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Early Irish Immigration

By the 1780s, the Irish had become the dominant ethnic group in and around St. John's, which had a population of about 3,200. A few Irish were tradesmen and shopkeepers, some were merchants, but most were fishermen with little formal education.

Central to their lives and culture was their religious faith. The majority of Irish were Roman Catholics, seeking to create in the New World the institutional Roman Catholicism that had served as a cradle for their culture, identity, and politics in Ireland. During the 18th century, the British Government enforced strict Penal Laws, outlawing the practice of Catholicism in Newfoundland. Roman Catholics were permitted to erect small chapels in Ireland, but this was forbidden in Newfoundland until Liberty of Conscience was proclaimed in 1783 effectively lifting these laws. Soon after, the Franciscan friar James Louis O'Donel came to St. John's from Waterford, Ireland after an invitation by several Waterford-based merchants who had business interests in Newfoundland. The Church that emerged over the next 50 years became the single most important ethnic, social and cultural benefactor for the Irish in Newfoundland. Its bishops and clergy became the de-facto leaders of the Irish community, and the Church's buildings the heart of the community.