A strong base for Irish studies
Concordia recently became the first university in Canada to offer a Bachelor of Arts in
Canadian Irish Studies, and the response to the initiative has been very encouraging within the university and in the wider community.
It’s fitting, not just because Concordia is located on the route of the longest-running uninterrupted St. Patrick’s Day Parade in North America, and only a short distance from Griffintown, the historical home of Montreal’s Irish community, but also because the
university has been leading the way in Canadian Irish Studies since the program’s inception in 2000.
Since then, Concordia’s School of Canadian Irish Studies has enjoyed staunch support from the Irish community in Montreal and across Canada.
“We created a foundation in the community (the Irish Studies Foundation) to raise money to help fund the development of Irish Studies,” says Michael Kenneally, principal of the school. Since its creation, the foundation has raised more than $3.5 million to support Irish studies at Concordia.
“This new major is a perfect example of what can be done when members of a strong community work strategically with governments and academic institutions to achieve new goals,” Kenneally said at the time the major was announced.
The Government of Quebec has supported the School of Canadian Irish Studies throughout its development. Jean-François Lisée, Quebec’s Minister of International Relations, says the school has played an important role in strengthening long-standing ties between Quebec and Ireland.
“The school is a great asset in soft diplomacy as it fosters rich academic, cultural and political exchanges,” says Lisée. “Through the school, there have been many visits from Irish authors, poets, scholars and political leaders, and this contributes to building a strong and mutually beneficial relationship.”
Lisée, who is also the Quebec government’s minister responsible for Montreal and the English-speaking community, adds that the Irish have been essential to the history of Quebec, and, particularly, of Montreal. That is all the more evident in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“The parade is a celebration of the Irish and their important contribution to the history of Montreal and Quebec,” says Lisée. “But it’s also an occasion for Montrealers, whatever their ethnic origins, to come together and share in the celebration.”
Students enrolled in the School of Canadian Irish Studies’ new major will find a wealth of stories about the Irish Diaspora, and the important historical role played by Irish immigrants in this city.
Most of Montreal’s Irish immigrants arrived in the city during the first half of the 19th century. They settled in Griffintown and found work either at the docks or on major building projects, such as the Lachine Canal and the Victoria Bridge. Life was difficult for the working class community, but during the Industrial Revolution many Irish immigrants made their fortunes in Montreal, and joined the city’s business and political elite.
Kenneally says the Irish were able to successfully integrate into Montreal society largely because they had a foot in both camps. “They share a history and language with the English, but they share culture and religion with the French, so they were mediating figures,” he says.
In a letter published in the Gazette recently, Kenneally underlined the socio-political significance of the Irish populations’ integration into Quebec society.
“As a successful immigrant group, the Irish can … serve as an encouragement for later immigrants, demonstrating how they, too, can contribute to and enrich Quebec society, while maintaining their own cultural identity.”
Although the Montreal Irish community has long since moved out of its central location in Griffintown, spreading out through Notre-Dame-de-Grace and the West Island, it has remained strong through the efforts of many active Irish community groups.
There are about 18 Irish associations in Montreal, and they all do different things,” Kenneally says. “There’s an Irish Chamber of Commerce, an Irish musical association, an Irish language association, the Erin Sports Association, an Irish golf association, an Irish protestant benevolent society ….”
Two of the most important associations are the St. Patrick’s Society, which hosts the annual St. Patrick’s Ball and St. Patrick’s Day Luncheon; and the United Irish Societies, which organizes the annual parade.
On a good year, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade can bring half a million people into the streets to cheer on the floats and enjoy the first taste of spring. Kenneally points out that while the parade is an important public reminder of the contribution of the Irish to Montreal, it’s also a celebration of the city’s diversity. “It’s a chance to remind Montrealers that we’re here and thriving, remind them of our past historical contribution, and receive back all of their well-wishes and enthusiasm, and celebrate the city’s multiculturalism,” he says.
At once inclusive, and yet distinctly Irish, the parade is a fitting metaphor for the burgeoning field of Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia. Kenneally points out: “the benefit to studying Ireland and its diaspora is that students discover case studies for many issues that go beyond Irish matters and echo around the world.”
Read about three Concordians chosen to be princesses in the queen’s court for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
• School of Canadian Irish Studies
• Canadian Irish Studies Foundation
• United Irish Societies
• “Newly minted degree first in Canada” — NOW, Feb. 16, 2013