Over the weekend, Torontoist's Historicist writer Jamie Bradburn recounted the story of a confrontation, in 1887, between partisans of Canada's Governor-General, the Marquess of Lansdowne, and Irish nationalist William O'Brien. The story says a lot of interesting things about relations between Toronto's Protestant and Irish Catholic communities in the late 19th century, and about English Canada's happy immersion in the British Empire.
Just after 9 p.m. on May 3, 1887, a train carrying Canada’s governor general rolled into the North Toronto Canadian Pacific Railway station. Accompanied by municipal officials, Lord and Lady Lansdowne led a procession of carriages south along Yonge Street toward Government House at King and Simcoe streets, where the couple would reside for the next three and a half weeks. While there was an enthusiastic turnout to watch the procession, there were also fears that Lansdowne’s presence would prompt one of the periodic riots between Orangemen and Irish Catholics that had marred the city since Confederation.
These fears were sparked by William O’Brien’s vow to visit Toronto while Lansdowne was in town. A journalist who represented East Cork in the British parliament, O’Brien was a fiery Irish nationalist who loved to stir things up. One of his main causes was supporting Irish tenant farmers who were being evicted by their landlords due to sharp rent increases. Lansdowne’s Luggacurran estate was a flashpoint, as he reputedly refused to work with tenant representatives to reduce their rent to affordable levels. As evictions occurred, O’Brien vowed to visit Canada to turn popular opinion against the governor general and paint him as “a most cruel and wanton man.” O’Brien scheduled a North American tour, bringing along evicted tenant Denis Kilbride to arouse sympathy.
From the start, prominent members of the Toronto Catholic community urged O’Brien to stay away. Leaders like Archbishop John Joseph Lynch knew from experience that the incendiary nature of O’Brien’s platform could easily cause a riot. Battles between ultra-Protestant Orangemen and local Irish Catholics earned Toronto a reputation as the Belfast of North America. Triggers ranged from celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day and the Battle of the Boyne to an appearance by Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa in 1878.
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As Toronto awaited O’Brien’s appearance, local papers obsessed over what might happen. The Telegram was prepared to let him talk in the name of free speech, but felt that it was “in execrable taste for an outsider to come among the citizens and abuse their guest.” The News hoped that “Mr. O’Brien will doubtless learn before his coming that an intolerant faction proposes to make trouble, and for the sake of peace will stay away.” Lansdowne was portrayed by the press as an upstanding representative of the crown, whose personal matters in Ireland had no bearing on his duties in Canada. Papers went to extremes to depict Lansdowne in a positive light, such as the Telegram’s unearthing of 20-year-old accounts of good relations with his tenants. The News amusingly observed that “it is very noticeable that the newspapers which have protested most strongly against his visit have harped most unceasingly upon the theme, and by their windy and reiterated articles on the subject have given it a degree of prominence which it could not otherwise have assumed.”