In the lower rotunda of the Royal Ontario Museum, a bronze statue honours one of Toronto’s best-known Irish Canadians. Timothy Eaton (1834–1907) was an Irish-born merchant who turned his Toronto dry-goods store into Canada’s largest privately owned department store. In 1907, the T. Eaton Company employed more than 9,000 people. Today, the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church on St. Clair Avenue West stands as a reminder of the contributions of the great Irish Torontonian.
Irish settlers have lived in Canada since the early 17th century. The Irish may have constituted as much as five percent of the population of New France, and during the 18th century, the Irish began to settle in the new British colonies. More Irish settlers were among the Loyalists who arrived in Canada following the American Revolution.
The potato crop failure and famines in Ireland in the 1840s resulted in a large number of settlers arriving in Toronto. Early Irish working class neighbourhoods along Toronto’s waterfront and the Don Basin were called Slab Town, Paddy Town, and Cork Town. Irish Claretown developed around Bathurst and Queen streets, and by the 1890s, the junction area of west Toronto became home to many Irish. Cabbagetown is reputed to have been named for the Irish working class who planted cabbages in their front yards.
The first Irish Catholic churches in the city were St. Paul’s in Cabbagetown, St. Michael’s Cathedral (1848), St. Basil’s Church (1856), and the original St. Patrick’s Church, established in the 1860s. The churches were centres for education and social activities. The pioneer charitable organization was St. Vincent de Paul Society, whose members also founded the Toronto Savings Bank and the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
In the 1850s, St. Michael’s College, now part of the University of Toronto, became a seminary school under the Basilian Fathers to provide higher education for Irish Catholics. The Christian Brothers established De La Salle as a secondary and commercial school, complementing the schools of the Sisters of Loretto and of St. Joseph. St. Michael’s Hospital was opened in the late 19th century by the Sisters of St. Joseph (who were assisted by the Irish Catholic laity), followed by the establishment of St. Joseph’s and Our Lady of Mercy hospitals.
In the second half of the 19th century, there were a large number of Ulster Protestants living in the city. Lodges of the Orange Order, a predominantly Protestant society founded in 1795 and named in honour of King William III, Prince of Orange, were established in the 19th century. The main meeting-halls were the Eastern Orange Hall on Queen Street East, as well as the Western District Orange Hall on Euclid Avenue. The lodges provided social services, health care, and illness and death benefits. The needy received additional aid from the ancillary organizations of the Ladies Loyal True Blues and the Irish Protestant Benevolent Association.
Irish Torontonians have contributed greatly to the city’s development in the political, business, and sports sectors. The first Orange Mayor, W.H. Boulton, took office in 1845 and, during the rest of the century, 20 of Toronto’s 23 mayors were Orangemen. Irish-born lawyer Edward Blake became the second premier of Ontario; Irish nationalist John Lynch was the first Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto. Sir John Craig Eaton, son of Timothy Eaton, was knighted in 1915 for his philanthropic activities. Irish-born bankers include William McMaster (1811–1887), founder of the Bank of Commerce, who bequeathed his estate to the establishment of McMaster University. Among Toronto’s most popular sports figures were the late King Clancy and former Canadian boxing champion and Olympic silver medalist Shawn O’Sullivan.
In Toronto today, some 485,000 people have some Irish ancestry. The community has numerous cultural, charitable, social, and sporting organizations, many with Gaelic (Irish language) names.
ST. PATRICK’S DAY, March 17, commemorates the patron saint of Ireland, a preacher and a teacher who helped to establish churches and schools. One of the legends of St. Patrick tells how he drove the snakes out of Ireland. He is credited with using the shamrock to explain symbolically the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Shamrock and leprechaun souvenirs are signs of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the city. After a lapse of 110 years, Toronto held its first Saint Patrick’s Day parade in 1988, and it is now an annual event on the Sunday prior to March 17th. The parade winds its way down Yonge Street with marching bands and colourful floats supplied by members of the community.
THE ORANGEMEN’S CELEBRATION OF THE BATTLE OF THE BOYNE IN 1690 occurs on July 12. The first “Twelfth” parade was held in Toronto in 1822. Today, Orange parades continue the tradition with a colourful display of flags, banners, bands, and regalia.
BLOOMSDAY. Every year the Irish community holds a Bloomsday celebration on June 16, with readings celebrating the character from James Joyce’s novel,Ulysses.
COOL DAYS CRAIG IRISH, radio show, CHKT 1430 AM, Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Music, news, sports from Ireland. Host: Eamonn O’Loghlin.
HUGO STRANEY SHOW, CHIN 1540 AM, Sundays, 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., (Tel. 416-491-6195, Fax 416-531-5274, 77 Cairnside Cres). Host: Hugo Straney.
SONGS FROM HOME, CHIN 1540 AM, (Tel. 416-531-9991, 622 College St). Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Regular features include the Sunday sports results from Ireland. Host: Hugo Straney.
THE SENTINEL, (Tel. 416-223-1690, 94 Sheppard Ave. W). Founded in 1875; published four times a year by the British America Publishing-Company and the official organ of the Loyal Orange Association. Managing Editor: Jeremy Dowdell.
IRISH CONNECTIONS CANADA, (Tel. 416-621-7373, www.irishcanadamag.com, 121 Decarie Circle). A quarterly magazine published by The Irish Canadian Aid and Cultural Society. Editor: Eamonn O’Loghlin.
THE TORONTO IRISH PLAYERS, (Tel. 416-440-2888, www.torontoirishplayers.org), a theatre group, has been performing plays for 20 years from the Irish dramatic repertoire.
CANADIAN ORANGE HEADQUARTERS, (Tel. 416-223-1690, Fax 416-223-1324, 94 Sheppard Ave. W). Sponsors several events throughout the year, including the annual Orange Parade. It publishes a magazine called The Sentinel. Secretary: Jeremy Dowdell.
THE IRELAND FUND OF CANADA, (Tel. 416-367-8311, Fax 416-367-5931, www.irlfunds.org/canada, 67 Yonge St., Suite 401), is dedicated to raising funds to support programs of peace and reconciliation, arts and culture, education and community development in Ireland, North and South. The Fund is also dedicated to promoting Irish importance and preserving Irish identity here in Canada. Executive Director: Eleanor McGrath.
IRISH DANCE TEACHERS ASSOCIATION, (www.irishdancecanada.com). A network for over a dozen Irish dance schools in Toronto. Contact: Yvonne Kelly, Regional Director.
MACKENZIERO, (Tel. 416-769-2529, www.mackenziero.com, 156 High Park Ave). Professional theatre company dedicated to producing works that reflect their Irish heritage.
ST. PATRICK’S DAY PARADE SOCIETY, (Tel. 416-487-1566, www.topatrick.com, 165 University Ave., Suite A200). Runs the annual parade and other events throughout the year.
THE IRELAND SUPPORTER’S CLUB, (Tel. 905-607-8912, 4120 Ridgeway Dr., Unit 39, Mississauga).
IRELAND PARK FOUNDARION, (Tel. 416-601-6906, 67 Yonge St, Suite 1101).
EMERALD ISLE SENIORS SOCIETY, (Tel. 416-469-5394, 1190 Danforth Ave), Mon–Fri: 12 pm–5 pm.
O’CONNOR IRISH HERITAGE HOUSE, (60 Rowena Dr).
TORONTO IRISH ASSOCIATION, (Tel. 647-722-0841, www.torontoirish association.com).
Most Irish counties are represented by county associations including Antrim, Carlow, Cavan, Clare, Cork, Derry, Down, Donegal, Dublin, Fermanagh, Galway, Kerry, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois/Offaly, Leitrim, Longford, Limerick, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo, Tipperary, Tyrone, Waterford, Westmeath, Wicklow.