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The Irish Header

Contrary to what some might believe, the Irish who came to Prince Edward Island were not driven here by poverty or the potato famine (1845–49). Rather, they were experienced farmers and skilled tradesmen seeking refuge from religious discrimination against Catholics, striving for better opportunities in agriculture after crop failures in the 1820s, and seeking to realize their emerging middle class values of individualism, dignity, human rights and freedoms, and belief in progress. Irish immigration to Prince Edward Island occurred in three waves— 1767–1810 saw the Colonial Pioneers; 1810–1830, the Southeastern Immigrants (from Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny, and Tipperary); and, in 1830–1850 came the Monaghan Settlers (but also emigrants from Armagh and Tyrone).

The Irish were not part of the official colonial policy, as were the Scots. The Irish who came to Prince Edward Island did so by choice rather than invitation. Or, in many cases, by default as there was accessible and affordable direct passage from towns such as Wexford, Waterford, and Cork. The majority (90%) of Irish settlers here were of Roman Catholic faith, while the remaining 10% were Anglicans or Nonconformists. Upon arriving on the Island, the Irish settled primarily in the communities of Fort Augustus, Vernon River, St. Mary’s Road, Hope River, Kelly’s Cross, Emyvale, Kinkora, Foxley River, and Burton.

The 1841 Census, for example, reports 212 inhabitants in Kinkora (Lot 27), 155 of whom were born in Ireland. That same year, 50 emigrants arrived from the counties of Armagh and Monaghan. A few of the original Irish names include Keefe, Kelly, Somers, Murphy, Shreenan, Kenny, Dawson, Trainor, and Finlay. The Irish of Lot 22 (Hope River and south) included Flemings, Cullens, Cannings, Harringtons, Pendergasts, Sullivans, and Reids who emigrated in the 1830s from Counties Wexford, Cork, Kilkenny, Kerry, and King’s. Still others—the McKennas, McPhillips, McCarrons, Curleys, McAleer, Keenans, Greenans, and Clarkins—came from Monaghan.

Life was not easy for the Irish in Prince Edward Island. With the Island’s land system of absentee English landlords and primarily non-English tenants, the Irish felt they were inhabiting a second Ireland. In 1830, the Irish and other Catholics began to achieve higher status when the Penal Laws were rescinded, giving Catholics the right to vote and to hold office. During the 1850s, Catholic-Protestant relations remained difficult. The Orange Order became, for a time, a strong force in Island communities. Irish Catholics were viewed as doubly inferior—due to their religion and to their nationality.

A resilient people, the Irish in Prince Edward Island came to prosper with their fellow citizens—acquiring their own lands and participating in emerging trades and professions. Today, the most visible sign of the Island’s Irish heritage is the important community role played by the Benevolent Irish society. Founded in 1825 to help ease the transition for Irish immigrants, the B.I.S. still fulfils its mandate to engage in acts of benevolence for those in need. The Society also seeks to foster unity among all Irish and promote Irish culture and heritage in all its aspects— ceilidhs, Irish set dance classes, music lessons, lecture series, pub nights, and week-long festivities leading up to St. Patrick’s Day.

Link to “The Irish Washer Woman” Music Clef

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