A century or so ago, Irish immigrants coming to Canada faced two major obstacles to integration – the schism between Catholics and Protestants, which followed them abroad, and a less-than-hospitable new home, where shop windows advertising work often indicated ‘Irish need not apply.’
This was the impetus that led to the 1877 formation of The Irish Benevolent Society of London and Area, right here in London, explained Daniel Hardy, an Obstetrics and Gynecology professor, with a cross-appointment in Physiology and Pharmacology.
“I’m not a historian; I’m a scientist. But when (the Irish) came over here, they had to get along and they realized early on they could have a society and bring the two sides together. It was a way of restoring their history, and keeping their culture, but also not just sitting in the corner or at the table by themselves, but integrating with the rest of the immigrated people in Canada or London,” said Hardy, who became the society’s 139th President in June.
The aim and unifying purpose of the Irish Benevolent Society, he continued, was to provide an opportunity to Irish immigrants, descendants and friends – of all faiths – to work together to preserve their heritage while focusing on doing good works in their transplanted home. The society elects a president, alternating between a Catholic and Protestant, each year.
In 2000, the society’s history was documented in a book, The Luck of the Irish in Canada: A History of the Irish Benevolent Society of London and Middlesex, by Gordon J. Sanderson.
“Over the years, through donations, (the society) has an awards chest and gives out bursaries, gives to charitable organizations. Western has benefited in that (the society) has given bursaries and scholarships to the affiliate colleges and the seminary – Anglican and Catholic – and different awards to students,” Hardy said.
“Recently, the Irish ambassador came and he was a biochemist by trade, and he visited the Department of Biochemistry. In honour of that, the society gave a donation to the department. There is a 5 km fun run to raise money for Lawson (Health Research Institute). It’s done an interesting job of promoting not only itself, but helped people in need, charities and students. Now, I’m here, as the 139th president, which is pretty cool. I’m proud.”
As you might guess, Hardy added, the society’s big event is on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day. It hosts an annual luncheon, inviting 300-400 Irish and ‘adopted’ Irish folks from London and its surrounding area to celebrate Irish heritage together.
“It’s not a ‘Richmond Row St. Patrick’s Day party.’ It’s a very nice party, and there’s music and Irish dancing and traditional luncheon at the Western Fair,” Hardy laughed.
Hardy, a member since the mid-1990s, follows his father to the top post. James T. Hardy was the organization’s 115th President in 1992.
“It’s exciting to take on an organization that my dad is still a part of,” he added, noting the society’s presidents are diverse, some well-known, and include individuals such as John Labatt and English professor Ninian Mellamphy.
The continued relevance of the society, Hardy added, beyond the preservation and unified experience of Irish heritage and culture, is that it serves as a sort of positive exemplar of immigration and integration.
“It’s a bit of a lesson, for today,” he said. “We hear about refugees. We hear about immigration, south of the border, and all of the negative connotations about it. We’re worried about it, but so many of us, our parents and grandparents joined groups to help them assimilate, and there’s no reason that can’t continue today,” Hardy continued.
“I’m proud of this group. One of the things we need to remind ourselves of is we’ve done a great job of integrating into Canada, we can help teach other ethnic groups they can do the same thing.”