Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Some St. Patrick's Day notes on how Irish immigrants became integrated into Toronto

I'm writing this post in the dying minute of St. Patrick's Day. (No, I'm not celebrating today. I save that for the weekend.) I found a few interesting links on the subject of the holiday. I liked this CBC analysis of the extent to which the modern holiday is actually a product of Irish-Americans seeking to consolidate their community and assert their identity in the face of a skeptical majority, or a pair of blog posts observing the notable divergence between Ireland and Irish-Americans on matters of sexual orientation, or a Universe Today post noting the green and red aurorae visible from Alaska complete with photos.

Here in Toronto, St. Patrick's Day is notable, not least as one of the first "ethnic" holidays brought by immigration. I've made two posts here, one in November 2012 and another in March 2013, commenting on modern-day Irish migration to Toronto and to Canada, concentrating on how, among other things, Gaelic football helped migrants find jobs. (This immigration is still going on, incidentally. The Irish Independent notes that Canada is becoming a major destination for migrants.) The origins of Toronto's Irish Catholic community in the catastrophe of the 1840s was described today by blogTO's Chris Bateman.

The vessels that carried roughly a million Irish across the Atlantic were called "coffin ships" for a reason. Hellish conditions that bred typhus, dysentery, and lice, were common. Coupled with a lack of food or water, hundreds died during the six-week crossing. Many were buried at sea or at the quarantine station on Grosse Isle in the St. Lawrence--the first port of call in Canada.

Those that made it Toronto still faced an uphill battle. In 1847, 38,560 Irish--roughly twice the existing population of the city--stepped from ships, many of them sick with deadly typhus, a disease spread by bites from infected lice. The diseas was characterized by a severe fever that, without an effective treatment, frequently resulted in death.

[. . .]

Within five years of the 1847 migration, roughly a quarter of Toronto was Irish Catholic. As Allan Levine writes in his book
Toronto: Biography of a City, the sudden rise of Catholicism resulted in a push back from the city's established Protestant population. Signs reading "No Irish Need Apply" on the outside of businesses were common.

Levine writes that "irrational fears about the power of the pope to usurp Protestantism across the world; highly exaggerated notions that all Irish Catholics were supporters of Fenianism, the early IRA-style anti-British radical militant movement based in the United States ... and the linking of Irish poverty with widely held stereotypes of Irish Catholic social ills and immorality" were also factors in the anti-Irish sentiment of the late 1800s.

George Brown, the founder of the Globe newspaper and the namesake of the modern day college, was also publicly sceptical of Catholicism. "Rome means tyranny, and has for its mission the subversion of the civil and religious liberty of the masses," he wrote in 1857. At the height of the typhus crisis, Brown's Globe suggested the newcomers would soon "sink down into the sloth to which they had been accustomed at home." Headlines in the paper called them "the curse of the land."

In an article published this weekend in the Toronto Star, Eric Andrew-Gee described in the article "19th-century Toronto Irish immigrants a lesson in upward mobility" how these immigrants, starting with so little and living in the face of strong hostility, ended up becoming a well-integrated--while still distinctive--component of Toronto's community.

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.”

All kinds of lessons can be taken from this particular experience.

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