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  • "Their Colonial Condition":Connections Between French-Canadians and Irish Catholics in the Nation and the Dublin University Magazine
  • Jason King (bio)

In an article entitled "Canada—A Republic" (6 May 1848), the Nation declared that although "many ameliorations, many reforms, many concessions, have been made [in Canada], . . . still the great majority of her people are non-content with their Colonial condition." Such discontent is especially prominent, the article continued, in Quebec, where a legacy of legislative neglect and under-development in relation to Upper Canada has left it socially and politically analogous to the condition of Ireland under the Union. "The mere force of this contrast, the mere faculty of analogy," the Nation contended, "must revolutionise Canada in time, and lead it into Republicanism—the natural government of a new state with vast territory for expansion."

This article examines the "colonial condition" of Ireland and Quebec as represented in the Irish periodical press in the mid-nineteenth century. More specifically, it surveys two of the leading organs of nineteenth-century Irish nationalist and Tory Protestant opinion, namely the Nation and the Dublin University Magazine (DUM), each of which perceived British North America—especially Lower Canada with its divided British settler stock and recalcitrant French-Canadian populace—to be politically factious and socially analogous to the condition of Ireland under the Union. As Margaret Kelleher notes, the DUM "was by far the most influential" Irish periodical in the nineteenth century, having "been described as 'the supreme archive of Irish Victorian experience, especially that of the [End Page 108] Protestant . . . middle classes';"1 similarly, the Nation represented the broad church of Irish nationalist opinion and is generally acknowledged to be the preeminent newspaper espousing radical political sentiment. Certainly, both of these publications reacted not simply to Canadian but to all of the revolutionary currents that were sweeping across Europe in the mid-nineteenth century; but it was the specific prospect of Catholic amelioration and of political concessions for French-Canadians and Irish Catholics that led them to draw parallels between Ireland and Quebec in terms of their colonial condition.

My argument here advances three consecutive propositions. First, I suggest that for mid-nineteenth century nationalist and conservative commentators alike, the Irish-Canadian axis provided an apparent template of colonial development, in which political agitations, ameliorative measures, and constitutional reforms in British North America were seen as having significant implications for shaping future Anglo-Irish relations and furnishing a model for either revolutionary secession, devolved association, or a renovated union between Great Britain and Ireland. For Irish unionists, devolutionists, and separatists, respectively, Canadian political developments became a potential harbinger for Ireland's own future constitutional status within or outside the British Empire.

Second, I suggest that the writers in the Nation identified the plight of Irish Catholics with that of their French-Canadian co-religionists. These, they believed, could provide the social impetus for either revolutionary unrest or incremental constitutional reform, and thereby transform first the Lower Canadian and then the Irish political landscapes. If the French-Canadian Patriote leader Louis-Joseph Papineau "was proud to be known as the 'O'Connell of Canada',"2 then the active measures he took to resist British imperial rule such as his instigation of rebellion in 1837 were regarded by Thomas Davis as "the lessons taught us by the revolution in [End Page 109] Canada."3 And yet, nationalist interpretations of the Canadian precedent also became increasingly polarized in the wake of the Great Famine between John Mitchel's revolutionary and Charles Gavan Duffy's reformist strains; their increasingly divergent perceptions of Papineau as a violent insurrectionist or constitutional nationalist reflected internal tensions within the Nation itself.4

Such Irish nationalist uncertainty about the significance of French-Canadian constitutional and political developments contrasted sharply with "'loyalist' opposition to any form of devolution" in either Ireland or Quebec, which "became ever more uncompromising."5 If most Irish Protestants did not "accept the nationalist innuendo that they were mere 'colonists' or settlers," the contributors to the DUM were in no more doubt than their Nation counterparts as to Ireland's underlying colonial condition. "There is no use hiding the broad though unpalatable fact," one contributor lamented, "that the...


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pp. 108-131
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