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Irish WNY / The Canada connection

Images from Grosse Isle, Quebec, an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence which housed a depot for Irish immigrants coming to Canada. It is estimated that over 500,000 passed through, and 5,000 are buried here. It is now a national historic site with a memorial.


In the nineteenth century, many Irish immigrants headed for America chose to make Canada their first stop. In fact, half the Irish immigrants to Canada during the famine years moved on to the US. There were good reasons for this. First, travel between Ireland and Canada was a relatively uncomplicated matter, as Canada was British territory and Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. Also, navigation laws made passage to such ports as Quebec City and other Canadian cities cheaper. Many immigrants traveled relatively cheaply on lumber ships that were returning to Canada after bringing their loads to Limerick City; rather than have these ships return empty, it made sense to take on Irish passengers, who served as human ballast. Conditions on these “coffin ships,” which were not meant to carry passengers, were poor and many passengers did not survive. If they made it through the journey, it was an easy matter to cross over into the US. The border between Canada and the US was, in the words of Andy Bielenberg, author of The Irish Diaspora, a “very permeable membrane”; in fact, he goes on to call certain parts of the US/Canada border “figments.” Efforts at recording border crossings were casual at best; during the Civil War, all such efforts were abandoned altogether.  It was therefore quite common for Irish immigrants in Buffalo to have relatives living in Ontario and Montreal, or to have lived themselves in Canada for a brief period.


Interestingly, those immigrants who did remain in Canada, particularly in Toronto, followed different social and economic paths than Irish newcomers in Buffalo. Toronto’s port was not as important to Canada as Buffalo’s was to the US, and it had far less heavy manufacturing. As a result, Toronto had less unskilled labor than Buffalo. Ethnic communities were divided along class and economic lines in both Toronto and Buffalo, but in Toronto, the powerful  Protestant Irish Orange Order made it unlikely that Irish residents would form common cause, and the three leading ethnic groups of the city—the English, Irish, and Scottish—were dispersed throughout its neighborhoods.


There is one compelling statistic that may say it all about the difference between Toronto and Buffalo. In 1880, Toronto had ten saloons for a population of 86,415 people. Buffalo had 1,042 for a population of 155,134.


Sources include William Michael Jenkins, Social and Geographical Mobility Among the Irish in Canada and the United States: a Comparative Study of Toronto, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York, 1880–1910.


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