A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
Episodes Search Site Map The Series Partners White Pine White Pine Home


General History
Immigration History

Most of the Irish who came to Canada, like Kit Coleman, came in the 1800s. Though Kit was generally more educated and came from a more urban, moneyed family than most of the Irish who crossed the Atlantic, she, like them, left an overcrowded, overwhelmingly agricultural country behind to start a new life in Canada. The low age of marriage (Kit herself was married off at 16!) and high birth rate in Ireland was swelling up the population so much that the land could barely sustain it. By the mid-1840s, Ireland's population was accelerating towards 8 l/2 million, double the size it is today. In addition, they were so reliant on one crop, the potato, to feed them, that many people were literally held hostage to the production of a good yearly potato crop. Unfortunately, this was not something the Irish of the 1800s could count on.

The potato crop failed partially or totally 14 times between 1816 and 1842, and hunger and disease stalked the land. By 1845, a much-feared disaster struck. Called the Great Famine, it is often thought of as the most traumatic event in the history of modern Ireland. During these years, one million Irish people died. A further million emigrated in hopes of staying alive. The pain, suffering and loss caused by the Irish Potato Famine is hardly calculable, and has left an indelible scar on the Irish psyche, still evident today.1

Between 1851 and 1921, the period when Kit emigrated, over 4 l/2 million people left Ireland for North America and Australia. More than 80 per cent of these went to the United States; only 7 per cent came to Canada. 2

The Irish who crossed the Atlantic were not as poor or desperate as most people have come to believe. Like other long-distance migrants, these Irish were not typical of the country they left. Particularly in the 18th and early 19th centuries, long journeys to North America were generally made by ambitious, adaptable people who had the necessary resources to leave. Irish immigrants landing in Saint John or Quebec City often looked in terrible shape, and it was assumed that they came from the most ignorant and poverty-stricken stratum of Irish society. That assumption was generally incorrect. 3

Many Irish immigrants who crossed the Atlantic crowded onto ships designed for carrying timber; the food was often inadequate and the water frequently contaminated. In these unsanitary, overcrowded conditions, diseases like cholera and typhus spread. The death rate was high, particularly during the famine-induced emigration of the 1840s and thousands ended their journey across the Atlantic at graves in Grosse Isle in Quebec or Partridge Island, off Saint John, where the immigrants were quarantined after their arrival in Canada. 4

The largest number of Irish immigrants came to Canada, not surprisingly, between 1845 and 1849, during the Great Famine, when 230,094 Irish landed on our shores. The second largest group, consisting of 185,952 Irish arrived between 1830 and 1834, and the third largest wave occurred between 1840 and 1844. Between 1870 and 1978, a total of 396,898 Irish, including Kit Coleman, had migrated to Canada. By 1871, Irish-Canadians comprised more than 24 per cent of the total Canadian population. But by 1961, the per cent dropped to 9.6, reflecting the decreasing numbers of Irish immigrants coming here in more recent years. 5


Endnotes
1 - 18 Wilson, David, The Irish in Canada, Canada's Ethnic Groups, Canadian Historical Society, 1989
The Canadian Encyclopedia 2000 McClelland and Stewart

Top of page.