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Alberta's Irish Legends: Acknowledgement and Introduction

Updated: Oct 12, 2023



Acknowledgement and Introduction

Many Albertans are familiar with the Indigenous names for the land they call home: Moh-kins-tsis, Wîchispa Oyade, Otos-kwunee and Guts-ists'I (Calgary), and Amiskwaciy Waskahikan (Edmonton) are just some examples. These place names, along with archeological and living cultural sites, represent a thriving relationship between people and land that has ancient roots: physical evidence of human habitation of the northwestern part of this continent dates back more than 26,000 years. (To put this in perspective, the historian and current Irish Ambassador to Canada, Eamonn McKee, reminds us that human settlement in Ireland dates back to only 8,000 BCE, around the same time that people began to live in Calgary’s Fish Creek area.)


The land in which all Albertans live, work, and play is located on the traditional lands, ceded or unceded, of many Indigenous communities, including the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) and the people of the Siksika, the Piikani, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina, the Iyarhe Nakoda, the nêhiyaw/ Cree, Dené, Anishinaabe/ Saulteaux, Nakota Isga/ Nakota Sioux, the Métis People, and the Inuit. The long and rich culture and history of this region has been shaped and guided by Indigenous peoples’ spiritual connections with the land’s Creator, with other communities, and with nature. In Alberta, this essential principle of Indigenous culture is expressed through ancient and contemporary landmarks: stone circles and rock art in Nose Hill Park, Okotoks, Cochrane, and Canmore, and modern spiritual sites in parks, libraries, universities, and other public spaces. Visitors to the Louise McKinney Park in Edmonton can walk a maze known as The Turtle Effigy, a melding of Indigenous symbols with a Celtic-inspired labyrinth designed by Lea Dorian to celebrate the historical and living connections fostered between Indigenous communities of Turtle Island and settlers in Canada, many of whom were Irish.


The relationship between Indigenous communities and Irish explorers and settlers is long and complex. It was often harmonious: Irish explorers and settlers could not have managed without Indigenous communities sharing their knowledge and resources with them—and even saving their lives when they were lost or starving. Today, many Albertans are the descendants of Irish and Indigenous or Métis couples such as John “Kootenai” Brown and Olive Lyonnais or John Glenn and Adelaide Belcourt. At the same time, it is important to recognize, as historians David Wilson and Donald Harmon Akenson remind us, that “Irish … settlers and their beneficiaries participated in a system that destroyed or maimed [Indigenous] communities and cultures on a global scale.” As part of reconciliation, it is important to acknowledge past and present damage while recognizing and honouring Indigenous people and culture, along with the obligations all Albertans have as treaty peoples.


Moreover, such recognition also helps create common ground, in part by appreciating the resilience that characterizes both Irish and Indigenous culture. In Ireland, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were few monuments to Irish historical figures and little popular knowledge of its rich culture. Acknowledging the history and culture of Ireland led to several cultural revivals that eventually brought Irish traditional music, art, poetry, drama, and fiction to a world audience, much in the way that Indigenous art, literature, and orature has enriched Canadian culture in uncountable ways.


The Irish embraced Canadian identity so successfully that they are sometimes known as “the Invisible Irish.” While Albertans may be familiar with local symbols of Indigenous history, they are less likely to know the Irish origin of many Alberta institutions. Many quintessential Alberta architectural landmarks are the work of Irish investors and builders whose stories are not well known. Even Alberta street names commemorate a centuries-long Irish presence in Canada that contributed to expansion, settlement, and economic activity in the Canadian West. For example, the English-sounding Dorchester Avenue and Carleton Street in Calgary actually commemorate a man from Strabane: the Irish-born general and early Canadian governor, Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester (1724-1808). Streets, suburbs, and an early and elegant Calgary hotel take their names from the explorer John Palliser (1817-1887), who was born in Dublin. Jane Megarry, a health care worker from Northern Ireland who learned Blackfoot when nursing Indigenous patients, has a street named for her in Lethbridge. Countless other examples can be found throughout Alberta.


More pervasive, though less visible, are the many contributions that Irish people made to everyday economic and civic life through ranching, farming, resource extraction, building and industrial development, teaching, volunteering, and raising families. Even if some early Irish-owned buildings have been torn down and replaced, a legacy remains in the livelihoods created by economic activities of the Irish who came to Alberta and made it their home. The stories of Irish settlers, entrepreneurs, investors, and community builders are celebrated in this series of posts.


Further Reading

Alberta Parks. “Fish Creek Provincial Park: History.” Alberta Parks. https://www.albertaparks.ca/parks/kananaskis/fish-creek-pp/information-facilities/history/


Brown, Mackenzie. “Indigenous Landmarks and Spaces in Edmonton” Explore Edmonton https://exploreedmonton.com/articles/indigenous-landmarks


McKee, Eamonn, “The Irish and the Colonisation of the Prairie North-West,” [Blog post]3 August 6, 2023 https://eamonncmckee.com/2023/08/03/the-irish-and-the-colonisation-of-the-prairie-north-west/

Wilson, David, “Introduction,” Irish and Scottish Encounters with Indigenous People. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2013, p. 17.

 

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