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The Irish Immigrant Adjustment to Toronto : 1840-1860 - irish immigration 1880

The Irish Immigrant Adjustment to Toronto : 1840-1860-irish immigration 1880

CCHA Study Sessions, 39(1972), 53-60
The Irish Immigrant Adjustment
to Toronto : 1840-1860
by Rev. D. S. SHEA, M.A., B.Th.,
Doctoral Candidate, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
" The founders of Toronto and of the P rovince were ardent Loyalists.To them
England was all in all; its freedom ideal, its constitution perfection."1 In 1812 the
total population for all of Upper Canada was only 3 3 ,0 0 0 . Th is meant that
Toronto, as the hub of political activity, also tended to exercise considerable
social and ec o n o mi c i n fluence upon the entire P rovince by virtue of the
c o n centration of important personages within its environs. As in the United
States of America, the early immigrants to Canada were reasonably well-to-do,
professionals, merchants or far me r s. They also tended to be P rotestant and
pro-British.2 It was into this environment the Irish immigrant arrived. Statistical
studies show that during the first three decades ofthe 19th century the percentage
of Irish immigration, out of the total arriving in both countries, was far higher in
Canada than in the U.S.A.This would indicate that during the early decades of the
19th century ther e w a s a marked preference for Canada by Irish immigrants.
Attempting to provide an explanation for this preference, W. F. Adams ruled out
religious convictions as a possibility.3 British rule was a dominant factor in their
choice oflocation.With their middle class background, the early Irish immigrants
were, in fact, able to find employment in every trade and profession, and where
recognition was due, access to every social level.4 Financial ability alone
determined where one would locate. P rices were lower and social structure in
Toronto was not nearly as rigid as in Boston.
The pre-famine Irish tended to congregate in large urban settings in the U.S.A.
while in Canada they were more rural oriented. However, in the 1840' s, a shift in
the Irish rural orienta t i o n began to be experienced. The harsh realities of the
Canadian climate made farming a less than desirable occupation for any lacking the
skill to make it profitable. Many Irish farmers became discouraged and moved to
1 Jesse Edgar MIDDLETON,The Municipality of Toronto: A History,(3
Vol.) (Toronto, 1923), Volume 2, p. 693.
2 William F. ADAMS, Ireland and Irish Emigration to the New W orld:
From 1815 to the Famine (New York, 1932), pp. 64-65 and 95.
3 Ibid., p. 64.
4 Kenneth DUNCAN," Irish Famine Immigration and the Social Structure
of Canada West," in W. E. MANN, Canada: A Sociological Profile (Toronto,
1968), p. 1.
-- 53 --
the city to find employment, usually as unskilled labourers. This helped increase
the number destined for Toronto or other urban areas. In addition, as the flood
gates ofIrish immigration opened,many farmers feared the newcomers to be carriers
of disease and refu s e d to hire them.5 This also tended to redirect the Irish
immigration stream from the country to the city. With this rural-urban shift and
with the waves of Irish immigrants arriving daily through the 1840' s, Toronto' s
population began to expand rapidly. Yet the city into which the Irish moved
differed in many ways from its American counterparts. Being a relat i vely new
centre, even s hantees could be constructed on the Don Flats within walking
distance ofemployment.Conditions never reached the tenement proportions found
in Boston. The availability and accessibility of lan d and accommodation
prevented Irish ghettos developing to the degree that was experienced in several
American cities on the east coast during the same period. Concerning the location
o f t h e I r i sh within Toronto, from a study of the Assessment Rolls and Cit y
directories it would appear as though the Irish congregated near the core of the
city, not far from the wharves. Further, the directories reveal very few multi-unit
dwellings giving rise to the impression that, modest or not, each immigrant could
reasonably aspire to ownership, or at the very least, rental of his own dwelling
unit in Toronto. There were tenement-like dwellings in the King a n d Yonge
Streets district at the height of the immigrant influx but studies of the directories
a decade or two later show that they were of short existence though the centre of
Irish concentration remained reasonably fixed in the southern and eastern sectors
of the city.
By the 1840' s,however,the calibre ofimmigrant changed and opportunities
for social mobility became correspondingly more selective. Generally th e
immigrants of the 1840' s and 1850' s were unskilled. However, as a source of
cheap labour, the Irish were displacing no ethnic group and thereby posed no
threat to the existing employment status of native workers. Consequently they
experienced no overt job discrimination save that posed by their own limitations.
But in contrast to the usual experience, Toronto Irish women were engaged in
domestic service to a notably lesser degree than seems to have been the case in the
United States. Lack of demand may provide a possible explanation.The fortunate
consequence was that it permitted the women to remain at home and provide the
Irish family with a sense of unity not enjoyed by Irish families in the urban centres
of the eastern United States.6 Considering both sexes, the directories reveal that
5 Kenneth DUNCAN, Op. cit., p. 6.
6 For a discussion of the type ofprejudice experienced by the Irish domes-
tics, see the article by John J. AP P EL entitled " From Shanties to Lace Curtains:
The Irish Image in P uck, 1877-1910," in The Journal of Comparative Studies in
Society and History, Volume 13, No. 4, October 1971, pp. 365-375. Cf. also an
unpublished study presented to the Duquesne History Forum,in 1971,by Blaine
McKINLEY entitled " Ethnic Tensions in t he Middle-Class American Home:
-- 54 --
the vast majority were employees rather than self-employed and so me upward
occupational (and we might assume social) mobility was evidenced. But there
does seem enough evidence to suggest that the Irish never remained a massive
lump in the Toronto community, undigested and indigestible.
The Toronto Irish were characterized by high involvement in t h e Trade
Labour Movement.7 Their success in labour movements and rapid penetration into
employment areas like the police force, stevedoring or street-railway occupations
or even seafaring indicates as much about the skills brought with them to their
new homeland as it does about the types of positions available for immigrant
groups within the Toronto economy. A l though the famine period immigrants
tended to assume occupational roles at the lowest end of the economic and social
order this served one useful function: as the economy expanded they arrived to
assume the jobs no one else apparently desired. Group conflict was thus kept to
a minimum. On the negative side, by the late 1860' s and 1870' s, as the native
born off-spring of these immigrants began to push upward, resistance increased
and this later period was characterized by increased group conflict and social
The lower economic and social status of the famine immigrants cre a t e d a
dichto my e v en within the ranks of the Irish. The destitute, illiterate,
pro-Republican, liberal, Catholic and anti-British characteristics that marked the
newcomers also set them apart from their countrymen who had arrived in earlier
y e a r s . These religious, political and economic differences contributed to the
assimilation ofthe pre-famine Irish into the social structure ofToronto.It also gave
the characterization of " Irishness" a new model against which those who were
Irish, and those who were not, worked out their identity in new ways. In the
ensuing decade,the effect of this transformation was illustrated by the subtle shift
of orientation in Irish institutions such as the St. P a t r i ck' s Society and the
Orange Order. The former clearly be c a me a Catholic body dedicated to the
preservation of values held by the immigrants who had arrived during the famine
years.On the other hand, prefamine Irish immigrants,desirous ofmaintaining their
cultural heritage, found the structure and orientation of the Orange Order more
compatible to their P rotestant and pro-British leanings. On the other hand, the
Employees Attitudes and Irish Servants, 1850-1876."
7 Lloyd G. RE Y N O L D, The British Immigrant: His Social and
Economic Adjustment in Canada, Toronto, 1935,p.92; and D.C.MASTERS,The
Rise of Toronto: 1850-1890 (Toronto, 1947), p. 109. John HIGHAM,Strangers
in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism,1860-1925,New York,1966,p.49.
The P olice Report submitted to the City Council in 1851 reveals that all officers
were English and all the constables Irish,nearly all P rotestant. Two were Roman
-- 55 --

Which best describes Irish immigrants in the 1800s? How did the migration of Irish people impact the United States and Ireland? "Ireland," November 27, 1851 (Document) Chapter XXV from "A History of the Irish Settlers in North America from the Earliest Period to the Census of 1850," 1852 (Document) "The Foreign Element," February 8, 1855 (Document)


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