Nowadays St. Patrick’s Day is thought of as a social occasion characterised by parades, green beer, celebration and jollity. However, that wasn’t always so. Indeed, there was a time when Toronto was prone to mark the day with a violent expression of the city’s underlying sectarian divide.
Nineteenth century Toronto is often described as Anglo-Saxon, but that’s a misnomer. It was actually Irish. Very much so, in fact.
Looking at the 1851 population, historian William J. Smyth goes so far as to call Toronto “the most Irish of all cities in North America.” Whereas around 25 per cent of Boston’s population were Irish-born, a full 37 per cent of Torontonians were. Add the fact that “probably half as many again had been born in the city of Irish parents,” and you have a demographic profile with significant implications for culture, religion, anxieties and antagonisms.
And there were antagonisms aplenty, derived from the nexus of faith, political loyalties, and real or imagined historical grievances. The hundreds of thousands of Irish who came to Canada in the 19th century didn’t do so as blank slates. While they were certainly looking for a new life and a fresh start, they brought their convictions, prejudices and ideological baggage with them.
There was also, as Smyth observes, a significant difference between the Irish migration to Canada and that to the United States. South of the border, the ratio was approximately two-to-one Catholic. In Canada, the inverse applied. Numerically, Irish Canada was predominantly Protestant, a religious characteristic further amplified by the smaller immigrant streams from England and Scotland.
While such differences may seem picayune to modern multi-culturalists, they mattered a great deal in the 1800s. And although there was lots of unadulterated bigotry about, the situation was more complicated than that.
For one thing, religion was more intensely experienced, which sometimes translated into a feeling that those of other faiths should be kept at a distance. It wasn’t merely a matter of going to a different place of worship on the Sabbath.
Further, in the world from which the immigrants came, the separation of church and state was still a novel concept. In most of Western Europe, religious influence bled over into the decisions of secular authorities and political loyalty could often be linked to religion. In the case of Canada’s Irish, it was widely suspected – and not entirely without reason – that the Catholic minority was prospectively disloyal to the Crown and susceptible to political direction from Rome.
Finally, there was simple self-interest. For many Protestant first and second-generation immigrants, the Orange Order provided not only camaraderie and social assistance but also access to power, patronage and employment preferment. While being an effective vehicle for sustaining the cohesiveness of the tribe and looking after one’s own, the Order also helped to transplant sectarian antagonisms and historical grievances to the new country.
Meanwhile, as Smyth shrewdly notes, Irish Catholics in Canada found themselves “part of a double minority – an ethnic minority within a Catholic Church populated largely by French Canadians and a religious minority within English-speaking regions outside of Quebec.” And in addition to the related sense of psychological embattlement, there were practical effects in terms of significant underrepresentation in public employment. Although Catholics accounted for 15 per cent of Toronto’s 1894 population, they only constituted five per cent of City Hall employees.
There was also an interesting example of unintended consequences. By and large, Toronto Catholics didn’t experience the kind of residential ghettoization that their co-religionists in places like Boston and New York did, which seems like a benign thing. But that lack of population concentration translated into a dilution of political power, even producing some electoral cycles with no Catholic aldermen returned.
Unsurprisingly, there were times when the sectarian tension boiled over into violence, most notably the St. Patrick’s Day riot of 1858.
That riot began with an Orangeman using his horse-drawn cab to disrupt the parade, then escalated into a brawl broken-up by the police, and later resumed with a mob assault on a Catholic dinner at the National Hotel. Along the way, a young Catholic man named Matthew Sheedy was stabbed and subsequently died of his wounds.
Green beer may not represent progress, but the modern version of St. Patrick’s Day is certainly preferable to its earlier incarnation.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.
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