The Irish in Ontario, Canada – Amanda Lingle

The Global Irish Diaspora, or the migration of Irish people outside of Ireland since the nineteenth century, has had a large impact in many different communities and environments. Most Americans know the effect this had on the United States, with large Irish populations moving into places such as New York and Philadelphia. However, many Americans may not be aware of the impact that it had on United States neighbor to the north, Canada. Many Irish immigrants made their way into Upper Canada, or what is now known as the province of Ontario to the west of Quebec. A lot of these immigrants made a living as farmers, and when they could not farm, they worked on public construction projects. The Irish, along with other immigrants transformed the landscape of Ontario through farming and public construction projects such as canals.

Before Europeans came to Ontario, it was a heavily wooded area. Even after they came, many of the first Europeans in this area were trappers and huntsmen. However, during the late eighteenth century, settlers began clearing sections of the forest for farming land. These settlers included people from Britain, France, Scotland, as well as Ireland. These clearings and settlements grew steadily until the War of 1812, when it stagnated as the men went off to war with the United States. This stagnation ended with the war, when many soldiers came back and a wave of other immigrants began. James Charles Canniff pointed out in his book about the history of agriculture in Upper Canada, that there many different townships, which were often separated out based on nationality. According to Canniff, “in one township could be found a group of English settlers… and not far away a colony of north of Ireland farmers, or perhaps a settlement composed entirely of people from the vicinity of Cork or Limerick.”[1]

This transformation of the land into clearings meant that there was now room for farmers. The majority of the Irish immigrants from around 1820 into the 1830s were Protestant Irish, and they tended to have enough money to pay for the voyage to North America as well as buy a piece of land in order to start a farm. These Irish immigrants often had an easier time in Canada than their Catholic counterparts. Irish Catholics were not as socially and politically advantaged with the British because of a long history of conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism. Because of this, the Protestant Irish were more closely aligned with the British and had an easier time in the British colony. Even so, many of the Irish immigrants prior to the Great Irish Potato famine in the 1840s were able to pay their own way. But those that were not able to afford farms, both before and during the famine immigration, had another option available to them, which was to be wage laborers in cities and on construction projects. [2]

These public construction projects changed the environment in a different way. Irish laborers worked to build canals, railroads and other infrastructure that made transporting people and goods throughout the province easier.[3] One major construction project was the Rideau canal, which connects the Ottawa river with Lake Ontario in Kingston and is 202 kilometers long. The canal was proposed near the end of the War of 1812 and began construction in 1826. It was finished six years later in 1832. The majority of the people that built this canal were Irish laborers, and they had a very difficult time completing it. The canal was done completely by hand using pickaxes and shovels. The laborers worked 14 to 16-hour days, six days a week to build dams and locks along the canal. These were dangerous working conditions and, combined with yearly malaria outbreaks as well as other diseases, claimed the lives of an estimated one thousand laborers. Today there are many plaques and monuments dedicated to the workers who died during the construction of the canal.[4] The canal transported freight and passengers on steamships before it started being used for pleasure crafts.[5]

The Irish made a huge impact in the landscape of Ontario. They all left their mark on the land in one way or another, whether it was through farming, or through construction to improve transportation. Conditions may not have always been good, as was the case with the Rideau canal, but they left behind the means for people to live easier in the future because of the developments they made. The legacy left by the Irish in Canada shows itself in the people, the culture, and especially the mark they made on the land.

-Amanda Lingle

The Rideau Canal

[1] James C.C. (Charles Canniff), History of Farming in Ontario (Toronto: Glasgow, Brook, 1914), 557,

[2] Peter Toner, Gillian I Leitch, “Irish Canadians,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, published May 29, 2008,

[3] Peter Toner, Gillian I Leitch, “Irish Canadians,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, published May 29, 2008,

[4] Ken W. Watson, “Memorials and Markers on the Rideau Canal,” Rideau Canal World Heritage Site, accessed Dec. 3, 2018,

[5] Maxwell W. Finkelstein, Robert F. Legget, “Rideau Canal,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, published April 27, 2008,