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IRWIN, THOMAS, teacher, surveyor, philologist, and author; d. 1847 near Naufrage, P.E.I.

It is not known when Thomas Irwin emigrated from his native Ireland to Prince Edward Island, or how he earned his living there before receiving licences to teach (1830) and to practise surveying (1835). He was an accomplished student of languages and at some point obtained a manuscript copy of a Micmac grammar prepared by Father Pierre Maillard* a century earlier. While learning their language Irwin came to identify with the plight of the Micmacs. Born a Catholic, he had grown up speaking Irish and was early forced to learn English, the language of the Protestant despoilers of his homeland. He saw the Micmacs as a people similarly oppressed, evicted from their lands and threatened with the loss of their identity. They were suffering what he had suffered, and he swore to devote his life to helping them.

Irwin first enters the historical record in 1829, at which point he was living at Rollo Bay. That year he sent a copy of “the principles of the Mickmack language,” a work he had compiled, to the editor of the Halifax Free Press to print as space allowed. He also offered to publish a book in Micmac containing morning and evening devotions and a catechism. Nothing came of either project. The Micmacs, Irwin argued, were a superior people, for their language demonstrated mental faculties of the highest order. Capable of an almost infinite variety of expression, the language had “all the mellifluous softness of the Italian – the solemn and majestic gravity of the Spanish, joined to the copiousness of both, and a more philosophical and beautiful construction than either.” By June 1830 a grammar he had prepared of the Micmac language was ready for the press. Consisting of nearly 300 pages, the work, Irwin announced, would be published and sold for a dollar a copy when sufficient subscribers were found.

Perhaps to encourage subscriptions, Irwin printed from June to December eight extracts of his grammar in James Douglas Haszard*’s Prince Edward Island Register and its successor, the Royal Gazette. There, and two years later in Joseph Howe*’s Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, he condemned the conduct of whites who, from Cape Horn to Greenland, branded natives as cruel and faithless even while stealing their lands and driving them to extinction. He called for the formation of “Philo-Indian societies” that would win the confidence of the local Indians and teach them how to farm. This appeal fell flat, as did his plans for the grammar. Despite strenuous efforts to promote the book, not enough subscribers came forward to make publication possible.

In April 1831 Irwin tried another tack. He petitioned the House of Assembly on behalf of the Indians, asking that they be given education and land where they could settle and learn agriculture; a committee was struck to consider ways of helping them. In the mean time, Irwin contested a by-election in Kings County that July but lost to William Cooper*. When the next session opened in January 1832 Louis Francis Algimou and four other chiefs presented a petition, drafted by Irwin, asking for land and “books to show our children good things.” The assembly looked briefly at the possibility of buying land and voted £50 to the Board of Education to provide books of elementary instruction in the Micmac language. Irwin claimed to have just such a work “in process,” based on a standard spelling book of the day but including some of the devotional texts that had been translated into Micmac by the Catholic missionaries of the previous century. Ignoring Irwin, the board announced that it could find no elementary book in the Micmac tongue and voted not to claim the grant. In 1834 he again stood for election in Kings County and was defeated.

In February 1840 Irwin made another approach to the assembly, petitioning to have his elementary textbook put into print. A committee considered his manuscript and expressed concern about its accuracy because there was no one qualified to assess it. It recommended instead that no more than £50 be placed at the disposal of the lieutenant governor, Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy*, to pay schoolmasters to teach the Micmacs in English. Three years later Irwin tried for the last time, offering to donate a year of his time to instruct the Micmacs in their own tongue from his elementary school book, if the assembly would pay to print it. The whole assembly debated this petition on 20 March 1843 and the majority took the view that the Indians should learn English. However, since there were more Micmacs in Nova Scotia than in Prince Edward Island, the house offered to pay Irwin’s expenses if he wanted to peddle his book in Halifax.

Irwin could no longer contain his anger and on 1 April 1843 published a furious letter in the Colonial Herald, and Prince Edward Island Advertiser. “This country is the rightful inheritance of the Indians; it has been wrested from them by the hand of power, and no equivalent has been given them.” Now the “spirit of English domination” demanded that even their language be destroyed. The “domineering Saxons” had murdered “the Welsh bards,” plundered “the records of Scotland,” and had lately made an effort in Canada “to obliterate the French.” Never, if he could help it, would the mellifluous language of the Micmacs be supplanted by the “mongrel medley” of the Saxons. He also took the House of Assembly’s advice and wrote again to Joseph Howe for support. Now that he was Nova Scotia’s commissioner of Indian affairs Howe too thought that the Micmacs should learn English, and the correspondence ceased in June 1843. There is no evidence that Irwin was aware of the work then being done for Indians in New Brunswick by Moses Henry Perley* or that he tried to enlist his support.

Irwin’s career as a champion of the Micmacs was one of unrelieved failure. For almost 20 years he was the only white person in Prince Edward Island to demonstrate publicly any sympathy for the Indians. His Catholic religion ensured a partisan reception for any of his proposals, and the Catholic clergy failed to support him. Yet his enthusiasms were not entirely wasted. The Reverend Silas Tertius Rand*, a Baptist, arrived in Charlottetown in the summer of 1846 and went on to form the Micmac Missionary Society on the lines Irwin had once proposed. Rand also became a world-renowned authority on Micmac language and oral history, and he acknowledged that he owed his start to the fragmentary grammar Irwin had once published in the Register and in the Royal Gazette.

In 1830 Irwin had written in the Royal Gazette, “I conclude I have 50 years yet to live (accidents by sea and land excepted)”; just such a mishap claimed him some 17 years later. He was last seen alive at Big Pond on 14 Feb. 1847 while on a journey eastwards along the shore from Naufrage. Nearly a month later his body was discovered on the sea ice some distance from the shore. An inquest established that he had strayed from the path, “and the weather being then very inclement, had perished from cold – Verdict accordingly.” For at least the last ten years of his life he had resided at St Peters; he left no relatives on the Island.

L. F. S. Upton

None of Thomas Irwin’s manuscripts appear to have survived. Sixty-five manuscript pages of his elementary textbook and 124 pages of his grammar were auctioned in Paris in 1884 when the French scholar Alphonse-Louis Pinart sold the collection described in Catalogue des livres rares et précieux, manuscrits et imprimés, principalement sur l’Amérique et sur les langues du monde entier . . . (Paris, 1883); their present whereabouts are unknown.

PANS, RG 1, 432: 159–61, 178–79, 188–94, 216–21. P.E.I. Museum, File information concerning Thomas Irwin. Supreme Court of P.E.I. (Charlottetown), Estates Division, papers of administration for Thomas Irwin estate. P.E.I., House of Assembly, Journal, 8–9 April 1831; 4, 7 Jan. 1832; 19 Feb. 1840; 20 March 1843. Colonial Herald, and Prince Edward Island Advertiser (Charlottetown), 29 Feb., 11 April 1840; 18 Feb., 4, 25 March, 1 April 1843. Islander, 26 March 1847. Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, 29 Aug., 5 Sept. 1832. Prince Edward Island Register, 2 Feb., 27 April, 4–18 May, June, 13, 27 July, 3–17 Aug. 1830. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 24–31 Aug., 14, 28 Sept., October, 2 Nov., 7 Dec. 1830; 31 Jan., 7 Feb. 1832; 15 Oct. 1833; 25 Nov., 2, 23 Dec. 1834; 13 Jan., 24 Feb. 1835; 28 March, 4 April 1843; 23 March 1847. P.E.I. calendar, 1837–47. Upton, Micmacs and colonists. J. B. [James Bambrick], “Days of Bishop McEachern, 1790–1836,” Prince Edward Island Magazine (Charlottetown), 3 (1901–2): 151. L. F. S. Upton, “Indians and Islanders: the Micmacs in colonial Prince Edward Island,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 6 (1976–77), no.1: 21–42; “Thomas Irwin: champion of the Micmacs,” Island Magazine (Charlottetown), no.3 (fall–winter 1977): 13–16.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

L. F. S. Upton, “IRWIN, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 27, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/irwin_thomas_7E.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/irwin_thomas_7E.html
Author of Article:   L. F. S. Upton
Title of Article:   IRWIN, THOMAS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   February 27, 2024