|Irish Montréal Experiences: Origins by Donovan King
My favorite life experiences have always involved an Irish theme, from attending the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to visiting Dublin City, from leading Irish-Montreal pub-crawls to enjoying ceilidhs and trad sessions.
All of these experiences have one thing in common: the craic. Loosely defined as “pleasure and entertainment, especially good conversation and company,” when the craic is involved, the experience will almost certainly be fun and memorable.
In Ireland, the craic is inescapable. Infused into the culture, it is everywhere.
Finding it in Montreal tends to be a bit more elusive. While the craic is abundant at the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, it is a fleeting feeling that dissipates all too soon. This may be why Irish Montrealers have created an entire “Irish Season”, a month of balls, activities, events and gatherings, both social and artistic.
About a decade ago, I began creating and leading Irish-Montreal walking tours for organizations like the Blue Metropolis and Bloomsday festivals.
I created a small company called Irish Montreal Experiences devoted to Irish-themed walking tours, pub crawls, and local heritage preservation.
I also founded Haunted Montreal, a ghost tour company inspired by the incredible haunted walks found in Dublin City.
With these two companies, I can enjoy the craic far more often than before – and share it with my many clients!
I am also a big believer in Irish values, including a love of the arts, a critical eye for oppressive systems, and a rebellious attitude against injustices. Due to Ireland’s history of being subjugated and colonized, the Irish experience has long included suffering, injustice, and endurance, but also resistance, adaptability, and solidarity with the oppressed.
In the 1600s, the English were intent on transforming Ireland into their first colony. In August 1649, Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland on behalf of England’s Parliament.
On September 11, 1649, Cromwell’s forces attacked the town of Drogheda. It was one of the worst massacres to take place on Irish soil and signaled the beginning of what was arguably a lengthy genocide. Over 40% of the Irish population were killed off and many others transported to Barbados and sold into slavery. The territory was seized and granted to Anglo-Irish landlords.
Penal Laws would soon follow that forbade the native Irish from speaking their language, practicing their religion, owning property, holding office, voting, teaching, and a host of other restrictions and violations. The remaining Irish population became landless second-class citizens.
After Cromwell’s scorched-earth campaign in Ireland, he published surrender terms in 1652, which allowed Irish soldiers to go abroad to serve in foreign armies that were not at war with England. These soldiers were known as the “Wild Geese” and most went to Catholic countries, including France and Spain. Some of these Irish soldiers would eventually move to colonies such as “New France”.
Indeed, Montreal’s remarkable Irish community has its roots in this colonial era. According to 1661 records, the first Irishman in “New France” was a man named Tadgh Cornelius O’Brennan. He married a Fille du roi named Jeanne Chartier, originally from Paris. The couple had 7 children. The youngest, François, had 14 of his own.
In this way, Irish blood began coursing through the veins of those living in New France, long before the British conquest of 1760 opened the doors to wave after wave of Irish immigration, including around 75,000 Irish refugees during the Famine of 1847.
Since those days, Montreal’s Irish have risen to some of the most interesting positions in society, from famous politicians and artists to rebellious trouble-makers and even ghosts!
Perhaps my favorite character from Irish-Montreal’s history is Joe Beef (a.k.a. Charles McKiernan). Born in County Cavan, Ireland in 1835, he was a well-known Montreal tavern owner, innkeeper and philanthropist.
Like many unemployed Irish, he would go on to a career in the British Army, as a Quartermaster during the Crimean War. Whenever his regiment was running low on food, McKiernan had a knack of somehow finding meat and provisions, hence the name “Joe Beef”.
He came to the city around 1864 with his artillery regiment and was put in charge of the main military canteen on Saint Helen’s Island. Discharged in 1868, he opened “Joe Beef’s Tavern” on the waterfront.
This was a bustling area in the mid to late 1800s because Montreal’s port was rapidly expanding. With the opening of the Lachine Canal in 1825 and the dredging of the Saint Lawrence River in 1850, Montreal became the world’s largest inland port that could cater to trans-oceanic ships.
Joe Beef never refused service to anyone. His canteen provided a free lunch, cheap beds, and questionable entertainment to hundreds of the city’s laborers, longshoremen, sailors, and ex-army men. He also took in beggars, outcasts, the unemployed, and drifters and the destitute.
Joe Beef was also a bit eccentric. He often spoke in rhyming couplets and kept a display of bizarre curios including a dead snake coiled in a jar and a bit of preserved beef upon which a customer had purportedly choked to death. Behind the bar hung two human skeletons that he used to punctuate his stories. He claimed one was the remains of his first wife and the other a patron who had made the mistake of coming out in support of prohibition.
Joe Beef’s Canteen was also home to a wild menagerie, which included ten monkeys, three wild cats, a porcupine, an alligator and, most famously, a number of alcoholic black bears.
For working class Montreal, McKiernan’s tavern functioned as the centre of social life on the docks and as a place where they could access services such as free food, a place to learn about the port, find a job, and get a good night’s rest. Authorities disliked it, however, and The New York Times called Joe Beef’s Canteen “a den of filth”.
Joe Beef loved upsetting authority and showing solidarity with the disadvantaged. When the Lachine Canal workers went on strike in 1877 for shorter hours and better pay and conditions, Joe Beef provided bread, soup, and tea to the picket line.
He ran his tavern from 1870 until his death from a heart attack on January 15, 1889, at the age of 54.
Despite Joe Beef’s hardscrabble reputation, during his funeral, every office in the business district closed. Fifty labour organizations walked off the job while Joe Beef’s casket was drawn through the city by an ornate four-horse hearse, in a procession several blocks long. At the time, it was one of the most well-attended funerals in Montreal’s history.
Joe Beef certainly spread the craic in 19th Century Montreal. He also embodied the Irish values of resistance to authority, solidarity with the downtrodden, and a love of storytelling.
For these reasons, I have always considered him one of the most fascinating Irish characters in Montreal’s history and draw inspiration from Joe Beef to this very day.
– Donovan King