Irish in Montreal

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER V (4) start of chapter

In no part of the British Provinces of North America does the Catholic Irishman feel himself so thoroughly at home as in the beautiful and flourishing city of Montreal. He is in a Catholic city, where his religion is respected, and his Church is surrounded with dignity and splendour. In whichever direction he turns, he beholds some magnificent temple—some college, or convent, or hospital —everywhere the Cross, whether reared aloft on the spire of a noble church, or on the porch or gable of an asylum or a school. In fact, the atmosphere he breathes is Catholic. Therefore he finds himself at home in the thriving Commercial Capital of Lower Canada. In no part of the world is he more perfectly free and independent than in this prosperous seat of industry and enterprise, in which, it may be remarked, there is more apparent life and energy than in any other portion of the British Provinces. It is not, then, to be wondered at that the Catholic Irish are equal in number to the entire of the English-speaking Protestant population, including English, Scotch, and Irish. It is estimated that the Irish Catholics are now not less than 30,000. Of these a large proportion necessarily belong to the working classes, and find employment in various branches of local industry. Their increase has been rapid and striking. Fifty years since there were not fifty Irish Catholic families in Montreal. It is about that time since Father Richards, an American, took compassion upon the handful of exiles who were then friendless and unknown, and gathered them into a small sacristy attached to one of the minor churches, to speak to them in a language which they understood. In thirty years afterwards their number had increased to 8,000, and now they are not under 30,000.

The Irish of all denominations represent a vast proportion of the wealth and commercial enterprise of Montreal; and though the majority of the Catholic Irish came out at a later period, and under far less favourable circumstances, their position on the whole is in every way excellent. They are not in the least behindhand in industry, energy, and active enterprise, when compared with any other portion of the community. As merchants, traders, and manufacturers, Catholic Irishmen, who commenced without any capital, other than a moderate share of education, natural intelligence and good conduct, are steadily yet rapidly rising to wealth and social position; and instances without number might be recorded of men who could scarcely write their names when they landed on the wharf of Montreal, who, thanks to their native energy and resolute good conduct, are this day rich and independent.

The Savings' Bank is the strong-box of the prudent man of moderate means and humble position; there he places his little surplus capital, generally after having built for himself a house or 'store,' as a shop is termed in America. The position and character of the Irish working classes in Montreal may be fairly estimated from the fact, that of $1,000,000 deposited in the Savings' Bank of that city, four-fifths, or $800,000, belong exclusively to them. A large portion of the stock of the Ontario Bank also stands in their name. Then they possess considerable house property, two-thirds of which is insured. Griffintown, the principal Irish quarter, is almost entirely owned by the working classes; and here, as in Quebec, not a single house of ill-fame is to be found in the entire district. In Griffintown, poverty and wretchedness, miserably clad children and slatternly women are occasionally to be seen; but they are comparatively rare; and in almost every case the drunkenness of the father, or the tippling of the mother, is the sole cause of the wretchedness and degradation which, happily exceptional, form a dark contrast to the prevailing sobriety, thrift, and good conduct distinguishing the Catholic Irish of Montreal.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

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