Quebec-Irish history inspires graduate students
A number of MA and PhD students have chosen Irish topics for their theses, even though Concordia does not yet offer any graduate seminars in Irish history.
D'Arcy Ryan, a first-year PhD student whose thesis is on the impact of the
famine in Ireland, delivered a paper at a recent conference in Ireland called,
"Irish Secret Societies in Mid-19th-Century Rural Quebec."
The conference, titled The Scattering, was held at the University College Cork.
"The scattering" refers to the emigration of Irish people around the world,
particularly during the famine of 1847-48.
Ryan's paper was based on a murder committed in St. Sylvestre, Quebec, in 1856.
"The existence of Orange societies in Quebec was well known at the time," he
wrote. (The Orange Lodge commemorated the decisive victory in 1690 of the Protestant English king William III [William of Orange] over the Catholic James II. The movement started in 1795, with lodges throughout Ireland, and later Great Britain and its dominions, including Canada.)
Ryan compares the Orange Lodge to the Masonic Order. Both organizations were community-minded service clubs, but they also had their secret side.
When an Irish Protestant was murdered by a mob of Catholics in St. Sylvestre, it became known that there were also Ribbon societies in rural Quebec. ("Ribbonism" was a movement that began in opposition to the Orange Lodge. It was also organized in lodges, and recruited all over Ireland; membership was declared illegal in 1871.)
"The police and military were unable to track the killers," Ryan wrote.
"However, after hiding for several months in the countryside, the killers
eventually gave themselves up."
The seven men were put on trial in Quebec in 1857. All seven were acquitted.
What piqued Ryan's interest was how this acquittal of Irish Catholics
represented a complete reversal of what was happening in Ireland at the time.
"In Ireland, where society was run by the Protestant Irish ascendancy, Catholics couldn't get a fair trial. The juries were made up of Protestants," he
explained. Yet here in Quebec, it was the opposite. "That made the situation
very interesting," he said.
Ryan is a fourth generation Canadian of Irish ancestry. A former CEGEP
administrator, he became interested in Irish history while tracing the history
of his own family. When he retired, he decided to go back to school, completing a second BA and then his Master's degree in history at Bishop's University.
Colin McMahon, an MA student who will be giving a paper this month in the U.S. on Irish topics, is writing his thesis on the commemorations at Grosse Ile. About 30 miles downstream from Quebec City, Grosse Ile served as a federal government immigration and quarantine station from 1832 to 1937.
In 1847, the Irish famine brought thousands to the island. However, a typhus
epidemic and inhuman conditions crossing the sea resulted in the deaths of
thousands at sea and thousands more at Grosse ile. McMahon is comparing the 1909 and 1997 commemorations of this tragedy. "A commemoration is a form of popular history," he explained. "It brings history outside of academia and into the public domain." He is particularly curious about how the present influences our view of the past.
In 1897, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal Catholic Irish
organization that was active in the U.S., organized a pilgrimage to Grosse le
to mourn the 50th anniversary of the Irish famine. Their shock at the neglected condition of the grave site led to the building of a huge Celtic cross.
Some 8,000 people attended the unveiling of the cross in 1909, including
Canadian government dignitaries and many prominent members of the Catholic hierarchy.
"It was a bizarre conglomeration, representing many different interests,"
McMahon said. For some, it was an opportunity to speak out against oppression at home, blaming English misrule for the famine, the forced emigration and deaths of the Irish. For others, it was a chance to make a place for themselves in Canadian society.
Debate preceding the 1997 commemoration was also characterized by a wide range of political and personal interests.
Offense at celebration
Controversy first erupted in 1992 when the Canadian government proposed that Grosse Ile be celebrated as a historic immigration site, under the broader theme of European immigration.
Many Irish-Canadians took offense at making it a celebration because of the
thousands of their countrymen buried on the island and its tragic significance
in their history.
"They felt the real entrance-point into the country had been Quebec City, and
saw Grosse Ile as a quarantine site and a graveyard," explained McMahon.
Public hearings ensued, bringing out a wide variety of sentiments and historical perspectives. Some expressed strong emotional attachment to their homeland, others gave a very Irish-nationalist interpretation of the famine, while yet others argued that the crucial period of Irish emigration to Canada actually preceded the famine.
In 1996, Sheila Copps officially recognized their concerns by announcing that
Grosse Ile would be renamed "Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial." This was
highlighted by the commemorative activities held on the island last summer.
Irish studies: $1.3 million down, $1 million to go
Dark, frothy Guinness flowed freely on February 18, as professors, students and members of the community met at Hurley's Pub on Crescent St. to celebrate.
The Canadian Irish Studies Foundation has passed the halfway mark in its
fundraising drive to set up an Irish studies program at Concordia. About $1.3
million in corporate and individual donations has been deposited in an endowment fund.
English Professor Michael Kenneally, the foundationās executive director, is
happy with this progress.
Concordia now offers several courses in Irish history, literature, geography,
film and economics. The Canadian Irish Studies Foundation is working to
establish an Irish Studies program at Concordia within the next few years.
Two new Irish history courses will be offered this summer, The Irish in Quebec and Conquest, and Colonization in Ireland: 1170-1690. In January 1999, several more courses will be added, including Transitions in Irish Art and Culture and an advanced seminar in Womenās Studies.
By the summer of 1999, a course on The Influence of the Irish on the Material
Culture of Canada will examine ways in which the Irish have shaped the language and popular culture of Atlantic Canada.
As many as four more summer courses in Irish film, history, theatre and
geography may be offered in 1999. A course called Field Studies in Irish
Geography will be conducted over a three-week period, with students visiting
Belfast, Dublin and Galway.
The new courses have been made possible by the endowment fund, as well as
sponsorship from the St. Patric's Society.
Since 1991, more than 1,100 students have taken courses in Irish literature,
history, geography, film and economics. As well, Concordia's Irish Lecture
Series has brought 40 scholars and cultural figures to speak to audiences drawn from the University and the wider community.
An Irish studies program at Concordia would have a double focus, Kenneally said, looking at the history and culture of Ireland itself, and of the Irish in
Canada, including Quebec.
Professor Ron Rudin, who is D'Arcy Ryan's and Colin McMahon's supervisor, has been teaching an undergraduate Irish history course since 1991.
"Every year, we fill the 45-student limit for the course and have to turn
students away," Rudin said. "The majority of students who come to these classes do not have any Irish roots. They just find Ireland exotic, and they're
interested in learning about something new and different."
Last summer, a course on the mid-19th-century Irish famine taught by a guest
professor attracted 75 students.
Facts about Irish-Canadians:
Up to four million Canadians are believed to be of Irish background.
As many as 40 per cent of French-speaking Quebecers can trace some Irish
At Confederation in 1867, the Irish were the second-largest ethnic group
after the French.
Six of Montreal's mayors were Irish.
The father of Quebec's national poet, Emile Nelligan, came from Ireland.
Many of Quebec's current politicians have Irish roots, including Paul
Martin, Jean Charest, Daniel Johnson, Claude Ryan and Brian Mulroney.
D'Arcy McGee, poet, Father of Confederation, federal MP and native
Irishman, was assassinated in Ottawa by an Irish patriot who felt he was too
favourable to the British.