The Irish in Manitoba — St. Patrick’s Day was an important celebration

by Bruce Cherney

For one day a year, Manitobans of all backgrounds can attire themselves in green and proclaim that they are “friends of the Irish.” At the same time, many in this province will be heartedly celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 because they can claim direct descent from Emerald Isle immigrants.

“The sons of Erin no matter in what circumstances or geographical position they may find themselves, are ever mindful that they owe their existence to the gem of the sea — the green isle — and the annual recurrence of Saint Patrick’s Day is marked, all the world over by such celebrations as the number and circumstances of Erin’s sons, in any particular locality, may warrant,” proclaimed the Manitoba Free Press on March 22, 1873.

While church services and the occasional impromptu parade by militia

men marked the day after the creation of the province in 1870, it wasn’t until 1874 that the day’s events truly became organized. In that year, the St. Patrick’s Society was established to honour the Irish contribution to Canada. 

There has been a strong Irish presence in Manitoba since 1811. Among the first Selkirk Settlers were some Irish who arrived at York Factory aboard the Robert Taylor in that year and left for Red River in 1812. 

Andrew McDermot (1790-1881), a lad from Belanagare, County Roscommon, Ireland, was hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1812 and sailed to York Factory aboard the Robert Taylor. He would later play a significant role in the Red River Settlement as a fur trader and businessman, opening the settlement’s first independent store after his retirement from the HBC in 1824. He also served on the Council of Assiniboine, the governing body for the settlement appointed by the HBC. McDermot provided land for Winnipeg’s first post office and the Winnipeg General Hospital.

During the battle of Seven Oaks on June 19, 1816, another Irish immigrant, John Palmer Bourke, was wounded in the groin. Unlike HBC settlement Governor Robert Semple and 20 other colonists, Bourke survived the conflict with the Metis employed by the North West Company  and led by Cuthbert Grant.

Listed as the Irish, who were aboard the Edward and Anne in 1811 to prepare the Red River Settlement for the colonists slated to arrive in 1812, were Thomas McKim, an overseer, aged 38, from Sligo; Pat Corcoran, a carpenter, aged 24, from Crossmalina, County Mayo; John Gree, a labourer, aged 21, from Sligo, County Sligo; Pat Quinn, a labourer, aged 21, from Killala; Martin Jordan, a labourer, aged 16, from Killala, County Mayo; John O’Rourke, a labourer, aged 20, from Killala; Anthony McDonnell, a labourer, aged 23, from Killala; and James Toomey, a labourer, aged 20, from Sligo.

Winnipeg’s most famous corner was created by Henry McKenney, who was born in Amherstburg, Ontario, in 1826 to Henry and Elizabeth McKenney, who came to Canada in 1823 from Ireland.

After his arrival in Winnipeg in 1859, McKenney bought a store from McDermot and promptly converted it into the community’s first hotel which he named the Royal.

He sold his hotel to “Dutch George” Emmerling and built a store where the Main Road (Main Street) and the Assiniboine Road (Portage Avenue) met. He purposefully built the store at an odd angle which dictated the shape of the future corner of Portage and Main.

McKenney was a partner with his half-brother Dr. John Christian Schultz  (McKenney’s mother Elizabeth had remarried) in a number of Winnipeg business enterprises. Schultz was also born in Amherstburg, but in 1840.

Schultz would become a thorn in the side of Louis Riel, the Metis leader of the Provisional Government. During the Red River Resistance of 1869-70, Schultz was the leader of the so-called Canadian Party, which opposed Riel and favoured annexation of the settlement to Canada. For his armed opposition to the provisional government, Schultz was imprisoned by Riel but escaped and fled to Eastern Canada. 

It was Schultz who was primarily responsible for creating a strong anti-Riel, anti-Metis and anti-French Catholic sentiment in Ontario, especially among Irish Protestant Orangemen.

Schultz would later become a respected Manitoba political figure and businessman.

The execution of Thomas Scott, a Protestant Orangeman born in Ireland, on March 4, 1870, following a court martial under the auspices of the provisional government, further enraged the Ontarians. Their political pressure convinced Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to send an army west to quell the so-called uprising and put a noose around the neck of the “rebel” Riel.

Among the militia from Eastern Canada arriving in the settlement in August 1870 were a number of Irish Orangemen intent upon revenging the murder of Scott. In the months after their arrival, they created such havoc within Manitoba that the Eastern newspapers began to describe a “reign of terror” existing in the new province.

Within a few years, the “Canadian Party” and settlers from Ontario had triumphed in Manitoba to the point that history was rewritten in their favour to the exclusion of Riel’s contribution as the true “Founder of Manitoba.”

When the St. Patrick’s Society of Manitoba held its second anniversary on March 17, 1875, in Winnipeg, Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Tache of St. Boniface officiated and called for peace among the various factions.

The Manitoba Free Press on March 20, reported that Roman Catholic Archbishop Tache said, “It was the proudest boast of a son of St. Patrick to be able to say, ‘I am an Irishman;’ and be able to practice his blessed religion and emulate his protections in this land ...

“Referring to the nationality of St. Patrick he stated that some claimed that he was a Frenchman, others that he was a Scotchman, and still others that he was an Irishman, but he believed St. Patrick himself was a Half-breed ... He urged that all — French, English, Irish, etc., — should live in harmony and work together for the general welfare. All nationalities should unity in one feeling of charity. Irishmen should put away bad feelings and should consider themselves all children of St. Patrick.”

Fenians, Irish-Americans intent upon invading Canada, capturing the country and holding it for ransom until the British government granted Irish independence, created the first real panic in the new province. But the Fenians were engaged in a fool’s errand, since Canadians vigorously fought back and the few invasions northward by Fenians were repulsed.

A threatened 1871 Fenian invasion of Manitoba was nipped in the bud when its ringleaders were captured near Pembina by American troops.

Among the leaders was William O’Donoghue, an American who favoured annexation of Western Canada to the U.S. He also was a former colleague of Riel in the provisional government. When Riel indicated a willingness to negotiate terms for entering the Canada Confederation, O’Donoghue fled back to the U.S. and began to help organize a Fenian invasion of Manitoba.

O’Donoghue felt the Metis would take up the Fenian cause to overthrow British authority, but the Metis sided with the Canadian government and mustered a strong force to help repel the invaders. The Fenian leader was captured on the Canadian side of the border by a group of Metis and eventually turned over to American authorities.

In 1872, Irish-born Catholic Henry Joseph Hynes Clarke became the leader of the Manitoba government as its “chief minister,” a term used in place of premier at the time. 

Manitoba’s first and only prime minister of Canada, though only briefly, was Arthur Meighen, whose parents were born in Northern Ireland and settled in Ontario. Called to the Manitoba bar in 1903, Meighen practiced law in Portage la Prairie until he entered politics in 1908. He succeeded Robert Borden as prime minister in 1921, but his government soon fell. In 1926, he was again briefly the PM.

Meighen was described as “Irish to the core” and delighted in telling Irish history and poetry.

Thomas Sharpe, who was born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1866, was Winnipeg’s mayor for two terms starting in 1903.

Nellie McClung, Manitoba’s most famous suffragette, who helped women in this province get the vote in 1916, was another child of an Irish immigrant.

One story of her early days relates that while in church she was scolded for laughing by her mother. Her father, John Mooney, tried to comfort his daughter by saying: “Nellie, your mother is Scotch, and the Scotch is a very serious people, a bit stern maybe, but the greatest people in the world when it comes to courage and backbone. Now I’m Irish, and the Irish are different; not quite so steadfast and reliable, but very pleasant. The Irish have had so much trouble that they’ve had to sing and laugh and dance and fight to keep their hearts from breaking.”

Actually, the part about Irish and dancing has a great deal to do with the early social history of Manitoba. It is said that the Red River Jig is a descendent of an Irish dance.

During her visit to Winnipeg in 1877 with her husband, Canadian Governor General Lord Dufferin, Lady Dufferin wrote in her journal after she saw the Red River Jig performed for the first time, “The Red River Jig was dancing for us. It was exactly the same as an Irish Jig.”

Irish immigrants and their descendants in Manitoba have always celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with song and dance. In the early days of the province, concerts were an integral part of the celebrations.

On March 20, 1875, the Winnipeg-based Standard said there was a procession to St. Mary’s Chapel for a high mass with Archbishop Tache presiding. The St. Boniface Brass Band provided the music for those attending.

A subsequent concert held at the Court House on Main Street under the auspices of the St. Patrick’s Society “was a grand success from every point of view,” with 532 tickets sold.

“After the concert a number of the members of the St. Patrick’s Society repaired to the Grand Central Hotel, and regaled themselves with an excellent repast.”

A dinner on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day was a tradition that continued for years in Winnipeg.

The Daily Nor’Wester, reporting on the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in 1894, said 100 Irishmen — “all good Canadians” — gathered at the Clarendon Hotel on the evening of March 17 and “were determined to give the last hours of the feast a good ‘send-off.’

“The banquet chamber was artistically decorated with the insignia of England, and the banner of the (St. Patrick’s) society.”

The American Consul Duffy gave the toast to the U.S. While he could not say that “President (Grover) Cleveland was an Irishman, but he was first cousin to the Irish — he was Scotch ...

“The speaker paid a warm tribute to the Irish when he said that ‘the head of the Irishman may sometimes go wrong, but the warm heart that beats in his breast very seldom does.’”

Following numerous toasts, those gathered broke into song. Their repertoire included The Rose of Tralee, Old Ireland. The Isle of Beauty and The Shamrock of Ireland.

Joe Fahey of the society gave the toast The Land We Live In and “burst forth in a storm of eloquence when he said: ‘Although a Canadian and proud of his birthplace and the incomparable inheritance which is ours, yet there was within him a fond love for the land of his forefathers.’”

In 1895, a St. Patrick’s Day concert was held at the Bijou Theatre, which was filled to near capacity, according to the Daily Nor’wester.

“The concert itself ranks among the most successful of any such held in the city. Some of the best local talent contributed and the general verdict was ‘success.’”

Like any newspaper of the era, the Daily Nor’Wester went into detail of the songs and recitals performed and by whom.

For example, “Mrs. Melvor’s second appearance was when she sang the song so dear to every Irish heart, Dear Little Shamrock. It was one of the hits of the night, and elicited a well-merited encore.”

On Sunday morning “the bells of St. Boniface were heard to sing out joyously ... possibly in honor of ‘St. Patrick’s Day in the Morn.’ At any rate Irishmen were at liberty to ascribe the second motive.”

In his sermon, Father Lefrebre said that: “(St.) Patrick built a monument on the human heart, on the heart of a nation, on the heart of the Irish people ... (St.) Patrick’s empire has spread over the globe. Wherever an Irishman is he carries with him (St.) Patrick's inheritance.”

The St. Patrick’s Society held their annual evening banquet at Clougher’s English chop house “in royal style.”

A year later, the same newspaper said that “green” was “the prevailing color” on St. Patrick’s Day and was worn by most Winnipeggers.

In 1896, a major change was the absence of a St. Patrick’s Society banquet and the lack of entertainment with the exception of the St. Vincent de Paul Society which was hosting a charity concert at the Lyceum Theatre.

The Daily Nor’Wester said it would be “entirely a religious festival.”

The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Manitoba remains a tradition. This year, the Irish Club on Erin Street has created what it calls a St. Patrick’s Festival  with “three evenings of music, dance and song” for members and non-members alike.

Across the province, pubs, Legions and other community venues will be hosting St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Killarney, Manitoba, named in 1883 after the town and lakes in County Kerry, Ireland, by Irish-born surveyor John Sidney O’Brien, will be holding its own St. Patrick’s Day events on March 17 and 18. According to legend, O’Brien sat on the shore of the then-called Oak Lake and in a fit of homesickness for his native land, took out a bottle of “Good Irish” whiskey from his pack, poured a portion into the lake and christened it Killarney. The town of Killarney was incorporated in 1906.