Review: Old Time Religion

On October 6, 1920 the city of Ottawa prepared for a riot. The mayor dispatched police to ring St. Patrick’s Hall. Inside, 700 Canadian Catholics, Sinn Féiners and sympathizers rallied for Irish nationalism. Eamon de Valera, a founder of the Irish republic, sent a note to delegates: “No enlightened Canadian will be able to stand by and see an unoffending people massacred.” Outside 3,000 Protestants from nearby Carleton County threatened to descend on the hall and crack heads.

Historian Robert McLaughlin captures the moment in Irish Canadian Conflict, a vivid account of a story now strangely erased from the Canadian experience, the clash of Canadian Protestants and Catholics on the Irish question.

Ancient hatreds from the old country were layered over all the raw nerves that jangled in the new homeland: English versus French, monarchist versus republican, wealthy versus poor. Irish independence was among the great political upheavals of the 1920s and there were more than a million Irish in Canada. When an Irish nationalist, Terrence MacSwiney, starved himself to death in a British jail in 1920, sympathy marches were held in Halifax, Montreal and Québec City.

“The siege mentality pervasive among Irish Protestants was transferred and even intensified on the colonial frontiers of British North America, where perceived threats from French-Canadian Catholicism and American republicanism were all encompassing,” writes McLaughlin.

It made for a hot time. The 1920 Ottawa riot was averted, yet in Toronto – the “Belfast of Canada,” they called it – street violence between Irish Catholics and Protestants erupted 22 times. Irish Protestants were “members of the upper class,” McLaughlin explains. Catholics were seen as dirty, lazy, feckless drunks, “the shiftless type,” as Toronto Mayor Horatio Hocken put it in a 1921 speech to the Orange Order, an enthusiastic proponent of Protestant superiority.

The Order boasted 200,000 members in Canada. Its influence was so great no candidate could become premier of Ontario without its endorsement. Guests at a 1912 Toronto rally included three alderman, two militia officers and one MP.

Yet Catholics gave as good as they took. “If I were an Irishman, as I am a Canadian, and it was my country that had been treated as Ireland has, I would take my rifle in my hands and fight to the last drop of my blood,” one supporter told Canadian Sinn Féiners. The speaker was MP Armande Lavergne, son of Wilfrid Laurier, and a future deputy speaker of the Commons.

The mainly Catholic Self-Determination League had some 30,000 Canadian members in branches from Charlottetown to Vancouver. One organizer, Charles Foy, the mayor of Perth, Ont., proposed mandatory teaching of Irish history in Catholic schools. Another, Liberal MP Chubby Power, told a rally: “The British uniform which stood for justice and freedom, has been made the instrument of atrocity, arson and murder in Ireland.”

Power today is best known as Canada’s minister of the air force in the Second World War. His grandson, Lawrence Cannon, later served as Canadian ambassador to France.

By Holly Doan

Irish Canadian Conflict and the Struggle for Irish Independence 1912-1925 by Robert McLaughlin, University of Toronto Press; 296 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-10972; $29.95

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