Drama, Integration, and Recognition
The façade of Saint-Patrick’s Church on rue McMahon is a reminder of the Québec City Irish community’s historic importance. The Celtic cross installed a bit further along evokes an especially tragic time in Irish history: the Great Famine of the 1840s, which led to a mass exodus and the arrival in Québec of hundreds of thousands of people. Many of the young immigrants were orphans, and were adopted by French Canadians.
By around 1830 Québec City’s Irish Catholics were numerous enough to establish their own place of worship. Their pastor, Reverend Patrick McMahon, got his wish in 1831. Architect Thomas Baillairgé oversaw the construction of the church, where Catholic services were conducted in English. It should come as no surprise that the building was dedicated to the patron saint of the Irish—Saint Patrick—and McMahon was the first parish priest.
The façade incorporated into a Hôtel-Dieu de Québec research centre survived two major fires that destroyed the rest of the building, which had lain abandoned since the 1960s.
Québec City’s Irish community
Half of the immigrants who landed in Québec in the first two decades of the 19th century were of Irish origin. Most were Protestants who belonged to the wealthier classes of society. But there were still many Catholics, and their numbers increased greatly in the following decades, to the extent that their church was expanded twice, in 1853 and 1876. The second wave of immigration was, however, very different from the first.
Starting in 1830 agricultural day labourers left Ireland by the thousands in the hope of finding a better life abroad. These workers used all of their meagre savings to pay their way to Canada. Once in Québec City, they often settled in Lower Town, especially in the Champlain district, and many worked as longshoremen at the port. Their working conditions were so harsh that they formed one of Canada’s first labour unions.
The tragedy of 1847
The largest migration occurred in the 1840s. The Irish were fleeing a terrible famine that had devastated their country—potato blight, a parasite, destroyed the potato crops, the basis of their diet. At the height of the Great Famine, in 1847, nearly 100,000 Irish left for Canada. Unfortunately, many never made it.
The ship holds they traveled in were designed for transporting wood, and conditions were so unsanitary that a major typhus epidemic broke out. Many passengers died on the crossing and were thrown overboard without further ado. The survivors were dropped at Grosse Île, an island quarantine station facing Montmagny, where 5,000 of them died.
The Celtic cross erected on rue McMahon in 1997 was a gift to Québec City from the Irish. It is a reminder of the generosity of French Canadian families who adopted children orphaned when their parents died on the trip, a gesture of solidarity that helped bring the two communities closer together.
A little-known history
The Irish community is smaller today than it once was—in the 1860s it made up one quarter of Québec City’s population. But many Quebecers have Irish ancestry. And French-sounding names like Mainguy, Riel, and Sylvain often hint at an Irish relative, since they are related to the McGees, Reillys, and O’Sullivans.
Irish heritage is reflected in many ways. Irish music and dance, for example, like fiddle jigs and reels, are now closely associated with Québec traditions.
The annual Saint Patrick’s Day parade in the streets of Québec City is becoming a tradition. Thousands participate enthusiastically regardless of their roots, clearly showing Québecers’ strong attachment to the Irish community.