On Friday, March 17, once visions of four-leaf clovers and green beer subside; make your way to the city’s birthplace, the ByWard Market – Ottawa’s own little Emerald Isle.
In the early 19th century, when Lt. Col. John By was commissioned to build the Rideau Canal, many of his labourers were recently-arrived Irish immigrants. Due to its proximity to the canal construction, Lowertown (now known as the ByWard Market) became home to this Irish bristling population.
“The Clothes on their Backs”
Most of the Irish workers literally arrived with ‘the clothes on their backs’ and were ill-prepared for Canada’s harsh climate. Hard manual labour, long hours, low pay, severe work-related accidents, and shanty accommodations made early life in Canada tough…but these hardy Irish folk managed to cope. Both Catholic and Protestant Irishmen would dig by day and get rowdy by night – on the same streets we do today!
After the canal was completed, the Irish Catholics became restless as job competition peaked, reviving old animosities with the French, English, and Protestant Irish. The most aggressive group of disgruntled Irish, known as the Shiners, began to wage intimidation campaigns against the Orangemen and French raftsmen.
The violence, which started out as street fights and bar brawls, escalated until it crested with a series of assaults and murders in 1837. The end of Shiner terror came only when their leader, Peter Aylen, left Ottawa to settle in a large mansion in Aylmer. By that time lots of Shiners were finding work anyway, and tensions eased.
This did not mean an end to violence, as the focus soon shifted to wider Canadian politics. The affluent Englishmen who resided in Uppertown (now Centretown) were mostly Tories while the French and Irish were Reformers. The Tories spent the decade of the 1840s incensed at the Reformist-minded politics of the Governor General, Lord Elgin. This started riots most notably in Montreal, where Tories burnt down the Parliament – an incident which prompted Elgin to look for another capital for Canada.
A Royal Welcome
Upon releasing his plans to come to Bytown in September of 1849, the people of Lowertown started preparing a royal welcome. Uppertowners instead felt he should be ignored, and a meeting was called in the ByWard Market building to discuss the situation.
However, the gathering, on Monday, September 17, erupted into a bloody riot, known as Stoney Monday; stones were thrown and one person was shot dead. The following day, the army was called in to block the Lowertowners trying to take their fight into Uppertown, and the riot dispersed.
After Stoney Monday, the ByWard Market area became somewhat more peaceful. Six years later Ottawa was made capital and the Market concentrated on booming business. To this day, business prospers and Ottawa remains rich with Irish culture…
“The old Market has lots of Irish heritage,” says Bill Tobin, president of the Irish Society of the National Capital Region. “My family used to buy all our fruits and vegetables down there and I’ve spent much time at the IrishVillage – they’ve been very good to the society.”
According to Statistics Canada’s 2001 census, just over 17 per cent of Ottawa’s population is of Irish ancestry – many of whom still keep strong ties to their Celtic roots. Ottawa is home to the Irish Society of the National Capital Region, theatre and dance studios, Gaelic language and rugby clubs, restaurants, and most authentically, Irish pubs – all of which are guaranteed to be a roaring good time this Friday.
Hard-core St. Patrick’s Day party goers will not be disappointed by the venues in the Market. Many businesses are kicking off their celebrations right at 11 a.m., and have live entertainment lined-up until closing time.
With authentic Irish pubs and tons of other, less traditionally Irish venues, St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the ByWard Market promise to knock your leprechaun socks off!