Home / Accueil

Irish Heritage in Canada

Published: March 2011

St. Patrick's Day: a day of celebration in many cities across Canada.  Either you will be marching in a parade or you will be leaving work early so you can have a drink of green beer at your local Irish Pub.  But have you ever wondered how the Irish got to be so influential in Canada?

Across the country, there are many houses, commercial buildings, churches, canals and bridges that were built by the Irish.  If you were to take a trip from east to west, you would find that the historic places associated with the Irish change in conjunction with their standing in society.

In St. John's, Newfoundland, for example, many immigrants from Ireland arrived in this city in the early 19th century and developed a thriving culture.  As with many new immigrant communities, they kept up active ties with their homeland, in this case travelling by ship back and forth across the Atlantic.  But the Irish also brought the problems of their homeland with them, and so various religious sectarian factions routinely fought against each other in the downtown streets of St. John's.  One such group were called the Yellow Bellies, because they wore yellow sashes.  There is a heritage commercial building named after them called Yellow Belly Corner, which was built in 1846, and is the cornerstone of the Water Street National  Historic District.

There is another building nearby that represents the less raucous side of the Irish.  Called the Benevolent Irish Society (BIS), the organization's headquarters were built in St. John's in the late 1870s.  Though this building is a marvellous and rare example of Second Empire style architecture in Newfoundland, it also represents the efforts of a non-sectarian and charitable group that was devoted to providing any kind of assistance to all Irish immigrants as well as monetary assistance to the local Roman Catholic schools.  Today, the building is part of the St. John's Ecclesiastical Dictrict.

Move west, as the Irish did, and we encounter two interesting houses that represent their forms of settlement.  On Prince Edward Island there is a beautiful house built by John P. Sullivan in the 1870s, a second-generation Irishman who was a wealthy merchant, a provincial politician, and brother to the premier and later chief justice of the island.  The Henry Hatheway House / Maison Henry Hathewaycurrent owners have turned the place into an Inn, calling it "Tír na nÓg", which is a hopeful  Irish Gaelic phrase meaning "land of eternal youth", considered an enchanted place in Celtic mythology where trees are always in bloom, food and drink is always plentiful, and people never age.  First and second generation Irish immigrants would have to go on this hope as they weren't always so lucky as Sullivan.  An example of more humble working class housing is the tiny Gothic Revival cottage known as the Henry Hatheway house, which was built on Orange Street in St. John, New Brunswick sometime during the 1830s and 1840s.

St Patrick's Basilica, Montreal / Basilique Saint Patrick, MontréalBy the mid 19th century, large numbers of Irish had reached Montreal and Toronto.  In Montreal, they settled in a neighbourhood known as Griffintown near the dockyards on the St. Lawrence River, and their labour was greatly responsible for the construction of the Lachine Canal during the 1820s (now a national historic site) and the construction of Victoria Tubular Bridge during the 1850s. At the heart of Montreal's Irish cultural and religious life was the church St. Patrick's Basilica, and, among other things, it is where Thomas D'Arcy Mcgee's funeral was held.

In Toronto, the Irish immigrants settled in the Kensington Market area, constructing the dense residential dwellings that have been responsible for housing numerous waves of immigrants and for contributing to the spontaneous and creative cultural landscape of this neighbourhood.

By the time the Irish reached western Canada, their fortunes began to improve, and there are two second-generation figures who not only became millionaires, butBawlf Block, c. 1900, University of Manitoba Archives / Édifice Bawlf, c. 1900, Archives de l'Université de Monitoba also contributed to the growth of the West through their business interests.  Consequently, in Winnipeg, there was Nicholas Bawlf.   Though he came from humble Ontario roots, his motto was "Be sure you are right, then go ahead":  following this advice he became a successful grain merchant in 1880s Winnipeg.  In the late 1880s, he was one of eleven leading grain merchants who created the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange, and he served as president of this organization twice during the 1890s.  The Exchange District became one Canada's most vibrant business districts before the First World War, and has some of this country's most colourful examples of commercial architecture, including the stunning Bawlf Block, designed by architects Barber and Barber.

Calgary and Vancouver, meanwhile, owe some of their development to the enterprising Patrick Burns.  Also born of humble origins from small-town Ontario, this second-generation Irishmen with little formal schooling moved west to seek his Burns Building, c. 1963, Calgary Public Library / Édifice Burns, c. 1963, Bibliothèque publique de Calgaryfortune, and found it in the cattle business during the 1870s and 1880s near Winnipeg.   In 1890, he moved to Calgary, and there started up a meatpacking company (first P. Burns and Co., later Burns Foods) that would become western Canada's largest.  By the early 1900s Burns was a diversified millionaire: he built a large manor house in Calgary, helped found the Calgary Stampede, supplied meat to workers on the Grand Trunk Railway, and donated philanthrophic funds to various charitable, religious, and educational causes.  One of the expressions of his enterprise is the pioneering Chicago-style commercial block known as the Burns Building which was built in 1912 in downtown Calgary, and is now adjacent to Stephen Avenue National Historic Site.

It is worth noting that while Burns did have offices in Vancouver, the Vancouver Block, City of Vancouver Archives / Archives de la ville de Vancouverbusiness was run there by his brother Dominic.  In order to express the vibrant hopeful nature of the Edwardian era in Vancouver, Dominic Burns commissioned the construction of the fifteen storey Vancouver Block, a landmark building topped with a clock tower and finished in ornamental terra cotta.  Designed by the architectural team John Parr and Thomas A. Fee, for most of the 20th century the Vancouver Block was one of the more enduring and recognizable of downtown Vancouver's structures.

Perhaps this is a good place to end our tour.  Among other things, St. Patrick's Day is all about good cheer and optimism. The historic places in this country associated with the Irish reflect this feeling, showing the community's climb from immigrant hardship and humble beginnings to successful business entrepreneurs and leaders.

Additional Electronic References:

1. Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador: http://www.heritagefoundation.ca/home.aspx

2. The Irish in Newfoundland: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/irish_newfoundland.html

3. St. John Orange Street Heritage Conservation Area:

4. St. John Irish: http://new-brunswick.net/Saint_John/irish/irish.html

5. Spacing Atlantic: http://spacingatlantic.ca/2011/01/03/uptown-nostalgia-in-saint-john/

6. Heritage Montreal: http://memorablemontreal.com/accessibleQA/en/index.php

7. Mccord Museum, Being Irish O'Quebec - Irlandais O'Quebec : http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/expositions/expositionsXSL.php?lang=1&expoId=55&page=intro

8.  Being Irish O'Quebec - Irlandais O'Quebec (Flickr): http://www.flickr.com/photos/museemccordmuseum/sets/72157614159373578/

9. St. Anne's Ward, or the Transformation of an Irish Montreal Neighbourhood, 1792-1970: http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/scripts/explore.php?Lang=1&tableid=11&tablename=theme&elementid=113__true

10. Virtual Heritage Winnipeg: http://www.virtual.heritagewinnipeg.com/vr.htm

11. Virtual Heritage Winnipeg Vignettes: http://www.virtual.heritagewinnipeg.com/vignettes/vignettes.htm

12. A Virtual Tour of Historic Calgary: http://calgarypubliclibrary.com/library/historic_tours/tours.htm

13. Vancouver Heritage Foundation: http://www.vancouverheritagefoundation.org/

14. Heritage Vancouver Society: http://heritagevancouver.org/

15. City of Vancouver Archives: http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/archives/index.htm