St. Patrick depicted in a stained glass window at St. Benin's Church, Ireland (image by Andreas F. Borchert)

St. Patrick depicted in a stained glass window at St. Benin’s Church, Ireland (image by Andreas F. Borchert)

St. Patrick’s Day is March 17, the date of Patrick’s death. While it has come to be a secular celebration of Irish culture and, perhaps, more identified with nationalist and Republican sentiment, it began as a religious feast day. It was an official Protestant holiday in Ireland beginning in 1783. Probably by no coincidence it came during Lent where an exception to the prohibition on celebratory eating and drinking alcohol was welcomed and led to the embrace of St. Patrick’s Day by all. Four Christian denominations observe the holiday: Anglican, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran.

St. Patrick himself, the patron saint of Ireland, goes back to AD 387-461 and the arrival of Roman Catholic Christianity in Ireland. Then there’s the thing about the snakes but we won’t go there.

The words “Irish” and “music” are so linked they are almost interchangeable. There has been Irish music in Canada for well over two centuries. Early collectors including W. R. Mackenzie and Helen Creighton in Nova Scotia, Marius Barbeau in Quebec, Maude Karpeles and Kenneth Peacock in Newfoundland and Labrador and Edith Fowke in Ontario found many Irish songs and tunes that came over in the 18th and 19th centuries. The folk “boom” in the sixties led to careers for many more recent arrivals, not least Ryan’s Fancy and The Irish Rovers. In the mid seventies Montreal’s Barde, reinvigorated the instrumental tradition, influenced by Irish revival groups like the Chieftains and Planxty. Check ‘em out. There’s a cornucopia there.

The Irish in Canada

The arrival in Canada of the Irish stretches over centuries. It is possible that as many Irishmen as Norsemen crossed the ocean in pre-Columbian times and established monastic settlements. Much later the Irish were divided by region and religion and Irish-Canadians reflect that. In Quebec, an Irish Catholic community in and around Quebec City traces its roots back to the “Wild Geese” who fought with the French against the English. On the other hand the first recorded celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in what is now Canada was in Quebec City in 1765 after the British had taken Quebec. The Protestant Irish officers gathered to celebrate Ireland‘s patron saint with a service and suitable sermon by the Anglican clergyman, Dr. Brooks, in the Recollect Chapel, followed by dinner at Miles Prentice’s Sun Tavern.

In Atlantic Canada, the fact that so many of the Irish in the Atlantic provinces originated from southeast Ireland was based on trade that linked ports like Waterford, New Ross and Youghal with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. It is estimated that in the three decades prior to 1836, about 35,000 Irish landed in Newfoundland and an unknown number moved on to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Many more kept moving to Quebec and, especially, Ontario. By and large the north, not the south, was the geographical pivot of Irish emigration to Canada.

By 1851, the Irish-born population of Toronto was the largest single ethnic group in the city. The Protestant Irish establishment was so dominant in the city that 1920s Toronto was called the “Belfast of Canada”. The Toronto Maple Leafs were known as the Toronto St. Patricks between 1919 and 1927.


The Toronto St. Patricks hockey team, 1923 – 1924.

The Potato Famine, roughly between 1845 and 1852, had led to a massive wave of Irish immigration, not always welcome. Irish Protestants already here did not like the intrusion of the starving Irish Catholics. In the city of Saint John, New Brunswick, for example, Common Council passed a motion asking the British government to take the immigrants back to Ireland. Thankfully, the New Brunswick government of the day overruled that decision!

For the famined Irish who arrived in Canada, there were two key entry points – Partridge Island in the harbour of Saint John and Grosse Ile in Quebec. Grosse Ile was, by far, the larger. At one point Grosse Ile had a line of 40 ships, carrying 15,000 souls, waiting to land there. Of that number, many were seriously ill with typhoid and some were already dead. Grosse Ile has become an icon for the tragedy of the Irish famine commemorated with a historical site. See the approach from sea to Grosse Ile here.

Irish-Canadian Music

Grosse Ile is the subject of our first musical spot. A new musical drama took the stage recently at the General and Vocational College (CEGEP) St. Lawrence in Quebec City. Grosse Ile tells the story of the island in the St. Lawrence that served as a quarantine station for immigrants to Quebec. This new musical is dedicated to the late Marianna O’Gallagher who made it her life’s work to preserve Irish history in the Quebec City area, and on Grosse Ile itself. This script was co-written by Margaret Forrest, Hubert Radoux and John Halpin, Dean of Faculty at CEGEP St Lawrence. The CBC’s Rachelle Solomon met with him and some of the other cast members at a rehearsal, listen here.

On a more felicitous note we’ll drop in to a pub in St. John’s, Newfoundland on a St. Patrick’s Day a few years back and catch a “session,” an impromptu performance of Irish traditional music. Newfoundland and Labrador is the only Canadian province or territory where St. Patrick’s Day is an official holiday. Give it a minute before the music comes in:

Another celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and Irish music takes place in Vancouver, where the Irish community is small and recently arrived. However in March of last year at Vancouver’s Celtic Fest Stephanie Cadman and Jake Charron performed at the Celtic Village (Georgia & Granville Streets) in Vancouver:

Our last Irish Canadian musical vignette comes from Prince Edward Island and features three very young musicians who call themselves Ten Strings and a Goat Skin. The trio came together while studying at L’école Francois Buote and quickly realized they shared a passion for traditional music. Riding a new wave of pride in the Acadian, French and Irish cultures they share, the group has become well grounded in their music. Below is their Napoleon set.

Sláinte! To your health!


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About Gary Cristall

Gary Cristall was the co-founder of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 1978; from 1994 he spent six years at Canada Council. Since 2000 he has worked as an artist's manager and consultant and teacher of arts administration at Capilano University. He is researching and writing a history of folk music in English Canada. Visit Gary at his website and learn more about his book on the history of folk music in Canada. Photo credit: Brian Nation


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