Being Irish and being Canadian

Here’s what I didn’t do on St. Patrick’s Day. I didn’t call it St. Paddy’s Day or the 17th of Ireland. I didn’t wear a green tie or sweater. I didn’t drink green beer (yuck!) I didn’t wear a button saying, “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” I know people who do these things. They have about as much connection with Ireland as I have with heavy lifting.

Here’s what I did do on St. Patrick’s Day. During the supper hour, I drank home-made wine and listened to John O’Conor, the great Irish pianist. He was playing nocturnes by John Field, the great Irish composer who showed Chopin the way. After supper, I watched a feast of Irish music programming on PBS, and marvelled at how the music seeped out of the kitchens and the pubs, and made its way into the arenas and concert halls of the world. I then re-read bits of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and remembered again that many of us leave Ireland because we beg to differ.

I begged to differ when my parents told me that a civil service posting was the best white-collar job in Ireland. I tried it for five years, and then fled. I was 23, and wanted to see what the rest of the world had to offer.

I arrived on Remembrance Day, 1966 - it’s hard to forget that date - and settled in Vancouver, where they said the weather would be the same as in Dublin. It wasn’t. Vancouver was wetter. Between November and Christmas, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. But I didn’t mind. I was in the New Land, and having the time of my life.

In Ireland, I had never thought of defining myself in terms of my ethnic origins. I was Irish, and that was that. There might have been some Danish or Norman in my background, but those long-ago invading Danes and Normans had checked their identities at the door and become more Irish than the Irish themselves. So we had been told in history class.

The Irish settlers, from the Celts to the Vikings to the Normans to the Scots, all became the unhyphenated Irish. Not so the Canadian settlers. They saw themselves as French or German or Ukrainian, depending on where their parents or grandparents came from. Being Canadian, it seemed, was not sufficient in this country. In a community of communities, it was important to known which community you belonged to.

Because I had just recently arrived from Ireland, my new Canadian friends expected I would want to become part of Vancouver’s Irish community. They invited me to attend an Irish dance contest, to audition for an Irish theatre group, and to meet an expatriate Dubliner who was singing Dennis Day songs at a pancake house in Burnaby. I passed on the dance competition and the acting opportunity, but I did meet the Dubliner, Shay Duffin. We formed a musical partnership, named ourselves the Dublin Rogues, and hit the road.

It was a great way to see this land of ours. Between the beginning of 1967 and the middle of 1968, we travelled the length and breadth of Canada. We played the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City and the Black Knight Lounge in Halifax. We shared stages with Anne Murray and John Allan Cameron.

I never gave any serious consideration to going back. Ireland might have formed me, but Canada had made me. It made me a musician, a writer, a broadcaster, a husband, a father, and a Canadian. Ireland was my birthplace, Canada is my home. It will always be my home. The winds may sure blow cold away out here, but they also blow warm with the promise of another spring.

Ireland, for me now, is as much a state of mind as an actual country. That’s why I didn’t wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. I didn’t have to do that to connect with my roots. I just had to close my eyes and remember.

Part of the remembering is the writing down. I hope you will be as excited as I am to know that my memoirs are going to be published next year. Yessss! Stay tuned.