The cod fishery and its mercantile activities greatly influenced Irish settlement patterns in Newfoundland and Labrador. Before the fishery shifted from a migratory to a resident operation in the early-19th century, Irish habitation of the colony was predominately seasonal or temporary in nature. Most new arrivals lived on the island for one or two fishing seasons before returning home in the fall. However, the rise of a prosperous resident fishery in the early 1800s changed the character of Irish migration to Newfoundland and Labrador and increased its scale. Most Irish immigrants settled permanently on the island instead of seasonally migrating there to take part in the fishery. By 1840, roughly half the colony's population was of Irish origin.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (Coll. 137 08.01.020), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.
The largest concentrations of Irish settlement occurred on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most emigrants settled in St. John's, Placentia, and along the stretch of coastline linking the two communities together. These areas lay along established shipping lanes connecting Newfoundland with Irish ports, were near productive fishing grounds, and close to major centres of mercantile and commercial activities. Most Irish immigrants worked in the fishery for at least part of the year, but smaller numbers also worked as artisans, shopkeepers, traders, farmers, carpenters, bakers, general labourers, and in other occupations.
Newfoundland and Labrador's cod fishery was the strongest pull factor attracting Irish immigrants from the late-17th through early-19th centuries because it provided a readily available source of employment for unskilled workers. Each spring, English vessels stopped at Irish ports before crossing the Atlantic to load provisions and recruit labourers for the fishery. Irish labourers were overwhelmingly young, unmarried, and relatively poor men willing to work overseas as servants for planters or merchants. Most agreed to work for one or two summers before returning home in the fall. Those working two summers stayed on the island during the winter to cut timber and guard fishing gear and premises after the bulk of fish workers returned to Europe in October.
Irish servants arrived at St. John's and other ports to work in the English migratory fishery on the Avalon Peninsula. The island's north and south coasts, which included present-day Placentia, were part of the French fishery and therefore out of bounds to most workers from the British Isles. This changed after the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which granted England sovereignty over the entire island of Newfoundland, but allowed France to retain fishing rights on the north shore, between Pointe Riche and Cape Bonavista.
The English expanded into Placentia and other areas on the southern Avalon Peninsula, but largely depended on Irish labour to catch and process fish. This was partly due to a shortage of English fish workers during the first three decades of the 18th century. While England was at war with France from 1702 to 1713, military service prevented many young men from working in the fishery. By the time peace was restored, the migratory fishery had entered a depression that did not end until 1728. Knowledge of the downturn was commonplace in the English West Country and deterred potential workers from signing on as planters' servants. This, however, was not the case in Ireland, where shipmasters and merchants' agents could still recruit labourers with relative ease.
From the logbook of H.M.S. Pegasus, 1786. Drawing by J.S.Meres. Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada (NAC/C 2521).
The Irish quickly became an important part of the transatlantic fishery and the number migrating to Newfoundland and Labrador steadily increased throughout the 18th century. Most worked at St. John's, Placentia, and areas in between. English workers dominated areas of the Avalon Peninsula north of St. John's, while the French were active on the island's north shore. Placentia emerged as a centre of Irish activity on the island, and 80 per cent of its population was of Irish origin by 1729.
The vast majority of migrants were still men, but increasing numbers of women also arrived at Newfoundland throughout the 18th century, often to work as domestic servants for planters and merchants. Some married overwintering male servants and settled permanently on the island. Irish planters and merchants also grew in number on the Avalon Peninsula and tended to recruit labour from their home ports in southeast Ireland, which further fuelled Irish immigration to Newfoundland and Labrador. By the end of the 1770s, approximately 5,000 Irish were migrating to the colony each spring and growing numbers settled there permanently.
The Irish settlement of Newfoundland and Labrador peaked during the first two decades of the 19th century, when between 30,000 and 35,000 immigrants arrived on the island. As in the previous century, most came from ports in southeast Ireland that had established commercial ties with the colony in the 17th century. Unlike earlier migrations, however, those taking place after 1780 were increasingly permanent in nature instead of seasonal or temporary. This was largely in response to changes within the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery at the turn of the century, which created numerous employment opportunities for permanent residents.
Newfoundland and Labrador experienced sudden economic prosperity during the early-19th century as the Napoleonic (1803-1815) and Anglo-American (1812-1814) wars gave the colony an almost total monopoly of the international saltfish trade. This in turn helped to change its inshore fishery from a migratory industry to a resident one. As French and American fisheries declined between 1804 and 1815, Newfoundland and Labrador cod became more valuable on the international market. European fish merchants established premises on the island, wages within the fishery increased, and jobs were plentiful.
At the same time, Britain scaled back its migratory fishing fleet to avoid the dangers of transatlantic trade and to recruit fishers into its navy – the number of British ships travelling to Newfoundland decreased from about 300 in 1792 to less than 50 in 1817 and only 15 in 1823. In contrast, Newfoundland and Labrador's permanent population steadily increased during the wars as immigrants arrived to both avoid enlistment into British military forces and engage in the colony's growing resident fishery. The emergence of a local shipbuilding industry, seal hunt, and winter trapping season helped to diversify the colony's economy and make year-round habitation possible.
Most immigrants landed at St. John's, where the resident Irish population jumped from about 2,000 in 1794 to 14,000 in 1836. Others landed at Placentia, Trepassey, and other fishing centres on the east coast. Many chose to leave their points of disembarkation and settle elsewhere on the island, although the vast majority remained on the Avalon Peninsula at St. John's, Placentia, and points in between. Significant numbers also settled in Conception Bay and areas along the island's northeast coast.
Watercolour by William H. Eagar. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (Acc. No. 1989-520-6) Ottawa, Ontario.
It was not uncommon for new migrants to find work with relatives or other Irish settlers already established on the island. Many worked in the fishery, catching and curing fish, or less commonly as merchants and merchants' agents. Smaller numbers found employment in other sectors; these included farmers, shop and saloonkeepers, tailors, craftsmen, stonemasons, bakers, domestic servants, and general labourers.
Newfoundland and Labrador's permanent population jumped from about 19,000 at the start of the century to roughly 73,000 by 1836. More than half of all residents had migrated from Ireland. The number of Irish entering the colony decreased after the 1830s, due in part to difficulties within the fisheries and the emergence of employment opportunities elsewhere in North America. Nonetheless, the Irish migrations of the 18th and 19th centuries had an enduring impact on the nature of Newfoundland and Labrador culture and society; many people living in the province today are descendents of early Irish settlers.