The Challenge of the Irish Catholic Community in Nineteenth-Century Montreal


  • Sherry Olson
  • Patricia Thornton


As a receiving point for the Irish diaspora, Montreal offered the exceptional context of a Catholic majority, a bilingual labour market, and, in the 1840s, a polity undergoing reconstruction. The high quality of records in Montreal allows us to trace the destinies of Irish Catholics who settled in the city in the 1840s and to weigh some of the factors that contributed to their upward mobility. One such factor was the existence of an Irish Catholic population that, from as early as the 1820s, constituted a third community, distinctive in its demographic behaviour and institutional allegiances, alongside French Canadians and Anglo-Protestants. An examination of sample families shows that the “famine immigrants” of the 1840s advanced into new economic niches, their infants thrived, they achieved in the second and third generations substantial improvement in housing and residential integration, and they exercised, in each generation, an active and articulate political voice. These findings contradict earlier assumptions of persistent poverty and powerlessness among Irish Catholics in North American cities and raise new questions about urban opportunities and social pathways.