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This week, genealogist and family researcher Mary-Alice Wildasin shares her research on Irish Famine Migration to Quebec. 

Famine Migration to Quebec

An Gorta Mór, or the Great Hunger, affected the Island of Ireland from 1845 to 1852.  During those years, an estimated 2.1 million Irish, or one-fourth of Ireland's pre-famine population, left the country. The potato blight hit many countries in Europe and the Americas.  The greatest difference in its devastating effects is that Ireland’s laboring and farming class relied heavily on the potato for sustenance.  Potatoes were a staple for more than half the population in Ireland at the time, providing as much nutritional value as corn, with a production cost of about two-thirds less.   

When the potato crops failed in 1846 and 1847, it had a devastating effect on people and the economy.  People responded to the crisis by emigrating in vast numbers.  It has been estimated that over 2.1 million Irish, one-fourth of Ireland’s pre-Famine inhabitants left the country. More people emigrated in eleven years than in the previous two centuries.

It is important to remember that the Irish began setting foot on Canadian soil as early as the mid-16th century when Irish fishermen frequently traveled to Newfoundland from southern Ireland. 

Of the early Irish immigrants, the majority were Ulstèr-Scots fowk / Ulster-Scots people (aka the Scots-Irish) who came from the northern province of Ulster. They emigrated to settlements in Eastern Canada in the late 17th century, and in 1760, a few thousand more settled in Nova Scotia.

Beginning in the late-17th century, Irish migration to Newfoundland & Labrador reached its peak during the first two decades of the 19th century, when up to 35,000 Irish arrived on the island.

When the Great Migration to Canada began in 1815, many Protestant Irish immigrants crossed the Atlantic to Lower Canada (Quebec) and settled along the St. Lawrence River. From 1818, they began to settle in Upper Canada (Ontario). 

Why did so many Irish choose to migrate to Canada in the nineteenth century?

Between 1841 and 1851, 822,675 people emigrated to the United States and 329,321 emigrated to Canada.   The most inexpensive fares were to Canada as it was a British Colony (as was Ireland), at approximately five shillings (roughly twenty pounds in 2017), whereas to the United States, the fares ran upwards to five pounds (approximately four hundred pounds in 2017.)  From the 1851 Canadian census, nearly one-third of known Irish immigrants to Quebec City were from Cork, Kilkenny, Limerick, and Wexford. Thus, approximately one-quarter of emigrants chose Canada.

There were certain landlord-assisted migration schemes to assist migrants in their journey.  Emigration advertisements in newspapers would state when ships would be in port, the day of departure and what rations were provided (tea, sugar, bread, etc.) per person, the Agent to purchase tickets from as well as the length of the trip. 

Nenagh Guardian 11 Aug 1849    Dundalk Democrat 17 Aug 1850

Image: Nenagh Guardian 11 Aug 1849 and Dundalk Democrat 17 Aug 1850

Departures were from many ports around the country; Dublin, Limerick, Cobh, Waterford, New Ross, and Belfast to name a few.  The choice of Canada may well have been driven by low passage costs and easy access to a departure port.  Nonetheless, the migration to Canada was long and often deadly from exposure to disease or shipwrecks.  In a letter dated 27 June 1849, Jane White writes to Eleanor Wallace about her travels

‘on our long tedious journey...we have had a fever and smallpox on board... we have had many fearful days in our long voyage it is eight weeks...since we embarked in Belfast Lough...’  

Grosse Île and the Famine Ships

In the 19th century, an increasing stream of people was leaving Europe to rebuild their lives in North America. Around 1830, an average of 30,000 immigrants arrived annually in the City of Québec, the main port of entry to Canada. Approximately two-thirds of these newcomers were from Ireland. This unprecedented immigration on the St. Lawrence River took place at a time when major cholera and smallpox epidemics were sweeping through Europe. To help control the spread of the diseases, the quarantine station at Grosse Île, located in the St. Lawrence River downstream from the City of Québec, was established in 1832 and operated until its closure in 1937.

It is estimated that almost 5,000 Irish died on Grosse Île and it is known to be the largest Irish burial ground exclusive of Ireland. 

Throughout 1847, over 100,000 Irish people traveled to Grosse Ile fleeing the Famine, the first ship docked with 241 passengers on board, 84 were already sick with fever and 9 were dead. In that same year over 5,000 Irish perished at sea on board ships bound for Canada.

The impact of this wave of Irish immigration on Canada's population was huge with those arriving aboard coffin ships often sick and dying, which adversely affected Canada's port towns. By June of 1847, the port of Québec became so overwhelmed, that dozens of ships carrying over 14,000 Irish queued for days to make a landing.

Saint John was second only to Grosse Isle as the busiest port of entry for Irish immigrants to North America during the famine years. In the census of 1851, over half the heads of households in Baile Sheáin registered themselves as natives of Ireland. 

Data on immigrants was compiled by Parks Canada from several different records held in various archives. Under an agreement between the Québec Service Centre of Parks Canada and Library and Archives Canada, this database regarding immigrants who passed through Grosse Île is now available on this website.

The search screen enables you to search by 

  • Surname
  • Given Name

it is grouped by 

  • Baptisms recorded at the Grosse Île Quarantine Station - Information on 554 people baptized at Grosse Île between 1832 and 1937.
  • Births that occurred at sea. - Information on 135 people born on ships during the Atlantic crossing between 1837 and 1913.
  • Burials recorded at the Grosse Île Quarantine Station.- Information about 4,871 people who were buried at Grosse Île between 1832 and 1937.
  • Deaths that occurred at sea. - Information on 4,936 people who died on ships at sea, on the St. Lawrence River, or on quarantined ships at Grosse Île, from 1832 to 1922.
  • Hospital Registers. - Information on 12,196 people who were treated at the Grosse Île hospitals between 1832 and 1921.Inventory of belongings of deceased people. - Information on 528 inventories of personal belongings of deceased immigrants from Grosse Île or Québec in 1834, 1835, 1837, 1841, 1847, 1849, and 1851.
  • List of tenants of Major Denis Mahon. - Information on 1,431 tenants evicted in 1847 by Major Mahon, landlord of County Roscommon in Ireland. - Marriages recorded at the Grosse Île Quarantine Station. Information on 46 marriages that were celebrated at Grosse Île from 1832 to 1937.
  • Names recorded on the Grosse Île Quarantine Station Memorial.

The Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial was erected in 1997 to commemorate the massive arrival of Irish immigrants who were victims of the Great Famine. It provides the names of 8,339 people of various nationalities who were buried in the Grosse Île cemeteries from 1832 to 1937.

Search the database HERE

Irish Catholics and Quebec

It seems that Irish Catholics were attracted to Quebec because it was already a predominantly Catholic city.  By contrast, according to Akenson, the USA did not grant Catholics full equal rights until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, while some states were much later in doing so.   The Irish commenced migration to Quebec in large numbers around 1813 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, although ‘the celebration of St Patrick’s Day was recorded in the Quebec Gazette as early as 1765.  

READ MORE: How to research your ancestors who arrived in Canada

On arrival in Quebec, Irish Catholics had no English-speaking churches to attend, only French-speaking.  Given the considerable number of English-speaking Catholics in the city, the need for an English-speaking Catholic Church became increasingly apparent.  In 1832 St Patrick’s church was built, however, it was not formally recognized as an English-speaking sanctuary until it was formed as the Congregation of the Catholics of Quebec.   Conrad states ’that the anglicization of the northern half of North America in this period [1815-1850] owing largely to immigration from Great Britain, is one of the most significant developments in the history of the British empire.’  

The historiography of Irish immigrants to Canada has focused primarily on Irish Protestants that migrated early in the nineteenth century.  Irish Catholic migrants from 1813 to 1871 have been grouped with Protestants as one group of Irish immigrants.  Whereas Irish Catholics mostly stayed within the confines of Quebec City, Protestants lived in other areas such as Ontario, Hamilton, and New Brunswick and were primarily farming.  

Table 1 illustrates the number of Irish-born emigrants, separated by religion.  

Irish Population change over time: Irish-born by religion, Quebec City, 1842-61
Year Protestants Catholics Total
1842* 1,733 3,290 5,023
1852 1,426 4,598 6,024**
1861 1,263 5,268 6,531

* Estimated number of Protestants and Catholics derived from the published total of Irish natives (5,023) divided by each group's relative proportion as encountered in the manuscript census of 1842 (i.e., 65.5 percent Catholic, 34.5 percent Protestant). 
** Religion is unavailable in eleven cases. The total Irish-born population is 6,035.
Source: 1842, 1852, 1861 manuscript censuses in Robert Grace, ‘A demographic and social profile of Quebec City’s Irish population, 1842-1861 in Journal of American Ethnic History, 23, 1 (2003), p. 64.

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Irish Catholics in Quebec are an understudied group.  Much of the current research has been done by Robert Grace.  He argued that ‘progressively more Catholics of more humble status from the west and south of the island began emigrating in numbers from around 1835. By the 1840s, the vast majority of emigrants were Catholic, unskilled laborers, and domestic servants.’  (see Table 2.)

Table 2: Occupational Structure of Irish-Born Household Heads by Religion Quebec City, 1842a, 1852,1861 (percent)

  Protestants   Catholics
Class 1842 1852 1861   1842 1852 1861
Merchants 1.0 5.1 7.7   0.8 1.5 1.7
Clerical 13.6 18.5 23.5   11.7 14.7 16.2
Skilled 38.2 34.3 28.5   26.3 24.9 19.9
Semi-skilled 8.0 9.3 12.7   8.9 13.7 15.9
Unskilled 25.2 18.0 14.2   10.1 28.8 31.5
Residual 14.0 14.8 13.4   12.2 16.4 14.8
Total Number 301 411 417   728 1,150 1,504

Source: Robert Grace, ‘A demographic and social profile of Quebec City’s Irish population, 1842-1861' in Journal of American Ethnic History, 23, 1 (2003), p. 60.

This article has argued that emigrants from Ireland were likely to be attracted to Quebec as a destination because transport links were accessible and inexpensive.  They were further encouraged in the 1840s and 1850s by the fact that an Irish Catholic community had been establishing there since the early years of the nineteenth century and was reaching a size at which it could offer significant support.  

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Irish in Canada articles

**First published in 2021

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