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Community Life of Irish Montrealers in the 19th and 20th Centuries

By Sylvain Rondeau, under the supervision of Paul-André Linteau, professor, department of history, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)

Montreal's Irish community was a very diverse one. Far from homogeneous, it was a mosaic of people of different religious denominations, social classes and political affiliations. Nevertheless, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, they demonstrated a strong and dynamic community spirit that helped them maintain their collective identity.

A Many-Faceted Community

Despite hailing from the same island, the members of Montreal's Irish community belonged to different religious denominations and sociocultural groups. Unlike in Canada's other provinces, in Quebec the majority of the Irish community was Catholic. Yet whether they were Catholic, Methodist, Anglican or Presbyterian, Irish Montrealers remained proud of their roots. They continued to take part, side by side, in the annual St. Patrick's Day parade in celebration of their heritage.

Cracks have appeared in this solidarity at a number of points in Canadian history. During the rebellions of 1837 and 1838, for instance, the community was deeply divided, with some supporting the patriots while others sided with the British authorities. Sometimes, these divisions even gave rise to violence, as happened in 1853 with the arrival of the Italian Alessandro Gavazzi, a former Catholic who had converted to Protestantism. Known for attacking his former religion in his speeches, he was adulated by many Protestants, but loathed by Catholics. Riots broke out at lectures that Gavazzi gave in Quebec City and Montreal. The Montreal event got so out of control that around a dozen people were killed.

Another event symptomatic of the divisions within the community was the death of Thomas D'Arcy McGee in 1868. A bitter opponent of the Fenians, McGee was assassinated by Montreal sympathizers of the movement for Irish independence. Some U.S. Fenians had wanted to invade Canada and take McGee hostage in order to force Great Britain to recognize the independence of Ireland. The Fenian raids against Canada between 1866 and 1871 ended in failure, however.

A Community That Took Care of Its Own

In spite of the divisions that sometimes shook it from within, Montreal's Irish community demonstrated a spirit of solidarity from its very beginnings in the city. The St. Patrick's Society of Montreal, founded in 1834 promoted Irish identity and came to the assistance of needy Irish Montrealers. However, with religious affiliation becoming more and more significant in the public arena, Protestants decided to strike out on their own and found the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society in 1856. The new society, like the St. Patrick's Society, defended Irish identity while also providing support to the needy in Montreal's Irish Protestant community. The two societies lent their assistance to orphans and destitute families and promoted temperance (the fight against drunkenness and alcoholism).

An Identity That Gave a Sense of Belonging

A variety of venues and events provided the members of the Irish community with opportunities to get together and celebrate their heritage. Whether at balls, concerts, social events (picnics, fund-raising, etc.) or sporting activities, Montreal's Irish enjoyed socializing. The Irish community even set up its own lacrosse and hockey team, the Shamrocks, which won the Stanley Cup in 1899 and 1900. One of the most popular gathering places was the pub. Of the many Irish pubs in Montreal, the best known was probably Joe Beef's Tavern. Founded by Charles McKiernan in 1868, the tavern also served as a shelter for the needy. A colourful character and veteran of the Crimean War, McKiernan lent his support to a number of strikes and championed the working class. Thousands of people from all walks of life attended his funeral in 1889, which is indicative of the high esteem in which Montrealers held this unusual man.

Symbols, Identity and Institutions

Regardless of religious affiliation, Irish Montrealers all acknowledged a number of symbols representing their common heritage -- the shamrock, the harp, the colour green, the Celtic cross and leprechauns. These symbols are to be found everywhere in the iconography of Montreal's Irish institutions and organizations.

Churches and schools played a major role in handing down Irish cultural heritage. Montreal's Irish Catholics were particularly dynamic in this regard. From initially having just two Irish parishes (St. Patrick's, founded in 1847, and St. Anne's, which began as a curacy in 1854 before becoming a parish in 1880), the diocese of Montreal included several dozen a hundred years later. Both clergy members and lay people participated in building community centres, orphanages and poorhouses. Many also gave their time to Catholic organizations promoting charity, temperance and Irish identity. The Montreal Catholic School Commission set up bilingual classes, and then English ones, to cater to the needs of the Irish community. Later the community itself would establish other educational institutions, such as St. Anne's School, St. Anne's Academy, the Catholic High School and Loyola College.

The main annual event at which Montrealers with Irish roots celebrate their heritage is, of course, the St. Patrick's Day parade. It has been held since 1834 and is one of the largest such parades in North America. One of the reasons for its longevity is the cordial relations between the Catholics and Protestants in Montreal's Irish community, ensuring that the parade is held every year, whereas religious divisions elsewhere in North America have often hampered the organization of similar events.

Montreal's Irish community is rich in the diversity of its institutions and its contribution to the development of Quebec. Many Irish traditions (folk music, folk dancing, pubs, etc.) have influenced Quebec popular culture. For instance, hundreds of thousands of Montrealers of all ethnic backgrounds love to attend the St. Patrick's Day parade on March 17 each year, which makes it Montreal's second biggest after the Fête Nationale parade of June 24.


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