A Narrow Sea - Episode 53
‘A second Belfast of the whole province’: Canada
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
The United States of America was always the preferred destination for emigrants from all parts of Ireland. Canada was also a popular choice, particularly for northern Protestants.
During the war between Britain and the USA in 1812, Irish Orangemen had been mobbed and murdered in the streets of Baltimore. Incidents of this kind may have encouraged Ulster Protestants to think that they might get a warmer welcome in British North America.
During Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for repeal of the Union, a County Cavan farmer wrote to a relative who had gone to Canada:
The polaticks have taken a queer turn. I think popery will rule with a rod of iron ere long; you had a fine escape out of it.
Another observed that Canada was a place where Ulster Protestants could live safely under the ‘fostering shade’ of Britain’s ‘Incomparable Constitution which their forefathers defended with their blood in the days of William of Glorious memory’.
To attract European settlers, the Canadian government offered what the United States never did – free land. From 1819 it made grants of fifty-acre plots in Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario).
During the first forty years of the nineteenth century twice as many people left Ulster for North America as had emigrated there during the whole of the previous century.
A majority of these were Protestants, almost as many Church of Ireland members as Presbyterians. By the early 1840s Irish-born settlers and their offspring in Ontario, numbered around 134,000, over a quarter of the population of the province. Two-thirds of them were Protestants, largely from Ulster.
Settlers had to learn to adapt to the extreme continental climate: long, freezing winters and great swarms of biting insects during the hot summers.
Then, as potato blight struck in the 1840s, unprecedented numbers of Irish flooded across the Atlantic. Sixty per cent made landfall in Canada because timber vessels returning from the United Kingdom offered the cheapest fares.
Over 30 per cent of those bound for North America perished in these ‘coffin ships’ or shortly after landing. Most of those who survived the journey travelled south to find work in Boston and New York. Many were to stay, however, to farm and to find work on the waterways and railroads.
The arrival of great numbers of Catholics could unsettle community relations. Tensions were greatest in Toronto where some Protestants, known as ‘blazers’, tried to ‘line off’ or corral Catholics into their own districts. These attempts at segregation failed completely.
The Orange Order in Canada was largely established by southern Protestants. The first lodges were formed in Halifax in 1799 and in Montreal in 1800.
Ogle Gowan, the son of a County Wexford landlord, did most to build up the Order, particularly along the St Lawrence and the northern shores of Lake Ontario. By 1834 there were 154 lodges with 14,000 members.
The first Twelfth parade was recorded as early as 1818 and by 1870 no fewer than 930 lodges operated in Ontario. Many who joined had no Irish connections whatsoever.
In parts of rural Ulster population density had been as high as 400 per square mile. In the Ontario countryside it was only around twenty per square mile. Lodges in Canada therefore formed an important function of bringing people together for convivial occasions.
Loyal Orange Lodge 215 Leslieville, Ontario, spent almost all of its 1839 budget of £3 16s on refreshments including a quart of spirit, four and a half gallons of whiskey and a great deal of brown sugar. In 1858 the Grand Master of Quebec was disturbed by reports that:
Some of the lodges spend the funds, which should be transmitted to this Grand Lodge, in drinking and carousing at their Lodge Meetings, which, if true, is deeply to be regretted, as it will justify the assertion of our enemies, who denounce us as drunken and blood thirsty.
Lodges also assisted immigrants from Ulster to find work. Some Toronto department stores and factory owners virtually guaranteed employment to loyal Protestants born in Ballymena. One Catholic Irishman complained that the Orange Order in Ontario was encouraging ‘brethren’ from Ulster ‘to go there and make a second Belfast of the whole province’.
Membership of Canada’s Orange Order fell away rapidly in the twentieth century but by then Canada had become an ever more popular destination for Ulster emigrants.