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Canadian life - Wexford expats share their experiences abroad

The world at their feet - week 2

Between 1831 and 1850, more than 500,000 Irish people emigrated to Canada. Driven by the Great Famine and the promise of a better life, they found work in the cities and rural parts of a vast, largely uninhabited land.

Such was the scale of this influx that by 1867 it was estimated that the Irish accounted for one-quarter of Canada's entire population.

And while they can't quite match those numbers, the past decade has seen thousands of Irish people retrace the steps of their ancestors, another generation tempted by all Canada has to offer.

Unsurprisingly, given the county's strong ties with provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador, many of those leaving our shores have done so from Wexford. We spoke to some of them.

Jessica Doyle, Gorey

As someone who has always striven to see as much of the world as possible, and someone who spent four months living in America and travelled throughout Europe during her college years, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Jessica Doyle now lives in Canada.

Yet it was only when a former teacher suggested Vancouver as a possible destination that Jessica began to seriously consider moving away from her hometown on a permanent basis.

'It was my acting teacher who encouraged me to consider Vancouver,' she recalls. 'After some research, and looking up multiple articles, Vancouver quickly went to the top of my list. It took somewhere like that to be suggested to push me to make the move.'

Jessica describes herself as being 'very family-oriented', which made the decision to leave that little bit harder.

But, ultimately, the lure of a new life in Canada was too much to resist.

'As much as I love Gorey, I always wanted more adventure. I knew I would always look back and regret never taking the plunge and just going,' she says.

And so, at the age of 23, Jessica made the move, going it alone in pursuit of her dreams. However, things didn't get off to an ideal start.

'I got sick and quickly found myself alone and truly not feeling myself in a foreign country. Suddenly I wasn't as confident as I was when I stepped onto the plane the short time before,

'It was a fresh world, a place where, everything is good when it's good, but everything is much harder when things are not going so good,' she recalls.

'I kept reminding myself of the reasons as to why I went there and that I would be going through this sickness even if I was at home. With that attitude, soon after I found myself grasping Canadian life and living the life I wanted here.'

Having overcome those early setbacks, Jessica set about making her presence felt, finding work in a notoriously capricious industry.

'I studied television presenting as well as acting in the Gaiety School of Acting,' says Jessica. 'I got a few gigs when I first came over to Canada so that was good; some commercial jobs, one for Canadian tourism, another couple of smaller commercial jobs, as well as working on film sets every now and then. The film and television industry is very big over here.'

Proving, once more, that the Irish rarely shy away from a hard day's work, Jessica combines these jobs with a more regular source of income.

'I also work as a server and bartender in a really busy restaurant on the beach. As we work for tips over here, the attitude is, the harder you work the more money you can make.

'It's a good job to have as it's very flexible and gives you so much freedom, i.e. short hours and good holidays. It gives me the freedom to go to auditions, take time off to go travelling, all the while making the same money as most office jobs,' she says.

And like many of her contemporaries, Jessica has found the Irish attitude towards work differs from that of other nations.

'The Irish work ethic is different. I feel we have a sense of urgency in what we do, while Canadians tend to be much more relaxed,' she says.

This extends to life outside of work, with a 'melting pot of cultures' creating a vibrant, energetic social scene where 'yoga, hiking and eating out' are the norm.

'Irish life can be very structured especially for people my age. We grow up contained by certain expectations of our lives and where we 'should' go or do.

'As for Vancouver, it's a melting pot of cultures so you can learn a lot from people and make up your own expectations,' Jessica says.

Since leaving Jessica has been back to Ireland on several occasions and says the plan is to simply return to Wexford whenever she feels the urge. And although she eventually hopes to return for good one day, for now she is content where she is.

'I do want to stay here; hopefully visas will work in my favour. In general, I see myself in Wexford once I get older but, for now, I am happy where I am.'

Katie Power, Rathangan

For Katie Power, it was the feeling of not fitting in that led to her decision to leave Ireland. Having grown up in Rathangan, studied in Carlow and worked in Wexford town, she began saving, gathering enough money to apply for a working holiday visa, readying herself to leave her country of birth at the age of 25.

'I always wanted to go explore and experience what it was like living in another country,' Katie says. 'Also, I always felt I never really fitted in at home. I suppose people who emigrate have a little bit of this feeling.'

However, like Jessica, her initial time in her destination of choice wasn't without its challenges.

'When I first landed (in Vancouver) I was so full of excitement because it was all so new, but the reality was those first three months were the hardest. You are missing home, you are trying to get everything set up and I hadn't found a job, so I was quickly going through savings - which was stressful.'

Four years on, and having learned from those experiences, Katie has some words of advice for those considering a similar path.

'I didn't find work until I was here for three months. But after that there has been no issue finding work. A good recommendation is to sign up with agencies. What might be a two-week placement could turn into a permanent role from that company,' she says.

Now a permanent resident and an established member of the Canadian workforce Katie knows what she's talking about, so when she attests to the reputation of the Irish abroad you can take it as word.

'Without a doubt the Canadians love having Irish in their workforce. We have such a good reputation for being hard workers and bringing fun to the workplace,' she says.

This sense of cordiality works both ways, with Katie having nothing but good words for her new compatriots.

'Canadians are so positive, I find. They just want to get outside and enjoy nature at the weekend. They are extremely partial to something trendy. Avocado on toast comes to mind; we are all willing to pay $15 for something we could buy ourselves for a few bucks.

'But the biggest thing I like about here is the encouragement to just go for it. Ireland's mentality, I find, can be a little bit judgmental when someone might try to be, let's say, an online influencer. Whereas here, everyone would jump to encourage entrepreneurial ventures.

'And it is evident because there are so many Irish business owners here. That makes me extremely proud.'

Although she now calls Canada home, and will make it official this year when she applies for citizenship, Katie refers to Wexford as 'home home' and is keen to fly the flag for Ireland whenever she can.

'I do miss Ireland and our quirky way of doing things. I miss the Irish people and just having random conversations with a stranger. We Irish do that here in Canada and they love it, but they do think it's unusual we strike up a conversation with anyone.

'I want to say that living away from Ireland makes you appreciate how lucky you are to be Irish. So many claim they have Irish heritage and it is because we are known for great qualities of being friendly, fun and hard working. Why wouldn't I want to brag about that?'

Paul Nolan, Kiltealy

As a dedicated member of Duffry Rovers GAA Club, there was just one thing preventing Paul Nolan from taking the plunge and sampling life in another country: the pursuit of that elusive hurling title.

Although he had been part of the team that won an Intermediate Football title in 2016, success with the small ball seemed forever out of reach. And so, having reached the age of 30, Paul decided the time was right for a career break and a move to a place he admits he knew nothing about.

'I would say that I put off taking a career break to travel for about four years before I worked up the courage to just go for it,' Paul says. 'Eventually, after my 30th birthday, I decided to commit to a career break and move to Vancouver, Canada with my girlfriend, Aine. To be honest, I knew absolutely nothing about Vancouver. We knew nobody living there. I barely knew where it was on the map.

'All I knew was that construction was booming and it would be ideal for me to take a break from the classroom and practice what I teach.'

That teaching had seen Paul graduate from the University of Limerick as a construction, woodwork and tech graphics teacher before going on to teach in Palmerstown, Dublin for the next seven years.

These transferable skills enabled him to find work quickly, a contact within a Vancouver hurling club ensuring he walked straight into a carpentry job upon arrival. And his early impressions of Canada were positive.

'The city and its surroundings are unbelievable to look at. You could be in downtown Vancouver looking at the mountains and within a 30-minute drive you could be putting on a set of skis, prepping yourself to tackle a ski run.

'When the good weather is in, you have a selection of beautiful beaches lining the Pacific Ocean to choose from, and guaranteed sunshine for almost all of the summer. For adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts, it is a great place to be,' he says.

And with so many Irish in the city, Vancouver quickly became a home from home; there was even a GAA club for Paul to join.

'Vancouver has a large Irish community which has continued to multiply since I got here. A walk down the main nightlife area of downtown on the weekend would almost always have you in earshot of an Irish accent.

'The hurling and football got going in the yew year in 2018, which led to social events and a chance to meet people with similar interests to myself. GAA is growing, along with the influx of Irish; two new clubs have formed since I arrived here. It's great to have such a community around me, however, I still miss togging out for my home club every time they play.

'Having said that, I'm blessed to be part of a great hurling club, JP Ryans Vancouver. The standard and commitment is very high,' Paul says.

And although he has integrated well into his new surroundings, Paul says there remains some innate differences between the Irish and their hosts.

'The Irish here would often say it's hard to knock a bit of craic out of the Canadians. I agree, it's mostly us Irish always trying to find a bit of fun in everything, whereas the locals are more serious about stuff.

'They are not afraid to enjoy themselves in plenty of other ways. The region is a paradise for the outdoors person and the Canadians take full advantage of the landscape and surroundings they have. Everyone has a keen interest in something, whether it be fishing, hiking, skiing, camping, ice hockey, 4x4 terrain, whitewater river rafting, the list goes on.'

None of those things can compare with a few pints of stout in Bowes or The Thatch however, and as much as he enjoys life in Vancouver, Paul sees his long-term future back in Wexford.

'For the future and long term, our plans are certainly to return home and settle. You could be home in six months or it could be another couple of years. I suppose you just take things as they come. For now, I am happy enjoying my time here, doing and seeing different things.'

Suzie O'Shea, Gorey

Returning home is a big deal for Irish emigrants, it's an emotional experience, an all too rare opportunity to reunite with loved ones.

And all of the people featured in this series so far have made their visits to the motherland as special as possible, fully aware of their importance.

Yet none are likely to have made their journey home as special as Suzie O'Shea did.

Already a 8,000 km trip, Suzie decided to extend her travelling time in a unique way.

'I make it a goal to get back once a year. In 2018 I made the journey home to Gorey by bicycle, cycling 7,500km from Vancouver to St John's Newfoundland, flying from St John's to Dublin and then cycling from Dublin to Gorey,' she recalls.

But as someone who wants to make cycling more inclusive for women, this arduous trek was just part of the job.

'As a cyclist and bike mechanic I'm in the process of developing my own business centred on making cycling more inclusive, by creating opportunities for women to learn the skills and gain the confidence to feel a sense of belonging and ownership in the cycling world.'

Having studied social care in Waterford Institute of Technology, Suzie began her career as a youth worker with Foróige, and completed her master's degree in youth and community studies in 2011.

Yet, just as her career began to take shape, Ireland was hit by one of its worst recessions in years.

'Work was drying up, pay freezes were in place and my full-time job was at risk of becoming part time. I loved my job and was close to finishing my master's.

'I knew I couldn't afford to go down to part time, so I made the decision to emigrate. I was in a privileged position that I could just up and leave,' she says.

This ability to take a positive out of a negative has served Suzie well in her new home. Again, she attests to the value other countries place in the Irish work ethic which, in her case, has led to an entirely new career.

'I had left Ireland planning to get work within higher level education and got a job working in the field of University-community engagement with the University of British Columbia. Canadian's value the Irish work ethic and the 'gift of the gab'. It's an attribute we as Irish people should be proud of. Our ability to communicate, be personable and treat folks the same.'

Having lived in Vancouver for almost nine years, Suzie now finds herself torn between her new home and the place she grew up. And she admits to not knowing where her future lies.

'I often find myself torn between the two places, wondering would I go back to Ireland on a more permanent basis or contemplating what life would look like if I could split my time between the two?'

There is a sense of belonging in Ireland, to the land, to the people, and that pull is strong. However, the longer I am here the more I feel connected to the west coast, to the way of life here, and to the incredible scenery that surrounds me.'

'It took me a long time to understand and come to terms with the fact that my heart is, and will forever be, in two places. I now have two families, my chosen family here and my birth family at home in Wexford. I'm grateful to be in this position, so I hope that it doesn't have to be either Ireland or Canada but that it can be both.'

Adam Doyle, Cullentragh

Having rented an apartment in Dublin for several months, Adam Doyle decided one night to sit down and figure out his monthly budget.

Like any person in their late twenties, he had ambitions to own his own house one day and he wanted to see how much he could afford to put away at the end of each month. The answer was not very much.

'I figured if I was to get my own place someday, I needed to save more money, but when I did the maths I had nothing at end of the month with my income and expenses.

'Nothing was going to change the economy, so I had to change if I wanted to get ahead. If not, I was never going to have my own place,' he recalls.

A carpenter by trade, Adam had worked in various parts of the construction industry after school and had used this experience to start up his own company. But as the recession tightened its grip, he, like thousands of others in construction, found work harder and harder to come by.

'When I left in 2012, opportunities were at a premium for carpenters and construction workers. The work was in and around Dublin mostly and I was searching constantly for jobs. The money was bad and and it was getting hard to get paid.'

Around that time, Adam attended a trade fair with a friend and was instantly sold on the prospect of working in Canada, in Alberta to be precise.

'I got a job with PCL construction where I still work. Everyone who comes here gets work fast if they're willing and positive.'

Once there he had to contend with temperatures unlike anything he had experienced in Ireland. He also had to deal with people not fully attuned to his dulcet Wexford accent.

'I stayed in a hostel for a month until I met two other lads who were by themselves and we got a place. Every time I opened my mouth, I had to repeat myself and speak slower. I guess people from the Blackstairs have a quare accent.

'The first winter was interesting; it went down to -21. I was not long learning how to wrap up, much to the entertainment of the locals when I got cold the first day.'

But, like Paul, he found a GAA club which not only kept him active but also made the transition a little easier.

'I got involved in the GAA where I met more people from all over Ireland who I would not have met otherwise. Our GAA club, the Edmonton Wolfe Tones, where I have been involved with the hurling for the last few years, has helped lots of people get on their feet here.'

In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, Adam does miss home, but he keeps in touch with family and friends via the wonders of technology.

'I think about home most days. If you didn't miss home, it would be sad as Ireland gifted me the skills and gave me an opportunity to travel to Canada in the first place.

'I miss my family and friends but with technology nowadays it's easy to talk to my dad on video while he feeds the cattle or my mam and sister, so it's not a big deal.

'I currently see myself here for another few years, but you never know what's around the corner, with kids etc.

'As they say, what's meant for you won't pass you.'

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