Sunday, March 16, 2014

Community, Piety, and Nationalism: St. Patrick's Day in Toronto during the nineteenth century

The Irish have long been considered a key component of Canadian society.  Their population base was firmly entrenched as the largest immigrant group in the first half of the nineteenth-century.  Today,  the majority of Canadians celebrating St. Patrick's Day find an excuse to have a drink, wear some green, and proudly state one's Irish heritage, no matter how distant or diluted.  In earlier times, however, much more was at stake during St. Pat's celebrations.  Historians have shown that the meanings associated with St. Patrick's feast day varied a great deal during the nineteenth century, ranging from a sense of community, to Catholic piety, to Irish nationalism.  With its large population of Irish Catholics, Toronto offers an interesting perspective on the changing nature of the day's celebration in Canada.

From 1825 to 1845 nearly half a million Irish immigrants came to British North America, many of whom were escaping the plight of mono-crop failures as tenant potato farmers.  In 1845, a new strain of potato blight spread through Ireland, and in three years nearly 800,000 people were dead.

An officer wrote to London Times reporting the grisly details of the brutal conditions found in Ireland,
Great Famine 1847. Illustrated London News
Fever, [dystentry], and starvation stare you in the face every-where - children of ten and nine years old I have mistaken for decrepit old women, their faces wrinkled, their bodies bent and distorted in pain, the eyes looking like those of a corpse.  Bodies are found lifeless, lying on their mothers' bosoms.  I tell you one thing which struck me as particularly horrible: a dead woman was found lying on the road with a dead infant on her breast, the child having bitten the nipple of the mother right through in trying to derive nourishment from the wretched body.  Dogs feed on the [half-buried] dead, and the rats are commonly known to tear people to pieces who, though still alive, are too weak to cry out....Instead of following us, beggars throw themselves on their knees before us, holding up their dead infants to our sight. (Cited in Donald Mackay, Flight from Famine, 1990, p. 245)
From 1845 to 1850 another 300,000 Irish refugees arrived in British North America.  When the first few "coffin ships" arrived, great pity was expressed by  British North Americans towards the suffering of the Irish, yet these sentiments were quickly replaced by  fears of the effects of great numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants on colonial society.  

Nativism against Irish Catholics, saw their religion as corrupt and conspiratorial, and their race as barbaric, ignorant and intemperate. (Scott W. See, "An unprecedented influx": Nativism and Irish Famine Immigration to Canada", American Review of Canadian Studies (December 2000), p. 437)  At times the idea that the Irish would spread communicable disease was extended to the moral realm, with one newspaper noting that the Irish should be sent to the countryside as soon as possible to avoid "moral contamination" in the cities. (See, p.442)  In 1830, the Orange Order came to Canada. Started by Ogle R. Gowan, the fraternity was dedicated to Protestant dominance over Roman Catholics, and giving patronage to its own members.  In the later nineteenth-century violent clashes came to typify relations between Orange and so-called Green groups on important religious days.

By 1851, Irish Catholics comprised one quarter of the Toronto's population. (Scott W. See, "An unprecedented influx": Nativism and Irish Famine Immigration to Canada", American Review of Canadian Studies (December 2000), p. 434)  Irish Protestants could at times out-number Irish Catholics in the city that was known to some as the "Belfast of North America".  Racist responses grew with the great influx of poor Catholics in the 1840s.  In 1847, over 1,000 Irish Catholics died in the shanties built in the feverish poor district of Toronto called Cabbagetown.

St. Patrick's Society, Toronto, Speech. Internet Archive

In his 1992 Social History article "St. Patrick's Day Parades in Nineteenth-Century Toronto: A Study of Immigrant Adjustment and Elite Control", Michael Cottrell notes that parades and processions for the commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne and the feast day of St. Patrick were linked to ethnic political and economic struggles.  Cottrell suggests that from the forming of the St. Patrick's Society in Toronto in 1832, the celebrations grew from "low-key affairs - concerts balls and soirees - which brought together the Irish elite to honour their patron saint and indulge their penchant for sentimental and self-congratulatory speeches", to more sectarian public rituals of the 1860s. (Cottrell, p. 60)  St. Patrick's day increasingly became associated with Irish Catholicism, as Protestants expressed nativist sentiments after the 1840s, and in the 1850s the Catholic Church itself focused the celebrations around the church mass. 
"St. Patrick's Day Arch", Quebec City.  Andrew Merrilees, LAC

Church services did not remain completely apolitical.  In 1855, Father Synnott pleaded to his Toronto congregation,
Go on then, faithful, noble and generous children of St. Patrick, in your glorious career...keep your eyes ever fixed on the faith of St. Patrick which shall ever be for you a fixed star by night and a pillar of light by day - forget not the examples and memorable deeds of your fathers - be faithful to the doctrines of your great apostle.  A voice that speaks on the leaf of the shamrock - that speaks in the dismantled and ruined abbeys of lovely Erin - yea a voice that still speaks on the tombstones of your martyred fathers and in the homes of your exiled countrymen - be faithful to the glorious legacy he has bequeathed to you. (Mirror, 23 March 1855, cited in Cottrell, p. 62)

Coat of arms of Young Men's St. Patrick's Association
 John Henry Walker (1831-1899)Museum McCord
With the influence of the Young Men's St. Patrick's Association, a fraternal organization which sought to provide a social life and connections for Irish immigrants, in the 1860s a more secular bent was added to the processions. "Religious hymns were replaced by popular tunes and secular emblems such as shamrocks, harps and wolfhounds were now more prominent than Catholic icons."  (Cottrell, 63)  The wishes of temperance from the clergy also gave way to the alcohol soaked festivities that the day is still associated with.

It may be that the growing scale of parades as well as their tendency towards drunkeness provoked the Orange Order to clash with the parade in 1858, which resulted in violence and the death of a Catholic man from a wound by a pitchfork.  This incident prompted the creation of the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Canada, whose mission was "assisting...their distressed members, attending them in their sickness, and, in case of death, defraying their funeral expenses." (WS Niedhardt, DCB)  By 1863, they had also organized for paramilitary self-defence.  

St. Michael's Cathedral, TO, 1887
Credit: Canada. Patent
 and Copyright Office / Library
 and Archives Canada / PA-028762a
Cottrell writes that the largest of St. Patrick's Day parades during this period in Toronto was that of 1863.  The celebrations began the previous night with the Hibernian Benevolent Society's band playing Irish music on the march.  The next morning, around two thousand persons marched to St. Michael's Cathedral and attended a sermon which reached its crescendo with the telling of the exploits of Saint Patrick and the need of the Irish to spread Catholicism globally.  Cottrell writes that hereafter, "Religious obligation having been fulfilled, the procession then reformed and paraded through the principal streets of the city." (Cottrell, p. 58) 

Here another speech was delivered, by the president of the Hibernian Benevolent Society, denouncing the British government in Ireland.  He told the crowd that, "three-fourths of the Catholic Irish of this country would offer themselves as an offering on the altar of freedom, to elevate their country and raise her again to her position in the list of nations.  Nothing could resist the Irish pike when grasped by the sinewy arm of the Celt." (Irish Canadian, 18 March 1863, cited in Cottrell, p. 58)    After all of this formal speechifying, the main procession broke up "into smaller parties and soirees which lasted late into the night."  Cottrell emphasizes that St. Patrick's Day was the one day a year which Irish Catholics could "claim the city as their own and proudly publicize their distinctiveness on the main streets." (p. 59)  In the process, Irish identity was reinforced, and associated with Home Rule or Catholicism depending upon the times and circumstances.

Despite these large processions in the early 1860s, the links between the Hibernian society and the Fenians, who sought Irish independence through attacks on British North America, resulted in several years without parades.  The violence of the late 1850s had seen previous events cancelled, and with the Fenian raids of  1866,  suspicion of the Irish community, and incarceration of suspected Fenians, many Irish-Canadians wished to maintain a low profile.  (Cottrell, p. 69)  The rounding up of Fenian sympathizers within the Hibernian Society further reduced their stature within Toronto's Irish-Canadian society.
Historians disagree as to the nature of the decline in St. Patrick's day parades in Toronto.  Rosalyn Trigger has taken issue with Cottrell's suggestion that 1877 was the last public celebration of the day for more than a century.  Noting that several large parades in the 1890s occurred, Trigger questions the argument that the decline of parades from the 1870s represent Irish assimilation.  Drawing on American research, Trigger notes that while anti-Catholicism was a factor, the desire to send money to those suffering in Ireland prompted some Irish to abandon the parade out of frugality. (Rosalyn Trigger, "Irish Politics on Parade: The Clergy, Naitonal Societies, and St. Patrick's Day Processions in Nineteenth-century Montreal and Toronto", Social History, 37:74, 2004, p. 196)    Trigger agrees, however, with Canadian researchers who argue that in the 1880s and 1890s, Irish nationalism was diminishing in Toronto as Irish-Catholics hoped to participate in society, but retain their faith.  Hopes were turned from Home Rule for Ireland to greater rights for Catholics in Canada.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1984-4-849

The meaning behind St. Patrick's day in Canada certainly fluctuated with the circumstances of Irish-Canadians, and was adapted to the needs of the community, and altered by international events.  The day was central to Irish-Canadian identity, with themes of Irish Home Rule, or rights for Catholics in Canada entering into the discourse when these issues were imminent.  On the 17th of March 2014, Canadian pubs will be abuzz with glossy-eyed Canadians in emerald attire, perhaps swaying to a Irish reel or two.  Few will consider the historical context of the Irish in Canada: the flight from famine; violent nativist resistance; and interesting ways that Saint Patrick's Day has changed over the years.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Innocent "Iyties": Soldiers' Perceptions of Children in the Italian Campaign

Canadian historical memory of liberated Europe during the Second World War is dominated by themes of celebration, gratitude, and co-operation.  The generously free-flowing Calvados unearthed from Normandy cellars, or the joyous Dutch street celebrations are  the stuff of safe reminiscences of victors and victims.  In the Italian campaign, however, a more uncomfortable narrative challenges these tropes.  Here, racist language towards Italians, and perceptions of Italy as dirty and barbaric are not difficult to find in soldiers' letters.  An exception to the rule, however, is found in Canadian consideration of Italian children, who are seldom included in condemnation, but often held up as innocent exceptions to an otherwise blameworthy, wayward, and unhygienic people.

UBC Press
Of the campaign in Sicily, Jeff Keshen writes in Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers (UBC Press, 2004), his critique of the Canadian "Good War", that many interactions were "cordial, even warm, as the Canadians were often greeted as liberators." (Keshen, p. 245) Others, however, distrusted Sicilians, disdained the "squalid" conditions they lived in, and stole what they wanted from them, occasionally at gunpoint.  Soldiers issued chits for payback which were signed by movie stars or cartoon characters.  While many men reportedly rejected Sicilian women for their dark complexion, this did not prevent seven rapes by the end of July 1943 (Keshen, p. 246).  The poverty of the civilian population is illustrated in the payment of several cigarettes or tinned rations to women for sex.  Children of the age of eight or nine would wander the streets to drum up business for prostitutes.  The booklet that prepared soldiers for Italy stated that in regards to women, "the less you have to do with them the better." (Quoted in Keshen, p. 248)

Racist themes continued to mix with more favourable encounters across the straits of Messina.  Of interactions on the Italian mainland Keshen records, "As in Sicily, there were many reciprocal exchanges between soldiers and civilian.  But some Canadians considered the Italians, or "Iyties" as they called them, in the same light as they saw the Sicilians: chameleon-like in allegiance, crooked, and thus deserving of little consideration." (Keshen, p. 248-49)  Here too, looting occurred, at times escalating to armed robbery, and justified by the perception that Italians were price-gouging the soldiers.

Comments in Canadian censorship reports which pertain to Italians were seldom favorable.  In December of 1943, the censors recorded that only 10% of references to Italians were positive.  Especially in Southern Italy, the general attitude of soldiers was distrust, dislike, and disgust at the squalor that Italians were living in.

A comment from a member of the 3rd Field Regiment of Royal Canadian Artillery may serve to express the ethnocentrism of those familiar with sanitary conditions in Canada towards those in war-torn Italy: “These wops are a dirty filthy bunch, I wouldn't trust them as far as you can smell them and that's a fair distance.” (December 1943, Library and Archives Canada, RG24 Volume 12,323)

There was, however, an exception to these harsh sentiments, found in sympathies expressed towards children.  In December 1943, a British war correspondent wrote an account of sharing shelter in a home in Ortona with a handful of Canadian soldiers.  He reported, "The children clambered around the Canadian soldiers and clutched at them convulsively every time one of our anti-tank guns, located only half a dozen paces from the door of the house, fired down the street in the direction of one of the remaining German machine-gun posts.   Soon each one of us had a squirming, terrified child in his arms." (Quoted in GWL Nichols, The Canadians in Italy (Queen's Printer, 1956), p. 331.

Pte. Alex Livingstone Handing Biscuits to Italian Children .Copyright belongs to the Crown ; Credit: Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / ecopyLibrary and Archives Canada Item no. (creator) ZK-552
Archival reference no. R112-1459-1-E

(Credit: Members of the Seaforth Highlanders
 sit down for their Christmas dinner.
Photo: Terry F. Rowe / Canada.DND
 / Library and Archives Canada / PA-152839)
Toronto Public Library
The Christmas in Italy of 1943 was one which has gone down in the lore of Canadian military history, largely due to the press reportage of the time.  The official historian G.W.L. Nicholson broke from his battle narrative to describe the occasion.  He accounted, "Long after the lessons of Ortona recede into the pages of military textbooks men who were there will remember how, despite their joyless surroundings, the two Canadian battalions [the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the Loyal Edmonton Regiment] observed Christmas day.  Nothing could be less Christmas-like than the acrid smell of cordite overhanging Ortona's rubble barricades, the thunder of collapsing walls and the blinding dust and smoke which darkened the alleys in which Canadians and Germans were locked in grim hand-to-hand struggle." (GWL Nichols, The Canadians in Italy (Queen's Printer, 1956), p. 329)  Of the men who were rotated out of the line for a Christmas feast, the Seaforths' war diarist wrote, "The expression on the faces of the dirty bearded men as they entered the building was a reward that those responsible are never likely to forget.  (Quoted in Nicholson, p. 330)

For most soldiers of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, letters included more references to children than Christmas parties in and of themselves.  A member of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Regiment wrote of the feasting, 
Most of us had an Italian child with us – they were very happy Darling believe me but they were so glad to get a dinner. They would have framed the plate if they could of. It makes one feel like crying to see them eat. (Dec. 1943, RG24, Vol 12,323)

Trooper Ralph Catherall of The Calgary Regiment giving food to an Italian child, Volturara, Italy, 3 October 1943.Credit: Lieut. Jack H. Smith / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-144105 
Canadian letters generally blamed Italians for the state of their war-ravaged country, but were willing to make exceptions for youth.  The postal censors wrote in February 1944:
The plight of small under-nourished children is often mentioned and children are regarded with sympathy and understanding as the unfortunate victims of conditions for which their parents are wholly responsible. Although certain individual kindnesses are appreciated, the general attitude to the adult population never seems to be free of a feeling of suspicion and distrust.
         Men are very often appalled with the insanitary and dirty conditions existing in the Italian villages and it forms a never-ending theme in letters home. (Feb. 1944, RG24 Volume 12,323)

Praise for children was not universal.  In March 1944, a member of 2nd Canadian Armoured Regiment wrote, “It doesn't matter how good you treat the Wops they will always come right back and stab you in the back. We feed all the kids around here but they still steal everything they can get their hands on.” (March 1944, RG24 Volume 12,323)

It seems that it was involvement with partisans in the battles breaking the Gothic Line and beyond that finally changed the opinions of  soldiers towards Italians.  The censor wrote in November 1944, A number of forward units have recently been in contact with Italian partisans, and, in their case, a marked change in the usual unfavourable attitude towards local inhabitants has been noted. They have nothing but praise for the work done by these guerrillas.”
Troopers W. Balinnan and A. Gallant of a Canadian reconnaissance regiment speaking to partisans Louisa and Italo Cristofori after the capture of Bagnacavallo, Italy, 3 January 1945.  Credit: Capt. Alex M. Stirton / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-173569

In December 1944, the chief censor's report wrote that relations with Italians in the villages of the North were cordial, and the mail contained frequent reference to the hospitality and cooperation of partisans.  An officer of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada wrote of a kindness alongside racist references, writing, “Despite what these rough tough Canadians say about these 'gawdamn Wops' they treat them royally and the kids never go without chocolate.”

Attitudes towards Italians were mitigated by the passage of time since their co-belligerency against the Allied cause, and by partisan willingness to risk their lives fighting against the Germans.  The ethnocentric judgement of living conditions found in early letters from the campaign tapered off as Canadians themselves were forced to live in the mud and ruined remnants of Italian homes. 

Children encountered in the campaign were treated with a generosity often not extended to adults.  Young people were interpreted as innocent of Italian transgressions earlier in the war, and reminded soldiers of young friends and family members left behind on the homefront.  They served as ambassadors between two cultures, softening soldiers to a "foreign" people, and providing a way to break down tensions and hostilities between Canadians and Italians.