CELEBRATING NOVA SCOTIA’S “IRISH FACT” (March 15/02)

“In like manner… that other Celtic wave of almost equal volume, which has brought us so many valuable settlers from the South and West of Ireland, had scarcely made itself felt beyond the town of Halifax,” D. Allison wrote in 1888.

Allison was commenting on a census taken in 1767. In a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, Allison reviewed the census, noting that nearly as many Irish as Scots had emigrated here. But, he lamented, the Scots had made their presence felt while the Irish role in Nova Scotia has been downplayed.

True or not, there was a period in Nova Scotia when people of Irish origin outnumbered the Scots. According to the 1767 census, for example, the population of Halifax around that time included 835 Irish and only 52 Scots. Even the Acadians outnumbered the Scots in Halifax at the time.

I mention Allison’s because we’re about to mark another St. Patrick’s Day. This Sunday those with Irish ancestors, and those who wish they had, will celebrate with the usual green beer, Irish music and Irish food. The food and music, for the most part, will be Irish in name only, but that’s okay since observing the day is all that really matters.

There has been an Irish presence in Nova Scotia at least since the early 18th century. At the time of the 1767 census nearly 20 percent of Nova Scotia’s population were born in Ireland. Earlier, in 1760, the population of Halifax was approximately 3,000 and one-third were Irish.

Just after the arrival of the Planters, a mini-wave of Irish settlers flowed into the Annapolis Valley. A careful digging around will turn up groups of Irish immigrants who settled in areas along the North Mountain in Kings County, outside the main settled areas in Hants County, and in the outback in Annapolis County. For the most part historians ignore these settlers, apparently because their numbers were small, and perhaps simply because they were Irish and Catholic.

The oral histories of many Annapolis Valley Irish families tell of their ancestors literally being ostracised by their peers. One local history buff found that his Irish Catholic ancestors weren’t welcome on the Valley floor in Kings County, for example, and had to settle on the North Mountain. However, the Irish were welcome as labourers, and many of them pounded spikes when the railway went through the Valley. Typically, those same Irish labourers were involved in a violent fracas between railway workers. Marguerite Woodworth touches on this incident in her history of the Dominion Atlantic Railway, hinting that it may have occurred because Irish workers were resented by other labourers.

Anyway, back to observing St. Patrick’s Day. If you hear the local radio station cranking out those sentimental, romantic and melancholy “Irish” songs on St. Patrick’s Day, chances are you’re not hearing authentic Irish music. Much of what passes as Irish music today comes from British and American music hall productions with Irish themes. Sure, they sing about Irish places, Irish romance and about brawling and drinking, but mostly they’re as Irish as Hank Williams is grand opera.

Irish music more often celebrates nature and the land than it does swilling brew and brawling. In one collection of Irish music published in 1903, for example, the majority of nearly 2,000 tunes are about the land, the seasons and the people. No more than a handful of the tunes are about drinking and fighting.

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