Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 29, No.4

October 21, 2004


Irish immigrants helped each other, and flourished, say geographers

Barbara Black

Geography professor Patricia Thornton and a colleague from McGill, Sherry Olson, have been studying the 19th-century Irish immigrants of Montreal.

What they have found contradicts the unlettered or even debased stereotype that was current for much of the 20th century. They presented their findings last July under the aegis of the Centre for Canadian Irish Studies.

The rise of Irish Catholic leaders here sets Montreal, and Canada, apart from U.S. cities with large Irish communities, Thornton said in an e-mail interview.

Sir William Hingston was one example, but another was Bartholomew O’Brien, a broker of silver who immigrated from Clonmel, in County Kilkenny, around 1815.

“He played a crucial role in extending credit at critical moments to small entrepreneurs in the Irish community,” Thornton said.
“We are lucky that the threads of information about his role as financial pledge for his compatriots on contracts and loans have been conserved. They provide evidence of a recirculation of resources within the Irish community network, and point to the critical importance of access to credit in the success of the community.”
With his wife Eliza McDugald, O’Brien kept an inn on Hospital St., two blocks from the waterfront. Every year, they received many Irish immigrants heading upstream and Irish raftsmen bringing down timber to markets at Montreal and Quebec City.

“They were generous in the small emergencies, and the O’Briens were not the only ones,” Thornton said. “The dining-rooms and barrooms were vital spaces in the exchange of ideas and maintenance of solidarities — Irish Catholic, all-Catholic, and all-Irish.”

Nineteenth-century Irish emigrants encountered very different conditions in different parts of the world. Recent research suggests that they were integrated into their host communities in different ways.

“In the 1840s, when Irish Catholics were arriving in large numbers, half of all Irish immigrant men were handling crowbar and pickaxe, but they rapidly found ways to drive a wedge into a social structure divided along linguistic and religious lines, and to raise the economic status of their community.

“The high quality of records in Montreal allows us to trace the destinies of these families, and to weigh some of the factors which contributed to their upward mobility. Their infants thrived, and second and third generations achieved substantial improvement in housing and residential integration. From the 1820s to the end of the century, they were exercising an active and articulate political voice.
“These findings for Montreal contradict earlier assumptions of persistent poverty and ghettoization among Irish Catholics in North American cities.”

All this information was mined by the geographers from small surname samples of the kind used for family history and genealogy.
It was true that Montreal had among the highest infant mortality rates of any industrial city, Thornton said.

“In the three birth cohorts we tracked (born in 1859, 1879 and 1899), one in four infants died before reaching their first birthday, and there was no improvement over the second half of the 19th century.”
However, they found that about 30 per cent fewer babies of Irish Catholics died than those of French-Canadians. Analysis of birth intervals suggests that the Irish mothers were breastfeeding their infants longer.

“In 19th-century cities such as Montreal, Paris and Manchester, early weaning seems to have had decisive importance, making the child vulnerable to infections of the digestive tract, and resulting in dehydration.

“The syndrome referred to in 19th-century Catholic records as ‘infant cholera’ and even ‘teething’ corresponds to the ‘weanling diarrhea’ observed today in tropical cities in the developing world. Most of these deaths in Montreal occurred in the long, hot summer.”