Kissing Cousins: The Irish-Newfoundland Diaspora

Humble Beginnings

The first recorded Irish presence in Newfoundland dates to 1536 when Irish fishermen arrived from Cork. Irish emigration to Newfoundland, however, did not officially begin, on any significant level, until the late 17th century. From this time, until the late 18th century, immigration was on a much smaller scale than witnessed in later years, and was of a seasonal or temporary nature. During this period, young Irish men crossed the Atlantic to and fro for work as ‘planters servants’ in the annual British Migratory Cod Fishery.


Mass Emigration & Settlement

The subsequent French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) saw large numbers of Irish come to Newfoundland to replace English workers fighting on the European continent.

Irish emigration to Newfoundland reached its peak during the first three decades of the 19th century with the arrival of 35,000 immigrants. During this time, the Irish population increased from 11,382 in 1797 to 40,568 by 1815. When migration finally tapered off by the 1840s, Irish settlers represented 50% of the island’s population with 14,000 in St. John’s alone.

The vast majority of Irish Newfoundlanders can trace their ancestral roots to southeast Ireland, more specifically, the counties of Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford, Kerry, and Cork. Historically speaking, in light of the fish trade, the southeast region of Ireland was also spared the least from the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852).

Should you be fortunate enough to be of Irish stock, visit this really cool database from The Irish Times to discover your ancestral point of origin.

We traveled to Ireland in 2009 and while in Waterford, decided to visit the Waterford Heritage & Agricultural Museum. Interestingly, one of their main exhibitions was called, fittingly enough, “Waterford Parted From The Sea: The Irish In Newfoundland”.

overlooking harbour from signal hill national historic site St. John's, 1831 illustrated map Old world map of Ireland


Cultural Legacy

Approximately 25% of Newfoundlanders are of direct Irish origin (compared to 14% Canada-wide) and about 80% having Irish ancestry on at least one side of their family tree. Newfoundland is so similar in fact, that it has been continually called “The most Irish place outside Ireland”, most notably by Tim Pat Coogan, Irish historical writer and former long-time editor of The Irish Press.

Until the turn of the 20th century, Newfoundland was one of the few places outside Ireland where the Irish language was spoken by the majority of the population as their primary language. It was very similar to the language heard in the southeast of Ireland centuries ago, due to mass emigration from that area. Today, ‘Newfoundland Irish’ is its own distinct dialect.

See this interesting article Newfoundland and Ireland: Where accents collide by The Daily Edge which best sums up this linguistic connection.

Newfoundland’s heritage and social fabric is so profoundly Irish that Newfoundland is the only place outside Europe with its own distinctive name in the Irish language, “talamh an éisc”, meaning “the land of fish”. Not only is Newfoundland‘s landscape and traditional livelihood so similar, but its surnames, religion, music, folklore, and accents all hark back to the old country.

Case in point, the Newfoundland Tricolor (aka The Republic) flag, the unofficial flag popular in many areas of the province, which  is very similar to the Republic of Ireland flag. You can trace The Republic Flag’s origins to the Star of The Sea Association, a Catholic mutual benefit society, founded in Newfoundland in 1871.


Irish Newfoundland Today

Today, pockets of Irish communities exist throughout Newfoundland’s north, south, and west coasts, but nowhere is the concentration more apparent than along the southern and eastern halves of the Avalon Peninsula. Here a true Irish diaspora flourished and remains vibrantly strong today.Kissing Cousins: The Irish-Newfoundland Diaspora


Below are some interesting articles by Newfoundland‘s ‘cultural cousins’ on the other side of the pond.

Irish Times The most Irish island in the world

The Irish Story ‘Waterford Parted from the Sea: The Irish in Newfoundland’

Kissing Cousins: The Irish-Newfoundland Diaspora