The history of the Irish in Toronto is a difficult and deadly one indeed. During the summer of 1847 almost 40,000 Irish immigrants arrived in crowded, disease-ridden ‘coffin ships’, fleeing the devastating Potato Famine. Before their arrival, Toronto’s population was just 20,000 people. Moved to action by the state of the arrivals, who were beset by typhus, dysentery and other diseases, Toronto created its first Health Board and first hospital.
The Toronto Mirror wrote in July 1847: “The state of the emigrants daily becomes worse and worse ... This is a horrible traffic in human blood.”
The Irish also brought Catholicism to the mostly Protestant populace, inciting an ugly backlash, sparking a “Rome is tyranny” response from George Brown in his Globe & Mail newspaper and “Irish Need Not Apply” signs in many businesses.
They also mostly settled in Cabbagetown, so named because the poor Irish residents would tear up their lawns to grow cabbages for their widely popular Irish dishes such as bacon and cabbage, which has morphed into today’s just as widely popular corned beef and cabbage, and colcannon, a sublime mixture of creamy mashed potatoes and tender cabbage.
Religious tensions continued with various riots until the 1890s. The gradual arrival of more Catholics from Germany and France relieved some of the pressure away from the Irish. But more significantly, these decades saw Ontario experience an economic boom. This allowed many of the always industrious Irish to greatly further their poor immigrant financial status. This is evident with many of the now wealthy Irish building three hospitals, founding St Michaels College as well as various significant charities including St. Vincent de Paul. These activities and their new affluence transformed the Irish presence into one of influence and power.
As is the case with so many cultures, Irish cuisine has been a very influential and tasty one indeed. Many of their most popular dishes have attained mainstream status.
Corned Beef and Cabbage
As mentioned earlier, this is the North Americanized version of bacon and cabbage. The substitution of corned beef for bacon began in the late 19th century. While it might not be traditional in Ireland, it is still a popular choice for a St. Patrick’s Day (and any other day) feast.
IRISH Beef Stew
A stick-to-your-ribs, rich and hearty stew, it was traditionally made with mutton. Today in Ireland the use of beef and lamb is common. Packed with rustic root vegetables, like potatoes and carrots, variations of this stew abound throughout our culture.
Irish or English? Many say that Ireland can lay claim to this now mainstream, delicious comfort food. England officially took control of Ireland in the late 15th century, making the island a part of the United Kingdom. As a part of the United Kingdom, Protestantism became the new official religion in Ireland, despite Ireland being majority Catholic. The British and Protestant Irish converts became the ruling landowners, protected by the government. Irish Catholics became peasant land workers, sanctioned by the government. The resultant impoverished Catholic Irish cultivated a Sir Walter Raleigh’s introduction - the potato (from Mesoamerican culture) - as an affordable staple of their diet. This led to both Cottage and Shepherd’s pies. A great St. Paddy’s day dinner and a cure to any cold night of the year, shepherd’s pie is made with ground beef and veggies, then topped with a creamy layer of mashed potatoes.
One of my favourites is the traditional Irish bread and butter pudding. Its delicious taste belies its humble origins that evolved as a means of using up leftover bread. It often calls for crusty sourdough, but you can use any bread you like.
With all the historic perspective discussed around St. Patrick’s Day, today St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with the same zeal and zest, with feasts cooked up for family and friend’s get-together. Get the best deals on grocery supplies this St. Patrick’s Day and add the pomp to the celebrations.