Famine Irish in Toronto
By: Eric Andrew-Gee Staff Reporter, Published on Sat Mar 14 2015
In the 19th century, Toronto was overwhelmingly British and Protestant, a bastion of WASP burghers for whom Queen and Empire were watchwords and ethnic uniformity was a given.
And then there were the Irish.
Catholics from the Emerald Isle were the city’s original immigrant underclass, and faced frank, bitter discrimination for decades. Sectarian tension once ran so high that Toronto came to be known as “the Belfast of Canada.”
Yet by the time of the First World War, the Irish had largely blended in to the city’s mainstream.
In a Toronto where marginalization of ethnic minorities remains a live issue, the integration of its Irish population in the 19th century may provide lessons, and some hope, for healing the city’s divides.
Interviews with historians, contemporary newspaper accounts, and the academic literature on the period paint a dire portrait of Victorian Toronto’s intolerance and inequality.
While the city had long been home to a smattering of Irish immigrants, the summer of 1847 saw a deluge: 38,000 between June and October, driven across the Atlantic by a potato blight that was starving the country.
The city was “absolutely overwhelmed,” said Mark McGowan, a professor of Irish Canadian history at the University of Toronto.
Just about 2,000 of those “faminities” wound up staying in the city — the rest spread across southern Ontario and farther afield — but in a city of about 30,000, the Irish influx was huge. By 1851, a quarter of the city’s population was Irish Catholic.
The virulent anti-Catholicism of many Protestant Torontonians compounded the difficulties of accommodating so many newcomers. Long a feature of British nationalism, hostility toward Roman Catholics was accentuated in the 1850s and 1860s by Irish republicanism and Fenian unrest in the British Isles and North America.
Colin McConnell/Toronto Star
Some malnourished Irish died of typhus and other diseases on the way to Toronto. Those who survived often found themselves unwelcome and discriminated against, despised for their poverty but refused when they sought jobs.
In Toronto, the anti-Catholic mood was deepened by lingering resentment over the grafting together of Anglo-Protestant Upper Canada and French Catholic Lower Canada in 1840.
George Brown, a leading Grit politician and founder of the Globe newspaper, channeled this sentiment in frequent broadsides against the city’s Irish immigrants.
“Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are ignorant and vicious as they are poor,” read one particularly notorious column from the time. “They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons.”
Brown’s vitriol contained a disquieting kernel of fact: many of the Irish who came to Toronto were desperately poor, especially as the famine dragged on.
A Globe report from the early 1860s portrayed the new immigrant sections of town as filthy warrens, full of “miserable hovels which in themselves are better fitted for pig-styes and cow-pens than residences for human beings.”
The city was soon dotted with Irish Catholic enclaves. Corktown, named after Ireland’s County Cork, was one such neighbourhood. Nearby Cabbagetown held a higher concentration of Irish Protestants, sparking occasional turf skirmishes.
Writing of his Toronto childhood, Cabbagetown native and Globe and Mail columnist John McAree remembered the animosity that bristled between the rival territories.
“Though the distance from our store to Corktown was less than half a mile, we had no contact with it,” he wrote in his 1953 memoir, Cabbagetown Store, “except on such special occasions as the 12th of July, or a rehearsal for when our Orange Lodge would march into enemy territory, looking for the trouble it generally provoked.”
The Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization founded in Northern Ireland at the end of the 18th century, held inordinate political power in Victorian Toronto. Between 1845 and 1900, all but three of the city’s mayors were members of the Order.
July 12 marked the annual commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne, a crucial 1690 military victory for William of Orange over the Catholic James II, which ensured Protestant supremacy in Ireland.
It was one of Toronto’s sectarian holidays that periodically turned violent. By one count, Orangemen and Irish Catholics did battle 22 times between 1867 and 1892, often on July 12 or St. Patrick’s Day.
But occasional outbursts of communal violence may not have been as harmful as the steady day-to-day onslaught of discrimination the Irish faced. Access to government jobs in the police and fire services was often controlled by Orangemen, foreclosing the route to middle-class prosperity taken by so many Irish Catholics in Boston and New York.
Private companies were known to maintain informal anti-Irish hiring practices, too. Having a southern Irish accent would have been an impediment to landing a job on the Eaton’s shop floor, McGowan said.
Colin McConnell/Toronto Star
The statues in Ireland Park hidden away at the foot of Bathurst and Queens Quay represent the struggles of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine around 1847.
So how did the Irish emerge from a climate of poverty, hostility and violence that too often defined their lives in Toronto? A range of factors contributed, of course, some hard to replicate in modern-day Toronto, but others more readily at hand.
It surely helped that the Irish spoke English, allowing them to sidestep the language barrier that would slow the integration of later generations of newcomers.
Physical mobility was another Irish advantage. Corktown and neighbourhoods like it may have served as landing pads for the new immigrants, but they rarely stayed in one place for long.
“By the 1890s, they’re everywhere,” said McGowan, himself descended from famine refugees. “If you went to an American city, there would be these long-standing Irish enclaves. You don’t have that here.” This geographic dispersal helped bring Catholics and Protestants into closer contact, driving mutual understanding and even encouraging intermarriage. “Cupid was probably more important than denomination at a certain point,” McGowan said.
At the same time, immigrants from other parts of the world began trickling into Toronto, loosening the Irish monopoly on the fears and resentments of the WASP majority.
“From the 1880s, Toronto started getting immigrants who were even more scary from the majority perspective,” said Allan Levine, author of Toronto: Biography of a City.
“Number one, Catholic Irish immigration peters out, so there are fewer paddies with cloth caps and accents in the downtown area,” said William Jenkins, a professor of North American Irish history at York University, and himself the proud owner of a lilting Irish accent. “People basically just forget about the Irish.”
In the meantime, the community was working doggedly to improve its lot. Mutual aid societies, church parishes, sports teams, card parties, and temperance leagues created a thick support net for Catholics trying to climb the social ladder or simply to avoid destitution.
“They created their own infrastructure,” said Levine. “They looked after themselves.”
This network could be surprisingly thorough, covering expenses that even the modern welfare state neglects; the Bona Mors Society, for example, helped defray the costs of Irish Catholic funerals in Toronto.
The most important of the civil society institutions was Catholic schooling. Since the 1840s, the Upper Canada government had extended funding to separate Catholic schools, an arrangement enshrined in the British North America Act of 1867.
Meanwhile, Catholic kids could get excellent post-secondary instruction at St. Michael’s College, which only formally federated with the University of Toronto in 1910.
All that education led gradually to professional, middle-class jobs. “The generation of maids gives way to a generation of lower-level clerks, firemen, skilled tradesmen,” said Jenkins.
Eventually those clerks became barristers and bureaucrats. As McGowan pointed out, James J. Foy, a Catholic lawyer and alumnus of St. Michael’s College, became a leading Tory politician and right-hand man to premier James Whitney at the turn of the 20th century.
By the 1910s, McGowan notes, the Orange Order and the Catholic Holy Name Society were able to hold marches through Toronto without incident.
Of course, that was six decades after the first significant wave of Irish immigration to Toronto. One of the sharpest weapons against Irish marginalization was time itself.
“If you’re looking at the famine Irish, by the 1890s, you’re looking at a community that’s been here for 40 years,” McGowan said.
Through the accumulation of hard, impoverished decades, the Irish not only made themselves part of Toronto’s social fabric, they expanded the idea of what that society could be.
The Irish conception of their place in Toronto “wasn’t the imperial nationalism of WASP Canadian identity,” said Jenkins — it was more liberal, more ecumenical, less British.
“These Irish Catholics formulated their own idea of what it meant to be Canadian.”
19th c. Irish Toronto by the numbers
The number of Irish famine refugees who arrived in Toronto during the summer of 1847
Irish immigrants who died of typhus in the “fever sheds” at King and John Sts. that year
Proportion of Toronto’s population that was Irish Catholic by 1851
Times the Protestant Orange Order and the city’s Irish Catholics fought in the streets between 1867 and 1892, by one count