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Montreal's Irish Community and Industrialization: 1840-1920

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


In 1840 Montreal was a small commercial town. By the end of the First World War, it had been completely transformed: it had become a major urban, industrial, commercial and financial centre. Over these years, a number of people of Irish origin helped to make Montreal into the largest city in Canada.

The vast majority of the Irish immigrants who settled in Quebec arrived in the first half of the 19th century. Whether as workers on big construction projects or as merchants and manufacturers, the members of the Irish community played a significant role in the economic development of Montreal and the province of Quebec.

Workers Who Left Their Mark

Like many other unskilled immigrants who arrived in Montreal, Irish workers often found employment as longshoremen or labourers at the docks. Others were hired on building sites. Irish Montrealers were the single biggest group of workers involved in the construction of the Lachine Canal, which opened in 1825, and later in its expansion, between 1843 and 1848, and then again in 1875. They also helped build the Victoria Bridge (inaugurated in 1860), which linked the island of Montreal with the North American railway system.

Life wasn't easy for them. Wages were low, work was never steady and many workplaces were extremely dangerous. With no social safety net, injured workers and their families were left to their own devices. Putting in over 10 hours a day, six days a week was not uncommon. Fed up with these conditions, workers held one of Canada's first strikes, in 1843, in an attempt to improve their lot, but without much success. To make things even more difficult, their living quarters were usually deplorable, with little light, ventilation or insulation, and barely fit for habitation, conditions that fostered the spread of disease and infection. It wasn't until the start of the 20th century that significant improvements were seen in the quality of life of the working class.

Prosperous Businessmen

During the Industrial Revolution, a number of Irish Montrealers became prominent members of the Canadian business elite. Whereas some, like the McCord family, made their fortunes in real estate, others achieved success in commerce or industry.

William Clendinneng (1833-1907) became one of Montreal's most successful industrialists thanks to his foundry, one of the largest in Canada. He was also a philanthropist, helping to fund a shelter for the needy and fighting against cruelty to animals.

William Workman (1807-1878), a partner of John Frothingham (1788-1870) from 1836, was one of the biggest hardware wholesalers in Canada in the 1840s. He was also president of the City Bank and a real estate developer in Sainte-Cunégonde. Curiously, this Protestant was seen by Catholics to be an ally, and their support in 1868 helped him become mayor of Montreal. He was re-elected in 1869 and 1870. Mayor Workman was also admired for his philanthropy, serving as president of the St. Patrick's Society and later of the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society.

Another Irish businessman who was prominent in manufacturing was Charles Gurd. Born in Ireland in 1842, he became a chemist and pharmacist in 1865, after training at McGill University. With soft drinks becoming increasingly popular toward the end of the 19th century, he founded his own soft drink company in 1868. As a philanthropist, he was involved with the Montreal General Hospital, the Protestant Hospital for the Insane and the Mutual Association for the Blind.

Of all the Montreal businessmen of Irish origin, however, Herbert Samuel Holt (1856-1941) was definitely the most prosperous. This engineer by training arrived from Ireland at the age of 19 and went on to become the wealthiest man in Canada. During his tenure as president of the Royal Bank (1907-1934), he transformed it into the largest financial institution in the country. A tireless industrialist, he ran paper mills, electrical utilities and an array of other enterprises. During the depression of the 1930s, the Holt fortune allowed him to lead an opulent lifestyle at his home in Montreal's Golden Square Mile.

These wealthy Irish Montrealers all had one thing in common: they were Protestant. Very few Catholic Irishmen become prominent members of the business community like James McShane, mayor of Montreal from 1891 to 1893 and a major meat exporter. Like their French-speaking fellow Catholics, those of Irish origin tended to be small business owners (shopkeepers, grocers, etc.) or professional men (doctors, lawyers, notaries). Irish Protestant Montrealers, having more in common with the English and Scottish communities, seem to have had contacts and resources that helped them prosper within Canada's business elite.

A Significant Contribution

Montrealers of Irish origin made a huge contribution to the industrial and economic development of their city. The infrastructure, businesses and industries they helped establish turned Montreal into one of the hubs of the North American economy for close to a century.

References

CROSS, Dorothy Susanne, « The Irish in Montreal », Master Thesis (History), McGill University, 1969, 308 p.

ENGLISH, John and Réal BÉLANGER (ed.), Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Toronto University/Université Laval. http://www.biographi.ca (August 29, 2009)

LINTEAU, Paul-André, Histoire de Montréal depuis la Confédération, Montréal, Boréal, 2000, 627 p.

ROBERT, Jean-Claude, Atlas historique de Montréal, Montréal, Art Global/Libre Expression, 1994, 167 p.

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