A History of the Irish in Montreal

In Montreal, St. Patrick’s Day is a large event. According to the website of United Irish Societies of Montreal, our St. Patrick’s Day parade is the longest running parade of its kind in Canada, being held since 1824. According to a study by Statistics Canada, in 2016, Montreal’s population was 6 per cent  Irish, coming in fourth place on a list of the top 25 ethnicities in Montreal (aside from Canadian and French ethnicities, the Irish are preceded only by Italians). My family has ancestry from the United Kingdom and Ireland on both sides; my Irish family comes from County Cork.

It’s no surprise that the Irish people have a large impact on our community in Montreal, but why? I’m here to give a brief history of the Irish in Montreal, courtesy of my high school history books, tours I’ve taken around the city and my never-ending desire to learn facts about the history of Montreal.

During the 17th century, Irish people were some of those sent to help colonise New France, and Irish families quickly grew. New England had an Irish community as well, and many Irish chose to move to New France in order to practice Catholicism, where the Catholic religion was already present from the French colonisers. This enlarged the Irish population. In the early 1800s, with the advancement of commercial shipping, many people living in Ireland immigrated  to Quebec, settling in large numbers in both Montreal and Quebec City. They took up jobs such as agriculture and construction. According to a tour I took on the history of the Griffintown area, the Irish that came to Montreal at that time are famously known for having worked on the Lachine Canal.

At this time, though the Irish population was growing, there was not a very big number of Irish people in Montreal or Quebec City. However, when the Great Famine hit Ireland in the 1840s, the Irish came in masses to immigrate to Quebec in boats that were known as coffin ships, as they were overpacked, extremely small and full of diseases, leading large numbers of Irish people to die on the ship. In 1847, at the height of the famine, about 100, 000 Irish landed at Grosse Isle, an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River dedicated to handling the immigration services of the Irish. The few people that survived the journey were sent to Montreal.  

The new immigrants were not fared well by the local Canadians. After their long and dreadful journey, many Irish had developed typhus, and the epidemic spread through Montreal. As many as 6, 000 Irish immigrants died from the disease. The locals were unhappy and feared that they would contract the disease. They looked at the Irish as dirty and unworthy of living in the area. The Grey Nuns were called upon to aid the sick, but a handful of them succumbed to the disease. Mayor John Easton Mills was seen as a hero in the situation, going in the night to the quarantine areas and helping the sick. Sadly, he contracted typhus and passed away after serving barely a year as mayor. The legacy of those that died of typhus is immortalized on the Irish Commemorative Stone (or Black Rock) which stands today near the Victoria Bridge.  

As the years went on, the Irish set up close knit communities, settling in the Southwest area of Montreal in boroughs such as Griffintown, Pointe-Saint-Charles and Goose Village (which is now an industrial, underdeveloped area housing a Costco). From there, the Irish have established themselves as a very important part of our history, and are some of the most patriotic people in Montreal, which may be why our parade is such a huge deal!

For your viewing pleasure, here are a few pictures of me celebrating St. Patrick’s Day throughout the years.

Wishing you a great St. Patrick’s Day, party hard!