Early Settlement No.7 – Irish of Saint John

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Representative Settlements – Planned and Unplanned
The Irish in Saint John

 


By Gay Fanjoy

Saint John, New Brunswick was situated on the east side of a natural harbour at the mouth of the St. John River in the Bay of Fundy. The placement of the city lent itself sufficiently to the development of a year-round port, as the harbour remained relativity ice-free even in the most inhospitable of winters. The Port of Saint John was to become a major point of immigration during the century following the founding of the city. In its early stages of development, Saint John was fairly receptive to immigrants of the right ilk, meaning of course those of British extraction, but by the mid-point of the nineteenth century the social and economic climate of the city had changed and the people felt put upon by the large destitute Irish immigrant population in their midst. In 1847, over 15,000 Irish immigrants arrived in Saint John, many of them famine stricken, diseased, and of the peasant class.1

It had initially been proposed that the new British North American province be named New Ireland.2 In retrospect, that would have been fitting. The early to mid-nineteenth century was a time of massive emigration from Britain, and out of Ireland came several waves of migrants who would make their way to the ports of New Brunswick. The sheer number of Irish entering the city upset the balance of power that had existed within the previously established Protestant Loyalist town. There were three waves of Irish immigration to New Brunswick between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and Confederation. The first arrived prior to 1828. The second occurred between 1828 and the Irish potato famines. And the final influx occurred during and immediately following the Famine in the late 1840s.3 Whereas prior to 1828, the number of Irish immigrants went largely unnoticed, for they were not seen as an individual ethnic group but, rather, as a subset of the overall British immigrants arriving in the province, the same cannot be said for those who followed in their wake.

The first wave of Irish immigration to British North America, around the turn of the nineteenth century, resulted in the development of a number of communities in the recently established colony of New Brunswick. The Protestant Irish immigrants arrived early in the settlement of the province and were more likely than the Irish Catholic immigrants to remain in the region. Many of the Protestant Irish brought with them at least a meagre amount of capital, allowing them to acquire property on the outskirts of Saint John. This rural property was exactly what many of the newly arrived immigrants desired, as they, for the most part, possessed few urban skills.4 Those Irish immigrants who remained within the city were responsible for the development of the St. Patrick society in 1819 and the Sons of Erin Society in the 1830s. These societies were far more concerned with Irish nationality than they were religion and as such, members of the societies were from both the Catholic and the Protestant communities.5

The second wave caused the most disruption to the existing infrastructure for, as a group, they were tenacious and demanded their fair share of the social and political life of the province. There is a marked difference in the social and economic status of the Irish immigrant heads of household depending on the time of their arrival. This data strongly suggests that the Irish arriving in Saint John prior to the famines in Ireland were members of the semi-skilled, skilled, and white collar labour force.6 The skilled labour force consisted of artisans and mechanics, while white collar jobs were that of grocers and teachers. These groups were more politically and economically self-conscious and, as such, demanded more of a role in the development and maintenance of the city.

The third wave flooded not only New Brunswick but most of the North American port cities.7 The Famine Irish who remained in New Brunswick were less urban than their counterparts arriving in American cities and, therefore, the experience of the famine Irish in port towns such as Saint John and St. Andrews differed somewhat from those who chose to land in New York.8 Saint John, however, like many other North American port cities, was overwhelmed by the number of immigrants arriving on their doorstep.

Sailing to Saint John from Ireland was considerably less expensive than sailing into Boston or New York; therefore, many immigrants arriving between 1820 and 1840 had no intention of staying in the city longer then it took to raise the capital to move on.9 It was not until after 1840 that those arriving in Saint John were too ill or too poor to move on. This state of affairs did not sit well with the resident population as it became their responsibility to care for those unable to care for themselves. During the 1840s and 1850s, the Almshouse was full to capacity and 80 percent of the inmates housed in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum were newly arrived Irish immigrants.10 Placement in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum was more a response to housing needs than it was a statement on the mental health of the immigrants.

Saint John and all other parts of British North America were, to greater or lesser degree, permanently altered by each of the consecutive waves of Irish immigration. An orphanage was required to be opened to house the number of children arriving in the city that had either left Ireland without their parents or lost their parents to illness on the voyage. The difference between the orphaned children and many of the other famine Irish was that they came primarily from Sligo.11 New Brunswick did not have a population of earlier Irish immigrants from this county and, therefore, there were no existing families to absorb the orphans. Many of the famine immigrants were absorbed into existing family networks already settled within the city and province.12

According to the 1871 census data, 54 percent of the population in the city of Saint John was Irish in origin. Six out of the nine Wards in the city housed Irish origin populations of 51 percent or above. St. John County had 62 percent of the population recorded as Irish in origin. With the exception of Kings and Sydney Ward, which were overwhelmingly Catholic, the Irish population was fairly evenly matched in regard to religion.13

Regardless of the ethnic and religious altercations that have, from time to time, arisen, the Irish have remained an integral part of the social, economic, and political life in the city of Saint John. Many of the families living in the city and county today can trace their lineage to one of the three waves of Irish immigration during the nineteenth century. Even with the mass out-migration of much of the immigrant population shortly after their arrival, Saint John claims to be one of the most Irish cities in Canada.
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[1] Peter M. Toner, “The Irish of New Brunswick at Mid Century: The 1851 Census,” New Ireland Remembered. Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1988, 106.
[2] MacNutt, W. S. New Brunswick a History: 1784-1867. Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1963, p. 45.
[3] T.W. Acheson. Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985, p. 93.
[4] T.W. Acheson, “The Irish Community in Saint John 1815-1850,” in New Ireland Remembered: Historical Essays on the Irish in New Brunswick, ed. P.M. Toner, Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1988, p. 29.
[5] Acheson. Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community, pp. 98-99.
[6] Acheson. Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community, p 261.
[7] Achesn. Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community, p. 93.
[8] Paul Robert Magocsi. Ed. Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, pp. 734-735.
[9] Acheson. Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community, p. 93.
[10] Acheson. Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community, p. 94.
[11] Table ledgers from the Orphan Asylum 1847-49 from Peter D. Murphy. Poor Ignorant Children: Irish Famine Orphans in Saint John, New Brunswick. Halifax: McCurdy Printing, 1999, pp.32-75.
[12] Canada. Census of New Brunswick 1851, 1871, 1901.
[13] Acheson. Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community, p. 107. Also see appendix p. 256.

Bibliography

Acheson, T.W., “The Irish Community in Saint John 1815-1850”, in New Ireland Remembered: Historical Essays on the Irish in New Brunswick, ed. P.M. Toner, Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1988.

Acheson, T.W., Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Canada. Census of New Brunswick, 1851, 1871, 1901

MacNutt, W. S., New Brunswick a History: 1784-1867, Toronto, MacMillan of Canada, 1963

Magocsi, Paul Robert, Encyclopaedia of Canada’s Peoples, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Murpy, Peter D., Poor Immigrant Children: Irish Famine Orphans in Saint John, New Brunswick, Halifax, McCurdy Printing, 1999.

Toner, Peter M., “The Irish of New Brunswick at Mid-Century: The 1851 Census,” in New Ireland Rembembered: Historical Essays on the Irish in New Brunswick, ed. P.M. Toner, Fredericton, New Ireland Press, 1988.