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Eleanor McGrath: Why I went searching for Canada’s lost Irish ... and what I found


Photo: Thinkstock

Photo: Thinkstock

Photo: Thinkstock

ROUND and round would go the record as my sister Irene and I listened to Peggy Lee singing Leiber and Stoller’s song. My childhood in the early ‘70s was not in keeping with the times. My parents seemed to have escaped the open-mindness of their peers of the hippy sixties and revolutionary minds such as their professor at St. Michael’s College, Marshall McLuhan. Instead their traditional Irish Catholic values prevented me from an over-exposure to television, tight Jordache jeans of the Disco era, and in the practice of daily Mass. So my sister and I learned every word of every record lost in the world of music and stories.

In the 70s, Toronto, in fact all of Canada, except French-speaking Quebec, was very colonial and this meant life was simple: you were either Protestant or Catholic. On my street we mixed of course but there were always the jokes about “You Irish breed like rabbits.” That’s all there was then…bad jokes and slurs against the Irish. But we were different from my other Irish friends as we were fourth generation. Fourth generation Irish Canadian meant mixed blood; a French Canadian great Grandmere and a paternal Granny who was Scots Presbyterian. Granny was forward thinking, loved Burt Reynolds, played bridge with her church friends and made the best deviled ham sandwiches. She opened my mind to world of the Protestant.

I miss those days now where WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) seemed to dominate the psyche of the country...or so you thought. And now big Catholic families like mine no longer exist and WASPs too are almost all gone. The former “British North America”, pink on the world map, a jewel in England’s crown has thankfully grown up. I am the last generation to know the old colony before the new Canada evolved in the 80s, one where there are 170 languages spoken every day. Round and round that turntable goes but it stopped and nobody knows…the history of the Irish in Canada.

Fenians killed a Father of Confederation; the Griffintown Lacrosse team in Montreal went head to head with the Mohawks; British penal laws dominated Newfoundland; Jewish Canadians engineered our bridges and subways and the most powerful union was founded by Ballymena man. Who knew? No one! The fourth largest ethnic group in Canada is voiceless; or is it just too scared to stand up for its history in colonial Canada? Is that all there is to Irish history in Canada a one line reference in history textbooks? I know because I have four children in school. There is no Irish reference in Canada’s textbooks.

So at 45, I set out to tell a few stories knowing a few people who knew a few people…I cashed out the savings; bought my camera and took my four kids on an excursion from Newfoundland to the Prairies. Who knew that our neighbour in Renews, Newfoundland would become Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland, Loyola Hearn; who knew that our 17th Prime Minister was so proud of being Cork Irish; who knew that a Belfast Jewish woman with a Limerick father experienced the oldest Irish Jewish joke “Are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?” But nothing prepared me for the history that no one likes to talk about – the history of Canada’s First Nations and Métis peoples. It was an interview with a Cherokee First Nations Irish woman who drew the parallel to England’s treatment of the Irish to that of the Aboriginal in Canada. It is time to hear this history.

Listen, Écouter, Satahon'satat, Éisteacht and we will hear the stories in “Kanata an Irish Story” and no one will ever forget that the Irish helped to build Canada/Kanata. Round and round the turntable went, Peggy Lee singing, “Is that all there is, If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing” and my sister Irene grew up to marry a Mohawk and I tell stories.

Kanata an Irish Story (RTE1) Monday, December 12th at 11:35pm