In recent years, especially in the past decade or so, Newfoundland media, political, and arts figures have increasingly invoked Ireland as a cultural, economic, and historical reference point. Newfoundland’s self-styled “Irishness” is made out to be inherent and pervasive. Ireland, it is argued, as the “Celtic Tiger”, is the ideal model for economic development. And there is a little more than a hint of Newfoundland nationalism and crypto-separatism tied up in these comparisons.
Just consider that this Google search:
(Ireland OR Irish) site:gov.nl.ca/releases
generates over 200 hits. And that’s just in provincial government press releases. The full government website generates over 500.
While Danny Williams has been especially fond of invoking the Ireland comparison, and has brought it to new heights, often of ridiculousness, the Irish fixation, it must fairly be pointed out, long predates him. Brian Tobin plucked a few shamrocks and kissed a few Blarney stones in his political career, too, and ‘writes’ a substantial section of his political memoir on the Irish theme. Peckford and Moores called upon it, too, when it suited their rhetorical ends. Nor is it exclusively championed by Williams; the current federal cabinet minister, Loyola Hearn, is the author of a song entitled “From an Island to an Island”, after all.
But how accurate and appropriate is the Irish myth?
Newfoundland is not actually that Irish. OK, yes, Newfoundland has a very strong Irish cultural heritage, a long history of settlement from Ireland, predating the famines that so famously precipitated the worldwide Irish diaspora, and in many areas an audible linguistic heritage.
But Newfoundland, and Newfoundland and Labrador as a whole, is not nearly as Irish as the “how Irish we are!” myth would have it. Consider the following extracts from the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador (supplemented with some additional information.) Clockwise around Newfoundland, starting in St. John’s:
ST JOHN’S: “By 1795 the town’s permanent population stood at over 3000, two-thirds of whom were Irish… by 1815 St. John’s had a permanent population of over 10,000. While the merchant class was mainly from England or Scotland, the Irish dominated trades and crafts… With Irish outnumbering the English by nearly two to one, St. John’s was not without its ethnic tensions…”
AVALON PENINSULA: “…starting in the early 1700s Irish, as well as English, fishermen were brought out to the Island [i.e. Newfoundland], their numbers increasing as the century wore on… At the turn of the [nineteenth] century, the Napoleonic Wars were being fought… At the same time the numbers of English and Irish settlers going to the Island as a whole increased…”
SOUTHERN SHORE: “Permanent settlement commenced with the West Country English, but by the early 1760s Irish settlers were the dominant force… The economy has always been based on fish. This, coupled with the fact that the region is populated today almost entirely by Irish Catholics with only small pockets of Protestant English, means that the Southern Shore possesses a high degree of social cohesion.”
TREPASSEY: “By the 1730s Folletts and Jacksons, representing merchant firms from Topsham (the port of Exeter) were established at Trepassey… Due to harsh conditions in Ireland, former fishing servants from southern Ireland emigrated to outports along the southern Avalon. By the 1770s they had increasingly replaced departing West Countrymen at Trepassey. Hence by 1800, except for a small minority of English Protestants, Trepassey had become a predominantly Irish Catholic settlement.”
ST MARY’S BAY: “By 1800 there were considerable fishing premises and a growing village at St. Mary’s… The year-round population of the Bay was already overwhelmingly Irish and Roman Catholic. While in the early 1800s there were some English traders and their families at St. Mary’s, and individual families of English, French or Scottish descent at Salmonier, these were soon absorbed into the Irish culture of the area. The largest number of Irish immigrants arrived between 1810 and 1820…”
PLACENTIA BAY: The ENL article on Placentia Bay is unreadable and useless. From other sources we can learn that Irish settlement was prominent in this bay, especially on the east side in the Placentia area.
BURIN PENINSULA: “…the Treaty of Paris ceded ownership of all northern North America to England except for St. Pierre et Miquelon. There had been a number of English settlers on these islands and they were forced to leave. Many took up residence in the Grand Bank-Fortune area…”
FORTUNE BAY: “It was during this time, after the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, that the first major wave of English settlements swept the Fortune Bay area. Many settlers were forced to move from the English settlements on St. Pierre and Miquelon… [B]y 1794 the population had risen to 918. Most of these new settlers were from the west of England, particularly Devonshire, Dorsetshire and Somersetshire, and from the Channel Islands… Some of these new communities [in the late 19th century] were formed by immigrants from the British Isles or other parts of Newfoundland, while others were formed by residents of Fortune Bay who decided to move to new sites…”
SOUTH COAST: For reasons that are difficult to comprehend, there is no separate ENL article on this region of Newfoundland. From other sources, we can learn that the South Coast was settled largely by direct West Country immigration, English exiles from St. Pierre and Miquelon, Channel Islanders, Nova Scotians, and settlers from the older settled districts of Newfoundland. The South Coast was itself also a source area for settlers in various parts of western Newfoundland, and as far afield as the Lower North Shore of Quebec.
CODROY VALLEY: “The first residents of the area were probably Micmac, originally from Nova Scotia… English and Jersey fishermen followed the French and by the 1760s were fishing at Codroy… The Codroy Valley settlements grew slowly until the period 1840-1865 when Acadians, Irish and a large number of Scots from Cape Breton and other settled areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence began to arrive on the southwest coast of the Island [i.e. Newfoundland]
ST GEORGE’S BAY: “The first known inhabitants of St. George’s Bay were Micmac… By 1783, however, there were a few settlers of Jersey extraction, fishing, trapping and farming at the ‘Barrasways’… While a number of new English settlers arrived to prosecute the herring fishery, from the 1840s most new arrivals were from Nova Scotia, especially French-speaking Acadian from cape Breton Island… By 1850 French people (including Cape Breton Acadians and deserters from the French fishery) made up approximately half of the Bay’s population of an estimated 900…”
PORT AU PORT: “In the late eighteenth century a few fishermen, some of them deserters from French ships, settled on the Peninsula… Between 1825 and 1845, several Acadian families… moved from Nova Scotia to St. George’s Bay and Port au Port. Subsequently some French fishermen married Acadian women and settled, and other settlers came from St. Pierre. The 1870s brought a new wave of settlers, most of whom were Gaelic-speaking Scots from Cape Breton… In the later 1800s Micmac families came to the Cape St. George area from St. George’s Bay. People of English descent also began moving into the Peninsula in larger numbers at about this time…”
BAY OF ISLANDS: “It is believed that the first settlers in the Bay were a Mr. Brake, from southwest England and a Mr. Blanchard, who was probably a Frenchman. Other immigrants did not follow rapidly, for by the second decade of the 1800s, only seven families were listed as residents of the Bay… These early settlers, who came from a variety of areas, including England and the south coast of Newfoundland, tended small farms and fished… [In the 1850s/1860s] settlers began arriving in large numbers… the majority of these came from the Avalon Peninsula… As well, some settlers came from the south coast of Newfoundland, and from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick”
BONNE BAY: “…the first settlers (six families, the majority of Southwest English origins) arrived between 1807 and 1838… From 1875 to 1900 the population of Bonne Bay rose dramatically as settlers, many of Scottish origin from the south coast [of Newfoundland], the Port au Port area, and Labrador, migrated to Bonne Bay. The majority of this population was Protestant with the exception of St. Joseph’s, a small community settled by Conception Bay people of Irish origin which was abandoned in the early 1900s.”
NORTHERN PENINSULA: “Most settlers originated in England from Dorsetshire, Devonshire, Somersetshire and Wiltshire. There were also a few settlers from Jersey, France, Scotland, and Canada… [T]he second phase of settlement occurring between roughly 1850 and 1900 brought the bulk of settlers to the west coast of the Great Northern Peninsula. These settlers originated on the east coast of Newfoundland, particularly Conception Bay and some from Trinity Bay.”
WHITE BAY: “By local tradition the first settler in White Bay, Pittman would appear to have been living at Sops Island by 1810. Another pioneer, John Gill (or Gale) settled in the 1820s… Within the Bay, Big Island [etc.] became bases for fishermen out of Greenspond, Herring Neck and Fogo Island. The 1840s and 1850s saw many of these marry into the Gale and Pittman families and settle in the Bay.”
NOTRE DAME BAY: “…by 1732 there were English migratory fishermen frequenting Twillingate and it was estimated that there were 143 English wintering there in 1738… The origins of the population of Notre Dame Bay are almost exclusively West Country English, with the only sizeable enclave of Irish Roman Catholics being at Fortune Harbour (as well as Tilting, if eastern Fogo Island is considered to be part of the Bay.)”
TWILLINGATE: “The harbour was also frequented by the English, local tradition identifying the first settlers as four English fishermen… By 1738 Twillingate was a ‘regular resort’ of West Country fishermen… Winter resources such as timber, seals and salmon helped further to establish a year-round population, most of whom came from the West Country hinterland of the port of Poole…
TWILLINGATE ISLANDS: “Most of the familiar family names of western Notre Dame Bay… have their Newfoundland roots at Twillingate Islands.”
FOGO ISLAND: It is also about this time [mid-18th century] that the first Irish Roman Catholics settled in Tilton Harbour. The early settlers came mostly from the hinterland of Poole in Dorset, England, whose merchants dominated the fishery on the northeastern coast of Newfoundland, or from Waterford, Ireland, where fishing ships out of Poole were accustomed to stop for supplies and Irish servants or “youngsters”… Over the next forty years Slade’s encouraged migration from the English West Country and Ireland to Fogo island…”
STRAIGHT SHORE: “…Bonavista fishermen dominated the migratory fishery to the Wadham Islands and the northern part of the Straight Shore. Eventually, some fishing families settled and the migratory fishery came to an end…”
BONAVISTA BAY: “Bonavista Bay was first visited by English migratory fishermen in the 1600s and was first settled from roughly 1675 to 1681 by men from South Devon and the Channel Islands… From the late 1760s mainly Irish Catholic residents via Trinity Bay settled in Keel’s, King’s Cove, Barrow Harbour [etc.]”
BONAVISTA PENINSULA: “English settlement [by the eighteenth century] spread west from Bonavista, especially to the headlands and the sloping marine terraces of the west coast of the Peninsula as well as to the headlands, reaches and islands of Bonavista Bay. From Trinity it spread to new settlements on the east side of the Peninsula. By the mid-1700s Irish Roman Catholic migration mainly settled Keels, Plate Cove [etc.]”
TRINITY BAY: “Most of the present-day inhabitants of Trinity Bay are descended from fishing servants or tradesmen brought out to Trinity, Catalina and Old Perlican or their outposts from the hinterland of Poole, Dorset. There were also many Irish fishing servants employed by the West Country firms, but relatively few settled in the Bay. Only Bellevue, Heart’s Desire and Melrose developed into predominantly Irish/Catholic settlements, although there were also significant Catholic minorities at Trinity and Catalina.”
CONCEPTION BAY: “Originally settled by the West Country English, Conception Bay received a large influx of Irish settlers in the nineteenth century… As pressure on the population grew, Conception Bay inhabitants move away permanently to prosecute the fishery on the north and west coast of Newfoundland, and on the coasts of Labrador.”
Labrador, too – part of the province, and an integral one, at that, according to Danny Williams – has a complicated and fascinating settlement history. Setting aside the industrial urbanization that came with the development of Goose Bay and the iron mines, various regions of Labrador saw 18th and 19th century settlement from a variety of sources. In the Straits, about half the progenitors came from Newfoundland, especially Conception Bay, while others were direct immigrants from the West Country or the Channel Island, sometimes by way of Gaspé.
On the southeast coast, West Country and other English, even Welsh, immigration was superimposed on an Inuit substrate whose historical significance, long denied, is finally beginning to emerge. Other settlers came from Newfoundland, again with Conception Bay prominent, as well as pre-Confederation Canada.
Esquimaux Bay (Hamilton Inlet/Lake Melville) obviously has an important Inuit and Innu substrate. They were followed by French Canadians, who dominated almost until the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1836, direct immigration from England, Scots, French-Canadian and even Finnish HBC servants, and the occasional Newfoundlander. Unusually, Newfoundland women are more prominent in the population of the Bay than men.
The North Coast is obviously heavily Inuit and Innu, but again there are strong French-Canadian, Scandinavian, Scottish, English, and some Newfoundland elements in the settlement history of the region.
There were few, if any direct immigrants from Ireland to Labrador in the pre-industrial period, and fewer still who left traces in local family trees. Irish family names in coastal Labrador are attested by those families whose progenitors came to Labrador after a generation or more in Newfoundland.
The Irish element in Newfoundland and Labrador’s settlement history is very important locally, from Conception Bay around the Avalon to Placentia Bay, and then, mainly via secondary migration within the province, to other areas where direct immigration was lesser or absent.
But other elements in the settlement history are far more important, again locally, than the Irish in the core Irish areas of Newfoundland. The Channel Islands are prominent from the Burin Peninsula around the south and west coast of Newfoundland and into southern Labrador. The West Country is well-represented almost around all three coasts of Newfoundland, especially from parts of Conception Bay to the northeast coast, along the south coast, and along both sides of the Strait of Belle and along the Labrador coast as far as Esquimaux Bay. The other pre-Confederation British North American provinces, especially Nova Scotia and Quebec, are well-represented in the Scots, Acadian, Micmac, and French-Canadian settlement of the south and west coasts of Newfoundland and nearly the whole length of Labrador.
The history of settlement and colonization from the older settled parts of Newfoundland to the 19th-century frontier areas, and the cultural, economic, and historical connections between Newfoundland, Labrador, and the 18th- and 19th-century Gulf of St. Lawrence colonies, are fascinating parts of the province's history which have gone almost entirely unstudied, uncelebrated, and unappreciated. It is not a coincidence that you find people named Chev[a/e]r[ie/y], or places named "Jersey", "Guernesey" or "Basque" along all four shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Is it important to recognize, promote and celebrate the Irish heritage? Yes, absolutely. But it is absolutely vital that it be done in context. The Irish heritage in Newfoundland and Labrador is interesting and worth exploring. But the complexities, subtleties, nuances and quirks of settlement, history, and cultural development are much more interesting, and much more worth exploring. From the Aboriginal cultures, through the waves of immigration from the greater and lesser British Isles, to the province’s important ties to other parts of British North America and then Canada, there is a much bigger, and much more fascinating story to be told, than the one that is told when the Irish element, almost exclusively, is given prominence, government imprimatur, and state sanction.
Where are all the cultural delegations to the West Country? The economic conferences on the Channel Islands? When are the music festivals highlighting Acadian and Cape Breton Scots influences? Where is the travelling exhibit on the French-Canadian influence in Labrador? Who has written the book on the Gaspé/Jersey connection? And just try googling “West Country” or “Channel Islands” on the provincial government’s web site!
Writing in the St. John’s Telegram just before St. Patrick’s Day 1999, John Gushue provided an entertaining, and though-provoking examination of his own family history:
My grandfather Gushue [...] was raised in the area of Bacon Cove, Conception Bay, in the very early years of this century. At the very least, Pop grew up certain of a few things, and one of them was his heritage. Like everyone else around him, he assumed he was wholly Irish and Catholic.
Not so. Some years ago, my mother was doing some research, and in a list of plantations found a record that indicated the family name originated in the Channel Islands, by way of France; our ancestors were Huguenots.
So someone — my dad, actually — broke the news to Pop that his surname was not Irish and Catholic, but French and Protestant.
Gushue continues and concludes:
In many parts of the province (much of the northeast coast, large parts of the Burin Peninsula) there's scarcely a hint of Irish culture. I imagine things have gone askew because St. John's, which has a real Irish lilt to it, dominates the province and is always willing to speak for it, too.
There are other influences besides Irish and English. The French shore may not legally exist, but its legacy does. Our map is dotted with place names drawn from Spanish, Basques and Portuguese sources. […]
And let us never forget that in the scheme of things, we're all Conor-come-latelies compared to aboriginal communities. […]
Our music borrows from many traditions, Celtic and otherwise. The fact of the matter is that we've all fortified, nurtured and nourished one another.
We are who we think we are, and who we want to be. I think it's terrific that a lot of people want to get in touch with their Celtic roots. My problem is that when we sell ourselves as a little Irish enclave, we're not telling the whole story.
Gushue nails it. Without taking anything away from the important Irish element to Newfoundland history and culture, all
elements of the province’s history and cultural heritage deserve exploration, celebration, preservation, and commemoration. To fail to do so threatens not just to overlook, and even suppress, important chapters of history, but also runs the risk of alienating those regions, communities, and cultures which do not "feel the Irishness" that increasingly takes on an obsessive character in the provincial government, the arts and media community, and the provincial metropolis.
What should someone whose speech is of Devon, and whose ancestors came from Trois-Rivières, the Arctic, and Orkney, have stirred in them by an appeal to their non-existent Irishness?
Everyone might be Irish on St. Patrick's day, but if "culture... is at the heart of our identity", "fundamental to our quality of life, our distinctive identity and our confidence as people", and "a celebration of our history, our lives and our accomplishments"
, then be both honest and inclusive about it.
Collectively downing one too many pints of green Guinness is to do a disservice to the true complexities and fascinating turns to be found in our culture and heritage. And it is inventing a past and a culture that simply does not, and did not, exist.