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Sláinte!
Mar 17, 2017

For one day a year, Manitobans of all backgrounds can attire themselves in green, eat green cookies, drink beer dyed green, shout out Sláinte (Gaelic: health) and proclaim they are “friends of the Irish.” Meanwhile, many in this province can claim direct descent from Emerald Isle immigrants. In fact, the Irish have a long association with Manitoba.

“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,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on March 22, 1873.

Among the first Selkirk Settlers were some Irish who arrived at York Factory aboard the Robert Taylor in 1811 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 would later play a significant role in the Red River Settlement as a 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, 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 Métis led by Cuthbert Grant.

Irish were aboard the Edward and Anne in 1811 to prepare the Red River Settlement for the colonists slated to arrive in 1812, including 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 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 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.

The execution of Thomas Scott, a Protestant Orangeman born in Ireland, on March 4, 1870, following a court martial under the provisional government led by Louis Riel, convinced Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to send an army west to quell the so-called uprising. 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.

When the St. Patrick’s Society of Manitoba held its second anniversary on March 17, 1875, in Winnipeg, Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché of St. Boniface officiated and called for peace among the various factions. The Free Press on March 20, reported that Taché 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 ...”

He urged that all “French, English, Irish, etc., should live in harmony and work together for the general welfare. All nationalities should unite in one feeling of charity. Irishmen should put away bad feelings and should consider themselves all children of St. Patrick.”

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, although 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 by her mother for laughing. 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.”

Indeed, the Irish have had their share of “Trouble,” including the Great Potato Famine in the 1840s. During the famine, over one-million uprooted Irish immigrated to North America — 100,000 to Canada.

Killarney, Manitoba, was named in 1883 after the town and lakes in County Kerry, Ireland, by Irish-born surveyor John Sidney O’Brien. According to legend, O’Brien sat on the shore of what was 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.

At a January 7, 1884, St.Patrick’s Benovolent Society meeting, Colonel James “Jim” Coolican outlined his plan “for the relief of many of the poverty-stricken and half-starving people in the city” — a situation exasperated by the 1882 collapse of the land boom. Ironically, as an auctioneer, Coolican was also responsible for fomenting much of the speculative bubble that eventually burst. Under Coolican’s direction, the society established the soup kitchen “on McDermot Street ... The interior of the store has been fitted up with a long lunch counter, in the rear of which are the store room for supplies and clothing, and the kitchen” (Free Press, January 16, 1884).

As a result of the long association with the Emerald Isle, it’s little wonder that so many Manitobans take great delight in wearing green and joining in the many celebrations around the province for St. Patrick’s Day.