societies.

III: Some Irish Lives in Canada

Tadhg Cornelius Ó’Braonáin, Tadhg O’Brennan, known as Tec Cornelius Aubrenan, was the first known Irish-born immigrant to Canada since we do not have any names for the fishermen who had settled earlier in Newfoundland. He arrived in what was then New France in 1661 aged 45 and married Jeanne Chartier on October 9, 1670 in Notre Dame Cathedral in Quebec City.  They had two children, Madeleine Therese Aubry, born August 8, 1671 in Vercheres and Francois Aubyn born October 31, 1677 in Lachenaie.  He died aged fifty-five 1687 and is buried Pointe-aux-Trembles. 

Born around 1616, it appears that Tadgh was from a parish near Castlecomer, County Kilkenny.  In a thoroughly researched paper published in 2002, Louis Aubry, one of his descendants, suggested that his father was Connor O’Brennan who held lands in Kilkenny.  He further speculates that ‘Diasonnay’, the phonetic record of Tadgh’s birthplace recorded on his marriage certificate, is probably a parish called Dysert near the river Dinin, a tributary of the Nore River just north of Kilkenny city.  There he finds Dysert Bridge where the two rivers called Dinan converge. 

In his Irish Names of Places, PW Joyce writes that Dysert is found commonly in Ireland, meaning hermitage.  Dinin could be daingain meaning a stronghold, not usual to find at a confluence of rivers. Thus Diasonnay can reasonably read as ‘Dysert-on-the-Dinin.” 

Dysert at the River Dinin is just south of Castlecomer, the ‘Castle at the confluence’ and indeed it is where the Dinan, Cloghogue and Brokcagh rivers meet.  Because of its strategic significance, the Anglo-Norman Lord, William Marshall, established a stronghold there around 1200.  Marshall had married the daughter of Dermot McMurrough, the Leinster king who had invited Henry II to invade Ireland thirty years earlier.  Marshall had been his right hand man and the marriage, along with claims to Leinster, was his reward for lifelong service.  Marshall’s arrival forced the O’Brennan’s into the hills around Dysert.  Aubry quotes the following from the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquarians:

“But the O’Broenains were not extirpated or even subdued; they retreated before the feudal tenants of the Earl Marshall to the hills around Castlecomer; ‘where, in the land of the Dinin,’ surrounded by bogs and woods, they retained a stormy independence until later in the reign of the First Charles, when in 1635, a jury presented that the O’Broenains held their lands ‘manu forte’ [by the strength of their hand, or force of arms].”  

However, the O’Brennan’s were unable to hold their lands in the face of the brutal onslaught of the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland in 1650.   After infamous massacres and much destruction, the conquest ended in 1652, with sporadic guerrilla war finally petering out a year later.  Lands held by Catholics were seized as spoils of war for his officers and as part of the extirpation of Catholicism by the New English, fanatical Protestant regicides. This was the foundation of Anglo-Irish Ascendancy taking shape, encompassing the New English with the surviving Old English who traced their roots back to the Norman invasion at the end of the twelfth century. Catholics were ordered to “hell or to Connaught” and under the Penal Laws made legal aliens in their own country.

It is likely that Tadhg was one of the many Irish soldiers allowed to leave for France after the Cromwellian invasion.  In France, and though likely illiterate, Tadgh would have learned French, essential to his decision to move to New France.  New France had been established by Samuel de Champlain with the intention of creating a non-sectarian and egalitarian society in contrast to France and its prolonged religious civil war that saw some two million die.

We do not know much about Tadgh’s life in Quebec.  Clearly he was a hardy fellow, a soldier of fortune by force of circumstance. He would have had stories to tell not just of own tumultuous his life but of the ancient and still vibrant Gaelic culture in which he had been born and raised.  His family lineage and his life story were in themselves a plumb line that reached deep into Ireland’s history.  A fitting character then to have the honour of being the first known Irishman in Canada.

Richard Bulkeley (b. Ireland 1717, d. Halifax 1800): As a friend and aide-camp to Edward Cornwallis, Richard was part of the 1749 expedition that established Halifax. By October he was director of public works; Provincial Secretary October 1758, clerk of the Council 1763, and Brigadier-general of the provincial militia 1780.  Worked hard with Governor John Parr, a fellow Irishman, to accommodate all the loyalists arriving in NS after the American Revolution and on agreeing the borders between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and St John’s Island (PEI).  He helped organise the peace with the Mi’kmaq and the ceremonial burying of the hatchet in 1761 which ended 75 years of hostilities and wars. He was commended for the efficiency with which he organized the emigration of black loyalists to Sierra Leone.  Co-founder and President of the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax.  Remembered as a beloved man of integrity and ‘father of the Province.’

Guy Carleton (b. 1724 Strabane, d.1808 ): 1st Baron DORCHESTER, the man who ‘saved Quebec’ and therefore Canada, by advocating against forced Anglicization of Quebec. Army officer and colonial administrator. He twice served as Governor of the Province of Quebec, from 1768 to 1778.  Carleton served as Commander-in-Chief of British forces from 1782 to the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War.  He twice served as Governor General of British North America, during his tenure as Governor of Quebec, and again from 1785 to 1795.

Richard John Uniacke (b. 1753, Castletown, Kildare, d. 1830): career politician in Nova Scotia, long time attorney general of the Province, and one of the leaders of the Charitable Irish Society.

James FitzGibbon (b. 1780 Limerick, d. 1863): Soldier and public servant. Hero of the War of 1812, FitzGibbon is best known for his actions as a guerrilla fighter who harassed the American forces, and for being the soldier whom Laura Secord informed of the American surprise attack after the capture of Fort George in May 1813. Handsome, charming, tough and wily, FitzGibbon was one of the few soldiers who fought both conventional battles and irregular warfare during the War of 1812. Befriended Anna Murphy during her time in Canada.

Belinda Maloney (b. 1781, Galway, d. 1865): Founded the Presentation Sisters in Newfoundland; the first religious order of women in the colony and the forerunners of schools and public charity.

Michael Anthony Fleming (b. 1792, Carrick-on-Suir, d. St John’s 1850): Bishop of St. John’s Newfoundland, Fleming was inspired by Daniel O’Connell’s political leadership in Ireland, instilling pride in the poor and marginalised Catholic Irish of Newfoundland, provided education and care, politically built the Liberal Party, won Catholic Emancipation, and outwitted a series of Governors. He conceived and built the Basilica of St. John the Baptist.

James Owen McCarthy (b. 1794 often known as James Owen or Owens, d. Hamilton 1835): Tailor, businessman, allegedly a brawler, and convicted of murder rather than manslaughter, McCarthy won support for commutation to exile through successful petitions for his plight but died the day before his release in an altercation with the jailor.  McCarthy had vociferously complained about conditions in the jail. A further petition led to some reforms of jail conditions which at the time were overcrowded and poorly regulated.

Anna Murphy (b. 1794 Dublin, d. 1860): Travel writer, women’s rights advocate and adventurer, she was famous in Canada for her travelogue published in 1838 Summer Rambles and Winter Studies. She was appalled that society accepted that 20% of women would fall into prostitution and that without educational opportunities women had few career options outside of marriage. Her writing remains an important source on life in Canada at this time and the perspective of a talented and perceptive writer.

Dominick Daly (b. 1798 Galway, d. Australia 1868) Colonial administrator and politician, provincial secretary whose “conscientiousness and impartiality in his work won respect and confidence, which made his post-rebellion transition from provincial cum civil servant to provincial secretary cum politician so easy.” [DCB] He was notably sympatheic to the French of Lower Canada. Daly operated at a complex time in Canada’s history as it managed the rebellions of 1837-38 and a new colonial administrative system that converted appointed jobs into ones based on elective office. In 1854, he was appointed as the first Catholic Lt.Governor of Prince Edward Island where he inherited the land question unresolved since Patterson’s time. He announced his resignation after four years and in 1861 served in a new colonial role in Australia until his death. “Daly was an adherent of the old colonial system who tried to perpetuate that system in the Canadas long after it had been replaced by a new régime. Later, however, in Prince Edward Island and Australia, he respected the principles of responsible government, though he always gave priority to the rights of the crown and vested interests, priorities typical of a man of his aristocratic background.” [Elizabeth Gibbs, DCB].

Edward Kenny (b. 1800, Kerry, d. 1891): Businessman, politician, militia officer, and office holder. He co-founded the Union and Merchants’ banks and served as Mayor of Halifax. He was a Conservative senator from 1867 to 1876.

John Kinder Labatt (b. 1803, Laois, d. 1866): farmer and brewer, eldest of the seven children of Valentine Knightley Chetwode Labat (Labatt), whose Huguenot ancestors came from the Bordeaux region of France, and his wife Jane.  He immigrated with his English wife Eliza to Canada and purchased a 200 acre farm. Heroically, Eliza had five sons and nine daughters. He sold the farm and in 1847 founded a brewery, Labatt and Eccles in London Ontario, later buying out his partner.  His son, John, grew it into Canada’s largest brewery. Grandsons John and Hugh produced Labatt 50, the best selling beer for three decades from its launch in 1950.

Ogle Gowan  (b. 1803 Wexford, d. 1876): Orangeman from the age of 15, journalist, gentleman farmer, and politician, Ogle was vehemently anti-Catholic when in Ireland but sought political alliances with Catholics in Ontario.  Paradoxically, in many ways Gowan’s political activism and communications skills reflected the influence of Daniel O’Connell.   Godson of George Ogle, a Grand Master of the Irish Orange Order, Ogle immigrated to Canada in 1826, already well known in Orange circles in its strongholds along the St Lawrence, including Toronto, Kingston and Brockville, as well as in Perth.  It is possible Ogle’s ambition was to create a Grand Lodge and he did so without hesitation, using his considerable demotic communication skills to found the Grand Orange Lodge of British North America with himself as Grand Master. “By 1836, Gowan was already a figure of consequence in provincial politics, and he consolidated his position by founding the Brockville Statesman in 1836, his first successful venture in journalism.” (DCB) Militia leader during the 1837 rebellion, he was twice wounded at the battle of the Windmill near Prescott (worth a visit today). Contentious relations with Tories were not helped by his advocacy for responsible government.  As a parliamentarian, he was a feared debater, one of the best speakers in the Assembly.  His refusal to distance himself from his Orange connections probably stalled his promotion to office under Macdonald, though a habit of quarrels deepened the view of Reformers and Tories that he was not sufficiently respectable.  Having retired from politics, he was active in the founding of the Imperial Grand Council in Belfast in 1867, the year of Canadian Confederation, reflecting his interest in convening all of the Empire’s lodges occasionally. He wrote a multi-volume history of Orangeism, though the fourth volume remains lost.

John Egan  (b. 1811, Galway, d. 1857):  Egan arrived penniless in the Ottawa Valley aged twenty but his talents and personality, along with a judicious switch to Anglicanism, and partnership with lumber baron Ruggles Wright saw him quickly prosper.  It took immense organizational skills and leadership qualities to successfully run a lumber business: “By 1854, John Egan & Co. (J.E. & Co.) employed 3800 men in one hundred lumber camps.” [Michael McBane to whom I am indebted for this sketch.]  Many of these were Irish and he encouraged Irish settlement on the land, fifty cents on the acre, payment often deferred.  At the same time he had won the friendship the local Quebecois and was respected as a mediator and peace maker.  Egan was determined to avoid sectarianism and promoted tolerance, along with responsible government, temperance and the avoidance of the violence that often accompanied elections.  Egan entertained the elite, including hosting a dinner and ball at his home in Aylmer for Governor Lord Elgin when he visited Bytown in 1853. Elgin’s visit was partly to assess its potential as a future capital (the visit was a triumph).  Egan’s intervention was critical to the land grant at Maniwaki that created the Annisabeg reserve of Kitigan Zibi. Eventually one of the leading Lumber Barons in the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys, by the time of his death aged 48 he had achieved success as a businessman, office holder, justice of the peace, militia officer, and politician.  His determination to create in Canada a society that had absorbed the fell lessons of divisive and neglectful government in Ireland anticipated the views and influence of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

 Thomas Louis Connolly (b. 1814, d. 1876): served as Bishop of Saint John New Brunswick and Archbishop of Halifax; powerful advocate for Confederation, Catholic separate schools, Irish migration to Canada, and the establishment of women’s religious order. One of the few bishops to vote against papal infallibility at the first Vatican Council.

James Robert Gowan  (b. 1815, Wexford, d. 1909): Lawyer, Orange Order executive, judge, senator, and architect of Canadian criminal law, judiciary and jurisprudence.  Through prodigious output, he founded and filled legal journals and wrote most of the statutes governing Canadian criminal law.

John Joseph Lynch  (b. 1816, d. 1888): First Irish born Bishop of Toronto from 1860 to 1870 and its first Archbishop, from 1870 to 1888. Lynch nurtured the separate Catholic schools won by his predecessor Armand-Francois-Marie de Charbonnel, careful to avoid inciting Protestant hostility as the Catholic population in Toronto had expanded.  He used his influence diplomatically to encourage political leaders like John A. Macdonald to appoint Catholics to provincial office.  He was also an influential figure in Rome.  He recognised that the Irish had proven themselves responsible citizens in North America, confirming his belief they were a chosen people.  Lynch supported Home Rule for Ireland, opposed physical force and was guided in all things by his pursuit of the well-being for his Church and his people, the Irish. He oversaw an expansion in the church, under this careful if strict management style.  “During his incumbency 70 priests were ordained; two priests of the diocese, Jean-François Jamot and John Walsh, were elevated to the episcopacy; and, in addition, 40 churches, 30 presbyteries, and 7 convents were established.” [DCB] In a critical period in the formation of Canada, Lynch had proven himself an adept and successful leader.

John Palliser (Dublin 1817-1887): Landed gentleman, big game hunter, and explorer, Palliser led the famed eponymous expedition across Western Canada, also known as the British North American Exploring Expedition. This greatly encouraged Prime Minster John A. Macdonald to order the colonization of the region.

James Richardson, (b. 1819, Aughnacloy, d. Kingston 1892), tailor, businessman, and politician. James Richardson was paid in grain as an apprentice tailor and having managed to transition to traditional commercial trading he used his earnings to invest in various enterprises as Kingston was coming into its period of commercial dominance.  He founded Richardson and Sons in 1857.  His grandson, James, not only greatly expanded the company’s interests and income but single-handedly created Canada’s commercial aviation.  Richardson and Sons remains today a private company and one of Canada’s largest with interests in agriculture, food, property, energy and financial services. 

Sir Francis Leopold McClintock (b. 1819, Dundalk, d. 1907): Naval officer and Arctic explorer. Franklin search and major figure in Canadian Arctic Exploration. McClintock’s finest achievements were his contribution to the solving of the Franklin mystery and his development of a sledging method that led to the rapid exploration of many of Canada’s Arctic islands.

 Ellen (Sr Teresa) Dease (b. 1820, Naas, d. 1889): From a prominent military family and one of the founders of the Canadian branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loretto Sisters), with mother house in Rathfarnham. From her new Toronto HQ in 1847, she established the North American network of Loretto Schools.

Mary Anne Sadlier (b. 1820 Cootehill, Co. Cavan, d. Montreal 1903):  Sadlier published roughly twenty-three novels and numerous stories. She wrote for Irish immigrants in both the United States and Canada, encouraging them to attend mass and retain the Catholic faith. In so doing, Sadlier also addressed the related themes of anti-Catholicism, the Irish Famine, emigration, and domestic work.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee (Carlingford Co Louth 1825-1868) Irish-Canadian politician, Catholic spokesman, journalist, poet, and a Father of Canadian Confederation. Dubbed “Canada’s first nationalist” for his role in convincing Catholics and Protestants to come together for confederation. A year after Confederation, he was assassinated in Ottawa in 1868, apparently by the Fenians who were outraged by  his vehement condemnation of them.  While Patrick J. Whelan participated in the crime with an accomplice, and was convicted of murder, doubts remain that he pulled the trigger and that it was fact his accomplice who did.

Kate Horn Buckland (1826, d. 1896) A Canadian stage actress and theatre director. She was a popular actor during her active years from 1845 to 1873, and was the managing director of the Theatre Royal, Montréal from 1873 to 1880.

Grace Marks (b. 1828, d. circa 1873): Grace arrived in Canada in 1840 from Ulster aged twelve in the company of her abusive, alcoholic father, her mother having died on the crossing. Along with James McDermott, she was convicted for the 1843 murder of her employer, James Kinnear, though the gruesome circumstances involved also the murder of his lover and pregnant housekeeper. McDermott was hanged, Grace’s conviction was commuted and she was pardoned thirty years later, leaving for New York and obscurity.  Her story appeared in the autobiography Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush by Susanna Moodie (1803-1885), the 1996 novel Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (shortlisted for the Booker Prize), and a Canadian television miniseries.

Ellen (Sr Mary Bernard) Dinan (b. 1829, Macroom, d. 1901): one of the founding sisters of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Toronto; created a network of schools, social services, and hospitals across Ontario, which eventually provided the foundation of a powerful network of CSJ institutions across Canada.

John Macoun (1831, Co Down, d. 1921): He was nineteen when is family emigrated to Canada and even by then his character was set in stone.  Supremely confident of his abilities and moral superiority, he was a convinced Orangeman and dedicated loyalist to the Crown and the Empire.  Outdoor life had imbued a great love of nature as well as encouraging his independent streak from his earliest years and in Canada his passion for botany developed. He became a teacher but his fieldwork, study and contacts with leading botanists soon made him an expert of the region’s flora. Between 1872 and 1881, he surveyed railway route westward and combined this with his botanical interests, convincing himself and others of the agricultural potential of the Northwest, though his widely popular book Manitoba and the great north-west. The government appointed him the region’s explorer. Along with Palliser’s explorations, Macoun was a decisive figure in Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s decision to expand Canada westward. Macoun’s enthusiasm and his fondness for fieldwork undermined his scientific rigor. His views were misleading as he underplayed the harshness of the prairie winters. “His greatest legacy, however, was his ability as a field naturalist. A tireless field man who could recognize new forms at sight and who discovered a large number of species and subspecies, many of which were named after him, he covered an incredible range of territory – from Atlantic Canada to the Pacific coast and as far north as the Yukon – making large collections in all kinds of environments. It is not too exaggerated to say that John Macoun tried almost single-handedly to roll back the natural-history frontiers of Canada.” [DCB]

Patrick Boyle (Co Mayo 1832-1901), a printer and publisher.  His outrage over British colonialism in Ireland, combined with the ethos of sectarian bitterness in Toronto, prompted him to establish the Irish Canadian there in January 1863. Since the paper’s stockholders, printers, and editors were largely members of the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Canada, of which Boyle was secretary, he was regarded as the mouthpiece of this Irish working-class association.

William Clendinneng (1833, Cavan, d. 1907) Manufacturer, merchant, and philanthropist, based in Montreal, Clendinneng made his money leading a foundry and making cast iron products. He was director of several benevolent societies and Protestant charities, and was associated with many causes including missions, hospitals, and sailor and animal welfare.  All of this helped him become a city councilman between 1876 and 1879 and again between 1888 and 1893. He was elected provincial member for Montreal, running for the Conservatives in 1890.   As his business suffered reverses, he withdrew from his philanthropic activities.  He lived with his daughter in New York for four months before he was hit by a train and died.

Timothy Eaton (b. 1834, Antrim, d. 1907): Like many of his fellow Ulster Presbyterians, Eaton learned early the virtues of discipline, independence and hard work which stood him in good stead when, like them too, he immigrated to Canada in the footsteps of his five siblings. He and his brother James opened a small store, adding baked goods to their dry goods and groceries.  He was not the first but he was the most successful in moving his business to cash sales only. He struck on his own when he moved to Toronto where cash sales worked a treat in an urban, industrialized setting.  His target buyers were cash paid workers. Buying direct from British sources he cut out the extortionate wholesalers.  He commissioned a purpose built, three storied department store, ensuring that his customers could get everything they needed in one place.  Eventually Eaton’s department stores were operating across Canada. Eaton kept prices low and expanded his lines of merchandise, including ready to wear. He invested heavily in advertising. He opened a mail order business, offering full refunds for any unsatisfactory goods.  The regular arrival of the Eaton catalogue in towns across Canada was a major event, offering clothing, furniture and every new gadget being produced by the scientific and manufacturing revolution. While no innovator, Eaton revolutionized retail by quickly applying the techniques that met the needs of modern customers created by a modernising society.  A devout Christian, he had converted to Methodism when he was twenty-four but this did not stop Eaton’s posting No Catholics Need Apply signs. Eaton started off his life in Toronto declaring that all his assets were “a wife, five children and seven dollars.” He left an estate worth $5.25 million and established a family dynasty regarded as the Kennedy’s of Canada.

Catherine (O’Hare) Schubert (b. Rathfriland, Co. Down, 1835, d. BC 1918): Having lost their home and farm to a flood and not wishing her husband to go alone, she was the only female member of the Overlanders settlers who travelled from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to the interior of British Columbia at Kamloops, following the Cariboo Gold Rush in 1862.  She was pregnant at the time.  With their children often strapped to their backs, she and her husband forded icy rivers and trekked narrow mountainous passes.  Her fourth child, a daughter,was born en route and named Rose in honour of the rose hips they had eaten when food ran out. In BC, she farmed, ran an inn, taught local children and was a midwife, often while her husband prospected for gold.

Charles (Joe Beef) McKiernan (Co Cavan 1835-1889): Soldier and innkeeper, he was a quartermaster in the British army during the Crimean War. In 1864, he obtained his discharge and opened in Montreal “Joe Beef’s Canteen,” an establishment soon known throughout North America.

Nicholas Flood Davin (b. 1840, Kilfinane, d. Winnipeg 1901):  In 1879 Flood Davin wrote the Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, otherwise known as The Davin Report, in which he advised the federal government to institute residential schools for Indigenous children. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the assimilation amounted to cultural genocide.

Daniel john O’Donoghue (b. 1844, Kilarney, d. 1907): Printer, trade-union leader, politician, editor, and civil servant. Having married Quebecois Marie-Marguerite Cloutier in Ottawa, O’Donoghue earned the support of both English and French speaking workers, helping to found Canada’s strong labour movement.

Ellen Cashman (b. 1845, Cork, d. 1925) an Irish nurse, restaurateur, businesswoman and philanthropist in Arizona, Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon. Cashman led a rescue party across mountains and through blizzards to miners at the Cassiar gold mine in British Columbia earning her the nickname “the miners’ Angel.”

Isabella Valancy Crawford  (b. 1850, Dublin, d. 1887): Author and poet. She was one of the first Canadians to make a living as a freelance writer.” Crawford is increasingly being viewed as Canada’s first major poet.” She is the author of “Malcolm’s Katie,” a poem that has achieved “a central place in the canon of nineteenth-century Canadian poetry.”

Kathleen “Kit” Coleman (Co Galway 1856, d. 1915): An Irish-Canadian newspaper columnist. Coleman was the world’s first accredited female war correspondent, covering the Spanish–American War for the Toronto Mail in 1898. Coleman also served as the first president of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, an organization of women journalists.

Sara McLagan (Co Tyrone 1855-1924): An Irish-born Canadian newspaper editor and clubwoman, co-founder and publisher of the Vancouver Daily World. She is often described as “the first female publisher of a daily newspaper in Canada” or “the first Canadian female newspaper editor.”



Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland

Joseph Quinn, Montréal Irish Person of the Year

Remarks by H.E. Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland to Canada

17 September 2022

(Evo Montreal 777 Boulevard Robert-Bourassa)

I want to thank Dan Doyle of the Erin Sports Association for the invitation to this event.  Indeed, I would like to thank all of the officers and members for their commitment to this organization and to the promotion of Irish heritage in Montreal. 

It is thanks to people like you that the story of the Irish in Canada is preserved, honored, and indeed built on for future generations.

Indeed, one of the great pleasures of my posting to Canada is exploring the story of the Irish here.  It is an epic story.  The Irish truly helped shaped Canada in so many ways. 

Guy Carlton, the First Baron Dorchester, was born in Strabane and earned fame as the man who saved Canada.  When the British took over, he ensured equality and rights for the Catholic French of Quebec under the Quebec Act of 1774. Otherwise, Quebec might have revolted or seceded to the United States. Coming from Ireland, he understood the divisive power of sectarianism and he helped Canada avoid those dangers at a critical moment.

Ireland’s patriots and poets helped shaped Canada’s sense of identity and imagination, people like Lord Edward FitzGerald, Thomas Moore, and Adam Kidd.

Bishop Michael Fleming reshaped Newfoundland politics in the 1830s and 1840s, and built the biggest cathedral in North America, St John’s Basilica.

Journalists and political thinkers like Thomas D’Arcy McGee shaped Canada’s constitution with confederation in 1867.

While a fifth of Irish Famine emigrants died on the way to or on arrival in Canada in 1847, four-fifths survived thanks to Canadian compassion and Irish resilience. They made new lives here and help make Quebec and Canada what it is today.

Richardson and Sons, one of the largest companies in Canada, was established in 1857 by an apprentice tailor from Aughnacloy, James Richardson. He came to Kingston and was paid in grain, forcing him to trade it, eventually to become one of the richest men in Canada and in the process establishing a family dynasty that built the Canadian economy.

Thomas Ahearn was the son of blacksmith from Ireland, living in Byward, what was then Bytown, later Ottawa. He was a businessman, inventor and really the founder of modern Ottawa, bringing electricity to the city, the first car (an electric one), a railway and spearheading the roads and parks of the Capital city.

These achievements were possible because of Irish communities and the organizations that sustained them and supported their leaders.  Some of the oldest and strongest of these are found here in Montréal.

I was not sure what to expect when I came here today, particularly after the pandemic and all the adverse effects that had on organizations.

To see such a huge turnout for this event, some seven hundred I was told, is a testament to the resilience of your organization and community here in Montreal.  For good reason, you have earned your reputation for the cohesion and deep roots of your traditions and the vitality of your Irish heritage in this great city.

There are few better representatives of the values of community, Irish heritage and public service than the honoree today, Irish Person of Joseph Quinn.

When Joseph was born in January 1942, the world was going through a tumultuous time.  Senior Nazi officials met at the Wannsee Conference to agree on the implementation of the Final Solution, deportation of Jews to Poland for extermination. 

This was at a time when the war was going badly for the Germans with defeat at the Battle of Moscow.  America had entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbour the previous December. The first American soldiers to land in the European theatre of operations disembarked at Belfast, Northern Ireland

I have to say, Joseph, considering your birth year, you’re looking fresh as a daisy!

You share a birth month in January of 1942 with Mohamad Ali.

Yet far more significant for Verdun and the Irish community of Montreal was the birth of Joseph Quinn.  While you have lived in Verdun for over eighty years, you told me your dark secret: that you were born in Ottawa.  I am sure they have forgiven you!

Joseph has been a pillar of the Verdun community.  For 32 years, you dedicated your life to the service of your community in the Fire Department.

Your contribution to the community went way beyond your professional calling.  From community centers to food banks, from education and heritage to Christmas baskets and epilepsy campaigns, you were there organizing, supporting and fundraising.

Your priority of course was your family: your wife Heather (married in 1966), children Kevin, Kenneth and Shannon and grandchildren Patrick and Taggart Quinn.

Throughout all of this time, you were a major figure in the life of the Irish community, including the United Irish Societies of Montreal. 

Your public, volunteering, and community service has been recognized, rightly by a slew of awards.  All were thoroughly deserved.

However, I am sure that this award of Irish Person of the Year is a special one for you.  With a name like Quinn, how could it be otherwise?

I did some checking and our Honorary Consul, Michael Kenneally wrote the following to me:

Joe and his extended family have been part of the backbone of the Montréal Irish community for many years, especially that part of it associated with Point St. Charles. He was President of the United Irish Societies, which runs the parade, as was his sister Elizabeth and his son Ken, who is currently President of St. Patrick’s Society. Joe is a retired firefighter and has been and is very involved with charity work at a grassroots level – soup kitchens, etc.  He is a lovely man and a salt of the earth type of guy. I am sorry I cannot be there as I very fond of him and a great admirer of his commitment to community and the social welfare of its less well-off members.

This, Joseph, is what they are saying behind your back!

I am honored and proud to be a part of this occasion.  It is a particularly auspicious one since we can say, thanks to the pandemic, you are Person of the Year for three years running!

Being here allows me to say to you maith thú, well done Joseph, and congratulations.

Thank you.


Filed under Canada, Ireland, Uncategorized

Black ’47 Commemoration and Remembrance, Ottawa

Of course it rained yesterday. We were assembling at a graveyard. Not just any graveyard but one that held hundreds of remains of Irish Famine refugees who died in what was then Bytown, today Ottawa. And not a graveyard by the look of it. It had been leveled to make Macdonald Gardens Park. That it had been a graveyard for the town between the 1840s and the 1870s has been largely forgotten. Yesterday the Embassy and local historian Michael McBane hosted an event to commemorate those brave people who helped the desperate Irish, and to remember the Irish that had fled the Irish Famine. It was the first time such an event had been held there. Over 130 people turned up to listen to the speeches and music, to recall those dreadful events and to commemorate the compassion of some very brave people. My remarks below thank those involved and recall the events of Black ’47, the greatest humanitarian disaster to hit Canada. What happened that year accelerated Canada’s drive for Confederation and ultimately Irish independence.

Irish Famine Commemoration and Remembrance

Macdonald Park, Ottawa, 4 August 2022

Remarks by H.E. Dr Eamonn McKee, Ambassador of Ireland to Canada

I want to thank our MC Pat Marshall for doing such a great job. James Maloney MP and chairman of the Canada Ireland Parliamentary Friendship Group, our champion of Irish causes and the story of the Irish in Canada.  I want to acknowledge the presence of Sister Rachelle Watier, Superior General of the Sisters of Charity, Ottawa, the delegation of Sisters and  Oblate Father Laroche with us today, representing a great tradition of compassion. Thank you to Rev Tim Kehoe for your powerful remarks and to Kevin Dooley for the gift of song and music.  All those who have made this event possible, thank you. 

I want to recognise the presence of Prof Mark McGowan whose scholarship has championed the story of the Irish in Canada and in particular the role that the Famine played in that story. He has delved deep into the archives of Strokestown House to trace the story and experiences of the tenants and their families displaced during the Great Famine from their homes in Roscommon to Canada.

I want to pay a particular tribute to local historian Michael McBane, an extraordinary resource on the Irish heritage of Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley.  His book on Bytown 1847 and Élizabeth Bruyrèreis is evocative and perceptive, humane and strategic. This event did not exist a month ago but after my suggestion, Michael worked with the Embassy team, bringing his energy, commitment and passion to help make this happen.

This event is about Commemoration and Remembrance.  We commemorate all those in Canada who helped the victims of the Irish Famine.  And we remember those victims who lie beneath our feet here.

Only a month ago, I had innocently thought that Macdonald Gardens was just a park, that the bones that rested here from the 1840s to the 1870s had been moved to Beechwood Cemetery.  Then Michael set me right.  Hundreds of the remains of the early settlers in Bytown lie here.  Along with them lie Irish Famine victims of 1847.

Having come from a wonderful ceremony at Grosse Ȋle in July where almost 5,500 famine remains lie buried with dignity and respect, my new awareness of Macdonald Gardens was quite a contrast.  That conjuration of Grosse Ȋle and Macdonald Gardens inspired this commemoration and this remembrance.

This event is a commemoration because of the heroic compassion and bravery of people like Sister Bruyrère and her band of sisters, less than twenty in number, most young women, many teenagers, some of them Irish.  They treated the Irish who were sickened by a disease of unknown cause, but often deadly effect; ship’s fever, typhus.  The Oblate Fathers took similar risks tending to the sick and the dying.  Some volunteer women too defied the terror of typhus. Dr. Van Cortland also ranks among these heroes, along with emigrant agent George Burke. Most of the Irish survived but those that died did so in the care and compassion of the Grey Sisters and all those who helped them.  That compassion in Canada was in stark contrast to the callousness that had seen them off the island of Ireland.

Today, we commemorate these heroes who found themselves faced with the greatest humanitarian disaster in Canadian history. They join the religious, medical and official heroes in Grosse Ȋle, Montreal, Quebec, Kingston, Toronto and many other places who fearlessly assisted the tens of thousands of starving and distraught Irish, unloaded by the British Government along the St Lawrence from the coffin ships that had taken them in cruel and often fatal conditions across the Atlantic.

There are undoubtedly other smaller communities in the Ottawa River, Rideau and St Lawrence River catchments that had similar encounters.  Some we know about.  Only an hour’s drive down the road at Cornwall there is a common grave of some fifty Irish famine victims, honoured by a Celtic Cross.  Many we do not.

The sites of Irish mass or common graves  have been protected and defended by local Irish communities.  Grosse Ȋle is an honoured place of remembrance today thanks to the intervention of Irish communities across Canada in the 1990s who insisted that the remains of the Irish be treated with dignity and respect.  That the awful events of 1847 be remembered.  To them and all the Irish community groups and individuals with a passion for Ireland and their heritage, on behalf of the Government of Ireland I offer most sincere gratitude for your efforts over the generations.

Blight and the failure of the potato did not cause the Great Irish Famine.  Colonialism caused the Famine, the death of one million and the emigration of another million.

The road to disaster began almost fifty years earlier when the British Government in 1800 abolished the Irish Parliament and ran Ireland directly, with sad indifference to its decline into the worst poverty in Western Europe.

Without proper government and with capital flight, Irish poverty became rampant, the potato being the poor families’ staple food. Though studied and widely reported over the years, nothing was done about it.  Being Catholic, it was held, meant that the Irish were responsible for their poverty, even if they were not responsible for their own government.  For imperialists, contradictions can be convenient.

The economic and agricultural decline of Ireland after 1800 was immediate.  From being a leading city of Europe, Dublin’s development halted and the city declined.  Every government in Europe regarded population growth as the key to economic development.  Except in Ireland.   Only in Ireland was population growth regarded by the ruling government in London as a problem, only there. Why was that? Sovereign countries delighted in population growth.  Imperial powers dreaded it in their colonies as a risk and a danger.

Ideology within the British Government played its part.  Government funding to relieve starvation was cut back in 1846.  Despite the starvation, exports of food continued so as not to disrupt the market.  Would the ideology of laissez-faire economics have trumped compassion and political sense had starvation ravaged England?  I think not.  To allow starvation and mass exodus act as instruments of social engineering could only be tolerated, even commended, in situations of colonial management and imperial interests.

Without the prospect of help, the Irish panicked and fled by whatever means they could find in 1847, what we remember as Black ’47.

We had a population of 8 million in 1845.  If we’re lucky, we might reach 7 million within the next decade.  Ireland today has one of the lowest population densities in Western Europe.

Today, we remember our Irish kin here in Canada.  The thousands who found themselves in Bytown, having survived the awful Atlantic passage, quarantine at Grosse Ȋle, and trafficking by barge down the St Lawrence Rivers. 

Most survived and built new lives in Canada, helping to create this nation with their energy and talents.  The evidence of that contribution is everywhere, even on our doorstep here in Ottawa.  One of the constant surprises of my posting here is the discovery of the depth of the Irish story in the capital city and in the Valleys of the Ottawa, the Gatineau, Rideau and St Lawrence.

Fifteen to twenty refugees from the Great Irish Famine died every day in Bytown that terrible summer of 1847. Every day their remains were brought here, a short distance from the Temporary Emigrant Hospital, or the tents on Barracks Hill, or the fever sheds on the Rideau Canal or even the streets of Lower Town.

Three hundred in all were buried here where we stand in Macdonald Park.  Most lie there still. 

Today, we are here to remember them.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

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Ireland at 100: Colonization, Self-Determination and What the Census Tells Us

After the Easter Rising in 1916, the War of Independence, British-imposed partition and a peace treaty in 1921, Ireland gained her independence 100 years ago.

It was a long road from the time when Norman invaders seized Dublin in 1170. The Normans might have been absorbed into Irish society, were it not for the brutal second conquest by the Tudors in the 16th century. After defeat in the wars of religion in the 17th century, the Catholic population lived under the thumb of a Protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy.

Yet like the Normans before them, in the 18th century the Ascendancy developed an Irish identity, proudly manifest in their Parliament in Dublin — the first purpose-built bicameral one in the world. They lobbied London successfully for Irish economic interests. Dublin boomed and the population recovered from the devastation of war. The penal laws against the Catholics withered away, save for the right to vote.

The French Revolution inspired both Irish Protestant and Catholic leaders to imagine a new, democratic Ireland where religion was secondary to citizenship. This put the fear of God into Britain’s political leadership. Encouraged by the French, the Rising of 1798 in Ireland confirmed the worst. The prime minister, William Pitt, decided that the Irish Parliament had to go. It was bullied and bribed out of existence in 1800.

The economic decline in Ireland was almost immediate. The development of Dublin stalled and never recovered. Agriculture declined, but the population, burgeoning to eight million, paid handsome rents to absent landlords even as desperate poverty proliferated. When the potato crop failed between 1845 and 1851, one million died, and one million emigrated. Emigration created a great diaspora but reduced the population by half.

In Black ’47, the worst year of the Great Famine, some 200,000 famine refugees fled, with half coming to Canada — mass graves dot the St. Lawrence to this day. Almost 40,000 arrived in Toronto to a resident population half that. It is to the city’s eternal honour that its doctors and nurses looked after them, often at a cost to their own lives.

If population is a measure of society’s well-being, colonialism in Ireland was a demonstrable failure. As the population in Western Europe doubled, Ireland continued its decline. Even today, the U.K. ranks eighth in population density, Ireland 36th.

How did independent Ireland fare? Shorn of our industrial base by partition, we struggled to develop; emigration continued for most of the 20th century. However, in the 1950s Ireland decided to look for investment internationally and started on a journey that would, by the 1990s, create the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger, ending involuntary emigration.

Thanks to foreign direct investment, membership in the EU, globalization and a well-educated workforce, Ireland’s strengths in pharmaceuticals, medtech, information and communication technologies, and digital and financial services have produced a robust economy that withstood the global financial crash and the pandemic.

Our focus on innovation, infrastructure and talent ensures our future. We have taken our place among the nations of the world. But what about our population?

By 2011, Ireland had the highest rate of fertility within the EU. Ten years later, in April 2021, the Central Statistics Office of Ireland reported the country’s population had reached 5.1 million. Combined with the population of Northern Ireland of 1.89 million, this put the population on the island at nearly seven million.

Just about a million to go, then, to restore the population we had over 170 years ago. We may still have not reached the pre-Famine population of over eight million, but we have established a strong upward trend that will get us there.

The rise in Ireland’s population demonstrates our success as a nation-state over the last 100 years. Self-determination beats colonialism.

The next Irish census happens in April, delayed by the pandemic but coincidentally falling on our 100th anniversary. We can fill in the form with a sense of achievement and national pride. This is us — we survived and prospered. Here are the statistics.

This blog appeared originally as an Op Ed in the Toronto Star on 17 March 2022 under the title ‘St. Patrick’s Day: What a century of Irish independence tells us.’

Eamonn McKee

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