Sean Finn is an executive vice-president at Canadian National Railway Co., and was to be the keynote speaker at this year’s St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal’s annual St. Patrick’s Day luncheon. It was cancelled due to COVID-19.
On this somewhat subdued St. Patrick’s Day, as we look to the future and better times ahead, I’ll also be reflecting upon the remarkable and sometimes tragic history of the Irish in my home province of Quebec.
Like prime minister Brian Mulroney, and Quebec premiers Pierre-Marc Johnson, Daniel Johnson Jr. and Jean Charest, and many thousands of others, I’m a proud Irish-Quebecker.
(The late Prime minister Louis Saint-Laurent and Quebec premier Daniel Johnson Sr. were Irish-Quebeckers as well.)
My mother, Gisèle Laberge, is French-Canadian, from Châteauguay, Que. She just turned 90. My father, Terrence Finn, who died in 2014 at age 101, was Irish, born in County Sligo.
I was raised on the South Shore of Montreal in the two cultures, not all that unusual in the 1960s in Quebec, where 16 per cent of the population can still claim Irish roots. There’s an old joke: “The French and Irish don’t fight – they have large families!”
The relationship between the groups wasn’t always free of disagreements and conflict, but overall, it’s been marked by unusual respect, tolerance, even love. Perhaps it’s because for generations in Canada, the French and Irish were considered outsiders, less than equals.
More than 75,000 Irish immigrated to Canada, many settling in Quebec, during and after the Great Irish Famine of 1845-49. Many died of typhus (“ship fever”) aboard “coffin ships.” Many who survived were quarantined in fever sheds on Grosse Île in the St. Lawrence River and in Montreal.
Irish orphans arrived by the hundreds. Often, they were taken to Catholic parishes, where the bishops would lock the doors after Sunday mass and say to their congregations: “No one leaves until each one of these children is spoken for.”
As the Irish became established in Quebec, they served as bridge-builders between the French and English, sharing religion with the French and language with the English.
Frequently, though, the Irish would join with the French to oppose the English. One of the most dramatic examples occurred during Quebec’s 1837 Patriotes Rebellion, when the majority French population revolted against the stifling colonial administration.
Irish-Montrealers such as Dr. Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan were outspoken supporters of French demands for a more democratic form of government. In fact, Cork-born O’Callaghan believed so passionately in French rights that he became a leading figure in the rebellion and was forced to flee to the United States with Louis-Joseph Papineau when the rebellion failed.
Later, a French-Irish partnership played a crucial role in shaping the responsible government that would lead to Confederation. Usually, the story is related as a grand alliance between the English and French that created the stepping stones to the formation of Canada in 1867. Robert Baldwin partnered with Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, and later Francis Hincks worked with Augustin-Norbert Morin to create a system of responsible government that would accommodate both French and English interests.
What isn’t so well known is that Baldwin was of Irish heritage, and Hincks was born in Ireland.
There were commercial partnerships as well.
In the 19th century, blue-collar Irish and French workers found it difficult to access loans and credit because they worked past the early-closing “gentlemen’s” hours of the banks.
So, Bishop Ignace Bourget led a co-operative effort between the French and Irish to form the Montreal City and District Savings Bank (now the Laurentian Bank of Canada), with a board comprised of high-profile French and Irish, and a presidency usually alternating between them.
Personal partnerships between the French and Irish also helped shape the modern values and cultures of Quebec and the rest of Canada. Prime minister Louis St-Laurent, often considered the embodiment of French political power, had French and Irish roots. Saint-Laurent spoke French to his father, Jean-Baptiste-Moïse, and English to his Irish-Canadian mother, Mary Ann.
Growing up, Saint-Laurent thought that not unusual. Generations of Quebeckers would have agreed.
The Irish were also involved in the development of railways in Quebec and across Canada. Francis Hincks, co-premier of the province of Canada from 1851-54, was a central figure in establishing the Grand Trunk Railway (a predecessor of CN) in 1852.
CN was formed on June 6, 1919, and has been celebrating its 100th anniversary across Canada. Over the years, the company has employed hundreds of Irish workers. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1930, in the early months of the Depression, my father began to work for CNR Cartage. His salary for a six-day week was $10.
Today, I’m privileged to serve as executive vice-president, corporate services and chief legal officer at CN in Montreal, where the Irish are represented on the city flag by a shamrock. I wouldn’t be in this position had my dad not sent me to French school in 1963, when I was five. I live and work in both official languages, equally proud of my French and Irish heritage.
Last week, CN announced a donation to the Ireland Park Foundation in recognition of the Irish immigrants who helped build the nation’s railways. The donation will go toward the construction of a new arts, culture and heritage hub on Toronto’s waterfront, a permanent home to commemorate and celebrate the story of the Irish in Canada.
Montreal has an especially evocative memorial, the three-metre high, 30-tonne Irish Commemorative Stone, known as the Black Rock. It was erected in 1859 by Irish workers building the Victoria Bridge. During construction, they had discovered a mass grave, and wanted to honour those it held.
The inscription on the memorial reads: “To preserve from desecration the remains of 6,000 immigrants who died of ship fever A.D. 1847-8.”
That’s what St. Patrick’s Day means to me.
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