Out of Ireland
New Brunswick Museum
In New Brunswick, the years of the Great Famine are 'the time when the Irish came.' The poignant events of those lean years have tended to eclipse the long and complex history of Irish immigration to the province.
The first Irish immigrants to New Brunswick come from a variety of backgrounds, and this, combined with the disparate nature of settlement in the province, delays the emergence of a specifically 'Irish' community. Language, religion and economic status ensure that these early Irish immigrants share a common world view and cultural perspective with the mainly Protestant Loyalist settlers, and are easily assimilated into existing community structures. In other instances, immigrants who settled among the Catholic Acadians marry, and are all but absorbed into their adopted societies. Changing conditions in Ireland eventually upset this balance so that, by 1825, Catholics constitute a significant majority among the growing number who embark annually for New Brunswick.
The Famine remains the lens through which the history of the Irish in New Brunswick is perceived. Between 1844 and 1848, more than 40 000 Irish immigrants arrive in the province. The cost of maintaining provincial quarantine and poorhouse facilities begins to escalate in the 1840s, just as the bottom is falling out of the provincial economy. In addition, the Irish are in the awkward position of sharing the language of the Protestants but the religion of the Acadians. Tensions mount between native New Brunswickers and Irish Catholic immigrants, as it is easy to blame all of the province's economic woes on the 'hungry hordes' of the newly arrived and impoverished. Consequently, the 1840s are marked by unprecedented levels of social unrest that often express itself in acts of violence.
With a return to prosperity in the 1850s, anti-Irish Catholic sentiment diminishes somewhat in New Brunswick. The increased demand for labour make the Irish poor a valuable commodity. Yet Protestants and Catholics remain polarized, living their lives in separate spheres until well into the 20th century. Only events like World War I and II, which unite New Brunswickers against common enemies, tended to erode old biases.