The following column appeared in newspapers in November 2016.
Catholic Irish and Protestant Irish in Canada
I haven’t studied any religion in depth. I’m more of a browser, reading bits and pieces of various religions and cults that have been created over the centuries to try to understand why people lived the way they did. With this curiosity, I began reading about the religions that separated the Irish.
During most of my early life, I heard news reports about Catholics and Protestants battling in Northern Ireland. When I was younger, I thought they were stories from long ago because no one in my small world hated another simply because of their religion.
As a young teen in the late 70s, I learned the stories were current and told about a religious war fought in the modern-day world. It was foreign to me, and I couldn’t wrap my brain around it because—to my knowledge—it didn’t happen in Canada. Why couldn’t they just get along?
Living in the New World (Canada) separated me from the ways of the Old World (Europe) even in the 1980s. I learned through history that immigrants came to the New World (Canada or the United States) to have religious freedom, yet I now know from my genealogy research this didn’t always happen. Many of the issues followed settlers to their new life.
One article I read spoke about the Roman Catholic Irish and Protestant Irish who came to Canada and the philosophies that continued to divide these people who, on the surface, appeared to be one ethnic group. Genealogists with Irish ancestry may find clues to their heritage if they consider religion and the role it played in bringing their ancestors to Canada and in the life they found.
In many circles, this division was so strong, the religious groups were often seen as two ethnic groups, not one. From an article found on Canadian Encyclopedia, I learned the “Catholics perceive themselves to be the representatives of the original inhabitants of Ireland, while the Protestants represent the Scots and English colonists who arrived in Ireland during various periods after 1196, but most significantly in the Tudor era”.
This is a general statement and over the centuries, a percentage of individuals would have switched religions. What is most interesting is until the 1830s, the majority of Irish who settled in Canada were Protestant, which gives those who descend from the early Irish a clue to where their family may have originated before they went to Ireland.
Also, in the United States—and sporadically in Canada—the Protestant Irish distinguished themselves from the Catholic of their former country by referring to themselves as Scotch Irish. This could solve the mystery of your Irish ancestors claiming to be Scotch in census records. Ironically, the Highland Scots were Catholic.
The Catholic Irish tended to be poorer and had a more difficult time establishing a life in Canada, whereas the Protestant Irish had more money and could create a life for themselves faster. Of course, this is generalizing, and I’m certain there were both rich Catholics and poor Protestants too.
To learn more about this fascinating subject, visit Canadian Encyclopedia and read their article entitled “Irish Canadians”. The page contains many links to additional information and a list of suggested reading material.
NOTE: Later this year, my first book–Roots to the Past – Book 1–will be released by Quarter Castle Publishing. It will contain the original genealogy columns from October 2005 (when the column began) to December 2006.Stay tuned to learn more.