Coming to Canada – An Irish Family Experience

While my paternal family line is decidedly Scottish, my maternal family line is equally Irish. The immigrant experience that each family line had is similarly different. My Scottish ancestors left their homeland under fair to good conditions in search of better conditions. My Irish ancestors on the other hand left abysmal circumstances in famine ravaged Ireland in search of the hope of survival.

It is difficult for me to be as definitive about the immigrant experience of my mother’s family as I am of my father’s family. There are far more records available to me concerning the paternal side. What I can put together based on historical and family records paints the following picture.

William Foley and Bridget McTague were both born in Ireland around 1831. It appears that they both were hard working Irish Catholics who emigrated from Ireland to North America around 1850 in order to escape the poverty and horrible conditions wrought on Ireland by the potato famine. It doesn’t appear that they left Ireland in the first wave of famine ‘refugees’ who sailed to the USA and Canada (or British North America as it would have then be known) aboard overcrowded ‘coffin ships.’ In 1847, at the height of the famine, an estimated 100,000 people left Ireland for Canada and of that number 30,000 died on their way to a new life.

In Canada and the USA, those arriving from Ireland were subjected to health ‘inspections’ to ensure they did not have ‘the fever.’ These inspections were conducted at Grosse Ile in Canada and Staten Island in the USA. About 75% of the Irish immigrants to North America arrived at New York City. William and Bridget appear to have been among this large group of Irish. Any immigrants found to have ‘the fever’ were placed in a 30-day quarantine. On Grosse Ile, an island in the St. Lawrence River about 30 miles east of Quebec City, almost 6,000 Irish immigrants died and were buried in a mass grave.

William and Bridget fared better though and as they were likely people more rural than urban inclined, they made their way from New York City north to present day Ontario, then Canada West. On August 24, 1852 William Foley married Bridget McTague at the Roman Catholic Mission church located in Newmarket, then a small village north of Toronto. William and Bridget moved around southern Ontario, spending some time farming land in Pickering Township where William was listed as a founding member of St. Frances Catholic Church. Eventually, William and Bridget and their then four children (Mary Anne, William, Thomas, and James) moved to a farm north of Toronto in Barrie, Ontario. My great grandfather, John Foley joined the family in 1864 according to the headstone at his grave (pictured above right). Unfortunately, John was born five years before civil registration commenced in Ontario and I have yet to find a baptismal certificate for him to confirm the headstone information.

Many of the Irish immigrants escaping the famine who made it past Grosse Ile, traveled further upstream and settled in the Province of Quebec at Montreal (see the Rosie O’Donnell episode of WDYTYA?), or in the province of Ontario at Kingston or Toronto. Almost 38,00 Irish survivors of the Gorta Mor or the “Great Hunger” arrived in Toronto, then a mainly Protestant town of about 20,000 in 1847. Without question the influx of the Irish immigrants strained Toronto’s resources but this did lead to some benefits like the establishment of Toronto’s first General Hospital, originally located at the north-west corner of King and John Streets. Many of the Irish who arrived dispersed at least for a time into the rural areas around Toronto. Sadly for many of those who remained in the town their existence seems to have been ghettoized in the squalor of St. Patrick’s Ward (so named apparently due to the high number of Irish living in the area).

The Foleys were fortunate to not be caught in the Irish ghetto but like all families, still had to deal with hardships through the latter half of the nineteenth century.

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