People and Places

How a ‘little of the bottle’, boredom, and religious fervor led to the first St. Patrick’s Day ‘parade’

Above image: Colonel By Watching the Building of the Rideau Canal, 1826. Charles William Jefferys, Imperial Oil Collection series, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1972-26-795, C-073703

On Saturday, March 19, the Irish Society’s St. Patrick’s Day parade will meander through downtown Ottawa on its way to Lansdowne Park. This year marks the parade’s 34th year — a number that, perhaps, should come with an asterisk, since the city did have at least one other St. Patrick’s Day parade many years before the modern version began.

In the 1820s, Ottawa — then known as Bytown — was far from the shy, retiring government city we know today. It was little more than a camp for rowdy squads of single men, and there was not a scenic parkway, memorial sculpture or organic gelato shop in sight. Without the NCC, there were no family-friendly festivals offering free world music concerts and face-painting artists to amuse the locals. And a bored, exploited populace would turn out to be a problem, as we shall see in a moment.

Lieutenant-Colonel John By showed up in 1826 to start work on the Rideau Canal. The massive public works project attracted labourers from far and wide, including a sizeable contingent of Irish immigrants. Most of them were poorly paid and poorly treated, and went home at night to a shanty community called Corktown, which spread along both banks of the canal south of today’s Plaza Bridge. In 1828, they would be hit hard by “swamp fever,” a virulent strain of malaria carried by mosquitoes that bred in Bytown’s swamps.

Far from home, understandably cranky and at a bit of a loose end, about 200 Irishmen staged their first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1828, starting at Hog’s Back Falls and making their way along the canal construction route to Corktown. Somewhere en route, a riot ensued. It was big enough to warrant stories in newspapers far from Ottawa, including this April 8, 1828, account in Pennsylvania’s National Gazette:

“We learn from Bytown that on the 17th instant, a great concourse of the Irish labourers of that place and vicinity, having assembled to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, paraded about the town, it is said, with the Emerald flag, the well-known signal of defiance and fight with their countrymen who have enlisted themselves under the Orange banner.

“As might have been expected under the influence of these national and religious excitements, and ‘a little of the bottle,’ a serious riot was the consequence, by which two men lost their lives, and several severely injured. Two men of the name of McKibben/McKibbon and Power, have been taken up as being the principal actors on the occasion, and will be sent to Perth to take their trial at the next assizes.”

Yes, Bytown was so small in 1828 that we had to ship our accused murderers to Perth, since Bytown had no criminal court. (Neither man was convicted, in the end.)

So what can we modern revelers learn from this tale?

Since I suspect none of you are subsisting on slave wages while living in a shantytown and fighting off malaria, you really don’t have any excuse to riot. Really, you don’t. So enjoy the floats and the fiddlers. Have some green beer. But I don’t want to see your name in the Pennsylvania newspapers or to have to bail you out of some godforsaken picturesque country jail. When you start thinking the bartender is an actual leprechaun, it’s time to go home.

The 34th annual St. Patrick’s Day parade on March 19 starts at the corner of Elgin Street and Laurier Avenue West at 11am, then moves west on Laurier and south on Bank Street, ending up at Lansdowne Park about 12:30pm. The Beau’s St. Patrick’s Party at the Aberdeen Pavilion at Lansdowne is sold out.