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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Irish  Profile provided courtesy of the 1984 Alberta People Kit

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ccording to Irish folk tradition, the earliest Irish visitor to Canada was St. Brendan, a monk and navigator who some historians say sailed to North America around 545 A.D. Sustained Irish immigration dates back to the early 1700s, but was relatively light until the Irish potato blight of 1845. Famine, disease and centuries of brutal rule by England led to widespread Irish emigration to Canada.

During the 1840s and 1850s, many thousands of Irish immigrants made their way to Canada in crowded, disease-ridden ships that took anywhere from 45 days to four months to cross the Atlantic. Many died en route or shortly after arriving in Canada. Typhus epidemics took the lives of thousands, some of whom were buried in mass graves near Montreal and Quebec City. Irish immigration was so great that by 1867, the Irish in Canada outnumbered both the English and the Scottish. Only Canadians of French descent were more numerous at this time. Many of the early Irish immigrants engaged in farming or worked as labourers on canal and railway projects. In what is now Alberta, approximately 20 percent of the early fur traders were Irish.

Substantial Irish immigration to the prairies did not begin until the 1880s.  Most, however, arrived between the turn of the century and World War I. By 1911, there were 5,820 Irish people in Alberta.

Irish immigration to Canada in the 1920s brought the Irish-Canadian population to 1,231,000, 12 percent of the national population. Irish immigration was also heavy in the post-war period. Today Canada is the home of approximately 3,800,000 Irish Canadians, 461,000 of whom live in Alberta.

The Irish have played a significant role in the development of Canada. Sir Guy Carleton (later Lord Dorchester), the first Governor-in-Chief of British North America, was an Irishman. Other distinguished Irish Canadians include Thomas D'Arcy McGee, Arthur Meighen and Lester Pearson.

The Irish contribution to Canadian culture includes Irish music, which is enjoyed from coast to coast. Dancing is also very popular and dancing schools exist in Calgary, Edmonton, Fort McMurray and Hinton. Many of the members of the various Irish dancing clubs that exist throughout Alberta go to Ireland each year at Easter to compete in the world championships.

Irish cultural organizations and sports clubs can be found at Fort McMurray, Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. These organizations offer membership to people of all ethnic origins and are comprised mainly of native-born Canadians. Soccer, or football, as Irish-Canadians call it, is an integral part of their culture. The Calgary Chieftans Gaelic Football Club is a mainly Irish organization as is the Irish Sport and Social Society in Edmonton. Both organizations sponsor local events to promote and sustain the Irish culture in Alberta. To locate publications concerning the Irish Canadian community in Alberta, one might contact the Irish Sports and Social Society for their newsletter, the Edmonton Blarney, or the Irish Cultural Society, located in Edmonton, which also publishes a newsletter.

The Irish in Alberta are most visible on Saint Patrick's Day, which is celebrated by both Irish and non-Irish Canadians alike. The Edmonton Irish community sponsors an annual parade and on that day Albertans are reminded of the Irish presence in the province that has added immeasurably to our rich cultural heritage.

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