The Big Fight of 1895
Osgoode Township, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
March 20, 2002:
The Justice / Police System:
Ironically, between the years 1830 and 1900, the relationship of the Irish Catholics
with the justice system in Ottawa reversed. In the 1830's they were usually associated
with the criminal element but by the 1890's the front-line police force was dominated by
the Irish. As an example, in 1895, my grand uncle took part in the last great bare-knuckled
boxing match in the Ottawa area.(1) It took place on a Sunday afternoon in O'Leary's field
near Manotick. Hundreds of spectators watched several hours of combat which was regulated
by "gentlemen's rules". After the match was over, the combatants were arrested by the
Ottawa police for taking part in a sporting activity on the Sabbath. After being
transported to Ottawa, they were both hired by the Ottawa Police Force (the main
qualification being toughness) and spent long careers with the Ottawa Police Department.
Incidentally, a few of the stereotypical "big, friendly Irish cops" in New York, Chicago
and Detroit grew up in the tough neighbourhoods of Ottawa and the Valley.
The first civilian constable for Bytown had been hired in 1827 but it wasn't until 1863
that a full-fledged Police Commission and a regular uniformed force was established.
During the interim period, an inadequate police system was supplemented by the militia
which was called out to control the almost annual riots which occurred on St. Patrick's
Day and the Twelfth of July.
There are many examples of discrimination against Irish Catholics by the legal system.
In 1856, following the municipal election, Denis Tierney of Nepean was murdered by a
gang of Orangemen. "What we do know is that the township election precipitated a sorry
incident that would become a symbol of injustice to Nepean's Catholic population for
decades to come". Eight years later, with the Denis Tierney murder still fresh in the
community's mind, Timothy Keough / Kehoe was clubbed to death before hundreds of witnesses
at the Metcalfe Fair. No one was brought to justice for either of these crimes.
Here's a quote from the Ottawa Citizen of March 7, 2002 regarding the assassination of
Thomas Darcy McGee on Sparks Street in 1868. An Irish Catholic named James Patrick Whelan
was detained for the murder. The words are those of Senator Eugene Whelan:
"George Etienne Cartier (Attorney General for Canada) went to the Prime Minister
(Sir John A. Macdonald, who belonged to the Orange Order) and said ‘I don't think they
should hang that young man because it's all circumstantial evidence.' Macdonald turned
and asked Cartier ‘what's his name?' Cartier replied ‘James Patrick Whelan' and Macdonald
is quoted as saying ‘Let him hang, that little Irish son of a bitch. That little Irish
This case exemplified the mix of raw politics at the national and local levels. Religion
and country of birth were never far from the surface on any issue. Approximately
two hundred "usual suspects" were rounded up for questioning by the Ottawa Police at
the time of McGee's murder. They were almost all Irish Catholics, suspected of being
Source: Al Lewis, unpublished paper The Welfare of Irish Catholics in Ottawa, 1820-1900,
(1) Val Olander sent me an undated copy of an article from the Ottawa Citizen, sometime
during the 1920's, which gives great detail on "The Big Fight". The combatants were
James Henry Burns and Lawrence Sutton.
Note: The above material seems overly biased and pro-Catholic. Protestant-Catholic animosities
were very real during the 19th century in Ottawa and area. Thankfully, times have changed.
For an interesting paper on how the two communities became "Canadian" and left behind the
old Irish feuds, see David Shanahan's PhD. Thesis:
The Making of Nations: The Irish Question in Canada, 1830-1925.
See also The Orange Order.
E-mail Al Lewis
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