Wednesday 16 January 2019

Eleanor McGrath: They may be thousands of miles apart, but the Blaskets and Newfoundland say the same things to me

MY children have a way of trying to pin me down on my favourite part of the world. And today I still do not know how to answer their question in the most politically correct manner: "Which do you like better, Ireland or Newfoundland?" They might as well be asking me, "Which of them do I love best?" With the Cork husband and links of many kinds to Ireland there might seem to be an easy answer, but, there is a strange, rural, rocky shore called the Irish Loop on the Island of Newfoundland where we are drawn each summer.

Some are starved for noise and over population and seek holidays in the sexy hubs of New York and Miami, but not us…we choose to drive two days and ferry for 19 hours to get to the last province on the Atlantic ocean. Buying five years ago on a whim, our salt-box home in Renews off the internet, sight unseen was the closest we could get ourselves to Ireland during the Celtic Tiger – we are now in the next parish over.

When the stock markets crashed in 2008 there was a moment written about chasing a desire to return to a simple life, a desire to consume less and review corruption that would caste out all banking sinners. But that moment to correct all our global wrongs just left; just as the children of Ireland left again seeking work in the Prairies of Canada and even further to Vancouver on the Pacific coast.

And like Ireland, on the Rock the exodus never stopped bleeding its youth to the oil rigs in the North Sea, the Gulf Coast and Alberta. And like the Irish, Newfoundlanders clan together and rebuild a community to alleviate the homesickness. And just as the names are so Irish, the accents are Wexford and Waterford and a Newfoundlander is now Canadian Ambassador to Ireland – there is a struggle on which identity to promote, Irish or Newfoundlander?

Stretching 111,390 sq km with a minor population of 510,000 hugging its shores, Newfoundland is utilizing all its tools to attract and retain newcomers. The maverick former Premier Danny Williams fought the Canadian government and took on hero status with his oil deals creating the new Newfoundland, a “have province” unlike our Ontario, the “have not” province. Glories in new money and a housing boom ensure its economy is one of the fastest growing in Canada. But guided by politicians there is a shift in the culture of Newfoundland and one that is focused on St. John’s, the province’s capital.

The shift for work associated with the oil rich capital of St. John’s has put a risk at the heart of Newfoundland culture. Fishing outports are being abandoned politically, despite being the very places sold to tourists in glossy magazine advertisements. In the 1960s, Premier Joey Smallwood put in place the “resettlement policy” effectively moving families onto the main island to alleviate the costs associated with infrastructure of the province. The dispersed families, like those of the Blaskets in Ireland, still visit their outports in the summer and some question why they ever had to leave.

Today in Newfoundland, there is a quiet “resettlement” but not with any financial compensation just in the total disregard of people who are dependent on ferry boats to get them to and from hospitals and for the basics of life – there needs to be a backlash to protect both these people and what is truly Newfoundland’s culture.

On Sunday, July 22, Irish Ambassador Ray Bassett with his wife Patricia came for dinner in Renews. Canadian Ambassador Loyola Hearn and Member of the House Assembly, Keith Hutchings greeted the distinguished guests to this small outport of 300. Fish (cod) caught by local fishermen was served by men and women alike, followed by the local delicacy of bakeapple tarts with cream and songs of fishing heroes and recitations performed by members of the community, not professionals just our neighbours.

At 9pm, Ambassador Bassett stood to make his remarks. Often words said by politicians are forgotten, but maybe it was because the politician was an Irishman, or maybe it is because he knows the strain of a family losing their children to faraway lands or possibly because he honeymooned on the most remote outport of Ireland, the Great Blasket that he closed with these words: “Be proud of who you are, it is good to celebrate your Irish heritage, but you are Newfoundlanders and you are unique.”

We all must be true to ourselves. We cannot become something we are not. And when the Irish Ambassador came calling to Newfoundland, I know that nowhere in the big city of St. John’s did he find the culture of the island because that is the privilege and beauty of the fishing outports; just as when Robin Flower came from England, he knew to go to the Great Blasket to find the Irish language and culture.

And while I am neither Irish nor a Newfoundlander, I can answer with certainty my children’s question: I love Ireland and I love Newfoundland, where I know I will return every year like the gannets to the Skellig.

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