Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

McGill/Queen’s University Press
ISBN 9780773550469

Reviewed by Dean Jobb

Dean Jobb teaches non-fiction writing at the University of King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

One was dubbed the ‘Belfast of Canada’, the other the ‘Queen City of the Lakes’. Toronto, capital of the Canadian province of Ontario and bordering the Great Lake of the same name, is barely 60 miles due north of Buffalo in New York State, on the shores of Lake Erie. Buffalo’s population was double that of Toronto in the late nineteenth century, but each city had significant Irish communities of about the same size—about 10,000 Irish-born residents. And this gave William Jenkins, a professor of geography at Toronto’s York University, an idea. How did each of these communities, divided by an international border, develop? And what would a comparison of their histories reveal about the Irish immigrant experience in North America?

The result is this thoroughly researched and deeply analysed study of what it meant to be of Irish extraction in Canada and the United States more than a century ago. Jenkins frames his exploration between two significant events in Irish nationalist history—the cross-border raids staged by US-based Fenians in the 1860s and the Easter Rising in Dublin. And given the scholarly attention that has been paid to the role of the Irish in building New York City, Boston and smaller centres, he deliberately focused on mid-sized urban communities ‘more substantial than one-company mill towns and less metropolitan than major eastern seaboard communities’.

The two communities had crucial differences from the start. One was religion. Toronto’s Irish population was composed largely of Ulster Protestants. ‘If you must go to Canada, go to Ontario,’ one Ulster leader declared in the 1870s, ‘and there you will be welcomed by Orange brethren.’ The strong Northern Ireland influence in Toronto prompted the ‘Belfast of Canada’ reference; one Fenian leader went further and derided the city, using the ultimate Irish nationalist slur, as ‘England on a small scale’. In Buffalo most were Catholics from the counties of Munster. It comes as no surprise that Protestant Irish preferred a city in a country still loyal to the Crown, while Catholics preferred to live under the stars and stripes of a nation that had fought a war to gain its independence from Britain.

The other difference was means and status. Most of Toronto’s Irish came to America with some capital and had a leg-up as they—and their descendants—rose to middle-class comfort. In Buffalo the Irish community was founded by labourers who helped to build the Erie Canal and found dockside work as the city became a transportation hub. The numbers tell the story. In 1880 close to half of the Irish men in Buffalo were unskilled labourers, while less than one in five matched that description in Toronto. In the Canadian city almost 40% of men worked as business owners and managers or commission agents, or were self-employed; the corresponding figure for Buffalo was barely 20%.

Sectarian and occupational distinctions coloured how residents of each city viewed events in their homeland. Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Home Rule movement, visited both cities in 1880 during a North American tour, and his reception in each one reflected the political schism between these Irish communities. During his Buffalo speech, the mere mention of Queen Victoria’s name was met with outrage from the crowd, and a resolution was passed condemning the British government’s failure to aid victims of the Potato Famine. In Orange-dominated Toronto, Parnell took pains to distinguish between the acts of the government and the charity and good sense of the British people. The meeting ended with the playing of God save the Queen, although there were enough hisses from Irish Catholic, nationalist-minded spectators to force the band to end mid-song.

Jenkins traces how each community and its institutions evolved over the half-century covered by his study, and the extent to which assimilation, time and distance eroded the sense of Irishness among its members. An array of maps, charts and tables will help readers to visualise how these communities developed and changed. This is not only a scholarly analysis, however: the voices of real people break through, as Jenkins mines newspapers and archives for insights. Newcomer Anastasia Dowling was pleased to discover that there was ‘no end to fassions’ (sic) in Buffalo but missed Ireland. ‘I feel very lonesome here,’ she noted. ‘The ways of this place is so different from home.’ The Irish caught on quickly, however, and embraced the American Dream. ‘Confessedly only children in commercial habits a few years ago,’ observed the editor of a Buffalo newspaper, ‘the Irish are improving, and their descendants are destined to improve still further.’ Toronto’s Irish, as this study shows, were ahead of them in grasping the Canadian Dream of a better life.

‘Questions of place, territory, identity, and belonging have insinuated themselves into modern Irish history’, Jenkins writes. ‘For the vast majority of those who departed, emigration was an exercise in literally finding a place, a comfortable home in the world … which they felt that Ireland was unable to offer them.’ Between raid and rebellion reveals how thousands of Irish emigrants found new places in the world in the cities of Toronto and Buffalo, and how they made each—in their own way—a comfortable home.


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