Nova Scotia Archives

The Charitable Irish Society of Halifax, Nova Scotia

Robert P. Harvey, "Black Beans, Banners and Banquets: The Charitable Irish Society of Halifax at Two Hundred," in Nova Scotia Historical Review, Vol. 6, No. 1(1986), pp. 16-35. Reprinted with the author's permission.

Black Beans, Banners and Banquets: The Charitable Irish Society of Halifax at Two Hundred

When the helpless state of man, if left in his natural condition, is considered, he, of all the animals of creation will be found most in want of society. By means of well regulated society the weakness of man is protected, his wants relieved, his misfortunes alleviated and his moral nature improved.1

The sentiment expressed above explains, as well as anything, why the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax (the C.I.S.) was formed and why it has endured to enter its third century. Giving relief to the wants of man, particularly within the City of Halifax and its environs, and thus attempting to alleviate the misfortunes of fellow citizens, was the founding catalyst and has been the ongoing motivation which has fueled this association for two centuries.

In the first years of the Society, new members were selected by a quaint method of using beans; if on a vote the prospective member received five or more black beans, he was rejected. This practice continued until 1793, when more orthodox balloting was introduced. On joining, new members were expected to make a contribution of twenty shillings to the charity fund, and then were assessed two shillings at every quarterly meeting. Missing a meeting was not taken lightly. At various times in the early history of the Society, fines were imposed on those who failed to answer the call to a quarterly meeting. There are many examples on record of members' names being struck from the roll for non-payment of dues, and at least one or two cases where members were denied the right to resign until they had paid up. In 1864, in an effort to improve the financial fortunes of the C.I.S., Thomas Connors was appointed the "Messenger", to collect dues which were more than twelve months in arrears. He was permitted to keep five percent of the total as a commission, and in his first year he collected $425 owed to the Society; the practice continued, off and on, for the next twenty years.

This continuing preoccupation with membership dues serves to remind us that money, which was and is so often in short supply, was required to carry out the Society's chief purpose, namely, dispensing charity to ease the distress of fellow citizens. Its charitable accomplishments may have been and may continue to be considered modest, when compared to the work of large-scale agencies or the many facets of our modern welfare system. However, the work of this Society has been consistent and unrelenting since 1786, and it has always been of a personal and direct nature.

While the Charity of the Society was first directed to "any of the Irish nation who shall be reduced by sickness, old age, ship wreck or other misfortune,"2 it soon was widened, in a revision of the articles of the constitution in 1795, to include all suffering people; the thrust of the charitable work of the Society, thus widened, has remained constant.

For most of the history of the C.I.S., charity was dispensed in the form of food and money to individuals. Society members have had a duty to "aid the poor and distressed [and] from time to time to inform the proper officers of the Society if [such deserving] cases came to their knowledge."3 For many years, each member of the Committee of Charity was assigned a ward in the city, in which he was responsible for overseeing its special needs. While the charitable work of the Society has been concentrated in the City of Halifax, there have been noteworthy exceptions. During the Irish Famine of the late 1840s, for example, much of the city's relief effort was organized for Ireland by the C.I.S. or its members.

Bread was very often the form of local charity in the early years, and providing food to the needy, in one way or another, has been a continuing part of the Society's good works. Witness this example in 1792; "Mr. Watson presented a petition from Mrs. Barry which was considered. Resolved that the committee do allow her two loaves of Bread per week."4 Providing bread and charity, human nature being what it is, was sometimes the cause of trouble in the Society;

Mr. Patrick O'Brien prayed to be dismissed from acting as one of the committee of charity alleging that he did not wish to continue any longer a member thereof, on account of Mr. Lanigan's unprecedented and unwarrantable behaviour by involving the Society in debt to a considerable amount by issuing bread to different people without his consulting with a single individual of the said committee of charity.5

The Society examined the charge seriously, for it took statements under oath from Lanigan's sons and wife. Perhaps the matter resulted because Lanigan had too generous a nature. In the end, the C.I.S. ordered that in future, action by the committee would be by a majority only.6

More than once, the Society, by casting its bread upon the waters, has had it returned, with interest. A John Henneberry received money from the C.I.S. on Christmas Day, 1797, due to a shipwreck near Canso. Four years later he paid back the full amount and at the quarterly meeting in November 1801, he was proposed as a new member. He was accorded the honour of being unanimously admitted, by a show of hands rather than by ballot, "on account of his manly conduct in refunding to the Society the three pounds ten shillings given at his distress...". Then, completing this happy cycle, Henneberry, who had once been a recipient of the Society's benevolence, now took a place, in 1803, on the Committee of Charity, to provide it to others.7

In the present century, charitable assistance has sometimes taken the form of financial aid to education. During the 1920s, the Society provided students with scholarships to Dalhousie University and later to Saint Mary's, in the amount of $100. One recipient, who went on to become a Nova Scotia Rhodes Scholar, returned four times the amount of the original scholarship, years later. It was what he termed "fair Irish interest."8

In recent years the Society, through its Charitable Grants Committee, has dispensed sums of money twice a year to a score of volunteer community agencies, which directly assist the distressed of the city. Most recently, the Society has been making annual grants to Saint Mary's University, for the development of a collection of Irish records for research purposes. The total grant of $10,000 will be reached in the bicentenary year of 1986. As well, the Society is assisting Saint Mary's by formally supporting an application for the creation of a Chair of Irish Studies at the university.

Over the years, the charitable funds of the C.I.S. have been boosted in other ways than by the dues of members. The executive in the 1790s bought government lottery tickets, in a losing effort to add to the funds of the Society.9 Of real benefit have been several important bequests, most notably that of Sir William Young, in 1887. At his death, this former premier and afterwards chief justice, left in trust $100,000 to ten local charitable organizations. From that time, the Society has annually received the interest of its share of $10,000. As for Sir William, the Society said:

We will always remember with gratitude and cherish the name of Sir William Young who tho' not an Irishman proved himself, in his death, as well as in his life a warm friend of Ireland and her children, as the most liberal benefactor of the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax.10

The "banners and banquets" of the title recall the fellowship and comradeship which have characterized the history of this Society. Even a casual reading of its records indicates that its members have always enjoyed having a good time and that they have always known how to go about it. Most of these happy occasions have involved the expression of national feeling for Ireland. At first this was an emotional outpouring of a group of exiles banded together in a new land, but while there are few natives of Ireland among the Society's present membership, this national spirit is still strong and proud within the Society.

The Saint Patrick's Day banquets came about due to a wish, expressed in the early Minutes, to "dine together" on that day. The dinners have not always been held; of the two hundred Saint Patrick's Days since 1786, the Society has failed to dine perhaps ten to twenty percent of the time. There were no dinners between 1802 and 1807, for example, because of the need to direct extra money to charity. On Saint Patrick's Day, 1847, before a parade and banquet, the Society voted £100 for relief work at Cork, required due to the famine. Father Matthew, of Cork, subsequently wrote to the Society, thanking it for the "Holy and Sublime celebration of the Festival of St. Patrick," which had resulted in the donation, but sadly observing that "God alone can feed and save a whole nation."11 In 1867, the uncooperative attitude of the bishop who would not grant a dispensation for meat — Saint Patrick's Day that year being a Sunday and Monday a fast day — resulted in no banquet. In 1870, the loss of the ship City of Boston, which was believed to be carrying members of the Society, forced the cancellation of the dinner.12 There was no dinner in 1849, 1891 and again in 1921, due to political conditions in Ireland. Two World Wars caused the dinner to be cancelled in 1915, 1940 and 1941. Informal suppers or luncheons were favoured during these years of armed conflict.

Nevertheless, Society banquets are a great tradition in the city of Halifax. A remarkable dinner was held in 1795, when 119 persons sat down with H.R.H. Prince Edward Augustus, the future Duke of Kent and the father of Queen Victoria, to dine at the British Coffee House. The Minutes tell us that "After a late hour the Society broke up highly satisfied with the entertainment and with that harmony which and ought to distinguish the hospitable sons of St. Patrick and Ireland."13 These early dinners should give comfort to modern officers of the Society when one realizes that two characteristics have, for two centuries, continued to be associated with all C.I.S. banquets: more guests attend than members,14 and dinner deficits are a perennial problem.

In 1792, the dinner was held at Andrew Gallagher's Tavern. Members were assessed five shillings each for dinner and ten shillings each for wine. Presumably it was anticipated they would drink twice as much as they ate. The money was to be paid "previous to their sitting down to dinner." Several public guests attended free, but the representatives of sister societies were expected to pay.15 Unhappily the dinner resulted in a deficit of £2.3s. The solution arrived at was for the twenty members present at the May quarterly meeting to pay one shilling extra, and for a committee to be established to collect five shillings each from the five members, named in the Minutes, who had not, in the words of the Minutes, "conformed" with the resolution to "dine together on St. Patrick's Day." Two did pay the fine and these Draconian measures appear to have worked, for the dinner of 1793 produced a surplus.

The "banners," themselves, serve as a reminder that the Society has always enjoyed dressing up on public occasions and showing off its colours — mostly green. From the 1790s on, there are references in the records of the Society to the obtaining of scarves, flags, paintings, banners, harps and other insignia, or what the Minutes call "devices," used to boast of the organization's Irish heritage. At first, most of this material was used to decorate the site of the annual banquet. The Mason's Hall presented this picture to the eye on 17 March 1832:

At the head over the President's chair were placed the [paintings of the] titular Saints of Ireland, England and Scotland hung around with national flags and the flags of the Militia, the Harp, the emblem of the emerald Isle occupied the lower end of the room, tastefully surrounded with evergreens, formed into an arch at the top. Suitable devices were also placed in other parts of the room; very tastefully arranged presenting to the eye of the Spectator... testimony of the taste and ingenuity of the managers and the national feeling which occupied their minds on this occasion....16

The first record of the Society parading, other than for the funerals of prominent members, was on 28 June 1838. On that day, members formed up on the Grand Parade for a public procession in honour of the young Queen Victoria's coronation. Each member wore the symbols of the Society, a "harp on his breast," and a "shamrock in his hat." For the thirsty marchers the Society provided a hospitality tent on the Commons. A handful of members that day had dined forty-three years before, with Victoria's father, and among them was Michael Bennett, who had joined the Society in 1789, and who would remain active until his death in 1847.17 The Society marched again in 1840 to celebrate Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert, and on this occasion members wore a "bow of white ribbon" above the harps on their coats.

Not wishing to depend solely on Queen Victoria for reasons to march, the C.I.S. held its first Saint Patrick's Day parade in 1842. With flags and banners flying, it marched to Saint Mary's for mass and an oration suitable to the day. The president and officers sat on a raised platform in front of the sanctuary. When the service ended, the parade re-formed and passed through the major streets of the city. After an afternoon nap, members gathered again for the banquet:

The next evening passed on agreeably until about 3 o'clock next morning when our president still surrounded by his faithful followers, announced his high gratification at the proceedings of the evening, he then gave his last toast "Our next merry meeting" and the company then retired some accompanying him to his home, the Band playing all the way....18

Even a foot of newly fallen snow did not keep the C.I.S. at home and off the streets in 1867:

The procession headed by the Volunteer Band playing the time-honoured air of St. Patrick's Day moved north along Barrington Street... after marching through several of the principal streets the procession halted in front of Government House where three cheers were given for 'Her most gracious majesty the Queen' and three for 'Sir W.F. Williams, Lieut. Governor'... the cortége proceeded to the 'Archepiscopal Residence' where three cheers were given for the 'Archbishop and clergy.' On arriving at the [Masons'] Hall three hearty cheers were given for 'old Ireland our green Isle of the Ocean' and for the 'land we live in' and 'the day we celebrate' when the members dispersed to their homes highly pleased with the day's proceedings...19

Looking for more opportunities to parade, the Society held its first picnic in 1846. It began with a procession through the city to the Queen's Wharf, where passage was taken on the steamer Micmac to Prince's Lodge, the site of what was termed the "rural festival." The picnic attracted 530 people, including "250 of the fair daughters of Erin and Acadia." After a day of eating, singing, music and sporting events, the party continued with a dance at the Masons' Hall; the Minutes record that the event was held on the "teetotal" principle. The Society, as a result of this new venture into outdoor excursions, also acquired new property, namely swings, quoits and cordage. In this event one can see the origins of the Society's late summer or fall outings of today.20

In 1849 the C.I.S. marched in a parade marking the centenary of the founding of Halifax. The Society's own, Beamish Murdoch, gave an oration at the Commons and, on the motion of Joe Howe, a hospitality tent was provided. The acquisition of flags, banners and other paraphernalia required for parading produced the Society's first marshal in 1850, in the person of John Egan.21 About the only invitation to march that was turned down came in 1856, when the Society decided not to take part in ceremonies connected with the laying of the corner-stone for the new asylum, Mount Hope, in Dartmouth. The C.I.S. did, however, accept the invitation of the St. George's Society of Halifax in 1864 to take its traditional place next to the North British Society and march in a procession celebrating the tercentenary of William Shakespeare. On that occasion, Joe Howe delivered an address entitled "The Bard of Avon."

The pride felt by the C.I.S. in Ireland, its history and its heroes is perhaps best expressed by the Society's continuing interest in the legendary Brian Boru, who defended Ireland against the Vikings a thousand years ago; a large weapon said to have been his sword was acquired by the Society.22 In parades, it was the privilege of the chief of police to carry it, and after the C.I.S. stopped parading sometime before 1900,23 it was eventually lent to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (the A.O.H.), who continued to carry it into the 1920s. During the early part of this century, the C.I.S. very often accepted the invitation of the A.O.H. to send its senior officers, decked out in their regalia, in a barouche to participate in the Saint Patrick's Day Parade.

But back to the hero, Brian Boru, of whom the Irish chroniclers said: "Brian was the last man in Erin who was a match for a hundred. He was the last man who killed a hundred in one day. His was the last step that true valor ever took in Erin."24 The first step of the Charitable Irish Society was taken two hundred years ago. On 17 January 1786, to use the words of the earliest Minutes, "respectable inhabitants of this province, natives of the Kingdom of Ireland," created the articles of association of the oldest such Irish society, in what would become Canada. In all, 88 men signed the articles and thus became the charter members of the Charitable Irish Society.25

The 1780s were years of violent change. The ideas of the social and political philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had taken root; the American Revolution had ended and the French Revolution was about to begin; Nova Scotia was attempting to cope with a doubling of its population, as loyalists arrived in great numbers; New Brunswick and Cape Breton had been erected into separate colonies; and in France Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, sublimely drifted towards the abyss. All of which was not lost on the Charitable Irish Society.

The preamble to the revised constitution of 1795, cited at the beginning of this article, was largely the work of Richard John Uniacke. It reveals the influence of Rousseau, Locke, Jefferson and the other influential thinkers who were part of a fundamentally changing world. In a small corner of that world was Halifax, described by a contemporary visitor as a "collection of old shacks on the shore, remnants of old tents and spruce wigwams on the Commons, which had been erected and subsequently abandoned... [All this] bore silent evidence of the poverty and suffering of the great multitude."26

The town was still largely confined to the eastern slope of Citadel Hill, although some of the more prosperous residents were moving to country estates in the west and south ends of the peninsula. The town of about five thousand was now connected to Annapolis Royal by a mail courier who travelled the route every two weeks. Two other national societies were formed in 1786, one English — the St. George's Society — and the other, the German Society.27 Halifax merchants constructed a wooden sidewalk that year along Barrington Street from Duke and then down George to Hollis. And the social scene was highlighted by the visit of the sailor prince, William Henry, the future King William IV, known affectionately through the fleet as "coconut head."

Among the wooden buildings of the new Halifax was a structure well known to Prince William and others as a tavern, inn and place for social gatherings — and, at times, for public business. It was the Golden Ball Tavern which occupied the south-west corner of Hollis and Sackville Streets. The property had been acquired in 178328 by one John O'Brien, innkeeper, who subsequently offered the public "lodgings at 9d per night; beef soup or mutton broth everyday at 12 o'clock til the weather gets warm." O'Brien assured gentlemen that they might "Lodge as privately as in any private lodging...and that good attention will be given and all favours gratefully acknowledged by their most obedient and obliged humble servant."29 Prince William frequented this and other establishments during his sojourn, as confirmed by a fellow officer:

I met him [the Prince] on the Parade. He, Major Vesey and myself walked about the town all morning. He would go into a house where he saw a pretty girl and was perfectly acquainted with every house of a certain description in the town. He dined with the Commodore and Captain of the fleet at O'Brien's Tavern.30

Thus it was, to this establishment, that the members of the month-old Charitable Irish Society were summoned in February of 1786:

The members of the Charitable Irish Society are requested to meet at Mr. O'Brien's Tavern on Friday next at 6 o'clock in the Evening to choose officers for the ensuing year and to regulate other Business for the good of Society. All Irishmen of sons of Irishmen who wish to become members of that Society are requested to send their names to the subscriber previous to said day.31

We take 1786 as the genesis of the Charitable Irish Society. However, for a century, a myth has persisted that the origins of the C.I.S. are much earlier and almost coincidental with the founding of Halifax. The tradition appears to be based, in part, on a reference in a nineteenth-century book, Irishmen in Canada, which states that "The president of the Irish Charitable Society was in 1755 appointed one of His Majesty's Council for the province of Nova Scotia.32 In that year, Captain Charles Morris (I), surveyor-general of the province, was appointed to His Majesty's Council for Nova Scotia. However, it was his grandson, the Hon. Charles Morris (III), who was the first of that name to fill the chair of the Society in 1811.

It may be that the author confused several generations of this prominent family who carried the same Christian name. However, historians J.W. Regan, T.B. Akins and L.G. Powers have also, over the years, put a certain faith in the idea of an earlier origin. There is no doubt that Irishmen in Halifax did gather informally, at least, to mark Saint Patrick's Day prior to 1786. George Mullane records that "In 1782, four years before the establishment of the Charitable Irish Society, a number of Irishmen and their friends dined on St. Patrick's Day at Sutherland's Coffee House which was situated on the west side of Bedford Row."33 Until documentation of an earlier Irish Society is uncovered, however, we may conclude with Mullane that "the existence of such a Society is only mythical."34

Following 1795 membership was widened, from natives of Ireland and their offspring, to include non-Irish nationals, providing that "they are not members of any other national society in the province." While this provision was ultimately to be changed to "natives of Ireland, descendants of Irish men or women and descendants of any past, present or future member of this Society..." — the C.I.S. has waited in vain for a descendant of a future member to apply for membership — the 1795 regulation did allow a number of illustrious non-Irish Nova Scotians to join, including Samuel Cunard and Joseph Howe. As the Society's first historian, the late Dr. H.L. Stewart, observed: "It was indeed notable that quite often men of other racial groups thus chose the Irish organization as expressive of their interest and purpose." If we may be allowed to take liberties with the comment of Isocrates on the Greeks and the widened use of the term to include non-Greeks, the Charitable Irish Society made the term "Irish" applicable more to those who cherished Irish ideals than to those who were Irish merely by inheritance of blood.35

In the early years of the Society following 1786, the leadership of the C.I.S. had close ties with the colonial aristocracy of the day. The founding president, Richard John Uniacke, a native of Castletown, Cork, was solicitor-general and later attorney-general for more than thirty years. Between 1786 and 1817 he occupied the president's chair twelve times. He was thirty-three years old at the founding of the Society and just ten years before had escaped a charge of treason related to the Eddy Rebellion in Cumberland County, during the American War of Independence. He was honoured and revered in the C.I.S., but the newly-arrived loyalists resented his prominent position in the community and termed him that "great lubbery Insolent Irish Rebel."36

Richard Bulkeley, a founder of Halifax with Cornwallis in 1749, was the second president. Bulkeley, for thirty-five years provincial secretary, also served variously as judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court, registrar in Chancery and master of the rolls. Bulkeley, a Dublin native, had a military background before coming to Halifax. He and his three sons were all members of the Society. One son, James M.F. Bulkeley, was president in 1794 and died in office, age thirty-five, just two years after his father.37

Thomas Cochran, another early president, was an M.H.A. and a member of the old "Council of Twelve," as well as a prominent merchant of early Halifax. He was the father of a future chief justice of Gibraltar and of a general of the Peninsular War and the War of 1812, and the grandfather of Sir John Inglis, the "Hero of Lucknow."

In the early decades, three of Uniacke's sons were presidents of the Society, a continuity which helped to maintain a dynasty of conservative office-holders. Crofton Uniacke was president in 1810 and Richard John Uniacke Jr. from 1819 to 1821. The latter set two records in the annals of the Society. He was elected both a member of the C.I.S. and its president on the same night in 1819.38 Also, during his first year as president, he was indicted on a charge of murder.

Uniacke met and killed William Bowie in a pistol duel, over a question of honour, on 21 July 1819; the incident took place near what is now Lady Hammond Road, in the north end of the peninsula. Uniacke's second was the vice-president of the C.I.S., Edward McSweeney, who suggested that Uniacke and Bowie fire a second time, as both had failed to find a mark with the first exchange of shots. It turned out that McSweeney was heavily indebted to Bowie, and along with Bowie's second, he also faced a murder charge. The trial was held in the newly-completed Province House, in what is now the Legislative Library. In a dramatic courtroom scene, which included two of his brothers and his father, Uniacke, who had defended himself on his family's honour and his own personal integrity, heard the jury acquit him and the others.39 There were those who believed that the guilt of Bowie's death haunted Uniacke and shortened his life; he died a judge of the Supreme Court in 1834, at the age of forty-four.

The Hon. James Boyle Uniacke, another son of the first president, served as the Society's president in 1828 and again in 1839, 1840 and 1846. To complete the "establishment image" of the early Society, it need only be recorded that the last to hold the office of governor of Nova Scotia, John Parr, a veteran of Fontenoy, is the first name on the list of original members of 1786.40

While establishment-oriented and loyal during its early period, it would be wrong to think that the C.I.S. did not register, at times, its political opinions, at least indirectly. The Festival of Saint Patrick as noted previously, was cancelled several times as a form of political protest. Furthermore, Daniel O'Connell, the champion of Catholic emancipation and of the movement for repeal of the union of Ireland and Britain, was clearly the darling of the Society. Joseph Howe, while president of the C.I.S., visited him in Ireland in 1838. At O'Connell's death in 1847, the Society officially mourned for a month, a mark of respect equalled, up to that time, only by that shown at the death of Richard John Uniacke, the founding president, in 1830. In 1875, the centenary of O'Connell's birth, the Society acquired an O'Connell banner to carry in processions.41

Also counterbalancing the establishment aura of the Society's early leadership was the presence among the membership of some of the earliest and best-known leaders of political reform in Nova Scotia, such as William Cottnam Tonge, whose clashes with Lieutenant-Governor John Wentworth, in the first decade of the nineteenth century, proved something of an inspiration to Nova Scotia's greatest political reformer, Joseph Howe. Howe joined the Society in 1832, and became its vice-president just a fortnight before his famous trial for criminal libel in 1835. His supporters, many of them members of the C.I.S., bore him in victory from the courtroom — a Daniel O'Connell for Nova Scotia. When he was serving his last of four terms as president in 1847, his reform party won, at last, a majority in the elections to the legislative assembly, which would result in the formation of the first responsible government in the British colonies. In that first responsible executive council of nine, sat four presidents of the Charitable Irish Society: James Boyle Uniacke, president of the council and the first premier of Nova Scotia; Joseph Howe, provincial secretary; with Michael Tobin and Lawrence O'Connor Doyle.

Elected public servants have long had an association with the C.I.S. Lawrence Kavanagh, who was the first Roman Catholic to sit in the Nova Scotia Legislature, seven years before O'Connell won Catholic Emancipation in Britain, was a Society member when this significant achievement was made. William A. Henry, a Father of Confederation, was president in 1873 and 1874. Henry was, as well, the first from this province to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada. Sir John S.D. Thompson, premier of Nova Scotia and later Prime Minister of Canada, a man whom Sir John A. MacDonald described as "the greatest discovery of my life,"42 was president in 1876 and 1877. The Hon. Lawrence Geoffrey Power, a member of the Senate of Canada for more than forty years, a Privy Councillor and Speaker of the Upper House, 1901 to 1905, was president in 1895 and 1896. Author, politician and jurist, James Wilberforce Longley, was president from 1909 to 1911. Sir Malachi Bowes Daly, lieutenant-governor during the 1890s, was president in 1868 and 1869. He, like the late Senator Felix P. Quinn, the president of 1916, was a member of the Society for more than fifty years. Of the latter, the press in reporting the Festival of Saint Patrick in 1925 said, "A Charitable Irish Society banquet without a song from F.P. Quinn would be lacking in a most important factor."43 In later years, Quinn frequently delighted the Upper House on Saint Patrick's Day with his singing and story-telling.44 Former premier, the late Senator Harold Connolly, was a member for nearly fifty years and another former premier, the Hon. Gerald A. Regan, is a current member. All the foregoing indicate a tradition of the twinning of membership in the Society with leadership in politics, a tradition that has endured for two centuries.

A constant source of strength to the C.I.S. has been the continuity of family membership over the years. The current senior member is the retired senator, the Hon. Richard A. Donahoe, who joined the Society in 1932 and served as president in 1939. He became the youngest person in the history of the Society to preside over a St. Patrick's Day banquet, at age twenty-seven, in 1937. He is, at present, the Society's only Life Member. His sons, the Hon. Arthur Donahoe, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, and the Hon. Terence Donahoe, Chairman of the Policy Board and Minister of Vocational and Technical Training, are active members of the Society, the former having been president in 1978. Their uncles Robert and the late Edward Donahoe, were also presidents, and the ancestors of this family constitute more than a century of association with the Society. Fittingly, the current president, Dr. Brian Craig Uniacke Cuthbertson, is a direct descendant of the founding president through his son, Crofton Uniacke.

Over the years the C.I.S. has reflected the changing community from which it draws its life. This reality was dramatically revealed in the mid-nineteenth century. The Society which idolized Howe in the 1830s and cheered at his reform victory in the late 1840s was a Society in transition. It was still outwardly loyal and still boasted second-generation Uniackes, but it was becoming remarkably more Irish and Catholic than in the first sixty years. As the historian T.M. Punch has verified, the percentage of natives of Ireland in the Society rose from 67 percent in 1838 to 80 percent in 1848. Moreover, Catholic membership, which stood at 78 percent in 1838 had increased to 92.5 percent a decade later. To a large extent this change was a reflection of the altered nature of Irish immigration to Nova Scotia between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.45

By the 1850s the changed nature of the Society, which was by then less conservative, could be seen clearly during the presidency of William Condon, at the height of the Crimean War. Irish Nova Scotians soon came to decry the hostilities publically. This position was reflected in the Irish press of Halifax, with pronouncements such as "England not Russia is the cause of the war." The historian George Patterson, assessing the hostility of the Halifax Irish, asserted that "They were in sympathy with Russia and meetings were held, in secret, at which the conduct of Great Britain... was denounced."46 Quite a contrast to 1798, when the Halifax Irish of the C.I.S. gave no comfort to the intrigues of the French in Ireland with members of the newly-formed United Irishmen.

The period of the 1850s boiled over into an unseemly, impassioned and nasty politico-religious struggle which pitted the "loyal" Protestant against the seemingly "disloyal" Catholic Irish. As if the Crimean War were not enough of an issue, that matter became meshed with the construction of the Nova Scotia Railway. Stabbings, lawlessness, strikes and the famous Gourly Shanty Riot were all a part of this violent period of our history. Needless to say, and almost unavoidably, the Charitable Irish Society, due to its growing Irish Catholic and less conservative nature, was at the centre of the controversy. The two chief opposing personalities were presidents of the Society — Condon and Howe.

Joseph Howe, in 1855, was chief commissioner of railway for the province. Under the guise of finding railway workers for Nova Scotia, he was also carrying on clandestine recruiting, in the United States, for the British army. His recruiting of men for the "N.S.R." — which could mean either Nova Scotia Railway or Nova Scotia Regiment — caused William Condon, the president of the C.I.S. in 1855, to expose Howe's efforts for what they were. A vindictive struggle followed which would stain Howe's reputation, would contribute to the defeat of a government, and would have political consequences for a generation in Nova Scotia. The presidency of the Charitable Irish Society would never again be as political. In future, the Society would, in general, revert to the position reflected in its first sixty years, as that of a social, charitable and loyal institution.

Perhaps the final exception to this non-political status of the Society — one "last hurrah" — can be seen in its interest, from the 1880s to the 1920s, in the Irish Question in British politics, and in the issue of Home Rule. A special meeting of the Society on 24 March 1882 unanimously passed a resolution requesting that the Dominion Government be asked to "concur in a resolution from the Hon. Member of Victoria N.B. that a similar form of government [dominion status] be granted to Ireland," and that in the "interests of the Empire [Home Rule] should be granted to Ireland and that the political prisoners should be immediately released."47

Among the "political prisoners" was the leader of the Irish Home Rule movement, Charles Stuart Parnell, who had been incarcerated in Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, for activities related to the enforcement of Prime Minister Gladstone's Land Act. Within a month of his release, Parnell wrote to the secretary of the C.I.S., James O'Brien, thanking the Society for a copy of the resolution, passed 24 March, which he had "read with much pleasure."48

In the meantime, another special meeting had been held on 11 May, over the "dastardly assassination" in Dublin of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the newly-arrived lord lieutenant, and the chief secretary. The motion condemning the action was made in an "eloquent manner" by the premier and attorney-general of Nova Scotia, the Hon. John S.D. Thompson.49 Later in the 1880s, the Society took part in receptions for visiting representatives of the National League, including a lecture by Justin McCarthy. The issue passed out of the records of the Society in the 1890s, perhaps a local result of the Irish Question subsiding in British politics, due to the government's policy of "Killing Home Rule with Kindness."

Prior to the Great War and the introduction of a third Home Rule Bill, the Society organized a meeting at the Academy of Music for T.P. Connor, M.P. and the Irish Parliamentary Fund. It was reported that the Home Rule Fund had $625 ready to be transferred to the national office in 1911.50 In November 1913, a resolution in support for "Mr. John Redmond and the people of Ireland, in their agitation for Home Rule"51 passed unanimously, with a copy sent to Redmond, who was at that time at the height of his power as successor of O'Connell and Parnell. As the time came for the passage of the Home Rule Bill in Britain, the annual meeting of the C.I.S. in 1914 passed the following: "That this Society unite with the Irish people in Nova Scotia in any action that may be deemed advisable to offset any movement that may be started in the province in opposition to Home Rule for Ireland."52

The Society was still trying to decide on an appropriate sort of celebration to mark the passage of the Home Rule Bill when it and the bill were overtaken by the events at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. The Society spent the war years supporting the Canadian effort and waiting for peace and Home Rule.53 Regrettably, the end of the war and the coming of peace in Europe did not mean peace in Ireland. The Easter Uprising of 1916 in Dublin was followed by the creation of an Irish Republic, complete with a Declaration of Irish Independence in 1919.

The C.I.S., which at the beginning of the war had supported the moderate Redmond and his Parliamentary party, by 1920 was speaking out strongly against British violence in Ireland and against the reluctance of the Lloyd George government to honour the Home Rule pledge of 1914. At a special meeting of the Society held on 29 November 1920, a long motion was passed unanimously by a standing vote: it resolved by the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax that we condemn the violation of its solemn pledge by the English Government; that we demand as citizens of the empire the immediate withdrawal of the army of occupation from Ireland and the extension to Ireland of the right to decide her own form of government in the only way open to civilized people, viz: by the will of the majority of the people.54

Among leaders of the Society taking part in the discussion of this one-sided resolution were Dr. H.L. Stewart, Justice J.W. Longley, Senator A.B. Crosby and F.P. Quinn. The Minutes record that the discussion was "highly loyal and patriotic in character but of stern denunciation of the conditions prevailing in Ireland..."55 It is clear that the Society wanted both self-government for Ireland and its continuation as part of the British Empire. The meeting adjourned with the singing of "God Save Ireland" and "God Save the King." A copy of the resolution was sent to Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The C.I.S. had thus added its voice to the growing outcry in Britain which demanded an end to the violence and atrocities which had been occurring in Ireland following the cessation of hostilities in Europe.56

An acknowledgment was received by the Society from Lloyd George in February 1921, and within a year the Irish Dail had accepted the proposal of Dominion status and an Ulster partition. The C.I.S. celebrated the event with a banquet and officially took no notice of the short-lived civil war that persisted for another year.

The "last hurrah" was over. The Society had, in the twentieth century, been evolving into an association with an increasingly local view, which included its charitable work. A request for aid by the Sisters of Mercy of Galway, Ireland, was rejected in 1888, and in 1892 a spirited debate ensued at the annual meeting over the insertion of the word "local" to describe the charity concerns of the Society.57 There were those who still argued that conditions in Ireland should be of equal concern to the C.I.S. as were the charity needs of Halifax. The "local" view won the day. By the 1930s this philosophy and the settling of the Irish Question to the satisfaction of the C.I.S. precluded active intervention by the Society in Irish affairs. The C.I.S. continues to remain, however, a sympathetic and compassionate observer of the Irish situation and among recent additions to the Society's papers is a copy of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1986.

Essential periods of renewal, with a redefinition of purpose, have occurred from time to time in the first two centuries of the life of the Charitable Irish Society. The ability of the Society to change and adapt to meet the prevailing needs of its evolving milieu is partly the reason for its longevity. Renewal, however, has always included a continuing love for and fascination with Ireland and things Irish. Mostly, the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax has continued from the time of Uniacke to the present because, in an ever imperfect world, the human spirit, in its finer moments, recognizes that "the human race [is] but as one Society and the wants and misfortunes of every individual [are] equally entitled to compassion and relief."58

Robert P. Harvey


1.     "Preamble to the Revised Constitution of the Charitable Irish Society" [hereafter the C.I.S.], 25 March 1795. MG 20, Vol. 65, Public Archives of Nova Scotia [hereafter PANS]

2.     "Articles of Association," C.I.S., 17 January 1786. MG 20, Vol. 65, PANS

3.     "Duties of Members," Constitution of the C.I.S. (Revised 1961), Article II, Section 4, p. 14.

4.     Minutes, C.I.S., 17 November 1792. MG 20, Vol. 65, PANS

5.     Ibid., 18 November 1793.

6.     Considering the length of time, two centuries, it is perhaps remarkable that but one serious breach of trust is to be found in the Society's records. In that case, the guilty party repaid two-thirds of the embezzled amount and his name was "erased from the roll."

7.     Minutes, C.I.S., 17 February 1803. MG 20, Vol. 65, PANS

8.     In 1926, the Society's scholarship went to the future award-winning Nova Scotian novelist, Ernest R. Buckler.

9.     Minutes, C.I.S., 17 November 1796. MB 20, Vol. 65, PANS. The ticket numbers were 2156, 2157, 2158, 2153, 2154 and 2152. The last was bought by R.J. Uniacke and others for the Society.

10.     Ibid., 17 August 1887. MG 20, Vol. 70, PANS

11.     Ibid., 21 June 1847. MG 20, Vol. 67, PANS

12.     Ibid., 17 November 1870. MG 20, Vol. 69, PANS. C.I.S. members lost: John Barron, Walter Barron and Edward J. Kenny.

13.     Ibid., 17 March 1795. MG 20, Vol. 65, PANS

14.     In 1808, of the 102 at the St. Patrick's Day dinner, only one-third were members.

15.     The North British Society and the St. George's Society, both of Halifax

16.     Minutes, C.I.S., 17 March 1832. MG 20, Vol. 66, PANS

17.     The longest membership, as yet uncovered, is that of Richard Power, who in 1913 was given a life membership for being sixty-nine years a member.

18.     Minutes, C.I.S., 17 March 1842. MG 20, Vol. 67, PANS

19.     Ibid., 18 March 1867. MG 20, Vol. 69, PANS

20.     Their Excellencies the Governor-General, Lord Dufferin, and Lady Dufferin attended a Society picnic on McNab's Island, 4 August 1873.

21.     The longest-serving marshal was Erin Patrick Mulcahy, who carried the Society's shillelagh from 1952 to 1973.

22.     This may be the sword presented to the Society by the Uniacke family, 17 February 1855.

23.     The Society's ceasing to parade on its own may be symptomatic of a general decline in C.I.S. fortunes. Membership between 1874 and 1914 dropped from 380 to 161. Such a decline was only equaled during World War II, when more meetings seemed to be cancelled than held.

24.     Seumas MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race (New York, 1972), p. 282.

25.     In 1938, the stag tradition of the St. Patrick's Day banquets was broken when "the ladies were privileged to attend." In 1982, Doreen M. Havey became the first woman member of the C.I.S.

26.     Thomas H. Raddall, Halifax Warden of the North (Toronto, 1948), p. 104.

27.     T.B. Akins, History of Halifax (Belleville, 1973), p. 90.

28.     Registry of Deeds, Halifax County, Vol. 19, p. 236; vol. 27, p. 129. The Golden Ball, located on lots 15 and 16, south of the corner of Sackville Street, along the west side of Hollis Street, was operating as early as 1771. John O'Brien appears to have been running the establishment by 1780 and purchased it from Edmond Phelon, 19 November 1783. It was repurchased by Phelon, 28 March 1789. Phelon was the godfather of Mary O'Brien, daughter of John.

29.     "History Briefs," undated newspaper clipping, ca. 1940s. C.I.S. scrapbook in possession of the Society.

30.     George Mullane, "Old Inns and Coffee Houses of Halifax," Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, XXII (1933), p. 10.

31.     Halifax Gazette, 14 February 1786. There is some evidence that Governor John Parr chaired early meetings of the Society. The first formal president is taken to be Richard John Uniacke; vice-president, Thomas Cochran; senior assistant vice-president, James Kavanagh; junior assistant vice-president, George W. Sherlock; treasurer, Charles Hill; secretary, Gerald Fitzgerald.

32.     Nicholas Flood Davin, Irishmen in Canada (Shannon, 1969), p. 146. The introduction to the 1969 reprint of his 1877 work cautions that "It needs... to be used with care..."

33.     Mullane, "Inns and Coffee Houses," p. 7.

34.     George Mullane, "Men Who Have Added Lustre to Annals of Charitable Irish Society," in Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 18 March 1912.

35.     H.L. Stewart, The Irish in Nova Scotia (Kentville, ca 1949), p. 83.

36.     Edward Winslow, as quoted in Brian Cuthbertson's, The Old Attorney General (Halifax, 1980), p. 14. In this bicentenary year the C.I.S., in cooperation with the Old Youghal Society, in Ireland, is erecting a suitable monument to Uniacke, the man termed by Stewart the "ruling spirit" of the Society in its earliest period.

37.     At least two other presidents died in office: A.A. Thompson, 1940, and W. Ryan Sutherland, three days after eloquently presiding over the Festival of St. Patrick, 1972.

38.     Minutes, C.I.S., 17 February 1819. MG 20, Vol. 66, PANS

39.     Cuthbertson, The Old Attorney General, pp. 76-77. Bowie had been president of the North British Society of Halifax in 1816.

40.     The first name on the roll of members in 1986, is that of the current lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, the Hon. Alan R. Abraham.

41.     The Hon. W.A. Henry moved that the Society mark the centennial of O'Connell's birth. Some 320 members subscribed $560 to pay for the banner, "The Liberator." It was painted by the Halifax artist, C.C. Green. Some of the sewing was done by the Sisters of Charity at St. Patrick's and it was first carried in a torchlight procession, 6 August 1875. It continued to be carried in parades until the 1920s. There is some hope that it may be restored and put on display at a future time.

42.     Bruce Hutchison, Mr. Prime Minister 1867-1964 (Don Mills, 1964), p. 101.

43.     Minutes, C.I.S. 17 March 1925. MG 20, Vol. 70, PANS. Clipping inserted in the Minute Book; Quinn sang "How Ireland Got Its Name" and "The Dear Little Shamrock."

44.     Debates of the Senate, Vol. 101, No. 31, 17 March 1955, pp. 308-310.

45.     Terrence M. Punch, Irish Halifax: The Immigrant Generation, 1815-1859 (Halifax, 1981), p. 35. Of the 228 members of the C.I.S. in 1848, only 17 were Protestant and only two of those were Irish natives: John S. Thompson and David Hare.

46.     Ibid., p. 55.

47.     Minutes, C.I.S., 24 March 1882. MG 20, Vol. 69, PANS

48.     Charles Stewart Parnell to James J. O'Brien, 6 June 1882. Original in possession of T.M. Punch.

49.     Minutes, C.I.S., 11 May 1882. MG 20, Vol. 69, PANS

50.     Ibid., 17 February 1911. MG 20, Vol. 70, PANS

51.     Ibid., 17 February 1913.

52.     Ibid., 17 February 1914.

53.     By November 1915, the Society had raised by subscription $1119 to buy a machine gun for the C.E.F., only to learn that there were none available. In the end, $1000 was given to the Soldier's Disablement Fund and the rest to the Red Cross.

54.     Minutes, C.I.S., 29 November 1920. MG 20, Vol. 70, PANS

55.     Ibid.

56.     It is interesting to note that the Society's condemnation of the violence in Ireland came just seven days after "Bloody Sunday" in Dublin, when fourteen British officers and ex-officers were killed in their homes and more than a dozen Irishmen had been gunned down, at a football match, by British forces.

57.     Minutes, C.I.S., 17 February 1892. MG 20, Vol. 70, PANS

58.     Ibid., 25 March 1795. MG 20, Vol. 65, PANS