This study will explore the ways in which Irish Catholic voluntary associations engaged with the Canadian liberal order in the nineteenth century by focusing especially on three specific associations that were formed at particular times to confront particular social problems: temperance societies, the Catholic League, and Home Rule branches. Some of these organizations opposed liberalism and the liberal state, while others disseminated liberal values. Some, like temperance societies, did both. Informed by Ian McKay's Liberal Order Framework, I have framed the Canadian context within which Irish Catholic voluntary associations functioned as a liberalizing society with a strong attachment to Protestant British identity. In studies focusing on state formation, democracy, and liberalism, scholars such as Alan Greer and Ian Radforth, Jeffrey McNairn, and Darren Ferry have positioned mainstream voluntary associations as having had a central role in the development of liberalism and the formation of the Canadian state. This study sets out to examine the extent to which Irish Catholic voluntary associations had a similar function.
Research suggests that in some cases Irish voluntary associations resisted the liberal Canadian state through their advancement of Catholic values that challenged state encroachment into the lives of parishioners, demonstrations of a robust collective identity that, though couched in liberal terms, emphasized ethno-religious difference, and objections to illiberal techniques of governing by British authorities such as the land tenure system in Ireland and the suspension of legal due process both there and in Canada. Yet in other significant ways the organizations under review in this study contributed to the development of liberal British Canada by promoting principles of self-government, participating in the solidification of the liberal Canadian state, and casting their own Irish nationalism in liberal terms. By the time the Canadian Parliament passed resolutions in support of Irish Home Rule in 1882, a liberal consensus was emerging between Canadian Irish Catholics and the Canadian liberal order on the issue of Irish self-government, thus forcing promoters of liberalism in Canada to allow a greater level of pluralism than they wanted, albeit on thoroughly liberal terms.