Monthly Archives: March 2023

50 ILIC: Bishop Michael Fleming, radical pastor with a long legacy in Newfoundland

The monumental Basilica of St John’s, the Taj Mahal of the Irish in Canada, is the legacy of Bishop Michael Fleming.  Son of a tenant farmer in Kilkenny, Fleming was educated and ordained in Wexford at a time of growing Catholic mobilization. Fleming modelled his episcopal leadership in Newfoundland on Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for Catholic emancipation and the Catholic Church’s Ultramontanism. He transformed the Irish Catholic community, colonial politics, and Newfoundland itself in a lasting way.

From the 1680s Irish fisherman had joined in the annual migratory cod fishery to Newfoundland, the only place outside of Ireland bearing an Irish name, Talamh an Éisce, land of the fish.   The resident Irish Catholic population grew in parallel with its English Protestant counterpart. With Newfoundland under the Penal Laws, each occupied different ends of the socio-economic scale.

Arriving in 1823, Fleming found Newfoundland grimly familiar: a comfortable mercantile Anglican elite led by the Crown-appointed Governor that discriminated, disenfranchised, and marginalized the Catholic Irish from all offices of influence. Lives were brutishly hard fishing, seal hunting, or scrimping a living from smallholdings Catholics were debarred from owning. When a smallpox epidemic broke out in Petty Harbour in the winter of 1835-36, Fleming lived with the poor, tended to their sick, and built a church. That was what he had done everywhere he travelled, leaving a trail of churches and newfound pride in his wake.

Fleming treated Newfoundland as if it were Ireland and determined to reverse Catholic humiliation and poverty.  On trips home, he recruited 36 priests, forged like him in O’Connell’s Ireland of politically mobilized Catholics. Fleming opened a school for young girls in 1833 run by Presentations Sister from Galway. The Sisters of Mercy from Dublin established a girls’ school for the small Irish middle-class, while Franciscans were brought to teach boys.  For Fleming, the students were future leaders.

Pastoral work paralleled fearless engagement in politics.  O’Connellite mobilization, fundraising, boycotts, and even excommunications were deployed. Support was offered to Liberal candidates who endorsed Fleming’s agenda.  Governor Thomas Cochrane and a handful of ‘respectable’ Irish Catholics (dubbed “Mad Dogs”) resisted, prompting sectarian tensions and, on occasion, riots. By 1832 Fleming and his reformers had won Catholic Emancipation. Formidable Catholic voter support for the Liberal Party, and state funding for Catholic schools soon followed.

Crown vexations over this ‘troublesome priest’ led to protests to Rome. In response, Fleming cultivated the cardinals. Through St. Isidore’s Irish Franciscan College in Rome, he sent them smoked Newfoundland salmon. He visited the Holy See and in 1837 submitted his report, Relazione, an impressive account of his travels and pastoral work along with counter-allegations of persecution by the colonial authorities. By 1840, fresh complaints from Newfoundland’s new governor, Henry Prescott, prompted Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell to ask Rome to remove Fleming.  Rome summoned Fleming.  The bishop ignored it. When British mandarins let Fleming see the secret inflammatory correspondence of Prescott, it was Prescott who packed his bags.

A factor in Fleming’s strong position was his ambitious cathedral. In Relazione, Fleming cleverly alluded to obstacles put in his way to securing land for this project, five years of “vexation and annoyance”. By 1838 Fleming had secured the Barrens, formerly site of the garrison overlooking St Johns, informally a location of Irish faction-fights and hurling matches. He put his formidable organizational and fundraising skills into top gear.  Small donations from low-income Catholics and some sizeable ones from the wealthy, including Protestants, flowed.  The larger Newfoundland community marshalled as a workforce, cutting timber and fencing land. In two days during May 1839, thousands of men, women, and children excavated over 4,250 tonnes of soil, women hauling it away in their aprons. 

Construction of the cathedral took fourteen years and 35,000 tons of granite.  In wintertime, up to his waist in water on the beach at Kelly’s Island in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, Fleming loaded cut stone into small boats for transport to the building site. Limestone from Galway was used on exterior walls, and granite from Dublin was used for the quoins, mouldings and window frames. Five

 times he scoured Europe for materials.  By 1847 he was too ill to travel. Financial setbacks and a great fire in St John’s the previous year did not deter him, even as the fire consumed his papers.  Frail and failing with tuberculosis, Fleming whispered the first mass within the cathedral in January 1850, its chill cavernous shell a glimpse of future grandeur beyond the dust, scaffolding and exposed rafters. He knelt in prayer, occasionally helped, but finished the Mass.  That was his last public rite. He was sequestered until July when he died and was interred in his cathedral’s vault.

The cathedral, finished by Fleming’s successor Bishop John Mullock of Limerick, was a triumph of Ultramontanism and neoclassicism, embellished with statues by the best Irish artists. Fleming’s cathedral was the largest architectural and cultural achievement of Ireland’s pre-Famine diaspora, a statement of faith in the future. At its consecration in 1855, Archbishop John Hughes of New York left determined that his city should have a cathedral to match the achievement of Newfoundland’s poor fishermen.

Fleming’s achievements were extraordinary.  Fired by injustice and inspired by his hero O’Connell, he used his determination, guile and talents to advance the status of Newfoundland’s Catholic Irish.  In the Franciscan tradition, he eschewed the fine living and clothes customary of many bishops.  Fleming devoted his life to the young and the poor through the provision of opportunity and pride. His cathedral (named Minor Basilica in 1955) was designed to instil that pride, its grandeur hardly out of place had it been built in Rome itself.  Just as enduring was Fleming’s political legacy which forged the politics of his Irish community and of the island, orienting Newfoundland away from Canada and towards Ireland and Europe. If Fleming had had his way, Newfoundland might well have become Ireland’s fifth province. Newfoundland only officially joined Canada in 1949.

Further reading:

Susan Chalker Browne, The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, (St John’s, 2015).

J.B. Darcy, Fire Upon the Earth – The Life and Times of Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming  (St. John’s, 2003).

Michael Anthony Fleming“, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Vol. VIII, at

J.E. FitzGerald, “Michael Anthony Fleming and Ultramontanism in Irish Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, 1829-1850,  CCHA Historical Studies 64 (1998): 27-45.

J.E. FitzGerald, “Conflict and Culture in Irish-Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, 1829-1850” Ph.D. thesis, Univ. Ottawa, 1997.


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A First Trip to The Bahamas and Jamaica

Delayed for two years by the pandemic and having presented my credentials virtually, I finally made my first official trip to two of my accreditations, The Bahamas and Jamaica.  This was very much a case of familiarization but also to see if I could identify areas for cooperation and possibly to generate some projects with good outputs in a reasonable span of time.  Ireland wants to step up its game in the region.  More on that later. First some observations.

The Bahamas is an islands’ nation.  There is an inescapable interplay between the land and sea. The sea is everywhere physically but the maritime percolates the culture and outlook of Bahamians.  Like the Aran Islands, the terrain of The Bahamas offers little fertility. Perched not far above the water line, the seas are sapphire and cobalt, the beaches ivory, and the land rocky and green.  The Indigenous Lucayan population, possibly 30,000 strong, were unfortunate to be the first to encounter Christopher Columbus.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Certainly it was history for the Indigenous there as most were wiped out by disease and slavery.

Not fit for sugar plantations and therefore the oppressions of colonialism and racism, the society that grew there comprised pirates and escaped slaves, free booters and fishermen, those seeking freedom of religion or just freedom. That The Bahamas is a nation at all is a miracle of resilience and hope. Yet its perilously low-lying land means that climate change is an existential threat. 

Jamaica is a hunk of mountains in the sea.  Less like The Bahamas and more like Ireland, Jamaica can be seen more accurately as a country surrounded by the sea rather than an island.  I remembered, in my student days in Ireland, a friend saying in frustration that she needed to get off the island.  What island is she talking about, I wondered. With the seventh largest natural harbour in the world, clouds rolling in that catch in the Blue Mountains, the influence of the sea is never far away.  However, my sense is that Jamaicans’ perspective is landward, tracing the mountain passes to the parishes, towns and villages of the interior.  Ireland and Jamaica both share not just brio and sociability but a ferocious sense of survival and therefore identity.  We both have outsized cultural influence beyond our shores.

Ireland is lucky to have William Mills as our Honorary Consul in The Bahamas, supported by his wife Wendy.  Like I say about my wife Mary, they are the unpaid half of the diplomatic team. Bill organized a lunch at the club at Lyford Cay for Irish business contacts where we discussed trade opportunities. (The exclusive club was founded by Canadian tycoon E.P. Taylor whose ancestors came from Ireland).  And he convened a reception that I hosted for the Irish community, small and resilient like The Bahamians themselves. They all had taken different routes to new lives in The Bahamas, not unexpectedly, but all agreed it was a hard place to leave.

The Honorary Consuls of The Bahamas hosted a lunch.  I was seated with the Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell, the US chargé Usha Pitts and the British High Commissioner Tom Hartley.  It was great to get their insights on The Bahamas and the politics of the Caribbean. In his skillful extempore remarks to the assembled diplomats, the Minister spoke about a range of issues, including the meeting of Caricom hosted by The Bahamas only days previously and where Prime Minister Trudeau was a keynote speaker.  However, the deteriorating situation in Haiti was a major concern.  He appealed for the international community to pay attention and assist, wisely noting that this was not about a solution, but improving the situation incrementally and putting Haiti on the right track.  In conversation, Minister Mitchell told me he’d often been to Ireland because of a close family connection.  He is a passionate Joycean too. I briefed him on our plans for region.

On these kinds of trips, it is always useful just to wander around.  Left hand drive cars from America drive on the left hand side of the road: a metaphor for enduring Bahamian links to the British crown and the economic influence of its gigantic neighbor. The capital Nassau has charm, bustling between 11am and 3pm when four or five gigantic cruise ships unload their mainly American passengers.  The Bahamians are building new port facilities and aim to keep these tourists at least overnight. I’m sure the guys at the one Irish bar, Shenanigans, would appreciate that development!

National galleries often offer insights and the National Gallery did not disappoint.  Housed in a colonial mansion built by one William Doyle, the gallery was devoted to a magnificent exhibition of the art of Antonius Roberts, the country’s leading artist. Brimming with multi-media work, its theme was sacred space.  The exhibition was suffused with images and installations about place and nature, the sea and sand, light and colour, natural catastrophe and human resilience.

After slingshot flights to Miami and then Jamaica’s capital city Kingston, we were met by our Honorary Consul there, Brian Denning and his wife Kay.  Again, we are so lucky to have them represent Ireland in Jamaica.  Brian has handled some really difficult consular cases in recent years, with great sensitivity and effectiveness.  His network of contacts is unrivalled.

Brian and Kay toured us around Kingston, offering insights into Jamaica’s history.  We passed by Sabina Park where Ireland’s cricket team famously beat Pakistan in 2007.  Sabina Park was an enslaved woman whose remains lie somewhere there.  A slave on Goat Island where the brutality of the regime prompted a high suicide rate, she killed her four-month-old infant son rather than have him enslaved to work for whites.  She was hanged of course, and died a hero to other slaves for her implacable resistance.  Sabina was the slave of Joseph Gordon, a Scottish plantation owner who had eight children with another slave, Ann Rattray.  Gordon gave freedom to a son, George William.  George William Gordon became a successful businessman, politician, and advocate for the poor and for Jamaican freedom.  He was executed after the Mordant Bay Rebellion in 1865 and declared a National Hero in 1969.

Jamaica faces many challenges as a developing nation but the vision and effectiveness of its government is impressive.  Unemployment is at an all-time low of 6.6%, inflation is tracking downward, and the Government has dramatically lowered its debt to GDP ratio.  I could only be there for some of Jamaica’s diplomatic week along with a host of other ambassadors, resident and non-resident, and High Commissioners.  The speeches and Q and A by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Kamina Johnson Smith, and Minister for Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, were all clear slighted and ambitious, delivered with depth of knowledge and assurance. Both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister had just returned from a visit to Haiti, again underlining their concern about the crisis and the need for international support.

With leadership like that, you have to be confident about Jamaica’s future.  As only the second nation (after Haiti) to emerge from a former slave colony, Jamaica’s journey is remarkable.  Last year, Jamaica celebrated its 60th anniversary as an independent nation. As for relations with the British crown, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister want to ensure that all stakeholders, including the Opposition, join them on the road to becoming a republic.

The mountains of both Jamaica and Ireland played roles in our history as refuges for rebels.  Recall Redmond O’Hanlon around Slieve Gullion, or the men of 1798 taking to the fastness of Wicklow. Maroon communities of escaped slaves formed communities in the Jamaican mountains.  The Leeward Maroons such successful guerrilla fighters that the British signed a deal with them in 1739. Along with Captain Cudjoe, another Maroon leader was Nanny, a legend and heroine of Jamaica. History is complicated and the alliance with the British, including an obligation to returned runaway slaves, rankles other Jamaicans. To this day, the Maroons have cohesive communities and ambitions for the future.  No problem with that, as Foreign Minister Johnson Smith noted, within the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Jamaica.  Like Ireland, Jamaica has to manage the long influence of its colonial past along with its other challenges. 

I had a very productive bilateral meeting with Minister Johnson Smith, which was substantive and full of opportunities to develop our relationship.  Suffice to say, there is plenty of follow-up both with HQ and in another visit I am planning.  My message to the Minister, as it has been to Foreign Minister Mitchell in The Bahamas, was that Ireland had a new strategy for the Caribbean, we were setting up an Office of the Caribbean at our Consulate General in Miami, and we wanted to support our partners in the region on such vital issues as the Small Island Developing States agenda.

I hosted a reception for the Irish community, drawn together by Brian and Kay.  We were able to engage with all of the guests, some of whom had come from Montego Bay and elsewhere to join us.  It is always amazing how small the world is, at least for the Irish.  I met someone who knew colleagues and shared acquaintances not just back in Dublin but in Toronto. “By the way, do you know my aunt in Toronto…?”  Know her?  I did a podcast with her! 

At the Irish community reception, I also met Veronica Salters, known as Ronnie, a doyen of the Irish who had lived most of her long life in Jamaica.  Her mission was to engage my interest in Jamaica’s Irish heritage, notably the role of the reforming Governor General, Marquess Sligo, Henry Browne, whose journals and papers are in Kingston.  Sligo had been keen to accelerate the transition from slavery to freedom in his time there between 1834 and 1836, earning the ire of the plantation owners, some of whom simply murdered their slaves rather than let them free.  They forced his resignation.  Yes, she had my interest, and a project is taking shape.

Indeed, I kept picking up references to Jamaica’s Irish heritage.  Jamaica was England’s second experiment in plantation after Ireland.  Cromwellians threw the Spanish out of Jamaica in 1655 and promptly deported defeated Catholic Irish there to work plantations as indentured labour. There are plenty of Irish placenames, like Dublin Castle, Irish Town, Clonmel and even a Sligoville in honour of the man himself. If you go to the market today to buy potatoes, you say you want some Irish to distinguish it from ‘potato’ which refers to a sweet potato.  Folk traditions are heavily influenced by the Irish. A quarter of Jamaicans have some Irish ancestry. I am sure that the more I look, the more I will find. Our shared colonialism has woven a dense tapestry of historical and living interconnections.

I returned to Ottawa to promote those very interconnections between Ireland and Canada with the Fifty Irish Lives project.  I now have some sense of both The Bahamas and Jamaica so reading about them will be more meaningful.  Plans are underway to visit my two new accreditations in the Caribbean, St Lucia and Antigua and Barbuda.  I was assigned them in a new divvy up of Caribbean accreditations.  This is part of our efforts to bring more focus to our diplomatic presence.  Interesting times ahead for Ireland’s relations with our partners in the Caribbean.

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador to Canada, The Bahamas and Jamaica


7 March 2023

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50 ILIC: Tadgh O’Brennan and the Irish of New France

Born Castlecomer, County Kilkenny, 1632. Died Pointe-aux-Trembles, Quebec, 1687.

Eamonn McKee and Mark McGowan

Tadhg Cornelius Ó’Braonáin, Tadhg O’Brennan, known as Tec Cornelius Aubrenan, may have been the first documented Irish-born immigrant to Canada.  There had been other Irish who had set foot in Canada before him, such as the fishermen who had settled in Newfoundland, and perhaps Irish women among the Norse explorers to what was known in their sagas as Vineland, now disputed as either Newfoundland or Cape Breton. The honour of being known and named in official records, however, lies with Tadhg O’Brennan.

Born around 1632, 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 Tadhg’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.

The O’Brennans held their strategic lands and became known as a military force in the region. By the time of the Cromwellian invasions, in 1650, however, the O’Brennans were unable to hold their estates and 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. 

Tadhg arrived in what was then New France in 1661 at the age of 29.  He married Jeanne Chartier on 9 October 1670 in Notre Dame Cathedral in Quebec City, although they moved to the Montreal area where they had their family.  Tadhg and Jeanne had seven children, Madeleine Therese (1671), Catherine (1673), Jean-Cornelius (1675), Jean-Baptiste (1676), Francois (1677), Geneviève (1679), Etienne Aubrenon, who died in infancy at Repentigny, in 1681.  Tadhg died at age fifty-five in 1687 and is buried at Pointe-aux-Trembles, near Montreal.

Tadhg would have not felt isolated as an Irishmen in the St. Lawrence Valley. In 1700, “Tanguay’s Parish Registers” report that of the 2,500 families living in the colony, about 100 were natives of Ireland, and there were 30 other cases where either the husband or the wife was Irish-born. In parish registers, the local priest just listed the individuals as “Irlandais,” without reference to county of origin. Among those discovered in the  records of 17th century include Jean Houssye, dit Bellerose, who was actually John Hussey, married in New France in 1671. He was a native of Dublin and son of Matthew Hussey and Elizabeth Hogan of St. Lawrence O’Toole Parish. In 1688, Pierre and Jean Lehait were living in Quebec City, and were brothers formerly known as Peter and John Leahy from County Wicklow. Peter was a servant in the entourage of Governor Louis de Baude, Count de Frontenac. Similarly, two other Irishmen, Jean Lehaise (John Leahy) and Jean LeMer St.Germain, dit Irelande, of Thurles, were both granted land by the Sulpician Fathers, the seigneurs of the island of Montreal. Finally, in 1704, Jean Baptiste Riel was married at Isle du Pads. Antiquarian, John O’Farrell, suggests that he may actually be John Rielly of Limerick, and a distant ancestor of the famous Canadian patriot, Louis Riel.

The naturalization records from 17th century New France also list a number of women whose sometimes Gallicized names suggest Irish origin: Marie Washton (married to an Irish colonist); Anne Lord (Tierney); Catherine Dunkin (O’Dongen); Martha Finn; Madeline Alleyne (O’Halloyne); and Marie-Charlotte Brojon (O’Brogan). They may have come directly from Ireland, been refugees from the English colonies, or taken captive by French and Indigenous raiding parties on the frontiers of New England.

While Catholic refugees fleeing from the English and Protestant Colonies as far south as Virginia provided one of the sources of Irish migration to New France, the French and Spanish militaries were another important agency of emigration. Irish expatriates, like Tadhg who had joined the French army of Louis XIV often appeared in the regiments stationed in New France. Timothy Sullivan, for example, was a native of Kerry who had served with the Spanish Dragoons, and after having escaped capture by the English, fled to Montreal via the New England colonies. In 1718, he appears as a physician in Montreal, with a Gallicized surname Sylvain, and married the widowed mother of Marguerite D’Youville, the founder the Sisters of Charity, or Grey Nuns. Similarly, Charles de Latouche McCarthy, was born in Brest in 1706, France, son of Irish refugees. He was a decorated captain in the French navy and served in New France from 1737 to 1763. He married Angelique-Jeanne Guillimin, the daughter of a member of the Sovereign Council. He served New France with distinction through the wars of the Austrian Succession (1740-47) and the Seven Years War (1756-63). During the latter war, Governor Pierre Riguad de Vaudreuil assembled an Irish Company of troops consisting of deserters from the English army, Irish colonists, and refugees in New France. His Irish company was transferred to the European theatre of the war before the fall of New France in 1760.

We do not know much about Tadhg O’Brennan’s life in Quebec.  Nevertheless, he represents several generations of Irish men and women who recognized that there was no future for themselves or their faith after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. They found temporary homes in France, either through the military or the merchant trades, and many ended up in France’s colonial possessions in North America. Other Irish had found themselves in the New England colonies, but fled to New France for the liberty of practicing their Catholic Faith. Tadhg’s family lineage, and that of Sullivan and McCarthy, were in themselves a plumb line that reached deep into Ireland’s history.  As a microcosm of early Irish migration to Canada, Tadhg is a fitting character to have the honour of being the first officially recorded Irishman in Canada.

Further Reading:

Thomas Guerin, The Gael in New France (Montreal: Private, 1946)

John O’Farrell, “Irish Families in Ancient Quebec,” in Robert O’Driscoll and Lorna Reynolds, eds., The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada. Toronto: Celtic Arts of Canada, 1988. Pp 281-94. Originally published on 15 January 1872 as a speech to the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Quebec.

Tanguay Collection, Dictionnaire généalogique des familles canadiennes Québec, 1608 à 1890. Online:

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Fifty Irish Lives in Canada: Preface

Today we celebrate the start of Irish Heritage Month, officially recognized as such by the Government of Canada thanks to the leadership of James Maloney MP and the Canada Ireland Parliamentary Friendship Group.

In celebration of Irish Heritage Month, we will launch Fifty Irish Lives in Canada on Friday March 3rd. Please join James, me, and our guests online for the event. From this day onwards, we will publish one profile of the Irish in Canada over the past three centuries. The profiles we are launching resoundingly affirm that indeed the story of the Irish in Canada is a fascinating one. Its richness lies in its complexity.

The launch of Fifty Irish Lives in Canada is the culmination of over a year’s work. The project was inspired by the Royal Irish Academy’s (RIA) publication of Irish Lives in America in December 2021. Surely, I thought, the story of the Irish in Canada deserved no less.

Professor Mark McGowan immediately endorsed the idea. Within days of bouncing emails between various places, the enthusiastic and willing response of the prospective contributors launched what was for all a labour of both love and discovery. Sage advice and expert inputs flowed from David Wilson, Michele Holmgren, Elizabeth Smyth, and others.

The collective wisdom from early on was that we had to confine the candidates to Irish born to avoid being overwhelmed. Being deceased was also accepted as a useful parameter. We realized quickly that we should strive to embrace not just those whose achievements gave them prominence, but those whose ‘ordinary’ lives were emblematic of the immigrant experience.

There is of course a notable predominance of men. Society at the time and in recorded history rendered half the population invisible: lack of respect, education, and encouragement denied women opportunity in life and a place in the record books. Between this launch and eventual publication, there is much work to be done to recover women and their contribution, whether quotidian or prominent.

We intend on publication to include an essay on gender and diversity. We also plan to include a response from Indigenous communities so that we can share the perspective on the Irish in Canada, who came from one colony to help found another one, whether their coming was willing or unwilling, knowing or unknowing about the impact on the pre-European natives of the land that we call Canada but to them was Turtle Island.

As the project gathered pace, we quickly grasped that not only was the story fascinating, it was also complex. In fact, we soon adopted the motto “it’s complicated.” Over three centuries, we see unfold in Canada the story of a complicated symbiotic relationship with the colony of Ireland, England’s first imperial adventure.

Traditionally seen as a story of immigration, the Irish in Canada must be understood as a story of colonialism. Only that can explain why so many varieties of Irish identity and background turned up in Canada: from the émigré Tadgh O’Brennan in the 17th century to the Anglo-Irish colonists of the 18th; from the fishermen of the 17th and 18th centuries; from Protestant farmers and Orangemen to Catholic labourers and the Fenians in the 19th; from the soldiers in Wellington’s British Army who settled in Canada in the 1820s and 1830s to the forced relocation of Irish tenants during and after the Great Famine.

The rich parade of Irish identity and perspectives revealed even in this small sampling testifies to the complicated history of Ireland itself and the key role many Irish played in the British Empire, whether unwilling or, as in many cases, willingly. Canada loomed large in the imagination of moderate Irish nationalists at home who strived for the re-establishment of an Irish parliament. History took Ireland in a different direction in a quickening of events between 1916 and 1922. Canada became the future that Ireland never had.

Tensions back in Ireland played out in Canada, notably between Catholic nationalists and Orange loyalists. Yet Canada provided a society that ultimately allowed such divergent loyalties to find common cause in building a stable and prosperous society.

No figure perhaps encapsulates this complexity more starkly than Nicholas Flood Davin. A supporter of Home Rule for Ireland, a supporter too of votes for women, Flood Davin was similarly inspired to write in 1877 a history of the Irish in Canada to correct a record that suggested Canada was the product of the Scotch, English, French and Mennonite Germans. He had harsh words for those Irish who denigrated their identity: “you may as well seek to fly from your shadow as to escape your nationality.” Yet, it was this proud Irish nationalist who undertook the commission of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to report on Indigenous issues. He recommended the establishment of the Indian residential school system. From that conjuration of colonized and colonizer much tragedy flowed.

Yet the Indigenous and the Irish found a common humanity too that transcended the forces of history shaping their lives. As we will reveal, the suffering of the Indigenous inspired them to respond to the suffering of the Irish as news of the Great Famine spread and desperate Irish refugees arrived in the traditional lands of the Indigenous.

The project is now open to all submissions, each of which will be part of our online bank of Irish Lives in Canada. Now is the time to submit your favourites. Pick your person, keep the profile to one thousand words and your submission will be eligible for inclusion. We are keen to welcome entries that reflect the rich diversity of the Irish in Canada.

I want to thank all those who have been involved in this project, particularly the contributors and Mark McGowan who has written an overview essay of the patterns of Irish migration to British North America, capturing its duration and complexity with eloquence and clarity.

Following the advice of the RIA, we have adhered to the limitation of 1000 words. That is no easy task and I hope that you agree that we have collectively have achieved it without compromise of thoroughness or eloquence.


Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

Ottawa, 1 March 2023

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