Over 4.6 million Canadians claim Irish heritage – that’s around 13% of the country’s entire population. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, more than a million Irish people arrived in the country, including early settlers in Newfoundland and those who landed on Quebec’s Grosse Île during the Great Famine.
Over time, these Irish migrants came to influence Canadian customs and traditions. Many of which can be seen in the family photos on display as part of The Photo Album of the Irish: Canada exhibition at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, which aims to celebrate the ordinary and extraordinary histories of Irish-Canadians across generations.
Here are just four examples of how the Irish influenced life in Canada:
Those leaving Ireland often brought their own musical traditions and instruments with them. In fact, it was Irish and Scottish settlers that introduced the fiddle to Canada.
Canadian folk music was greatly influenced by the Irish, particularly in places like Newfoundland. Lots of folk songs were inspired by old Irish tunes. For example, the beloved ‘Squid-Jiggin’ Ground’ is sung to the same tune as ‘Larry O’Gaff’, while ‘Cod Liver Oil’ is played to the melody of traditional sean-nós song ‘An Lacha Bacach’.
In the 1900s, native Inuit music was also influenced by the Irish.
Canada and Ireland’s national sports have big cultural connections. Hurling and ice hockey are both lightning fast, extremely skilful stick-based sports. And that’s because one may have inspired the other.
According to the 2017 documentary film Poc na nGael, school principal William Cochran – who was originally from county Tyrone – taught students in Nova Scotia to play hurling more than 200 years ago. In the winter, the game evolved to become ice hurling and it is believed this is what eventually inspired the modern game of ice hockey.
The film also highlights the influence of Irish-Canadians in developing ice hockey, including players like Harry Trihey, Frank McGee and Conn Smythe, as well as the Irish founders of the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Wherever they went, the Irish brought their own customs with them, from Halloween and Irish Wakes through to unique Christmas traditions, like putting a candle in the window. In Canada, Orange parades became a regular sight and Irish expats created a new tradition by parading through the streets to mark St. Patrick’s Day.
In Newfoundland, both St. Patrick’s Day and Orangemen’s Day are recognised holidays. The city of Montréal, whose flag features a green shamrock, has held an annual Patrick’s Day parade since 1824. It features hundreds of floats and welcomes hundreds of thousands of spectators each year.
To recognise the achievements of Irish-Canadians, the Canadian government even deemed March to be Irish Heritage Month in 2021.
Irish Catholic migrants who arrived in Canada during the famine were very politically aware and their fast-growing communities were often highly organised and politically savvy. It wasn’t unusual for them to partner with French Catholics to ensure the election of Catholic candidates.
They commanded a small swing vote in many parts of Montréal, for example. According to professors Sherry Olson and Patricia Thornton, this began as early as the 1830s and impacted local politics right into the 20th century.
One of the most influential Irish-Canadian politicians was active during this time. Having fled Ireland after taking part in the unsuccessful Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, Thomas D’Arcy McGee ended up in Montréal in 1857 at the invitation of members of the Irish community there. By this time, his politics were less radical, but he became a key figure in uniting the provinces and creating the Canadian Confederation. Since then, many other Irish-Canadians have played a part in influencing the political beliefs of the nation.
Beginning in 2019, the Photo Museum Ireland team worked with families across Canada to record and preserve their family photo albums. By collecting images from the 1860s right up to the present day, an authentic record of Irish emigrant experiences across the country has been created – one which reveals details that official histories often overlook. These images and stories are now being shared at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.
The Photo Album of the Irish: Canada exhibition will run from November 9th until March 5th. Book your tickets here.