My mother’s family is Irish; the McBrides emigrated to Canada either six or seven generations ago. They left Ireland during the potato famine of 1845 to 1852, an era also known as the Great Hunger. It is estimated that 1.5 million Irish people died (more of them from disease than actual starvation) from a population of eight million. In 1845, approximately 65 per cent of all Irish were farming on less that 15 acres of land and many of those had holdings that were considerably smaller. With large families, potatoes were the only crop that would sustain a large Irish family. With the failure of the potato crop, Irish farmers had few options available to them; many were evicted from their land when they were not able to pay the rent. This was the beginning of a great wave of emigration known as the Irish Diaspora.
The Irish emigrated primarily to England, Scotland, the United States, Canada, and Australia. As Canada was part of the British Empire, they did not (and could not) close their ports to the boats of Irish immigrants which helps account for the huge wave of Irish immigration to Canada during this period. The 1851 census reported that half of the inhabitants of Toronto were Irish. Hamilton, Kingston and Ottawa also became “home” to large numbers of famine Irish, as did Montreal and Quebec City, all ports along the Saint Lawrence Seaway and Lake Ontario. Families were not necessarily able to afford to emigrate together. Often the young men and women of the family emigrated first and, when they had earned enough money, they sent for another member of their family. And so it went until Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million in 1911, less than half of its peak population one hundred years earlier.
Jane Urquhart‘s lyrical novel Away tells the story of three generations of the O’Malley family as they emigrate to Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario) and struggle to survive in their new homeland. I loved this novel and recommend it highly to people interested in this period of Canadian history. The word “away” means a lot of different things in Urquhart’s novel.
Although I don’t know much about them, I am fairly certain that my tribe of McBrides, like Urquhart’s fictional O’Malleys, were poor tenant farmers… I think they knew quite a lot about suffering both in Ireland and in Canada where they would have been faced with the unfathomable task of building farms and lives from nothing. There is no question that our Irishness would continue to shape and influence members of my family for the next hundred and fifty years… our worldview, our deeply held values and beliefs, and even our sense of what is funny (almost everything).
Visiting Ireland was a strange sort of homecoming for me; I felt immediately at home there. What resonated with me most about Dublin was the honesty with which people spoke about the various Irish “troubles”; I saw no attempt to sweep the most difficult parts of Irish history under the rug. Dublin revealed all – the glorious and the inhumane – for travellers (and returned Irish daughters, two centuries removed) to decipher and try to understand.