Bunratty Castle in County Clare, Ireland. Tommy Bond, Unsplash

Forum to probe Irish experience in colonial past

By  Joshua Ben Joseph, Catholic Register Special
  • November 24, 2023

The University of St. Michael’s College, in conjunction with the Irish embassy, is seeking scholarly papers for a proposed conference tentatively called “Canada, Ireland, and Transatlantic Colonialism: Historical Perspectives” which it hopes to run in May.

The conference will focus on themes pertaining to Irish history in Canada, including Ireland and the colonial apparatus of British North America, Irish religious mission and colonization, transatlantic technology and migrant communities and post-colonial nationalism in Canada and Ireland.

“It’s a joint sponsorship of the University of St. Michael’s College and the department of Foreign Affairs, Ireland and its current ambassador to Canada, Eamonn McKee,” said Dr. Mark McGowan, professor of History & Celtic Studies at the university.

McKee, a historian himself, has been working closely with the college during his tenure as ambassador. The event is expected to be one of his last official functions in Canada.

“It’s a scholarly conference, but the opening afternoon will be a panel on indigenous-Irish engagement in Canada and the role that Ireland played in colonialism,” McGowan said. “In terms of Ireland’s role as part of the treaty process that went on between Indigenous peoples and the British crown.”

The scholarly proposals being sought will be reviewed by the university to set up the five potential panels, which will be open to the public.

McGowan said the conference will give the university the opportunity to complete the projects that have been accomplished in the Celtic studies program with the Irish ambassador while also honouring the school’s commitments to truth and reconciliation.

The first recorded Irish presence in Canada dates to 1536, when Irish fishermen from Cork traveled to what is now Newfoundland. It is reported that more than 1.2 million Irish immigrants arrived in Canada from 1825 to 1970. Canada saw an increase in the number of Irish Catholics during the years of the Great Famine in the 1840s.

“What’s really curious is that when Indigenous people in Ontario, in Upper Canada, were asked to donate in 1847 to Irish famine relief… the Mohawks of Tyendinaga and the Mississaugas of Chemong Lake donate substantially to it,” he said. “They gave generously out of what they admit is their own poverty.”

McGowan notes the Canadian and Irish colonial pasts were vastly different, especially for the Catholics. During the English rule, particularly after the Reformation, the majority Catholic population of Ireland was severely oppressed. The Irish didn’t have the type of property rights that average people within the United Kingdom would have and had no freedom of worship.  Priests were hunted down and bishops were killed during this time. A notable example was St. Oliver Plunkett, who was hanged, disemboweled and quartered before a large crowd at Tyburn in 1681.

“Now take a look at Canada over the same period. I mean we have an interesting parallel between French Canadians and the Irish within the United Kingdom,” he said. “What’s different about Canada is that in 1770, British crown in order to secure the loyalty of French Canadians in that central part of Canada passes something called the Quebec Act.”

The Quebec Act allowed Catholics in central Canada the right to vote and to sit in Parliament, rights not accorded to the Catholics in Ireland.

Canada was, in fact, the recipient of “some of the best and brightest” Irish immigrants.

Currently at least 40 per cent of Newfoundlanders can trace themselves to Irish roots. Moreover, substantial populations of Irish descendants are also found in Montreal, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

McGowan believes the younger generation has a major hand in preserving Canada’s Irish heritage and urged them to be proactive in learning about the Irish history in the country.

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