Historians of Tomorrow

Charles McKiernan (a.k.a. Joe Beef)

Every city has its share of characters known for the originality of their character or their actions. Charles McKiernan is one such person. Generous, flamboyant, and colourful are all words that apply to this larger-than-life character. But while his personality certainly made him unique, it was the inn he kept in Old Montreal that made him a fixture in Montreal’s popular history.

Born in Ireland in 1835, Charles McKiernan enrolled in the British Army’s Royal Regiment of Artillery and participated in the Crimean War (1854-56) as a quartermaster. By the way, that’s how he got his nickname, Joe Beef: when rations were running low, he always managed to find a little meat for the troops. His reputation followed him to Montreal in 1864. He ran the military canteen on Saint-Helen’s Island until 1868, when he was discharged from the army. He then opened Joe Beef’s Canteen, which quickly became known to sailors around the world.

Originally located on Saint Claude Street, near Bonsecours Market and the port, Joe Beef’s tavern moves to the corner of De la Commune and De Callière in 1875. This establishment might have looked like any other, if it weren’t for Joe Beef’s personality. A real character, he had a way with words, a thunderous voice, and a heart as big as the bear he trained to stand up and calm any unruly patrons. 60-gallon pots were always full of simmering stew that sold for 15 cents a bowl. The second floor housed 200 beds that were just as accessible: Joe Beef would never turn away someone unable to pay for a place to spend the night. But lights out at 11 o’clock! Joe Beef garners even more sympathy from people when he helps the workers on strike at the Lachine Canal. He supports their cause and provides 3000 loaves of bread and 500 gallons of soup. But Joe Beef’s generosity attracts criticism. He might be giving, but he’s far from a pious man. He spends his days harassed by the police, the Church and anti-alcohol leagues. He dies in 1889; business spontaneously close during his public funeral. Cheers, Joe.


Links to other interesting websites about Charles McKiernan

• Le patrimoine du Vieux-Montréal en détail sur le site officiel du Vieux-Montréal (in French):

Complimentary information about this person's era (for the post-visit activity in class)

• Montreal, 500 Years of History in Archives:
See chapter 7.

• Le patrimoine du Vieux-Montréal en détail sur le site officiel du Vieux-Montréal (in French):
Et cliquez sur "Synthèse historique de la période".

Joe Beef, born Charles McKiernan, is known in his day by sailors all around the world.

Image source: Hebdomadaire Le canard, 28 décembre 1878, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. http://collections.banq.qc.ca/ark:/52327/1776227

Charles McKiernan

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