Kissing Cousins: The Irish-Newfoundland Diaspora

In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, this is part one of our two-part series on Irish Newfoundlanders. Stay tuned for our next post: “experiencing Irish-Newfoundland in St. John’s”.

Humble Beginnings

The first recorded Irish presence in Newfoundland dates from 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 time, young Irish men crossed the Atlantic to and fro for work as planters’ servants in the annual British migratory cod fishery.


Mass Emigration & Permanent Settlement

The subsequent french revolutionary wars (1792-1802) and Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) saw huge 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 period, 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. 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.

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

We traveled to Ireland in 2009 and while in Waterford, we decided to visit the Waterford Heritage & Agricultural Museum. Interestingly enough, one of their main exhibitions at the time was fittingly enough called “Waterford parted from the sea: the Irish in Newfoundland”.

Relatively speaking, the SE region of Ireland was spared the least from the Irish potato famine (1845-1852). While at the museum, we found this particularly poignant.

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


Cultural Legacy

Roughly 25% of Newfoundlanders are of direct Irish origin (compared to 14% Canada-wide). It is also estimated that about 80% of Newfoundlanders have Irish ancestry on at least one side of their family tree.

Our region is so similar in fact that we have 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 a 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. When I lived on the ‘mainland’ for some time, I worked very hard to maintain mine and with great pride. An interesting article Newfoundland and Ireland: where accents collide by the Daily Edge sums up our linguistic connection best.

Newfoundland’s heritage and social fabric has been profoundly influenced by the Irish. So much so that Newfoundland is the only place outside Europe with its own distinctive name in the Irish language, talamh an éisc, “the land of fish”.

Not only is our landscape and traditional livelihood so similar but our surnames, religion, music, folklore and yes even our accents all hark back to the old country.

For example, the Newfoundland tricolor (aka the republic flag) is the unofficial flag popular in many areas of the province. It is very similar to the Irish republic flag and its origins can be traced to the star of the sea association, a catholic mutual benefit society founded in NL in 1871.


Irish Newfoundland Today

There are pockets of Irish communities throughout Newfoundland’s north, south and west coasts. But nowhere is the concentration most apparent than along the southern and eastern halves of the Avalon Peninsula.

Here a true Irish diaspora flourished and remains vibrantly strong today.

Here are a couple more interesting articles from our cousins on the other side of the pond.

Irish Times – The Most Irish Island In The World

The Irish Story – Waterfrord Parted From The Sea: The Irish In NewfoundlandEnglish and Irish settlement patterns Illustrative Map of Newfoundland and Labrador

irish mascot and Newfoundlander in the city of Dublin Ireland