Questions to ask yourself:
Why do people migrate? What forces drive human migration?
What you will be able to do:
Explain the causes and consequences of the migration of the Irish.
Map and indicate the patterns of migration.
According to the United Nations in 2019 the global population of migrants reached 271 million people. Migrants are people who move across a border or or within a State away from their normal place of residence. In your study of history at previous levels you've seen a number of examples of human migration. A number of prominent examples from Secondary III history include the ancestors of today's Indigenous people, the Huron-Wendat, the filles du roy, Acadians and the Loyalists. When you think of these groups, try to remember why they moved, and what were the impacts of their movement?
In the 1840's a massive wave of migration occurred from the United Kingdom to North America. In particular, many of these migrants came from Ireland. Why did these people leave at this time, and what brought them to North America?
Causes of Irish Immigration
Migration from Great Britain to Canada had been ongoing for much of the early 19th Century. The 1820s and early 1830's in particular saw increases in Irish migration. However, a massive change occurred in the 1840s and early 1850s as one of the greatest migrations in history up to that time began.
An Gorta Mór (The Great Famine)
Ireland in the early 1800s was rural, poor, and divided on religious lines. Wealthy Protestants owned much of the land, which was mostly used for growing grain and raising cattle. What was left was rented as small plots to Catholic peasants. The peasants had to resort to growing potatoes in order to sustain them.
In the early 1840s the blight arrived from Europe and inflected the potato crop. Potatoes began to rot and become inedible. The crisis extended to Scotland as well, but the responses in both countries were much different. In Ireland, grain continued to be exported from the country in 1846-1847. Attempts at relief in the form of public works on roads and workhouses and soup kitchens failed because of the government's desire to keep costs down and promote self-reliance among the Irish poor.
Landlords used the crisis to clear peasants off their land with mass evictions. People suffered from famine, disease and many died. One solution for many was emigration. North America offered a new life for people who were desperate. A few landowners or agents offered passage across the Atlantic, but many used what savings they had to pay their passage. Some individuals relied on family members in North America to send them money to pay their fare. Rates to Canada were the cheapest, as the timber ships were not designed for human cargo.
Consequences of Irish migration to Canada.
Online at americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/2_3.html and bl.uk/collection-items/the-depopulation-of-ireland-from-illustrated-london-news
Desperate emigrants, malnourished and some suffering from typhus embarked on the journey to North America from a variety of ports : Dublin, Belfast, Londonderry, Cork, Sligo in Ireland, and Liverpool in England. The vessels they boarded were in many cases timber ships that carried wood from the vast forests of Canada to Great Britain. They were not constructed for human cargo, but the owners could profit if minor alterations were made to transport people on the return voyage.
The crossing from Ireland to Canada typically took between six and eight weeks, although voyages of ten to twelves weeks or even longer were not uncommon. Despite laws designed to protect passengers, many ships did not provide enough space, food or clean water for the emigrants. Diseases like typhus and cholera spread rapidly and many died at sea. Up to a third of passengers might have died on the Canadian crossing during the famine years. The ships became known as 'coffin ships' because of the terrible conditions and the high mortality rate among the emigrants.
For emigrants on their way to Quebec, the first stop was the quarantine station at Grosse Île. Located 46km downstream from Quebec, the island was used to quarantine migrants for over a century, from 1832 until 1937.
Many migrants from Ireland began to arrive in 1846. It was expected that more Irish would arrive and minor changes were made at Grosse Île, but the Canadian authorities were unprepared for the mass of people that came in 1847, a year that became known as Black '47. More than 400 ships left Great Britain for Quebec that year and over 90 000 people passed through the quarantine station. The facilities were inadequate, patients were housed in tents and some ships were prevented from disembarking. New buildings were hastily built to house the sick and dying, but the typhus spread to the nurses and doctors, and eventually into Canada. Quebec, Montreal, Kingston and Toronto all experienced typhus outbreaks that year. Over 5,000 Irish migrants are buried at Grosse Île and another 5,000 were thought to have been buried at sea.
After passing through quarantine, the Canadian authorities provided assisted passage to migrants so they could go upriver. They helped pay for transportation up the St. Lawrence to Montreal and then on to destinations in Upper Canada like Kingston, Toronto and Bytown (Ottawa). Many of the migrants continued their journey into the United States, but many also stayed and established themselves in Canada.
Some migrants received land grants and settled in farming communities near to those with whom they shared kinship links. Examples of this type of settlement can be found in the Ottawa Valley, outside of Bytown (Ottawa) on both sites of the Ottawa River where for example Irish migrants settled in Quyon and Mayo, Lower Canada and Fitzroy Harbour, Upper Canada.
Irish migrants also settled in the growing cities of Canada. Quebec, Montreal and Toronto all developed large Irish communities. Urban Irish became labourers in the burgeoning industrialized factories or itinerant workers on canal construction projects. This growing, English-speaking workforce, was a boon for Anglo-Canadian capitalists as the Irish competed for work with French Canadians. Overall, the arrival of tens of thousands of emigrants in the 1840s and 1850s changed the demographic balance of Canada.