InsightOut: A Wealth of Ideas Leads to Irish Conference at St. Mike’s 

St. Michael’s Mark McGowan is a Professor of History and Celtic Studies, cross-appointed to the Department of History at the University of Toronto. Professor McGowan is renowned for his work on the Catholic Church in Canada and the Great Irish Famine, as well as the lasting impact that the Famine’s mass migration had on Canada.  

The Canada, Ireland, and Transatlantic Colonialism Conference had a polygenesis of sorts. In March 2023, Ambassador Eamonn McKee held a reception at the Embassy Residence in Ottawa for the Coollattin Canadian Connection. I was invited because of my work with the project, which helps to link the former estate of Earl Fitzwilliam in Wicklow with descendants of the tenants he assisted off the estate in the 1840s and 1850s. It was there that Tom Jenkins, a Coollattin descendant– and recently Chancellor of the University of Waterloo –proposed that St. Mike’s be the hub linking Canada-Ireland research projects. This dovetailed nicely with the Ambassador’s and my plans to bring to light Ireland’s role within the British Imperial project, specifically settlement and migration to British North America. He and I already had a book project in process called 50 Irish Lives in Canada, but we both were searching for some vehicle to explore issues of migration, colonialism, and cultural transfer from Ireland to Canada. We thought of a gathering and then perhaps a publication. 

Eamonn, while in discussion with President David Sylvester and Principal Irene Morra, fleshed out the idea of the University of St. Michael’s College holding a conference, perhaps as a launch pad for another idea, the creation of an Irish research centre at St. Michael’s. Both ideas seemed to have legs and had the added bonus of boosting the prominence of the College’s Celtic Studies program (which was currently under renewal and renovation). With the co-sponsorship of the Irish Embassy, and with some financial support from the Irish Cultural Society of Toronto and the University, the Ambassador and I began to map out what a conference might be called and who we might invite. The Embassy was keen to foot the bill for keynote speakers, particularly from Ireland, and I was hopeful that we might engage our newly signed Memorandum of Understanding (May 2023) with Maynooth University. 

Eamonn and I hammered out the rough framework for the program and bandied about keynote speakers. Eventually, five speakers emerged, all distinguished professors in their own right: Heidi Bohaker (University of Toronto, an expert of Indigenous-Crown Treaties), Deirdre Raftery (University College Dublin, world’s leading expert on Irish women’s religious), Christopher Morash (Trinity College Dublin, an expert on Irish media and communications), S. Karly Kehoe (St.Mary’s University, an expert on Ireland and the British Empire), and Donald Harmon Akenson (Queen’s University, Canada’s Dean of Irish and Diaspora History). A call for papers yielded six panels—Indigenous/Irish engagement, Imperial Ireland, Irish Religious Diaspora, Communication & Migration, and Cultural Questions. Alas, our Maynooth contributor had to opt out because he was called to work on the Normandy D-Day commemorations this year. 

 The added bonus, however, was to be a special session on the Indigenous Gift to Irish Famine Relief, a topic that recently emerged out of my own research. With Jason King of the Irish Heritage Trust (Dublin) we planned a session to showcase the previously unknown donation of the Indigenous peoples of Canada to assist the Irish people during the devastating period of the Great Famine (1845-52). The IHF has been preparing a film on the subject, which will be released May 19, and the session will feature both Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe speakers, with Heidi Bohaker and myself filling in the historical details from a settler perspective. We saw this session, the lead session in the conference, as a further effort to honour St. Michael’s commitment to the TRC recommendations. 

In an effort to engage both the scholarly community and the general public, we are not charging a registration fee for the conference. Often, fees are roadblocks to interested members of the broader community from participating in these events. The Indigenous Aid session will be broadcast on Zoom. 

It has been quite a year, and the conference comes none too soon since Ambassador McKee’s tenure as Ireland’s representative in Canada ends this summer. I am very grateful that he has made St. Michael’s his go-to academic institution during his four-year sojourn in Canada. 

Please visit the website for the Canada, Ireland and Transcolonialism Conference for the conference schedule and additional information. 

Read other InsightOut posts.