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REF NO.: 223

SUBJECT: Day off in Newfoundland, thanks to the luck of the Irish
DATE: March 8, 2006

Canadians from coast to coast will don their best green duds and drink dyed-green suds after work this St. Patrick’s Day, but workers in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador can take a holiday to reflect on the province’s Irish roots. While not a statutory holiday, many workplaces and collective agreements in Newfoundland still mark the Feast of St. Patrick with a day off – even if they don’t call it by its name.

Newfoundland’s close ties to Ireland, dating back over 300 years, have remained strong for reasons well beyond the geographic proximity of the two North Atlantic islands. “The experience of the Irish who immigrated to Newfoundland was very different from those who went to other places in North America,” explains Carolyn Lambert, a PhD student who is examining how the Newfoundland Irish maintained their ethnic identity.

Ms. Lambert says that the Irish were lured to Newfoundland’s shores in the 18th and early 19th century to work in the fishing trade, many as seasonal workers, with the heaviest period of permanent immigration occurring between 1815-1832. In 1836, half of census respondents on the island claimed Irish heritage.

These people had a very different experience than did the large wave of Irish immigrants who came to North America later, during the famine, and settled in places like New York, Boston and New Brunswick. This rapid influx tended to spark a backlash against those who arrived poor and often with little employment opportunity. These immigrants were regarded as either a threat or a drain by many, and were ghettoized. Signs that read “No Irish need apply” were not uncommon in American cities, Ms. Lambert notes.

“The Irish in Newfoundland have none of that history of violence or friction that we see in other places,” she says. “Here, they were major leaders of the community.”

According to Dr. Peter Hart, the Canada Research Chair in Irish Studies at Memorial, the sharing of power between groups resulted in holidays that are still observed, such as St. Patrick’s Day and St. George’sDay. “In Newfoundland, there are traditionally a lot of holidays, and these represent the way the foundational groups were given their share of political power.”

Given the status of the Irish holiday in Newfoundland, those “from away” may be surprised to find that St. Paddy’s isn’t celebrated in an overt fashion here.

Ms. Lambert notes that in Newfoundland, St. Patrick’s Day has always combined religious observance with social events to commemorate the connection to Ireland. “During the day, parades were always just small marches that gave people a chance to show social standing, to carry their banner, and the march ended at church where a sermon honoured St. Patrick,” she says. “In the evening, dinners or balls were common, and a lot of toasts traditionally were made to Ireland, and to members of the community, but also to the queen.”

Dr. Hart notes that the Benevolent Irish Society of Newfoundland, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, still holds a parade, but it is not the sort of public “Americanized and commercialized” spectacle, complete with floats, that other cities – even now Dublin – have. He adds: “I think floats represent a significant shift in meaning. When floats come into a parade, it signifies that parade doesn’t mean very much anymore.”

Dr. Danine Farquharson, an expert in Irish literature, drama and film, recently joined Memorial’s department of English after several years in Ontario. She reports enormous differences in the way St. Patrick’s Day is marked there and here. “In Waterloo, you can’t walk into a pub on St. Patrick’s Day. Everyone is out drinking green beer. It’s very extreme and very specific to that day,” she says. “It’s not as excessive here, I think because the lifestyle of going out for a pint has more consistency here.”

Furthermore, the day off enjoyed by many Newfoundlanders isn’t even called St. Patrick’s Day anymore – it’s referred to as “mid-March” – and it is observed on the nearest Monday – March 20 this year.

“What’s interesting is that we still mark the day, but it has officially lost its connection to the original holiday,” notes Dr. Farquharson. Still, she says, apparent in the customs, culture and art of Newfoundland, “there is a profound lingering sense of those associations with Ireland.”

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