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CORRIGAN, ROBERT, farmer; b. 1816 or 1817 in County Tyrone (Northern Ireland), fourth of eight children of Patrick Corrigan and Grace McNult, all born in Ireland; m. Catherine Mortin (Moreton), and they had two sons and a daughter; d. 19 Oct. 1855 in Saint-Sylvestre, Lower Canada, and was buried 27 October in Leeds, Lower Canada.

Patrick Corrigan immigrated to Canada in 1831 and was later joined by his family. They were Catholic, but Robert Corrigan converted to Anglicanism at an unknown date. He acquired a lot and in 1852 or 1853 set up as a farmer on the Sainte-Marguerite concession in the eastern sector of Saint-Sylvestre, an area largely populated by Irish Catholics. In 1851 Saint-Sylvestre’s population of 3,733 included 2,872 Catholics; the majority of these were Irish, but there were 1,061 French Canadians, some English and Scots, and about 10 Germans.

Despite dissimilar ethnic and religious origins, the people lived in comparative harmony. The Irish, however, were conspicuous for unruliness. Being more numerous, they presumed to make demands in respect to the parish buildings (the chapel, church, and presbytery), which the French Canadians were quick to find outrageous. Earlier, in the years 1846–50, the Irish of Saint-Sylvestre, like those of several other places in Lower Canada, had proved “the worst agitators” during a famous but inglorious episode in the annals of education known as the guerre des éteignoirs [see Jean-Baptiste Meilleur*]. To these local conflicts were added far more serious ones originating in the native countries of the immigrants, Great Britain and Ireland. For example, there was strife between Catholics and Protestants, and between the Ribbonmen, a secret society of Irish Catholics at Saint-Sylvestre, and the Orangemen of nearby Leeds.

Shortly after his arrival at Saint-Sylvestre, Robert Corrigan made enemies within the Irish Catholic clan. Quarrelsome and exceptionally strong, he challenged his adversaries to tests of strength, thereby fanning a dislike that was fuelled by sectarian prejudice. He was accused of being a “convert who had abandoned the Catholic church.” Corrigan attended the Anglican church in Saint-Sylvestre, and had at least two of his children baptized there by the minister, William King. He was also reproached for having presumed to ridicule the religious observances of those whose beliefs he had once shared; in the opinion of John Caulfield O’Grady, parish priest of Saint-Sylvestre, this scorn “roused their exasperation with him to an extreme point.”

His neighbours, therefore, were waiting for the chance to pick a fight with him, and the opportunity came at an agricultural fair on 17 Oct. 1855. Corrigan was acting as judge for a class of animals and a decision he made aroused protest in the Irish clan. Seven or eight people armed with sticks suddenly broke away from the group and rushed Corrigan, who was savagely beaten and knocked to the ground. He was unable to get up and two days later he died.

He had evidently been murdered, but who were the guilty parties? The Quebec police were unable to track them down. The Catholic element of the population totally refused to cooperate; worse, it made preparations to thwart the inquest to be conducted by the district of Quebec’s coroner, Jean-Antoine Panet, one group even proposing to intercept him and make off with the corpse in order to destroy all trace of the murder. When Panet finally reached Saint-Sylvestre, he was told that he had to go to Leeds, where Corrigan’s body had been transported on 22 October, escorted along the Craig road by some 300 Protestants with rifles at the slope for all to see. The inquest was held at Leeds from 23 to 27 October. The 4 Catholic and 16 Protestant jurors, recruited at Leeds and Saint-Sylvestre, unanimously agreed that 11 Irish Catholic suspects of Saint-Sylvestre should be indicted for murder.

William Harrison, the bailiff of Leeds, was given the responsibility for executing the coroner’s warrant of arrest. He carried out repeated searches in Saint-Sylvestre and the adjoining parishes in an effort to apprehend the accused, but because the inhabitants hid them he was unable to make any arrests. On 20 November the government of Lower Canada offered a reward of $800 for their arrest, but nobody succumbed to the temptation, even when the government raised the amount to $400 for the arrest of each of the accused. By December the police did not have even one arrest to their credit. Determined to succeed where the police had failed, the government then sent military detachments totalling 130 men from Montreal and Quebec, but all to no avail. Finally, several of the accused, notably Richard Kelly, gave themselves up around 10 Jan. 1856, no doubt feeling sure that they would escape punishment since it would be impossible to identify clearly the person or persons who had struck the fatal blow. They were taken to Quebec under escort, and their trial took place before the Court of Queen’s Bench, presided over by Judge Jean-François-Joseph Duval. In the face of contradictory evidence from the English-speaking witnesses, the jury acquitted the seven Irish Catholic defendants on 18 February.

The Corrigan affair had political repercussions. The verdict roused a wave of indignation among a great many Protestants in Upper Canada. John Hillyard Cameron*, a conservative member for Toronto, made himself the spokesman of the protesters in the Legislative Assembly. On 7 March 1856 he presented a resolution demanding the publication of the “irregular” charge Duval had made to the jury. The resolution was passed and it put the coalition government of Sir Allan Napier MacNab* and Étienne-Paschal Taché* in a difficult position. Having been forced to obtain a vote of confidence, the government refused to resign or to furnish the text of Duval’s charge. Nevertheless, divided and under attack from Cameron as well as from George Brown*, the Grits, and the Rouges, MacNab’s government was breaking up. He was obliged to resign as premier in May and John A. Macdonald*, the leader of the conservatives in Upper Canada, formed a new coalition ministry with Taché.

The Corrigan affair, like the riots marking the visits of Italian revolutionary Alessandro Gavazzi to Quebec and Montreal in June 1853, which had also not resulted in the instigators being punished, led many Protestants in Upper Canada to think that their co-religionists would never obtain justice where there was a predominance of Catholics. Subsequent incidents brought to fever pitch the prejudices, and indeed the hatred, that the Orange Order did its best to arouse, especially when two of its members were directly involved: Thomas Scott*, who was executed at Fort Garry (Winnipeg) on 4 March 1870, and Thomas Hackett, who was killed during a riot in Montreal on 12 July 1877. Eight years later, with the execution of Louis Riel* in Regina, Orange sectarianism had its long-awaited revenge.

Philippe Sylvain

[This biography summarizes the material in the author’s article “L’affaire Corrigan à Saint-Sylvestre” in Cahiers des Dix, 42 (1979): 125–44.

A typescript of Gertrude Corrigan’s study, “The genealogy of the Corrigan family, from county Tyrone, Ireland, beginning about 1782” (Newton Centre, Mass., 1965), is available at the ANQ-Q. This 62-page work includes a list of Patrick Corrigan’s children. It is probably significant that the author gives no details concerning the fourth child, Robert. The ANQ-Q also holds the burial record of William Corrigan, Robert Corrigan’s eldest son (CE5-13, 31 juill. 1861), and the baptismal records of John and Henrietta Corrigan, his other children (CE1-91, 13 mars 1849, 16 nov. 1854). The first of these bears the father’s mark; the third is signed, but in an illiterate’s hand. The Anglican minister William King has spelled the name of the children’s mother differently in the two baptismal entries: Mortin and Moreton.

Two documents shed full light on the details of the Corrigan affair: Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1857, app.45; and District of Quebec, depositions of witnesses severally taken and acknowledged at Leeds in the county of Megantic in the district aforesaid, on the 24th day of October . . . , one thousand eight hundred and fifty five . . . , touching the death of Robert Corrigan before Me Jean Antoine Panet, esquire, her majesty’s coroner for the said district, or an inquisition then and there taken on view of the body of the said Robert Corrigan then and there lying dead ([Quebec], 1855).

The main secondary sources consulted in preparing this biography were Arthur Caux, “Le recensement de 1851 dans la seigneurie de Beaurivage, St-Gilles, St-Sylvestre,” BRH, 58 (1952): 87-92, and “Une exposition agricole qui tourne mal, meurtre de Corrigan à S. Sylvestre en 1855,” 56 (1950): 229–34. These articles contain interesting information, but because Caux did not examine the essential sources concerning the Corrigan affair, he presents a flawed study, giving the victim’s name as Hugh and describing him as a “notable Leeds Orangeman.” These errors have been repeated by amateur historians writing the local histories of Saint-Patrice-de-Beaurivage, Saint-Sylvestre, and Leeds. Donald Swainson devoted part of his article on John Hillyard Cameron in DCB, 10, to the political repercussions of the affair; Hereward Senior, in Orangeism: the Canadian phase (Toronto, 1972), 51, 55, 75–77, discusses its religious consequences.  p.s.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Philippe Sylvain, “CORRIGAN, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 27, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/corrigan_robert_1816_17_55_8E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/corrigan_robert_1816_17_55_8E.html
Author of Article:   Philippe Sylvain
Title of Article:   CORRIGAN, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   February 27, 2024