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Irish Culture in Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 23rd, 2019


The entry of Irish immigrant in Cape Breton began after the discovery of the island by John Cabot in 1497, this also saw the influx of other communities such as Scottish, French and English in the island.

Since then, these communities and others who came afterwards have remained on the island to date. Various historical authors have given the factors why Irish immigrated to Cape Breton. The potato famine, which occurred 1840s in Ireland, is thought to be the driving factor behind their immigration.

However, other historians cite that Ireland is a country that has been made up of tenants, laborers and farmers with its economic lifeline dependent on Britain. Hence, these economic struggles and challenges with prospects of land ownership in North America motivated them to emigrate.

The Irish people carried along their culture to new lands during their emigration; hence, this became a part of their community daily life. In Cape Breton, where they settled between 1700s, they continued to practice their culture besides adopting other cultures among other communities they interacted with.

This paper discusses the Irish culture in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The writer indicates that the Irish people have continued to preserve their culture over the ages, hence, this is reflected in their music and dancing, symbolism, language, religion among others.

Music and Dancing

Music and dancing are important elements for a human soul. Music inspires and relaxes the soul, thus bringing about happiness. Similarly, dancing is captivating and is also critical for a person’s mental and physical well-being.

Thus, Irish community in Cape Breton has maintained this culture close to their heart. McGee illustrates that Irish people still embrace their traditional music on the island to date (60). Hence, common musical varieties on the island include

Anglo-Irish folk songs, Gaelic, pipe and fiddle music among others. Also, McGee (83) indicates that Irish music is a popular among other communities on the island because it is lively and fosters passion.

On a similar note, Irish dancing styles are astonishing. The Irish people have continued to uphold “Step Dancing”, a style of dancing, on the island (Hedican 319). Step dancing is where a dancer swings his/her loose ankle swiftly causing the sole of the shoe to make comical sounds.

Similarly, an Irish dancer uses rigid torso and a free leg while dancing to the music rhythm. The uniqueness of Irish Music culture in the island has attracted many young people from other communities. Hence, most of them have emulated the music and dancing styles through learning and practicing.

Besides, music and dancing culture has encouraged young people to participate in Irish competition such as Feis (Hedican 317). Feli, a form of dancing has been replicated by other cultures, such as Acadian and Scottish living in Nova Scotia.

Also, the Irish communities have set aside a period where youngsters are taught about storytelling, local history and community customs. They view these aspects as a part of Irish community living culture.

Thus, activities such as “Kitchen Party” or Ceilidh (a visit) are famous within the community. They provide an opportunity for sharing language, story, song, tracing family roots, and music (McGee, 94).


For ages, Irish people have revered symbols in their daily lives. They view them as a reminiscence of some phenomenon or certain important events in life. Elliott (140) points out that the most widely recognized symbol in the Irish community is the Celtic cross.

This is a symbol which was used by Irish Catholic communities in 1800s. Hedican (129) cites that the cross was significant to Irish community because it was used to decorate tombstones and jewelry among others during the celebration of Celtic culture.

Presently, Houston and William (89) note that this symbol helps Irish people remember significant events in Irish-Canadian history.

Also, the names also contain symbolism, which forms a significant part of Irish culture in Cape Breton. According to Houston and William (123), Irish names are unique compared to others in different cultures, thus, it is easy to differentiate them.

For instance, Hedican illustrates that a person with a surname starting with O’ is always perceived as a person who has an Irish origin (319).

Elliott demonstrates that another significant symbol among Irish in Cape Breton is St. Patrick (136). Irish people recognize St. Patrick as the Patron Saint of Ireland, and the onset of Christianity in Ireland, hence, this day is important for Catholics and Anglicans in residing in Cape Breton.

The Irish people celebrate this day by consuming Irish bacon, cabbage and drinks. The Irish people use this day to recall their motherland and bond with their countrymen.


Despite some Irish joining with other religions, majority of them is largely Catholics. They follow Catholicism to connect with their native land, which is predominantly Catholics. They have also borrowed architectural styles of building churches from their native country, most catholic churches in Cape Breton bear resemblance.

Akenson (102) illustrates that this architectural designs show their strong connection with their motherland. Besides believing in Jesus Christ and Mary, they also embrace Saints.

They view saints as a link or intermediaries between them and Jesus Christ, hence, the church has set aside specific days for commemorating their feasts (Houston&William 1990).

The Catholic adherents believe that drinking is not a bad thing because the church tolerates the act. Their culture views the act as a form of personal relaxation and reduction of frustrations. Consequently, the respect for priests and other church clergies is common among the Irish in Cape Breton (Akenson, 235).

The culture of forming a person wholly is also common. This stems from the teaching and traditions of the Catholic Church.

Hence, Irish people do not discriminate, favor or deny anyone, especially in their schools, hospitals and in the society as a whole. They allow everybody to benefit from their accomplishments (Akenson, 312).


Elliott illustrates that Cape Breton is a multicultural island with many diversities from different parts of the world (143). Hence, language spoken in the island has contributed to its outstanding uniqueness. Irish language in Cape Breton reflects its widespread culture in the island.

It is taught in communities and in institutions of higher learning such as universities. Similarly, language conventions and immersion weekends are common, where Irish language is spoken.

Elliott (123)cites that literature supporting Irish is also available in the island. It supports people who want to learn the language and offers guidance on spelling and pronunciation.


Irish people in Cape Breton have preserved their culture to present. Despite facing changes due to the different factors, such as globalization, the community has endeavored to protect its traditional culture which is evident in music and dance, symbolism, religion, language and others.

This preservation has ensured continuity and preserved history for future generations.

Works Cited

Akenson, Donald H. Small Differences: Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, 1815– 1922, 1991. Print

Elliott, Bruce S. Irish Migrants in the Canada’s: A New Approach, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988. Print

Hedican, Edward J. “What Determines Family Size? Irish Farming Families in Nineteenth-Century Ontario,” Journal of Family History, (2006): 315-334. Print

Houston, Cecil Jand William J Smyth.Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement. Patterns, Links and Letters, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1990. Print

McGee, Thomas D’Arcy. A History of the Iriih Settlers in North America, Baltimore, Genealogical Publishing, 1982. Print

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