Number and Position of the Irish in Montreal

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER V (5) start of chapter

While it is true that the Irish Catholic feels himself more at home in Lower Canada than in the other Provinces, Upper Canada especially, it must not be supposed that he has not had many and serious difficulties to contend against. Whatever may now be the feelings of the French Canadians towards the Irish, they were strongly hostile to them at one period; for in the rebellion of 1837, the Irish, influenced in a great measure by two eminent priests of their own country—Father M'Mahon, of Quebec, a man of surpassing power as an orator, and in every respect one of the most remarkable men of his time; and Father Phelan, afterwards Bishop of Kingston—generally sided with the British Power, and against the insurgents of that day. This was one and a very natural cause of prejudice against them. Difference of language must at all times, even under the most favourable circumstances, create a barrier against international fusion, or thorough sympathy between races: added to which, the humbler class of the new-comers soon began to occupy situations and even monopolise branches of industry previously occupied and monopolised by the French Canadians. Then, as may be supposed, the Catholic Irish were not much befriended by the English-speaking portion of the population; so that here, as in most other places, the Irish emigrant had to fight his way up under circumstances sufficient to daunt any other people, but which difficulties seem to have had the effect of bracing their energies and ensuring their success. It is nearly a quarter of a century since Francis Hincks, now Governor of the Bermudas, and Louis Drummond, now an eminent and highly respected Judge of the Supreme Courts of Lower Canada—the one a Unitarian, the other a Catholic, and both Irishmen—infused life and spirit into the Catholic Irish of Montreal, and gave them a sense of pride and consciousness of strength, which they much required. Now they form a large and important section of the population of the finest and most prosperous city of British North America, and they are thoroughly conscious of their strength and legitimate influence.

I had the pleasure, on several occasions in Montreal, of meeting the very élite of my countrymen of all denominations; and I found among those who, when they commenced, had to rely altogether on their own exertions, more of the American spirit than in almost any other city in the colonies. There is greater manufacturing enterprise in Montreal than elsewhere in British America; there are therefore larger sources of employment throughout the year for the working classes, to many of whom, indeed to most of whom, the winter is a season of trial and privation.

Among those whom I met was an enterprising manufacturer, who boasted of his being 'a Cork boy,' a pupil of the Christian Brothers, and an apprentice of the Messrs. Hegarty, the eminent tanners of his native city. He was doing a thriving business, his orders being over $100,000 in advance of his means of supply. He had left the States some dozen years before, being anxious to afford his young family the advantages of a sound Catholic education, which at that time was not of such easy attainment in the city where he then resided as it has since become. Prosperous himself, he was enthusiastic in his description of everything in Montreal, particularly the position occupied by his co-religionists. 'We Irish Catholics,' he said, 'are in a strong position in this city. There is no city in the States in which we occupy a more favourable position than we do here. We feel ourselves at home here; we are not foreigners, as we are sometimes considered elsewhere. The laws are good, and we have all that we can fairly desire, and we can educate our children in the best manner, and just as we please. In fact, we could not be better off. This is the place for an honest and industrious man, but not for the idler or the drunkard. There is no fear, in this country, of a sober man, who is willing to work; but he must be sober and industrious.'

My worthy friend was himself a rigid teetotaller—to which fact he attributed most of his prosperity.

It is foreign to the purpose of this book to describe the public institutions and buildings of any place; but I cannot refrain from expressing my admiration of Montreal, which is in every respect worthy of its high reputation. It has an air at once elegant and solid, many of its streets being spacious and alive with traffic and bustle, its places of business substantial and handsome; its public buildings really imposing, and its churches generally splendid, and not a few of them positively superb. This description of the churches of Montreal is not limited to the Jesuits' Church, the stately Paroisse, and the grand church of St. Patrick, of which the Irish are deservedly proud; it applies with equal propriety to the Episcopalian Cathedral, and more than one church belonging to the Dissenting bodies. Montreal is rich in all kinds of charitable, educational, and religious institutions; and such is the influence and power of the Catholic element, that this beautiful city, which is every day advancing in prosperity and population, is naturally regarded by the Catholic Irishman as a home. The humble man sees his coreligionists advancing in every walk of life, filling positions of distinction—honoured and respected; and, instead of mere toleration for his faith, he witnesses, in the magnificent procession of Corpus Christi, which annually pours its solemn splendour through the streets, a spectacle consoling alike to his religious feeling and his personal pride.

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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