Montreal exhibit details the contributions of the Irish in Quebec

By  Lorraine O’Donnell Williams, Catholic Register Special
  • March 12, 2010
{mosimage}MONTREAL - When I learned of a new exhibit — The Irish O’Quebec — at Montreal’s prestigious McCord Museum , I knew I had to see it. The reasons were obvious: my maiden name was O’Donnell (the Irish part of me). My great-grandfather John Patrick O’Donnell had immigrated to Quebec in the 1860s so stories like his would be represented somewhere in this exhibit. My mother’s maiden name was La Branche (the French Canadian part of me). I had the perfect dual heritage. To top it off, I learned the guest curator of this exhibit was historian  Dr. Lorraine O’Donnell.

The exhibit is mounted with the usual creativity found in Quebec museums. McCord Museum, originally one of Montreal’s grand old mansions now added on to and owned by McGill University, has a strong link with Montreal’s past. Any museum exhibit has to have a rationale and the one behind this one is obvious: how did two distinct cultures — the French Canadian settlers and Irish immigrants — manage to blend so seamlessly in French Quebec? This exhibit provides the answers, as we move through the 17th century onward learning of both famous and ordinary folk of this mixed culture.

Genevieve Lafrance, the museum’s head of exhibitions, told me, “We’ve had a great response to this exhibit. As you’ll see, when you leave there’s a digital guest book. It’s fascinating to read the messages people have left, regardless of whether they have Irish roots or not.”

The displays are rich, with plenty of artifacts from the Irish presence, with concise, yet informative, bios on some who stepped onto the shores of the vast Quebec landscape. Visual effects enhance the main message. For instance, we hear an immigrant-loaded ship’s horn coming from behind a gauze curtain — the immigrants can look behind to where they’ve come from but their future is hidden. Various stations tell the stories. Biography stations tell of the rich, famous and unknown.

The first-known Irishman was in the 1680s, Tadhg Cornelius O’Brennan, a “coureur des bois” who married one of the “filles des bois” (young women sent over by King Louis XIV as future brides for French male colonists in New France). He was an unlicensed fur trader and farmer. More Irish came in the 1750s as members of the British army which conquered New France in 1759. Irish-Protestants from the Irish ascendency were sent to rule and run the colony, among them Guy Carleton, Baron of Dorchester. As Governor of Quebec, he enacted the 1774 Quebec Act giving more rights to Irish settlers than they had ever had under British rule in Ireland — the right to such things as their religion, language and land ownership.

Irish Quebecer Thomas D’Arcy McGee played a vital role as one of Canada’s founding Confederation fathers in 1867. He was assassinated only one year later by a Fenian group based in the United States. Irish immigrants themselves, they viewed McGee a traitor for advocating Irish and Quebecers to integrate. 

Another station tells of how the Irish established themselves, ordinary folk such as the settlers in St. Colomban who spent their first winter all huddled together in a lean-to shelter, constructed of towering rock, logs, brush and snow. Much different from the temperate climes of the old country! The tragic emigration story which took place at Grosse- Ile during the Irish Famine is depicted. A large percentage of Irish refugees either died from typhus while in mid-Atlantic or shortly upon setting foot in the island immigration portal. The heart-warming part of this story is that many orphaned children were adopted by caring French-Canadian families. More importantly, they were allowed to keep their Irish surnames if they so chose. That explains why many French Canadian families in Quebec retain an Irish surname to this day.

How could two cultures merge so smoothly? According to Lafrance, “There were many similarities. The Catholic religion they shared was a great binding force, although we have a story here of French-Canadian priests having great difficulty hearing the confessions of the Irish. One said ‘they made their confessions too quickly without any details. They simply declared, I cursit, I sworn, I got in a passion…. They even curse their own children saying The Devil Take You…’ ”

French-Irish compatibility is also found in foods. Is Irish Stew just another form of French Ragout? Quebecers love of beer and potatoes probably came from the Irish. Any visitor can recognize the Irish dancing element to French-Canadian folk dances. Even the story-telling tradition is common to both cultures.
The most striking indication of Irish influence is definitely the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, prefigured in 1750s by the Irish Protestant soldiers who celebrated Ireland’s patron saint. Today Montreal cherishes the tradition of this end-of-winter party in March to which all Quebecers and visitors flock. Originally sponsored by the St. Patrick’s Catholic Society of Montreal and the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society, it now consists of not only Irish stalwarts but also other community and ethnic groups who make up the fabric of this diverse city and province.

Adding my comments to the guest book after viewing the exhibit, I was in full agreement with LaFrance: “Perhaps Quebec’s Irish stories, taken as a whole, should serve as a model of how people can come together to create shared histories and diverse, tolerant communities.”

McCord Museum is at 690 Sherbrooke St. W., Montreal. The exhibit continues until April 4. For further information contact Tourism Quebec at 1-877-266-5687.

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