Report: the Jubilee riots between Irish Catholics and Protestants are still remembered as one of the most bloody events in the city's history
St Patrick's Day in Toronto has long been associated with a 19th century roit when religious tensions led to clashes between Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant migrants to the city. Reporter Mark McMenamin from The History Show on RTÉ Radio 1 spoke to historians Mark McGowan and Jared Ross to find out more. (This piece includes excerpts from the conversation which have been edited for length and clarity - you can hear the discussion in full above).
First things first, there were a lot of Irish in Canada. "Almost 450,000 Irish people migrated to British North America, of which Canada was a part, prior to 1846, which is a shock to many", notes McGowan. "There was already a well-established Irish presence here
'Those who came in 1847, and about 110,000 Irish left UK ports at that time, would have been welcomed by communities in which there would've been a very significant Irish presence. You've got this really interesting mix of Munstermen and Connachtmen working on the Welland Canal and not fighting with Protestants, actually fighting with one another for jobs during and after the famine."
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From RTÉ Archives, Aidan O'Hara reports for Radharc in 1981 on the community of Irish people living in Newfoundland, Canada
Ross says the Irish who arrived in the 1840s and 1850s found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder. "They're kind of designated down into the working class, the day labourers. You have these ethnic, religious, even class tensions all emerging in Toronto in the 1850s and 1860s, and you get some sizable disturbances, riots and sectarian tension due to this blend."
Toronto became known as the Belfast of Canada or the Belfast of North America, explains McGowan. "The Irish Protestant presence in the city was rather profound from its very founding at the beginning of the 19th century. There were times in the mid to late 19th century and early into the 20th century where the Orange Lodge actually dominated City Hall, the mayor's office, the fire department and the police department. It was very difficult at times for Irish Catholics or any Catholics to sort of have some sort of upward mobility in local government."
It all came to a head in 1875 and is still remembered as one of the most bloody events in the city's history. "The Pope celebrated a jubilee and he offered an indulgence to those who paraded from church to church within a city", explains McGowan.
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From Mitchell Wilson, short film about the Irish in Victorian Toronto and the Jubilee Riots of 1875
"In Toronto in 1875, it was tried twice, and the second time it turned into a major riot, the Jubilee riots in the city. What's interesting is it's not as binary as what we think. The police department, mostly Protestant, actually formed a human chain to keep the Orange lads away from attacking the Catholic pilgrims."
Parades continued to be flashpoints between the various ethnic Irish groups within the city for many years after the Jubilee riots. "Both St. Patrick's Day and the procession on the 12th of July, the Orange Order parade, were both occasionally banned because there were continued civil disturbances", says Ross. "They weren't always around the 12th of July or St. Patrick's Day, but those were continued flashpoints for tension."
All of this had a knock-on effect on the St Patrick's Day festivities in the city, explains McGowan. "The parade had kind of lost its lustre by the 1870s and 1988 was the first of the contemporary parades in the city, mostly conducted by Irish expats who were living in Toronto. In the interim, you had dinners, concerts, theatrical productions, and religious services that really marked St. Patrick's Day in the city."