|The Irish O'Quebec
Gaels Go Gallic in ‘Green’ Quebec Historical Exhibit
By Lorraine O'Donnell Williams
Special to The Irish American Post
was in Montreal in the beautiful province of Quebec recently teaching classes
in Memoir Writing. I learned of a new exhibit at the prestigious McCord
Museum there, and knew I had to see it. The reasons were obvious: my maiden
name was O'Donnell (the Irish part of me). My great- grandfather John Patrick
O'Donnell had immigrated to Quebec in the 1860s so stories like his would
be represented somewhere in this exhibit. My mother's maiden name was La
Branche (my French Canadian bloodline). As such, the display was tailor-made
for me. And finally, I learned that the guest curator of this exhibit was
a historian by the name of Dr. Lorraine O'Donnell - my maiden name!
The exhibit is mounted with the usual Gallic creativity one finds in
Quebec museums. The McCord Museum, originally one of Montreal's grand old
mansions now added on to and owned by McGill University, is the perfect
venue, linked as it is with Montreal's past. Any museum exhibit has to
have a rationale and the one behind this one is obvious: how did two distinct
cultures - the French Canadian settlers and Irish immigrants - manage to
blend so seamlessly in French Quebec? This exhibit provides the answers,
as we move through the decades from the 17th century onward learning of
both the famous and the ordinary folk who comprised this mixed culture.
Genevieve Lafrance, head of exhibitions, told me, "We've had a great
response to this exhibit. As you'll see when you leave there's a digital
guest book. It's fascinating to read the messages people have left, regardless
of whether they have Irish roots or not."
When the exhibit opened in March, 2009, museum Executive Director Victoria
Dickenson said that the exhibit was a perfect fit for the Museum’s mandate,
pointing out that "Being Irish O’Quebec not only affords an opportunity
to forge links between the cultures and communities that make up our society,
it also provides a look at how immigrants succeeded in creating new traditions
and contributing to a shared history in their newfound home."
Brothers Daniel Johnson and Pierre Marc Johnson, both former premiers
of Quebec as was their father, Daniel, Sr., took the lead in organizing
forces for the exhibit. They said they were eager to help because of their
shared desire to celebrate their family’s Irish roots.
"As young children, we learned about the pride of our ancestors and
discovered the diversity of our history," Daniel Johnson explained. "Farmers
and merchants, professionals and craftspeople, politicians and clergy,
who either chose to leave their country or had no choice, established themselves
in Quebec," added Pierre Marc Johnson. The brother said that the early
Irish and subsequent generations "have since been committed to helping
develop the social and community life of the province."
displays are rich, with plenty of artifacts from the Irish presence, with
concise, yet informative, bios on some of who stepped onto the shores of
the vast Quebec landscape. Visual effects enhance the main message. For
instance, we hear an immigrant-loaded ship's horn coming from behind a
gauze curtain. The immigrants can look behind to where they've come from
but their future is unknown.
The exhibit is set up with various stations. There are biography units
that tell stories of both the rich and famous and the unknown. The first
known Irishman was in the 1680s, Tadhg Cornelius O'Brennan, a "coureur
des bois" who married one of the "filles des bois" (young women sent over
by King Louis XIV as future brides for French male colonists in New France)
was an unlicensed fur trader and farmer. More Irish came in the 1750s as
members of the British army which conquered New France in 1759.
Irish-Protestants from the Irish ascendancy were sent to rule and run
the colony, among them Guy Carleton, Baron of Dorchester. As Governor of
Quebec, he enacted the 1774 Quebec Act giving more rights to Irish settlers
than they had ever had under British rule in Ireland - the right to such
things as their religion, language, land ownership. Another famous Irish
Quebecer was Thomas D'Arcy McGee, who played a vital role as Canada's founding
Confederation fathers in 1867. He was assassinated only one year later
by a Fenian group based in the United States. They were Irish immigrants
who viewed McGee a traitor for advocating Irish and Quebecers to integrate.
Other bios are of famous musicians, writers, clergy and politicians.
Another set of exhibits is called "story stations," telling how the
Irish established themselves. Some of these deal with ordinary folk, such
as the settlers in St. Colomban Quebec, who spent their first winter huddled
together in a lean-to shelter, constructed of towering rock, logs, brush
and snow. Much different from the temperate climes of the old country!
One also learns of the tragic emigration story which took place at Grosse-
Ile during the Irish Famine. A large percentage of Irish refugees either
died while in mid-Atlantic from typhus or shortly upon setting foot in
the island immigration portal. The heartwarming part of this story is an
account of the many orphaned children who were adopted by caring French
Canadian families. More importantly, they were allowed to keep their Irish
surnames if they so chose. That explains why many French Canadian families
in Quebec retain an Irish name to this day.
could two cultures merge so smoothly? According to Ms. Lafrance, "There
were many similarities. The Catholic religion they shared was a great binding
force, although we have a story here of French Canadian priests having
great difficulty hearing the confessions of the Irish. One said 'they made
their confessions too quickly without any details. They simply declared,
I cursit, I sworn, I got in a passion…. They even curse their own children
saying, ‘The devil take you…' "
Another feature of the French-Irish compatibility is found in some foods.
Is Irish stew just another form of French ragout? In addition, any visitor
to Quebec can recognize the Irish dancing element to French-Canadian folk
steps. Even a storytelling tradition is common to both cultures. And the
Quebec love of beer and potatoes is said to have come from the Irish.
The most striking indication of Irish influence is definitely the St.
Patrick's Day Parade, prefigured in 1750s by the Irish Protestant soldiers
who celebrated Ireland's patron saint. Today, Montreal cherishes the tradition
of this end-of-winter party in March to which all Quebecers and visitors
flock. Originally sponsored by the St. Patrick's Catholic Society of Montreal
and the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society, it now consists of not only
Irish stalwarts but also other community and ethnic groups which make up
the fabric of this diverse city and province.
As I wrote my comments in the guest book after viewing the exhibit,
I was in full agreement with the thoughts of the curators, as expressed
by Ms. LaFrance: "Perhaps Quebec's Irish stories, taken as a whole, should
serve as a model of how people can come together to create shared histories
and diverse, tolerant communities."
|McCord Museum is located at 690 Sherbrooke St. West., Montreal. The
exhibit continues until April 4, 2010.
The McCord is located in downtown Montreal, across from McGill University.
It is accessible via McGill metro station (on the green line) or bus 24
on Sherbrooke Street.
Hours of Operation:
All museum services are offered in English and French.
Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Open Mondays on holiday weekends and during the summer months (June 24
to Sept. 1), 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Archives and Documentation Center: by appointment only,
514-398-7100, ext 249, Tuesday to Friday, 9:30a.m. to 5:00p.m.
"Being Irish O'Quebec" was produced by the museum with the support of
the St. Patrick's Society of Montreal and the Irish Protestant Benevolent
Society, along with the collaboration of Quebec's Irish community. The
McCord Museum also appreciated the support of the Ministère de la
Culture, des Communications et de la Condition féminine du Québec;
the Ministère de l'Immigration et des Communautés culturelles
du Québec; Power Corporation of Canada; Zeller Family Foundation;
Aéroports de Montréal; James Cherry and Thomas Brady.
For further information, contact Tourism Quebec 1-877-266-5687.