Irish Immigration to Canada Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Between 1829 and 1836, Irish immigration to Canada reached its highest volume and broadest extent up till that time. By the mid-1830’s, Irish settlements of various sizes stretched from Newfoundland and the other maritime provinces through Lower Canada and into the hinterlands of Upper Canada.

Summary of Event

The mass exodus of Irish people to North America during the nineteenth century represented the culmination of more than three hundred years of frequent disruptions and upheavals in Ireland. The English conquest of the island in the sixteenth century had installed a new ruling class of loyal English gentry on lands seized from the native Irish and redistributed by the British government. Then, in the seventeenth century, the English crown had relocated to the northern Irish province of Ulster some 200,000 Presbyterian Presbyterians;in Ireland[Ireland] farmers and laborers from Lowland Scotland. The Scots were intended to counterbalance a native Roman Catholic populace hostile to English rule. Presbyterians and Catholics clashed repeatedly, even as both camps suffered harsh government penalties because of their refusal to join the official Anglican Church. Meanwhile, Ireland remained among the poorest countries in Europe. Canada;Irish immigration Ireland;emigration from Roman Catholics;in Canada[Canada] [kw]Irish Immigration to Canada (1829-1836) [kw]Immigration to Canada, Irish (1829-1836) [kw]Canada, Irish Immigration to (1829-1836) Canada;Irish immigration Ireland;emigration from Roman Catholics;in Canada[Canada] [g]Canada;1829-1836: Irish Immigration to Canada[1450] [g]Ireland;1829-1836: Irish Immigration to Canada[1450] [c]Immigration;1829-1836: Irish Immigration to Canada[1450] [c]Colonization;1829-1836: Irish Immigration to Canada[1450] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1829-1836: Irish Immigration to Canada[1450] Robinson, Peter

During the 1790’s, however, French military campaigns across continental Europe began to disrupt the normal patterns of trade. The disruption of trade patterns was beneficial to the Irish economy. Great Britain, for example, cut off from its customary continental markets, found in Ireland the main source of the meat, grain, and butter it required for domestic consumption. As a result, the landed estates, small farms, and market towns of Ireland thrived. For a time, the Irish economy boomed: Both employment and population soared.

This prosperity ended abruptly with the fall of France’s Napoleon I in 1815. Great Britain promptly reconnected with its broader continental markets, and the Irish economy again sank into depression. Furthermore, as the growing of grain for export became less profitable, many Irish landowners switched from tillage to the grazing of animals, which required far less labor and therefore resulted in massive unemployment. Likewise, the early Industrial Revolution introduced to Ireland several commercial linen factories, which undercut the local domestic weaving of linen goods, especially among Presbyterian Presbyterians;in Ireland[Ireland] populations in Ulster. Some two-thirds of the Irish population was composed of landless laborers living in hovels and surviving primarily on potatoes. Meanwhile the population of Ireland, which was five million in 1800, had ballooned to six and a half million in just fifteen years.

In Ireland after 1815, then, the steep rise in population conspired with severely constricted job opportunities and the oppressive policies of the English government to induce mass emigration. There was a long history of European colonization of the New World. Another chapter in this history was opened during the early nineteenth century, as thousands of dissatisfied and frustrated Irish, both Protestants and Catholics, looked for a new life overseas. Many Europeans saw North America as a domain of mythic proportions, where free land abounded and the opportunities were unlimited.

Great Britain’s American Revolution (1775-1783);and Canada[Canada] American colonies had won their independence by 1783, and an estimated sixty thousand Americans still loyal to the British crown were deported to Canada. A number of Irish were among these Loyalists, who settled mainly in the new province of Quebec, Quebec;settlement of recently seized from France. By 1815, British North America consisted of Lower Canada (Quebec), Upper Canada (the future Ontario), and a number of island colonies, such as Newfoundland Newfoundland and New Brunswick New Brunswick in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The vast prairie lands to the west of Ontario remained too remote for substantial development. In sum, British North America in 1815 consisted of small clusters of farming and fishing villages scattered across the island colonies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, along with modest farms strung along the lower St. Lawrence River Valley.

Around 1820, this situation began to change dramatically, as immigration from Ireland to the New World surged. During the initial period of this wave of immigration, 1820-1835, close to half a million Irish immigrants arrived in North America, about 60 percent of whom landed in Canada. Immigrants had to travel there almost exclusively on English sailing boats rigged to carry timber, which the ships picked up in the New World and transported back to Britain on their return trips. The voyage to Canada could last up to ten weeks and proved at times grueling for the ten to twenty fare-paying passengers. The traffic in emigrants to Canada further accelerated in 1827, when the British government cut the fare to Canada in half while leaving the cost of passage to the United States at a high level. This fare disparity led many Irish immigrants to come first to Canada before going on to America.

With a few exceptions, the immigrants traveled at their own expense, without government assistance. The typical Irish immigrant was a young farmer who was not destitute but had some modest savings, supplemented by the sale of tenant rights to his small Irish farm. Ordinarily, he had enough after the expenses of the voyage to find land, build a shelter, and obtain the seeds and implements necessary to sow his crops. He had also to sustain his family until the first harvest. Securing a permanent source of food was the first priority of the immigrant. Artisans, including displaced weavers from Ulster, also found their niche in the more settled areas.

The bulk of these pioneers—up to 60 percent—were Protestants, although Protestants represented only 25 percent of the population of Ireland. Most of them came from the Scots-Irish Presbyterian Presbyterians;in Ireland[Ireland] counties of Ulster, adjacent to the ports of Derry and Belfast where empty timber boats bound for Canada could dock. As a rule, the ties of the Scots-Irish to Ireland, to which their ancestors had come only recently, proved less strong than those of the native Irish Catholics, whose ancestral ties to the land extended over many hundreds of years.

It soon became evident that the small maritime provinces of the St. Lawrence Gulf could not accommodate the influx of new arrivals after 1820. Particularly during the period of greatest volume, from 1829 to 1836, more than twice as many immigrants passed on to Lower and Upper Canada as settled in the maritime colonies. This trend toward moving inland only increased after 1836. With Quebec Quebec;settlement of as the gateway, Upper Canada quickly became a primary destination because of its rumored abundance of fertile land. Upper Canada retained its almost exclusively rural character until well after mid-century.

The Peterborough Experiment Peterborough Experiment offered a notable exception to the norm of Irish Canadian colonization without government aid. During the mid-1820’s, a Canadian official named Peter Robinson Robinson, Peter was commissioned by the English government to recruit a substantial number of destitute Irish Catholic farm laborers from the southern Irish county of Cork for transplanting to Upper Canada. The authorities had the double motive of relieving population pressure in County Cork and providing a cadre of loyal Irish-Canadian militias to defend Canada from further American incursions, as during the War of 1812.

Catholic and Protestant churches soon appeared in Upper Canada to provide a greater sense of continuity and spiritual community to the frontier settlers. Fraternal lodges like the Orange Order proved very popular among the Scots-Irish population. Meanwhile, by the mid-1830’s the outlines of a future nation were clearly visible in British North America. It was already a very diverse and vital society, extending from the teaming fisheries of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland Newfoundland;fisheries , through a nascent urbanized, French-speaking Quebec, to the bountiful farm lands and lumber camps of Upper Canada. The imprint of the Irish pioneers would be indelible on the new confederation.


The Irish settlement of Canada during the early nineteenth century contrasted sharply in several respects with the parallel experience of Irish immigrants in the United States. During the 1820’s and 1830’s, Irish immigrants came to Canada in significantly greater numbers than to the United States. It was in these years that the predominantly rural character of the Canadian Irish lifestyle was established. Most immigrants lived by farming, fishing, hunting, cutting timber, or laboring on public projects like canals. There was no widespread urbanization in the land until the later nineteenth century.

In the United States, on the other hand, the period of mass Irish immigration occurred during the Irish Famine Famines;Irish (1845-1854). A large percentage of emigrants during the famine years were landless laborers, virtually destitute in many cases and certainly much poorer than the small farmers who had emigrated to Canada one or two decades earlier. Furthermore, the landless, Catholic Irish in the United States tended to gravitate much more to urban settings than did their landowning Canadian counterparts, and Catholicism became almost synonymous with Irish ancestry in many U.S. locales.

In short, the American model for Irish immigration history during the early nineteenth century cannot be applied to the Canadian scene without major modifications. Each setting had its unique evolution that should be examined in its own terms.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Houston, Cecil J., and William J. Smyth. Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement: Patterns, Links, and Letters. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990. Well-written analysis and synthesis of Irish emigration to British North America. Stresses the diversity of the early Irish settlements in the Canadas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mannion, John. Irish Settlements in Eastern Canada: A Study of Cultural Transfer and Adaptation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974. Comparative study of early Irish settlements in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. Based on extensive field interviews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Especially valuable for the discussion of the ambiguous Irish attitudes toward overseas emigration and the cultural shock many Irish experienced on arrival.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moran, Gerard. Sending Out Ireland’s Poor: Assisted Emigration to North America in the Nineteenth Century. Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts Press, 2004. Examines assisted emigration and the debates surrounding it both before and after the Irish Famine, as well as the fates of the impoverished Irish emigrants once they arrived in North America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scally, Robert J. The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine, and Emigration. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1995. The first half of this book vividly describes the conditions and problems encountered in pre-Famine Ireland.

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Great Irish Famine

First Test of Canada’s Responsible Government

Fenian Risings for Irish Independence

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America’s “New” Immigration Era Begins

Ellis Island Immigration Depot Opens

Immigrant Farmers Begin Settling Western Canada

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Categories: History