Irish Migration Within New Brunswick

There has been considerable research done on the Irish journey to New Brunswick as well as continuing studies on early Irish settler communities. However very little has been written on the years that followed and the patterns of Irish migration within the colony after initial settlement.

Many, who had settled in the towns and cities – sometimes because they could not afford the fees to petition for a land grant – eventually migrated to the rural areas – some with the lure of resettlement assistance during the 1860’s – especially those who were living in deplorable conditions in Saint John. Others, who had settled in rural areas and found their farms unproductive and non-sustainable, eventually migrated into the towns and cities where work was available.

Migration from urban settlements to the hinterland

Between 1815 and 1867, 150,000 Irish immigrants flooded into the city of Saint John – the colony’s busiest port of entry. It is estimated that between 1845 and 1847, some 30,000 arrived – almost twice as many people as were living in the city at the time1. Not all stayed of course, but enough did that in the census of 1851, the “Loyalist City” found that over half the heads of households in Saint John registered themselves as natives of Ireland.

For those who stayed in Saint John, life was difficult. Because of the sudden increase in population – especially during the 1840’s – Saint John had little or no accommodations to handle such a large influx of immigrants – and precious few services or resources to assist them.

Many were housed in sheds on the waterfront, many to be later transferred to either the Old Poor House, the Alms House or the Infirmary, later to become wards of the community or forced to subsist by begging.2

Things were not much better once these new Irish immigrants had found accommodation.

Many were forced to huddle in the waterfront slums of York Point in the city or in the wharf areas of Portland where living conditions were abominable… streets became notoriously crowded with packed tenements set between slaughter houses and tanneries. Two-thirds of the houses at York Point were even without privies, contributing to the high death rate in that area during the cholera epidemic of 1854. In Flaghers Alley, 200 people lived in conditions so bad that it was closed as being unfit for human habitation. For the majority, the only jobs available were low-paid and low-status, mainly in the lumberyards, the dockyards, foundries and construction gangs.3

Bishop John Sweeny

Bishop John Sweeny

Economic downturns in the timber industry aggravated the situation in Saint John during the 1850’s. There was little work available and no chance of saving enough cash to resettle elsewhere. Bishop John Sweeny, soon after becoming Bishop in 1861, hoped to lessen the misery of his parishioners. He was appalled at the many hardships the new arrivals were forced to endure, including the squalid living conditions and impoverished economic circumstances. He helped organize

“…the Catholic Immigration and Land Settlement Society to receive arriving immigrants and settle them on lands outside the city in country districts, and to assist those already resident in the diocese to better their situation by taking up homes outside the city and towns.”4

Through the efforts of the Immigration and Land Settlement Society, large tracts of land were purchased in rural locations for the purpose of establishing Irish settlements. It was hoped that many of the City’s Irish poor would settle in these newly created communities and afford improved circumstances as a result. Some of these settlements were:

  1. Fredericton Road (Leaman’s Hill) and Monteagle in Westmorland County – 10,000 acres
  2. Canaan – Gallagher Ridge, Westmorland County
  3. Hardwood Ridge (north of Chipman), Sunbury County
  4. Gaspereau and north of Salmon Creek, Queens County – 10,000 acres
  5. Washedemomoak/Longs Creek/Ryder Brook on the Canaan River on the overlapping Kings and Queens County – 20,000 acres
  6. Buckley Settlement (parish of Salisbury, Westmorland County) – 10,000 acres
  7. Johnville, Carleton County, named after Bishop John Sweeny – 10,000 acres

Sweenyville and Bishops Lands (now known as Terrain d’L’Éveque), north of Canaan and Gallagher Ridge) in Kent County – named after Bishop Sweeny.5

A report by the Immigrant Aid Society on conditions in these settlements in 1865 reported:

The men who went to those settlements scarcely three years ago were then no better off than those who remained behind, and they had difficulties to overcome and discouragements to conquer which men who now go to the settlements will know nothing about. They were the first to go into the wilderness; sometimes they were quite alone. They had no roads and the nearest neighbours lived miles away and could to little to help them. Now the roads are open the settlements are almost like villages and many of the settlers are already so well off that they can and do assist new settlers…. They had energy, determination and spirit, and already they are independent, – some of them even comparatively wealthy. They have farms on which no man has a claim; houses, cattle, and barns full of grain and roots.6

Many of Saint John’s poor Irish families did take advantage of the resettlement opportunities.

But most of these planned communities also had one unfortunate commonality – they were off the beaten track, isolated, plagued by poor soil conditions, and agriculturally unproductive. The odds of living well and finding prosperity through any constructive economic development, was almost impossible.7 Most of these planned communities were doomed from the start. Only one – Johnville in Carleton County – became a viable and sustainable community. Located in the middle of what was to become New Brunswick’s potato belt, it is still a rural farming community today.

Not only did Saint John see the Irish migrate out of their urban area. The economic collapse of the timber and shipbuilding industries in the 1850’s and 1860’s affected many Irish settlers in the established villages and towns. In Moncton, many of the Irish families left the settled urban areas and resettled on farmlands in Irishtown and Tankville. In Miramichi, many went up the Miramichi River and it’s tributaries to establish communities inland.

Migration from Rural Settlements into the Towns

Just as urban dwellers lusted after land in the hinterland, so did the second and third generations of rural Irish families long for a better life in town. Most Irish settlements, which in the beginning held so much promise, were found to be lacking. Bad roads and poor land found families living a life of subsistence farming. To supplement their meagre farming incomes, husbands and grown sons worked away from the farm – in the forests – or the nearby towns when work was available. It was the only way they could make ends meet.

Many of the first generation New Brunswick born Irish left home in the 1860’s to seek out a life in the American West – enticed by offers of free land. There wasn’t a family in New Brunswick that did not have a son or daughter – and often many – who left and resettled in Minnesota, Illinois, Montana, and beyond.8

For those who stayed in the province, there was little hope of sustainable farming in the Irish communities that were, in many cases, isolated from any markets or viable economies. In the western half of the province, they moved to Fredericton and especially Saint John where there was work available. On the North Shore and Miramichi, the mills offered full-time employment and this offered a better opportunity for most. In south-eastern NB, Moncton’s railway shops, and the Intercolonial Railway (later CN) offered the same.

Initially, they left their homes temporarily to go work in the woods or do road construction. As time passed, they found work in the towns and cities and left the farms for good – eventually taking their families with them.

In Irishtown, in south-eastern New Brunswick, during the 1940’s and 1950’s, abandoned Irish farms were selling for a song.9 Land speculators purchased many a farm to sell later on – primarily to Acadians who moved south from Kent County where conditions were even worse. The Irish in Irishtown had moved into Moncton to work in the railway shops or the Eaton’s catalogue complex. Entire neighbourhoods in Moncton and her outskirts were filled with families who came into the city for the same purpose. Similar migrations occurred around the province.

As a result, many Irish communities that were so painstakingly carved from the New Brunswick wilderness were virtually abandoned. Some still have a few Irish families living in them, but many only live on in a family’s memories and reminiscences. Johnville is one example of an Irish community that has survived – and there are others, but most are long gone.

New Ireland in Albert County is a sad reminder of one that has totally disappeared, except for a dot on the map. A village of a few hundred with two churches, two schools and several farms, most families had left by 1920. Descendants of the families who lived there still speak fondly of the community and keep it close to their hearts. But if you mention New Ireland to others, they don’t even know where it is. The road today is barely passable. Farmland has sadly returned to forest. Occasionally you can see a culvert that once led into a farmer’s home or field, and there is the occasional rose bush or wild apple tree struggling to survive amid reforested lands. Only the cemetery remains to tell passers-by that they are going through New Ireland today.

These abandoned Irish communities dot the landscape of the province – and many today exist in name only. IF only they could talk….


[1] “Saint John, New Brunswick, the Irish Story: Our Proud Irish Heritage

[2] Leo J Hynes, The Catholic Irish of New Brunswick 1783-1900, Fredericton, Privately Published, 1992, p 41.

[3] Leo J Hynes, p. 44.

[4] Ibid, p.109

[5] Leo J Hynes, p 109, and “The Immigrant Aid Society Settlements”, PANB MF – 1865.01.12 – #115 – F12250. For more on this document, see Johnville on this website.

[6] The Immigrant Aid Society Settlements

[7] In an interview with J E (Ned) Belliveau, historian, of Shediac Cape, in 1990, Mr Belliveau related a story of one of Bishop Sweeny’s settlements. As a reporter for the Moncton Times in the 1920’s he went to report on an incident in Gallagher Ridge (off Highway 126). There he found such poverty that he returned to Moncton and wrote about the dire living conditions there instead of the story he had gone to research. Residents of the city of Moncton rallied with food, clothing, and the necessities and a whole “wagon train” of supplies was brought to Gallagher Ridge and the Irish families living there.

[8] A second wave of out-migration to the US occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the Irish left Ireland to go work in Britain – so did the New Brunswick Irish leave the province to go work in what became referred to as the “Boston States”.

[9] Interview, Judge Henry J Murphy, 2004.


Hynes, Leo J, The Catholic Irish of New Brunswick 1783-1900, Fredericton, Privately Published, 1992.

______, The Immigrant Aid Society Settlements”, PANB MF – 1865.01.12 – #115 – F12250.

_______, Interview with J.E. Ned Belliveau.

______, Interview with Judge Henry J Murphy.

______, “Saint John, New Brunswick, the Irish Story: Our Proud Irish Heritage