The story of the Irish in Quebec is a long and varied one. In each decade, historians, sometimes deliberately but more often accidentally, have thrown light on the Irish presence in this vast province. In this article, an attempt will be made to discuss that presence in Quebec in some coherent person. The evidence is there, but is scattered and irregular; hence the difficulty of producing an account of the Irish that their importance in Quebec merits.
In Quebec's undocumented past, Irish monks came to the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I mention this, not to boast of the earliest Irishmen who set foot on Canadian soil, but to remind the reader how normal such travel was. Ireland is the western outpost of Europe, and probably as many Irishmen as Norsemen crossed the ocean in pre-Columbian times, and according to archeological evidence portrayed in the Gaspe Museum, appear to have established monastic settlements. From that unrecorded time to the historically documented Irish in Quebec during the French Regime (1608-1763) there intervenes a long period about which we can surmise nothing. An Irishman figures in the invaluable census of 1663 in Montreal. It should be noted that the Irishman, the Scot and the Englishman, mentioned in the 1663 census, had spent time in France before coming to New France. Thomas Guerin in "The Gael in New France" documents a few Irishmen holding seigniorial land around Montreal, and a couple of priests with Irish names.
The Quebec City area is the main focus of this article, hence my cursory treatment of the rest of the province. We finally discover in the Quebec area and an Irishman whose history is well documented in the person of Thomas Moore, Irish-Catholic though Dover born, the con of Edmund Moore and Cecile Richardson. He established his home on the island of Orleans near Quebec City and operated as pilot, sea captain and privateer for the French between 1686 and 1710, when his name fades from the records. His sons and grandsons, however, left the name in the marriage records of the region. It was not to be the last Irish name, for very soon, there would appear several men, bearing the name of McCarty, acting in various administrative as well as naval and military capacities. These men and others were descendants of the "Wild Geese", and served everywhere in the French Empire in North America. Other names appear which are or appear to be Irish: of 'McNamera' and 'McCarthy' there can be no doubt; other names such as 'French' or 'Rielle' or Lemaire' with the attached 'L'irelande' or 'L'irlandais' leave little doubt as to origin. 'Maddox' and 'Moran' round out an interesting list. One wonders if any of these men or their descendants met and married any of the many Irish and Scots girls brought to Quebec as captives. These girls were bound for domestic service in Virginia, when their ship, an English one, was captured by the French warships, Le Brillant and L'Heureux, and taken to Quebec, where they were placed in private families and "entered voluntarily into the work of their new employers", says Guerin.
In three chapters of this book, Guerin lists soldiers with Irish names fighting for France; in three others, he lists those Irish who had sworn allegiance to the French king, or who appear in another capacity in the civil records, and finally, Irish names from hospital records in Quebec City. Guerin's work becomes an almost endless list of names, culled from all these records. He compares French and Irish names and gives Anglicized forms as well. One is struck by the cosmopolitan character of both the French army and administration as well as of the colony as a whole. That cosmopolitan aspect of Quebec society has not received much attention, especially from adherents of the "Canadien pure laine" theory. Scots and Portuguese, as well as Irish, could have been found in Quebec City before 1763. The epithets "L'irlandais" or "dite le Portugais" and so on, appear after many names. It is especially the case in the last days of the French ascendancy in North America that many Irish names are found in military and hospital records. One interesting explanation of this fact is the following: French forces sought to win the allegiance of Irish soldiers from the British regiments captured in battle. In 1757, for example, Vaudreuil formed an Irish company, having the men swear fealty to His Most Catholic Majesty, after a short time in Quebec, the Company was dispatched to fight for France elsewhere. Though Irish regiments identified themselves as such within the armies of both France and Britain, there has not yet come to light any record of a celebration, by either civilians or soldiers, of St. Patrick's Day in Quebec City during the French Regime. Did they not celebrate the day at all? Records have yet to inform us if these soldiers and citizens, no doubt all Catholics, ever felt the need to gather in festive or solemn mood to celebrate their Irishness. With this as background, it is the more intriguing to record the anomaly of the first public celebration of St. Patrick's Day in Quebec City in 1765. It was actually after the British had taken Quebec. The Protestant Irish officers of the Garrison gathered to celebrate Ireland's patron saint with a service and suitable sermon by the Anglican clergyman, Dr. Brooks, in the Recollect Chapel; this was followed by dinner at Miles Prentice's Sun Tavern. The differences so strikingly evident here were part of the pattern of Irish settlement in Canada. The variety of peoples who thought of themselves as Irish marked the British North American colonies as much as it did Ireland itself.
In the British administration in Quebec, there were Irish-born Protestants: Harry Caldwell and his son John, Edward Bowen from Kinsale, Alexander Carlisle Buchanan from Tyrone; these were the men who in the mid 1830's founded the Saint Patrick Society in Quebec. Irish Catholics were also present in government: Robert Lester from Galway was elected to Canada's first parliament in 1792. Dominic Daly, also of Galway, earned the sobriquet "the permanent secretary" for his long service as provincial secretary. These men flourished in Quebec, a city that was becoming more and more English speaking with each decade of the 19th century. Quebec City's position on the St. Lawrence River, at the head of deep river navigation, made it the focal point of much port activity. Thousands of immigrants landed there every year because the vessels could easily sail up river. The vast majority came in converted timber ships, the main purpose of these being to transport huge timbers home to England - a trade that had become to flourish because of the Napoleanic blockade of the Baltic. The ships also carried manufactured goods from Britain. The port was thus the center of the timber trade with its infrastructure of commerce and all the services necessary for a vital industry. There was plenty of work available in the city; there was farm land available in the hinterland and the Irish, in the majority of the immigrants each summer, took a prominent place in the building of a new and English speaking Quebec. Throughout the century, it must be added, Irish speaking people arrived but they soon adopted English for current usage. They created country settlements around the city which even today maintain an Irish flavor, either because they speak English with a definite Irish accent or because of their annual celebration of St. Patrick's Day, at which event Irish named bilingual or unilingual French celebrate with fervor their attachment to an ancient heritage.
Prominent in the Quebec region, if we are to choose an example, is the municipality of Portneuf County on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. Irish settlement began in the 1820's. A hardy people settled on the sandy soils there and for several generations were able to maintain mixed farming. The fertility of the soils did not last. A hundred years after the initial settlement in the post 1912 War period, another war made changes: Valcartier Camp for training a Canadian Army was established at the onset of World War One and it uprooted many families and led to many expropriations. In Portneuf County, many of the Irish worked as loggers and in the pulp and paper industry.
On the south shore of the St. Lawrence, a similar pattern developed, of struggling farms in poor soil, so poor that it had been bypassed by the wise French farmers. Subsistence farming and lumbering supported the settlers, with a small local industry here and there to provide other occasional opportunities for employment. The rural settlers brought with them a knowledge of farming. Despite the poor quality, Irish farmers appear in regular numbers as prize winners in the Quebec Agricultural Fair of 1851.
The Irish settlers brought with them their faith. For the most part, the Irish rural settlements were Catholic. At the beginning, they sometimes attached themselves to the nearest French parish. Later, they built their own church and usually had an Irish Priest. In the general area around Quebec, however, both Irish and French bilingual clergy served congregations which fluctuated in the predominating proportion of French or English. From the third quarter of the 18th century and for another 20 years, the Bishop of Quebec welcomed Irish Priests as well as young clerics from the seminaries of Ireland. The latter transferred to Quebec seminaries, completed their studies, were ordained and went on to start new settlements or to serve in parishes that were by 1830 experiencing the problems of integrating a new people into the existing structure and customs.
The situation in Quebec City was quite different. The 1790 and 1791 reports of Parochial visits made by the clergy of Notre Dame de Quebec show a great many Irish Protestants living alongside the Catholic French and Irish neighbors in the Lower Town, employed in one capacity or another in the lumber business. About this time, and after the American Revolution and during the Napoleanic wars, there was a steady but comparatively small of immigrants arriving each year. By the turn of the century (1800), several businesses run by Irishmen had sprung up in the city. Cannon, Qiigley and Sharp became building contractors. Their work and families endure to this day. Michael Connolly, a Wexford man, arrived in Quebec City around 1800. For the next 75 years, he was active in business, religion and politics in the City. He was a founding member of St. Patrick's parish, an active worker for the Reform side throughout the turbulent period of the 1820's and 1830's and was elected to the Municipal Council of Quebec.
A career more brilliant than Connolly's was that of Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan, whose first 10 years in Canada, were profitably spent in Quebec City, before he succeeded Dr. Daniel Tracy as editor of the Vindicator in Montreal. O'Callaghan, a medical doctor, took a life long interest in politics wherever he went. In Quebec, he brought the passion of Papineau and the oratory of O'Connell to the attention of Irish and French Canadians alike. Elected as a Reformer, he accompanied Paineau in his flight to New York state in 1837. There he became involved in state politics and in writing the history of New York State. He never forgot his Quebec friends.
As for institutions, the Irish worked together, usually with their Priests, in creating foundations that have endured. The same period, the 1830's and 1840's, saw the continued expansion of the timber trade in Quebec. In 1851, the Quebec Shipbuilders Benevolent Association was founded. Though began as an institute to assist sick members, or the widows and children of deceased members, it soon became active as a labour union and has been credited with being the first labour union in Canada.
The city in general profited from the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The Parish of St. Patrick's exercised a formative influence on the Irish of the city. In the second half of the 19th century, it was possible for more secular institutions to flourish in the Irish community.
The presence of the Irish community in Quebec was recognized by important visitors. In the 1880's, Fanny Parnell visited Quebec and was received by the Irish with an elegant address of welcome composed and read by Jeremiah Gallagher. William Smith O'Brien, on his triumphal return from exile in Australia, stopped in Quebec. John Costello, president of Ireland, visited Quebec in 1947. Most recently, in 1985, Irish parliamentarians returned a visit made to Ireland by members of the National Assembly of Quebec.
The diffusion of the Irish is a reflection on a larger scale of the patterns of their earlier system. The Irish never formed a ghetto in Quebec. Indeed, their intermarriage with French Canadians across the province is widely known. The impact of the Irish on the lifestyle, religion, economy and demographics of this province has yet to be fully assessed.