A large percentage of modern Newfoundland residents can trace their heritage to Irish ancestry. Throughout the island, you’ll find that surnames, culture, and even accents speak strongly to the largely Irish heritage. Some have even called Newfoundland “the other Ireland.”
Irish migration to Newfoundland began as early as the 17th century; however it only really reached its peak by the late 18th and early 19th century. Beginning in the 1670s, English ships began calling in ports along the southern coast of Ireland. The ships would stock up on salt pork, beef, cheese, butter, and other foodstuffs for the Newfoundland fisheries and the hundreds of fishermen travelling there.
As the English fisheries expanded in subsequent decades, they also began to recruit labourers as they stopped in ports along the Irish coast. Ireland was replete with young, poor men who jumped at the opportunity for employment abroad – even if only for a season. Most of the Irishmen had little experience in the fishing industry; however, they found work aplenty as agricultural workers and servants for fishing merchants.
Since the English vessels charted their route along the south eastern coast of Ireland, most of these migrants originated from the immediate region. The majority had roots in Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny, Cork, and Tipperary.
For many years there was much “to-ing and fro-ing”, as workers migrated each year to work at the fisheries. This kept a strong link between the two islands, and allowed the Newfoundland Irish to keep up with the political and cultural developments back home.
These early migrants would leave Irish ports in the spring, and work on plantations or in the cod fisheries for a season. Some stayed longer, putting in two summers and a winter before returning home. While a few chose to settle in permanently, these were hugely outnumbered by the seasonal migrants.
By the early 1700s, the Irish workers had grown fairly experienced in the fishing industry, and were becoming an increasingly important part of the business. The fisheries had seen a decline in English labourers due to war, so the ship masters and merchants had naturally turned to the ready force of Irish workmen.
Each year, the number of seasonal migrants increased. Some workers tucked away money season after season until they were able to become planters themselves – and they in turn began recruiting additional Irish labourers. By the 1770s and 1780s, over 5000 men passed through Irish ports each year, headed for Newfoundland fisheries.
In time, the fishing industry expanded to become a year-round resident operation. As the old migratory fishing patterns collapsed in 1790, so did much of the seasonal migration. The temporary migration quickly evolved into permanent emigration as families settled and formed strong Irish communities.
Irish migration to Newfoundland peaked in the 19th century, as approximately 35,000 Irish migrants made the voyage. Unlike Ireland at the time, Newfoundland was experiencing an age of prosperity, offering an attractive alternative for many who remained in the Old Country. By the 1840s, nearly 50% of Newfoundland’s population was made up of Irish residents.