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.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee was one of the founding fathers of Confederation, steering the debates with his knowledge of Irish, British and American politics, determined that the new Dominion would not repeat grave mistakes of governance, would become a democratic and tolerant society.

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. 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.

Lord Lisgar worked closely with PM Macdonald to ease tensions around the Red River Rebellion and smoothed relations 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.

Lord and Lady Dufferin were immensely popular throughout Canada. They 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.

Who thinks of Ireland when they look at the Canadian flag? It was designed by an Irishman, Patrick Reid, also the key figure behind the Montreal Expo ’67, regarded as modern Canada’s coming out party.

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

8 responses to “Fifty Irish Lives in Canada: It’s Complicated and That’s Great

  1. Gerard Corr

    Interesting. Thanks.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. ‘Shoeboxes’ publication by Kevin Lee and Tom Jenkins might inform your thinking for your wonderful project. Well done on your work. Shoeboxes is the story of 52 families who availed of assisted emigration by Earl Fitzwilliam on the Coollattin Estate in south Wicklow during the 19th century. Including Hunter Gowan.
    Many thanks
    Eleanor & Kevin Lee

  3. Gerard Corr

    Eamonn: Many thanks for your text. Good night.

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Pingback: Loyalist Trails 2022-42 – UELAC

  5. Bev

    Many thanks for this. It has taken a very long time for me to discover my mostly Irish roots because 1. they were not taught, and 2. my family had learned in the late 19th century to identify as Scottish because clearly Irish heritage was shameful at the time.( “No Irish need apply”). Censuses of the day show the switch.
    My family were early settlers in Ontario and New Brunswick and include Thomas Hamilton Foley(early Postmaster General) and Judge Patrick McCurry. Most of my families in New Brunswick simply cleared and worked their own land to raise their families and were undistinguished.

    While technically they settled lands originally held by First Nations, it is misleading to present as if they simply took them. Lands in Canada were negotiated by the Crown through Treaties with First Nations and title was fair.
    Now the Crown was often deceptive and destructive in its dealings with aboriginal people, but the principle of legal title was observed and the Irish settlers should not be accused of land theft.
    Unlike other jurisdictions, e.g., the USA, where aboriginal peoples were slaughtered or beaten back from their lands.

  6. K P

    Interesting. I noticed that most of the people mentioned spent their time in the big cities. I would like to read more about the Irish that settled in the towns and Counties of Ontario.

    • It is a very good point and I am developing plans for an Irish heritage trail in Canada that will facilitate the collation of such stories and histories of the Irish related to specific sites. For the Bytown-Ottawa and region area alone, we have already identified more than twenty sites. As someone said to me early in my posting here, the story of the Irish in Canada is the creation of myriad local communities and local identities, each with their specific variation of Irishness. By contrast, the Irish in America tended to have a unified theme based around the Famine and hostility to British rule in Ireland. Here it was indeed complicated! What is great is that there are so many communities and local historians who have recorded the histories: it is a case of making them available to a wider public.

      • K P

        Eamonn, can you please email me – I would like to ask your permission to use a few paragraphs from your blog in the Lanark County Genealogical Society March 2023 newsletter. I couldn’t find your email address on your blog. Thank you. Karen Prytula

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