The Irish in the Cities of Upper Canada

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER VIII (15) start of chapter

Throughout the cities and towns of Upper Canada the Irish hold an eminent position in every profession, and in every department and branch of industry; and in the professions, as in mercantile life, the Catholics already enjoy a fair share, especially when their former poverty and religious faith are taken into account. Indeed, considering the circumstances under which so many of the Catholic Irish of the towns emigrated to Canada, not only with little means, and few friends to help them, but with all manner of prejudice arrayed against them, they have done more and succeeded better than those of any other creed or nationality. They have done more in a shorter time, and in the face of an opposition which neither the English nor Scotch nor their Protestant brethren knew anything of. There is not a town in Canada in which there are not to be witnessed instances, equally striking and honourable, of the progress of young Irishmen, who, bringing out with them a few pounds at most, but more probably a few shillings, are now extensive traders, enterprising manufacturers, and large employers. It is not necessary to particularise by individual cases; but were it right to mention places and persons, I could give a long list of the most gratifying instances of the results of unaided industry and unbefriended energy. I was much struck, when walking with a friend through a city in Western Canada, at observing the fine ranges of buildings for commercial purposes recently erected, or being then put up, by Catholic Irishmen, with whose history I was made acquainted. To industry, integrity, and sheer mother wit, they—not a few of them poor but intelligent lads, who came out to seek their fortunes—owed everything; to human favour or patronage they were not indebted to the value of a shilling. One of these Irishmen had studded the country with young traders, whom he established in various directions, and nearly all of whom were prospering. Another was then on his way to Europe to purchase his goods direct from the manufacturers, instead of buying them through Canadian houses; and his calculation was that he would save from 1,500l. to 2,000l. a year by adopting this plan. When he landed in Canada he was not master of twenty dollars in the world. This is what I saw in a single city, and that by no means the most extensive in either business or population.

There are new generations of Irishmen rising up every day in Canada, the sons of men of humble origin or modest beginning, who, having pushed their way successfully in their new home, sent their boys to college, and 'made gentlemen of them.' As lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects, these young men are bringing to the various professions the sturdy energy of the class from which they sprang, and are vindicating by their ability and their genius the intellectual prestige of their race. The well-authenticated stories told of the fathers of young men whom I saw dressed with all the elegance indicative of wealth and good position, and whose manners corresponded with their external appearance, sounded like a romance, they were so marvellous. How these Irish fathers crossed the Atlantic in a timber ship, and landed perhaps at Quebec or St. John, with scarcely enough to support them for a week; how they resolutely turned to the first work that offered, caring little for hardship or drudgery; how they never looked back, but ever onwards; how at length money seemed to grow under their touch, until they accumulated property, built mansions, possessed horses and carriages, lived in splendour, and carefully fitted their children, by education and training, for the position they were to occupy, as the gentry of the country! But in their histories we learn, that these self-made Irishmen, these successful founders of prosperous families, the creators of all this prosperity and splendour, never clouded their bright Celtic intellect, or brutalised their genial and kindly nature, with drink. Not that they totally abstained from the use of stimulants, perhaps few of them did; but they were 'sober, well-conducted men.'

'As a rule,' said a well-informed friend, 'till within the last ten or twelve years, few Irish Catholics of respectable position, or with even moderate means, immigrated to Canada. Under these circumstances it tells favourably for the country, for the government and the laws of Canada, and for the enterprise, industry, and perseverance of our people, that so many are independent, and that the vast majority enjoy all the comforts and many of the luxuries of life.'

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

ebook: The Irish in America