Friday 20 April 2018

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

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.

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