Guest post written by Jeffrey Burke
KAWARTHA LAKES-A few weeks back I wrote an article about how Napoleon, and the Napoleonic Wars, were indirectly responsible for the founding of Ops Township as The British Crown was offering free land in Ops Township to the veterans of those wars. To qualify for this land the veterans had to agree to cultivate at least ten acres and build a house on the property within the first three years. This past St Patricks Day, as I was writing the previous article, had me thinking about the chasm between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants and how this might affect the settlers coming from Ireland.
St Patricks Day is a cultural and religious holiday celebrated on the 17th of March, the death date of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. This day originally commemorated Saint Patrick and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, but in modern times, it has become a popular celebration of Irish culture.
Saint Patrick was actually not from Ireland but was rather born in Roman Britain in the 5th century. He was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16. After six years of slavery, he managed to escape and by the time he returned to Britain, he had become a Christian.
He then became a bishop and returned to Ireland as a missionary, dedicating his life to converting the Celtic culture to Christianity. Saint Patrick was famously known for using the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity, which eventually came to symbolize Ireland and its culture. Though Saint Patrick lived and ministered before the separation of The Christian Church he is traditionally recognized as a Catholic Saint hence St Patrick’s day a Catholic holiday.
For the past five hundred years The Country of Northern Ireland is known for its Protestant majority, while the Country of The Republic of Ireland is predominately Catholic. The religious divide has its roots in the island’s turbulent history, which has seen centuries of conflict between Catholic and Protestant communities.
The division dates back to the 16th century when, after the Reformation, Henry VIII changed England’s state religion to Protestantism and established the Protestant Church of England, splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. This was followed by a series of regional conflicts, including the nine-year war in Ireland in the late 1500s and the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the mid-1600s. These wars led to the formation of two distinct identities in Ireland: the predominantly Protestant Unionist community (Northern Ireland) that still celebrates its ties to Great Britain and the Protestant Church of England, to this day, and the mainly Catholic Nationalist community (The Republic of Ireland) that continues to seek a united Ireland. More recent historical events, such as the Irish Civil War and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, have also contributed significantly to the religious and political divide in the country.
These conflicts between Northern Ireland Protestants and Republic of Ireland Catholics climaxed during the early to mid 19th century, the same time our Irish ancestors were migrating to Canada. During the 19th century, many Irish migrants were fleeing poverty and political unrest in their homeland. This along with the Napoleonic War veterans being offered free land in the area populated much of our communities with Irish at that time. Upon arriving in what is now Canada, they faced the same discriminatory attitudes and obstacles to settlement as they faced in Ireland.
This being the case Irish immigrants found support from within their own communities, and it was common for groups to settle together in specific areas. In Downeyville, for example, early Irish Catholic settlers arrived in the area around 1820 and established a community centered around their faith. Similarly, Omemee and Southern Ops Township became a hub for Irish Protestants, who supported each other in business and community endeavours. These settlements were driven by shared cultural and religious ties, as well as a need for mutual support and solidarity in the face of the challenges of starting anew in a new country.
The impact that these two Christian community’s had on their respective areas can still be found today. Downeyville has St Luke’s Catholic Church, St Luke’s Catholic Cemetery and St Luke’s Catholic School. Meanwhile, Omemee and Southern Ops Township are home to strictly Protestant Denominations: Reaboro-Omemee Baptist Church, Mount Horeb United Church, Trinity United Church and Christ Anglican Church, their four main cemeteries Protestant (Emily Cemetery being non-denominational now) and secular (non-Catholic) schools.
Anyone who attended high school, participated in community events or played hockey in the early 90’s, like I did, will remember there was always a huge rivalry between “The Omemee Boys” and “The Downeyville Boys”, often resulting in fights and other shenanigans. Speaking to those who grew up in the area in past generations they have stories of far more malicious engagements between the same communities including barn burnings, theft / killing of livestock, etc. I suspect that few, if any (at least in my generation) know the rivalry began more than 200 years ago when Irish Catholics settled Downeyville and Irish Protestants settled Omemee / Southern Ops Township.
One could say that it is truly remarkable that cultural and religious divisions between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants from two centuries past continue to exert influence to this day in the Canadian communities which they settled. Perhaps a reminder is in order that we are all God’s children and that His second greatest commandment after “love your God with all your heart and all your mind” is to “love your neighbour as yourself”.