By David Bradley Halls  

In the Firsthand documentary Once An Immigrant, actor Peter Keleghan describes himself as a fervently patriotic Canadian. As the son of a Polish father and an Irish mother, he's proud of the country he calls “a land of immigrants.” 

But for Peter's 90-year-old mother, Rita, Ireland has never lost its hold on her heart. Hoping explore this part of his ancestry, Peter embarks on a trip to Ireland with Rita and his sister, Tecky. 

FROM THE FILM: Rita visits the school she attended 80 years ago in Ireland.

Rita arrived in Canada in the 1950s, when half a million Irish citizens (about 16 per cent of the population) left to seek work abroad.

This was just one of many waves of Irish immigration to Canada. Over the last several hundred years, large groups of Irish citizens have moved to Canada as economic migrants (an ecomonic migrant is a person who moves to a new country in order to improve their standard of living).  

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Even before Canada was Canada — since the 17th century — settlers of Irish origin maintained a unique position between the English and French: while Ireland and England shared a common language, Irish and French settlers shared a religion (and an ancient dislike for the English).

The largest wave of Irish newcomers occurred during the Great Irish Famine (1845–1850). British North America (as Canada was called then) received more than half a million Irish refugees, creating a significant demographic shift: by the 1870s, Irish immigrants were the largest ethnic group in every town and city in Canada, except Montreal and Quebec. In the 21st century, census numbers report that nearly 15 per cent of Canadians identify Irish ancestry. 

Political Leadership (and Compromise)

Ireland’s position in relation to England, France and Scotland proved advantageous to political leaders here as the independent nation of Canada was being formed. Nowhere is this embodied more dramatically than in Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of the Fathers of Confederation.

Thomas D'Arcy McGeeOne of Canada's founding fathers, Thomas D'Arcy McGee Photo: Wikimedia/Public Domain

As a young man in Dublin, amid the Great Famine’s devastation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee fought for Irish independence from English rule. He took part in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. When that revolt was quashed, he escaped arrest by fleeing to North America. Landing in Boston before settling in Montreal, McGee’s political beliefs moderated with age: he went from militant republican to what’s been described as “Canada’s first nationalist.” As a delegate at the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences, McGee advocated for cooperation between Irish Catholic and English and Scottish Protestant politicians. He clinched an unlikely compromise between combatants George-Etienne Cartier and John A. MacDonald, clearing a path for the creation of Canada and its growth into the country we live in today. 

Since Confederation (and McGee’s death, by an assassin’s bullet), Irish-Canadians have continued to shape the political landscape. First-generation Irish-Canadian Nelly McClung joined four other fearless activists to form “The Famous Five,” winning a landmark court case to secure the right for women to enter politics.

We’ve also had four Irish-Canadian Prime Ministers. Most memorably, we had Brian Mulroney — who, at the so-called “Shamrock Summit” in March of 1985, sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smilin’” with then-U.S. President (and Irish-American) Ronald Reagan.

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Irish Immigrants built this country — some parts of it, quite literally.

front close up of Montreal's St. Patrick's BasilicaMontreal's famed St. Patrick's Basilica Photo: iStock

The 19th-century ushered in enormous public works projects, such as the Rideau and Lachine Canals. For the most part, these canals were dug by thousands of Irish-Catholic famine refugees. Working conditions were horrendous, leading to the deaths of more than 1,000 labourers due to accidents, violent labour unrest and malaria and other diseases.

Irish-Catholic workers also constructed some of Canada's most magnificent buildings, like Montreal’s spectacular St. Patrick’s Basilica, created to serve their own growing population in that city.

As business leaders, Irish-Canadians have been at the head of some of Canada’s most successful corporations.

Timothy Eaton grew his retail empire from one dry goods shop on Toronto’s Yonge Street. He expanded his territory by adopting then-unhead-of practices like consistent pricing (no haggling) and later, mail-order catalogues.

Eugene O’Keefe, meanwhile, dominated the beer-brewing market through innovations like refrigerated storehouses and automobile delivery. And Patrick Burns, pioneer of Western Canada’s beef industry, made good from humble roots and was an important early backer of The Calgary Stampede.

Sporting Greatness

Irish-Canadians can claim great pride in the feats of their country-men and women: two-time winner of the Boston Marathon (1920 and ‘21) Jack Caffery; five-time NHL All-Star Owen Nolan; and Women’s Baseball Hall of Famers (and sisters) Marge and Helen Callaghan have all competed and won for Canada.

Some historians suggest that the origins of ice hockey can be traced back to the Irish game of "hurley" (though this is hotly contested by other hockey-loving nations).

Toe-Tapping (and Foot Stompin’) Music

Arriving from across the Atlantic, it’s no wonder so many Irish immigrants settled in maritime provinces. Newfoundland is known as “The Other Ireland;” it boasts more Irish people than anywhere else in the world, outside of Ireland. The cultural influence there is most deeply felt in celtic-inspired music.

From traditional fiddlers and Bodrahn players who preserve their musical heritage, to bands like Great Big Sea, Leahy and The Irish Descendants, Irish-Canadian artists today often choose to both honour the past and forge ahead into the future, sometimes within the same song.

Lots of Laughter

It’s been said that comedy = tragedy + time. The Irish uphold this theory, and not just with their headlining acts like Dave Allen, Jimmy Carr, Sharon Horgan et al. Sometimes it seems that almost everyone is funny: a neighbor over the lane, the man in the pub or the ma-in-law. Irish people are famously quick with a joke, a yarn, delivered with dry, arid amusement.

Mary Walsh as Marg, Princess WarriorMary Walsh as Marg, Princess Warrior. Photo: CBC

Here in Canada, we’re spoiled for funny people, with many who boast an Irish ancestry. See Mary Walsh and the groundbreaking CODCO. Look over at SCTV: Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty and Martin Short (whose father fought in the Irish War of Independence before reaching Canada as a stowaway — true story!).  

It was not always easy to be Irish in Canada, of course. Ask the next Irish granny you meet about Irish-Catholic discrimination when she was young and you'll get an earful. But in this century, on the shoulders of a rich legacy of nation-builders, it's hard to imagine a Canada without the waves of Irish migrants who helped pave the way.

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