Irish Progress and Success in Quebec

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER V (2) start of chapter

It is pleasant to know that not only are the Irish in Quebec, and indeed along the St. Lawrence, among the most industrious and energetic portion of the population, but that they are thrifty and saving, and have acquired considerable property. Thus along the harbour, from the Champlain Market westward to the limits of the city, an extent of two miles, the property, including wharves, warehouses, and dwelling-houses, belongs principally to the Irish, who form the bulk of the population in that quarter. And by Irish I here mean Catholic Irish. There are many Irishmen of other persuasions, eminent in trade and commerce, men of the highest standing and repute; but not only are there many Catholic Irishmen, who came out to Canada with little more than their skill as mechanics, or their capability as labourers, now in positive affluence, but the larger proportion of those who live by their daily toil have acquired and possess property of more or less value. This property usually consists of the plot of land on which they have erected a house for their own occupation, and another to let to tenants. As the fortunes of the family increased, so did the house, until at length a decent dwelling, of at least two storeys, was secured; then the house for the tenant was constructed. It is ascertained that the Catholic Irish—the Irish of the working classes—have 80,000l. or $400,000, lodged in the Savings' Bank of Quebec; and that in all kinds of bank and other stock, they own something like 250,000l. or $1,225,000. Thus in the Union Bank, of 400 stockholders in Quebec, 200 are Irish. And this is but one of three local banks in that city. Besides possessing extensive house property, and having accumulated money, they are generally engaged in business, of which they enjoy a fair share. Whatever the Irish possess, they have made by their own unaided industry; for, as a respectable Irishman, who had himself worked his way to independence, said to me: 'You could scarcely trace one that brought a sovereign with him.' He added that he had brought out four himself, but that he might as well not have done so, for he lent them to a person who never took the trouble of paying them back. 'And perhaps, after all, it was so much the better for me that I lost the money, for I had to work the harder.'

Among those who came out 'poor,' as working mechanics, is an Irishman who is now in the enjoyment of an income of 10,000l. a year, made by successful contracts, natural ability, and good conduct. This case may be regarded as a somewhat remarkable one in Canada, if the magnitude of the result be regarded; but there are many instances in which sums of 20,000l., 30,000l., and 50,000l. have been realised by the industry and perseverance of Irishmen who came to the British Provinces 'without a shilling.' The secret of the success or failure of Irishmen may be summed up in a sentence, spoken by a countryman of theirs in Quebec; words which I have heard expressed hundreds of times in all parts of America, and which could not be too often repeated: 'Where the Irish are steady and sober, they are sure to get on; where they are drunken, reckless, or improvident, why, of course they fail.'

In Quebec, as in too many places in America, there are instances of drunken, reckless, and improvident Irishmen; but, happily, these cases are exceptional, for, as a rule, the Irish of that city are sober, prudent, and thrifty. And one fact, the exact parallel to which may be told of the Irish in Montreal, is in the highest degree creditable to the moral tone which they maintain,—that there is not in the Irish portion of the town a single house of bad repute, although as many as 10,000 sailors are frequently at one time in the port, and although the Irish keep lodging-houses, and places of entertainment, which are frequented by a class whose influence is not always the most favourable to public or private morals.

The Irish Catholics in Quebec, who number about 12,000, possess Church property of their own creation to the amount of 40,000l.; and the manner in which they respond to appeals made to their charitable feelings was strongly impressed on my mind from hearing the Pastor of St. Patrick's announce from the pulpit that the bazaar just held in aid of an hospital for old and infirm people had realised the net sum of 800l. To this handsome amount the wealthier classes had contributed a fair proportion; but the larger amount came from the pockets of the working people. Indeed, to employ the language of a gentleman long connected with Quebec, 'they form an exhaustless resource in every charitable or religious undertaking.'

I was afforded a favourable opportunity of seeing at one time a large body of the working class of Irish, that is Irish-born, or born of Irish parents. The occasion was a funeral of a young man who had fallen victim to a daring feat, which resulted in his death. The nature of the death created a lively sympathy among his class, who might be described as 'ship-labourers,' engaged in various departments of the great lumber industry of the port. The procession occupied a considerable time in passing the place at which I stood, and the papers of the following morning estimated the number who 'walked' at 1,200. There was not of that large body of working men a single one badly or shabbily dressed; all were well and comfortably clad, while many were attired with a neatness and even elegance that could not be seen in the same class at home. They seemed to me to bear themselves with an air of manly independence, as free citizens of a free country, in which the laws make no distinction between man and man. And taking into consideration the dangers and hardships to which most of those engaged in the principal work of the river and harbour are necessarily exposed, and the temptations to which the very nature of their employment gives rise, these men are, as a body, temperate and well-conducted; the contrary being the exception.

The Irish Catholic who must depend upon himself for 'getting along' has more difficulties to contend with than the Irish Protestant, or the Englishman or Scotchman. The majority of the population are French; and not only does the Irishman speak a different language to that of the majority of the population, but he absorbs a large and valuable portion of the employment, and pushes his way into active rivalry with the more wealthy class in various branches of business. Then he has a certain amount of national jealousy or sectarian feeling to encounter amongst the English-speaking section of the community. So that when he does rise above the mass, and acquire wealth and position, it is at least certain that his struggle has been hard, and that his success has been well earned. But whenever an Irish Catholic in Quebec or Montreal told me of his hard up-hill fight, he was sure to add—'The laws are good and just, and we enjoy everything we have a right to hope for. We have nothing to complain of here; and all we wish is that you were as well off at home.' To which sentiment, I need hardly say, I invariably responded with a cordial 'Amen!'

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