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A Collision of Orange and Green

For the week of Monday July 8, 2002

On July 12, 1847, riots broke out between Orangemen and Irish Catholics in three separate towns in New Brunswick. These riots escalated in the years to come, demonstrating the intense social struggles British North America experienced as its population grew.

Irish emigrants leaving home

Irish emigrants leaving home
© Library and Archives Canada / C-003904

Early in the 19th century, the population of New Brunswick was largely Loyalist and Protestant, with close economic, political and cultural ties to Great Britain. The dynamics within the colony changed through waves of Irish immigration, which peaked several times between 1815 and 1854. In the years 1845-48, potato blight ravaged Ireland and thousands of poor emigrants flooded into North America, including New Brunswick. Their arrival severely strained the provincial labour market and social institutions. While the established Irish Catholic community coped as well as it could with these new arrivals, many Protestants were alarmed by this sudden growth of Catholic numbers.

This anxiety was especially strong among members of the Orange Order, an ultra-Protestant organization that originated in Ireland. A force in the politics of most British North American colonies, the Orange Order rallied Protestants of different origins who mistrusted Catholics in general and Irish Catholics in particular.

Many Orangemen and other Protestants saw Irish Catholics as poor, ignorant troublemakers who were invading the colonies. There was a strong concern that Irish Catholics threatened British concepts of liberty and justice. In some localities, the Orange Order took the law into its own hands if it felt the civil authorities were not keeping Catholics in line.

Partridge Island and Saint John harbour

Partridge Island and Saint John harbour
© Library and Archives Canada / C-008744

Riots occurred throughout the 1840s, but the time from 1847 to 1849 was especially bad. On July 12, 1847, to celebrate the anniversary of the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, Orangemen in Woodstock, Fredericton, and Saint John led processions through their towns. They made a point of marching through Catholic neighbourhoods and as Catholics lined the streets bloody clashes erupted. Many were injured and in the worst incidents, several were killed.

Though tension between Orangemen and Irish Catholics remained, violent mass demonstrations were subdued by the mid-1850s. These Orange-Green riots demonstrated how difficult it could be to integrate rival communities in the immature economies of 19th-century British North America. In Saint John, the Partridge Island Quarantine Station, which offered many Irish immigrants their first close look at New Brunswick, is a national historic site. It stands today as one symbol of the population changes of those times.

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