Fredericton Faculty of Arts

Arts Research Abroad Irish Historian Dr Peter Gray visits UNB

Author: Fredericton Arts

Posted on Nov 12, 2015

Category: News , Arts , Spotlight , Research , Faculty

Peter Gray

The Fredrik and Catherine Eaton Visitorship Award enables researchers to expand their projects internationally by supporting exchanges between the University of New Brunswick and Queen's University Belfast (QUB). Dr. Peter Gray, Professor of Modern Irish History at QUB, recently visited UNB to continue his research on the impacts of The Great Famine. Dr. Gray shared some thoughts on his research and exchange before heading back to Ireland.

Can you provide some background on how you became a recipient of the Eaton Visitorship? 

The Eaton Fellowship program has been running for a few years but this year it was more widely advertised at Queen’s University Belfast and attracted a lot of interest. As an historian of the Great Irish Famine (1845-50) I have an interest in its global impact, including on New Brunswick, and the Eaton Fellowship has provided a great opportunity to develop that research further by supporting a visit to UNB.

Tell us about your experience in New Brunswick thus far.

This is my first visit to the Maritime Provinces and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. I’m in Fredericton for two weeks (after stopping off in Toronto on the way to give a talk at St Michael’s College). I'm staying at the Carriage House Inn – which has an appropriate Victorian ambience. I’ll also be spending a few days in Saint John, a city which hosted an influx of around 30,000 Irish immigrants during the Famine years. Before coming over I met Professor Joanne Wright, Professor of Political Science at UNB, who was an Eaton Visiting Fellow in Belfast in October. Dr. Wright gave me plenty of useful advice about Fredericton but advised me it would be best to depart before the snow started in earnest.

What kind of research work have you accomplished while you are here?

My principal research interests here relate to the impact the Famine had on New Brunswick society and politics, and on how it was remembered through historical writing in Canada. The Provincial Archives here in Fredericton have been very active in digitizing collections relevant to Irish immigration (some of which is available as an online exhibition on their website). I’m extremely grateful to archival staff, especially Denis Noel, for giving me access to this mass of information, which I’ll be working through when I return to Belfast. The UNB Library has also proved an excellent source of relevant historical material not otherwise available to me. In addition I have learnt much about the history of the Irish in the province through conversations with, amongst others, Prof. Elizabeth Mancke, Prof. Emeritus Peter Toner and Prof. Stewart Donovan at STU, as well as engaging in an honours student seminar in the History Department.

You recently gave a talk with the Atlantic Canada Studies Seminar Series on how commentators sought to interpret The Great Famine at the time. Could you provide some information on the content of the talk?

The paper was an exercise in the intellectual history of the Great Famine. I’m interested in how contemporaries with apparently radical different political positions in the 1840s (the English administrator Charles Trevelyan, the Irish Presbyterian Liberal William Neilson Hancock, and the revolutionary Irish nationalist James Fintan Lalor) used similar rhetorical and interpretive themes to describe the catastrophe, interpret it, and propose remedies. All made use of the concept of 'social revolution’ both descriptively and normatively and blamed the Irish landlord class for the disaster. Although Lalor (unsuccessfully) preached a peasant revolt and secession from the UK in contrast to the bourgeois ‘capitalist cultural revolution’ engineered by Trevelyan from the Treasury and the defeudalization of land law sought by Hancock, all employed providentialist and at times apocalyptic modes of expression. The paper suggested that these religiously-informed discourses of revolution and reconstruction contributed to the marginalization of humanitarian priorities during the Famine, and hence to the failure of an effective relief policy.

The Great Famine had a dramatic impact on Irish immigration to New Brunswick in the 19th century. Partridge Island, the official quarantine for newly arrived immigrants, has become a significant reminder of this time in our history. Could you elaborate on the impacts of Irish out-migration to New Brunswick caused by the Great Famine?

New Brunswick already had a well-established Irish population (both Catholic and Protestant) before the 1840s, but the Famine posed new challenges, especially as it came at a time of economic turmoil in the province. The immigrants, especially in 1847 when some 17,000 arrived, now tended to be much poorer and overwhelmingly Catholic, appearing more as economic refugees than as settlers. Many arrived in New Brunswick simply because weak shipping regulations and lower fares on the timber trade ships made it a much cheaper destination than the U.S., and at least half the arrivals went south shortly after landing. But those who remained, often destitute and carrying typhus fever, threw Saint John in particular into crisis, overwhelming both the Quarantine Station and the town’s Almshouse and hospitals, and leading to thousands of deaths. Although the crisis stimulated generosity and self-sacrifice on the part of some residents, it also promoted a nativist anti-Irish backlash in the form of the Orange Order, which engaged in serious rioting in 1847 and 1849. Although a relatively brief (if traumatic) episode, this appears to have left a significant legacy, especially in Saint John itself. It also perhaps offers certain historical parallels with our contemporary concerns over the plight of economic and political refugees.

The Eaton Visitorships provide researchers with an opportunity to share their research with colleagues abroad. What makes these opportunities so valuable?  

International conversations are essential to historians in particular, in moving beyond the historiographies and controversies of their own sub-disciplines and specialisms to explore transnational and thematic parallels and perspectives. I have gained much from even a short visit to Fredericton, especially from engagement with colleagues here, and I'd like to thank Elizabeth Mancke in particular for being a wonderful host. We thoroughly enjoyed hosting Joanne in Belfast last month and look forward to many future conversations with UNB visitors.

fall UNB campus