Friday, March 17, 2006

Yet Another St. Patrick's Day Post

We tend to characterize Quebec as being monolithically French. After all, it was "discovered" by French explorers, the names of towns and cities are bizarrely French, i.e. St-Louis-de-Ha! Ha!, the official language here is French, and the cuisine is, well, French-Canadian: ragout, steamées, frits, tourtiere, Michigans and poutine.

What we tend to overlook is Quebec's broad ethnic diversity. Aboriginal nations aside - there are 11 - successive waves of immigrants landed at Quebec or Montreal over the past three centuries: English, Scottish, Irish, German, Chinese, Haitian, etc. etc.

Most have left tangible legacies: the English built banks, the Scots designed railroads, the Germans mines - physical monuments to their presence here.

But the Irish went further: their arrival on coffin ships in the 19th century has left an indelible mark on the Quebec genome. They weren't adventurers or fortune-seekers: they were Quebec's first refugees, driven from the old sod by famine and oppression. They didn't have the wherewithal to establish big commercial ventures and impressive homes. Instead, they toiled as farm labourers north of Quebec City and carved out the Lachine Canal on the Island of Montreal.

They lived in places which are named Shannon, Valcartier, and Griffintown.

And they bred and bred and bred, not so much with each other, but into the "pure wool" French-Canadian families. For this reason, you will find among the common surnames of French Canadians - Tremblay, Roy, Lefebvre, Gagné, etc. - an inordinate number Irish family names such as O'Neil, Nelligan, Burns, Ryan, Flynn and Sullivan. Patrick, or Patrice, is a very common given name even among those who are unilingually French. Outside of Montreal, most Irish descendents cite French as their mother tongue, although Irish Gaelic was still used in some households well into the 20th century.

In keeping with the Irish penchant for marching, Montreal has the oldest St. Patrick's Day parade in North America (sorry, Boston and New York).

So if we are to learn anything from history, it's that to make your mark on the world, the bod is mightier than the sword, especially if it's an Irish one.

Ed. Note: The fact that the title of this post is orange and the text green is NOT to be construed as a political statement.


Blogger Anna said...

Happy Paddy's Day to you! We avoided town today and instead celebrated by going swimming and then having lunch out. I had an Irish Coffee for dessert (just for the day that's in it, as they say).

I didn't know so many Irish went to Quebec - my tree planted itself firmly in New Brunswick.

12:33 PM  
Blogger nanuk said...

I knew you were expat.

I once worked with a woman from Shannon who, in addition to being a complete basketcase (in a nice way) could also speak Erse. Another friend of mine (French Canadian) had a grandfather in Valcartier whose farm lay along the road going to the local watering hole. The Irish would stop in every Friday night at his house on their way home.

1:26 PM  
Anonymous said...

Loved it! By shifting the old Ireland, a multi-faceted. Which, as it turns out, knew only a little!

2:37 AM  

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