Language, Monuments, and the Politics of Memory in Quebec and Ireland

By O'Brien, Kathleen | Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies, Spring-Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Language, Monuments, and the Politics of Memory in Quebec and Ireland


O'Brien, Kathleen, Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies


CONTEMPORARY Ireland and Quebec each have centuries of complex language traditions in which Irish, English, and French have jostled in different ways at different periods of time. This article examines two sites--the 1909 Celtic cross at Grosse Ile, Quebec, and the 1903 Miss Erin monument at Kilrush, County Clare--to highlight ways in which texts at those sites were attempts to fix collective memory, but over the twentieth century have become a kind of fragmented conversation about language, famine, nationalism, and identity. At each site, stone structures soar over eye-level text panels that seem to display one single message in Irish, French, and English. Two of the three languages make visible a dual linguistic history in the surrounding cultural landscapes: French and English at Grosse Ile, Irish and English at Kilrush.

But why the third language? Was there a French quartier in Kilrush, an Irish Gaeltacht tucked away on the small Canadian island? If not, why did the designers feature another language that few visitors to the sites could have read? If the purpose of monument building is to make a particular memory publicly visible and thus more enduring, do the three languages aid that attempt or conflict with it? Does their presence raise silent questions about conflicts of memory? If needs for a third language were clearer at the time of construction than now, do monuments fix or mark the passage of memory? These questions suggest that visual displays of language carry meanings beyond those apparent in the written words. The broader contexts of the messages may have been so well understood in the early twentieth century that more explicit notation was unnecessary or intentionally omitted, yet other meanings may be clearer and more visible now.

IRISH MIGRATIONS TO QUEBEC

Before the nineteenth century Irish people emigrated to Quebec mainly through military service. After the Napoleonic wars in 1815, food shortages and epidemics in Ireland sporadically spurred Irish migrations to the predominantly French-speaking Catholic region. Between 1815 and 1861 the Anglophone population of Quebec rose from 15 percent to 24.3 percent. In this period the Irish accounted for almost twice the number of newcomers as English and Scottish immigrants combined (Dickinson and Young 2000:112). The cholera epidemic of 1832 stimulated more Catholic emigration from Ireland than usual, but until the massive influx of Irish Catholics in the years of the Great Famine, most Irish immigrants to Quebec were English-speaking Protestants. In the decade of 1845-55, there were unprecedented challenges to Quebec's religious, linguistic, and cultural demographics as thousands of Irish Catholics poured into Quebec City, Montreal, and other regions along the St. Lawrence River.

Catholic ecclesiastical institutions had been entrenched in Quebec society since the French settlements in the early seventeenth century; thus life was considerably less complicated for the Catholic population than it was under the restrictions of the Penal Laws in Ireland. Nevertheless, the financial and political interests of the English-speaking population had increasingly gained control in Quebec after 1760 when France ceded to Britain its remaining colonial holdings in the region. Unrest grew in Quebec as its French-based societal structures and institutions were increasingly challenged. In recognition of growing unrest in the thirteen colonies to the south, England gave concessions to French Canadians to ensure some measure of loyalty, and the 1774 Quebec Act was passed in England to institutionalize measures of cultural continuity for the French-speaking Catholics (Dickinson and Young 2000:55). (1) The precedence of this legislation linked the aspirations of Irish and French-speaking Canadians seeking more independence under British rule and subsequently influenced the development of British policy toward Ireland in the nineteenth century.

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