Category Archives: Cultural identity

The Calgary 1988 Olympics – 25 years on

It began not with a hockey game, a figure-skating contest or a ski-jumping competition. The Calgary 1988 Olympics began with the biggest festival of music, theatre, dance, visual and literary arts ever staged in conjunction with a Winter Games. It was also, as you would expect, the biggest cultural bash in Calgary history. We will never see the like again.

It cost $10 million to produce. It ran for five weeks, before and during the Games. More than 3,000 artists took part. I didn’t get to see all of them, but caught enough to be spoiled for the rest of my life. When the last curtain call was taken, I happily retired from arts criticism. Everything in the future was bound to pale by comparison.

The preparations had started more than two years beforehand. Even at that early juncture, it was already too late to try booking the likes of Pavarotti or Baryshnikov. Such heavyweight performers kept their datebooks full for at least three years at a time.

Then there were the disappointments. Placido Domingo looked like a definite possibility for a while, but couldn’t get released from his Metropolitan Opera commitments. West Germany’s famed Pina Bausch dance company sent regrets after landing a movie deal. The Stratford Festival pulled out citing a scheduling conflict. A rock concert featuring Neil Young had to be cancelled when only 3,000 of 15,000 available Saddledome tickets sold.

But there were compensations. Instead of Pina Bausch, we got Peter Brook’s riveting La Tragédie de Carmen. Instead of Stratford, we got a stylish performance of the Shaw Festival’s You Never Can Tell. And we enjoyed Calgary’s first literary festival; an event so successful it sowed the seeds for WordFest. More than 400 attended a sold-out Glenbow Theatre reading by W.O. Mitchell, Marie-Claire Blais, Robert Kroetsch and J.P. Donleavy; then an unprecedented turnout for a literary event in Calgary. Rudy Wiebe, Pierre Berton and June Callwood were some of the other Canadian literary lights who attended.

After the five-day Olympic Writers’ Festival, the first to be held anywhere in 40 years, there was talk of a “draft Trevor Carolan” movement to sustain the momentum. Carolan was the Vancouver-based leprechaun who had persuaded 60 published authors – 40 of them from Canada – to take part in the festival. He wasn’t available to organize a sequel, but an experienced Calgary arts pro named Anne Green was ready to answer the call. Eight years later, she launched WordFest with a sparkling lineup that included Margaret Atwood, Roch Carrier, Wayson Choy, Tomson Highway, Paul Quarrington and Sheri-D Wilson.

The newspapers and the airwaves are filled this week with recalled memories of Eddie the Eagle, the Jamaican bobsled team, Elizabeth Manley’s surprise silver medal, Brian Orser’s disappointing silver medal, Katarina Witt, Matti Nykanen and “La Bomba.” I remember those, of course, but I also remember the great Oscar Peterson, the first Canadian production of Porgy and Bess, the multi-talented Andre-Philippe Gagnon, the Spirit Sings, the National Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens dancing on the same stage together, the Calgary Philharmonic’s haunting “Verdi Requiem,” the Joffrey Ballet, and Robert Lepage.

And, as I look through one of my old notebooks, I recall some of the more memorable quotes:

“We didn’t want him to do “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” again.” (Arts festival boss Michael Tabbitt explaining why Brian Mulroney wasn’t asked to sing a duet with Games organizer Frank King during the Olympic Eve gala.)

“We felt like one of Liz Taylor’s husbands. We knew what was expected of us but we didn’t know whose turn it was.” (Jointly attributed to Games co-organizers Frank King and Bill Pratt.)

“The biggest media event since Ronald Reagan’s polyp removal.” (The Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Don Ferguson.)

“Edmonton didn’t think of it first.” (The Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Roger Abbott explaining why Calgary got the XV Winter Olympics.)

“Edmonton isn’t really the end of the world – although you can see it from there.” (Mayor Ralph Klein spreading a little neighbourly goodwill for the benefit of Olympic Writers’ Festival visitors.)

“When this is over, I’ll either get a job as an NHL commentator or go to work for McDonald’s.” (Writer’s festival coordinator Trevor Carolan modelling the aquamarine blazer issued to him as part of his official Olympics uniform.)

“A Chinook could cause great havoc here.” (Competition organizer Gordon Taylor nervously checking the skies on the first day of the outdoor Olympic snow sculpting contest.)

“Canada is the cry of the loon, Gretzky worship, rye and ginger in a paper cup, vinegar on the fries, and talking gas pumps.” (Satirist Nancy White getting all patriotic at the Olympic Folk Festival.)

“Let the eastern bastards publish in the dark.” (Nancy White’s comment on OCO 88’s attempt to prevent Maclean’s magazine from putting out an unofficial Olympic issue.)

“Is 68 too old?” (A visiting pensioner from Zimbabwe wondering if he could play a walk-on role in the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Petrouchka. He got the part.)

“Science fiction is the only genre I’ve discovered which assumes there’s going to be a future.” (Author Spider Robinson explaining why he made his living out of fantasy literature.)

“It’s very hard on the knees.” (Edmonton’s John Pichlyk describing what it was like to be a Shumka Dancer.)

Sweet City Charms

The song is called “Sweet City Woman.” It was first released in 1971 by the Stampeders, a Calgary pop trio previously known for topping the Canadian charts with a single called “Carry Me.” I didn’t believe “Sweet City Woman” would do particularly well. It featured a decidedly non-pop-sounding banjo as the key rhythm instrument, and sounded like something better suited for a campfire singalong. A Prince George dee-jay insisted, however, that I was wrong. “This one will be big,” predicted Larry Bauder of CJCI Radio. “It will be their break-through record in the States.”

Bauder was absolutely right. “Sweet City Woman” became a number one hit on both the Canadian pop and country charts. Then it reached number seven on the Billboard Top 100 charts in the States. It stayed there for 14 weeks. The Stampeders were on their way to the city lights.

“Sweet City Woman” was covered by several musicians. They included the Dave Clark Five (who managed to mess up the familiar banjo introduction) and – if you can believe it –Lawrence Welk. The most recent cover, entitled simply “City Woman“, was  released by Canadian rap artist Kyprios in 2011.

The song acquired a new lease on life again in 2012 when Calgary was named a cultural capital of Canada. “Sweet City Woman” was chosen as the official song for the year-long celebration. Every performer in town, from Dan the One Man Band to Calgary poet laureate Kris Demeanor, worked hard to master the banjo licks of the song’s introduction and the falsetto lines of the chorus.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late September 2012, “Sweet City Woman” again staked its claim for international recognition. More than 1,000 Calgarians gathered in Olympic Plaza to toss inhibitions to the winds and take part in a joyful outdoor “lip dub” presentation of the song. Rather than try to describe this rare, heart-warming event, I invite you to watch it below on YouTube, where it’s already received more than 24,000 hits.  I make a cameo appearance during the instrumental section toward the end. You can see me in my top hat and tails, swaying along with a group of youngsters dressed in yellow capes.

In early December 2012, with the song still resonating in my head, I went to San Francisco on vacation. Johnny Z and the Camaros, the featured house trio at Lefty O’Doul’s, were taking requests. Could they do “Sweet City Woman”? Could they ever? Watch them perform it below on video. They don’t use banjo, but somehow they manage, without breaking a sweat, to capture the strum-happy spirit of the original.  A nice American salute to the first Canadian performers after Anne Murray and Gordon Lightfoot to break into the U.S. pop charts.  If you like their performance, and want to catch them live, you can now hear the Camaros playing at the new Gold Dust Lounge in Fisherman’s Wharf. And the Stampeders still rock!


My gift to you for Celtic-Canadian Heritage month: A free book

The Mary O'Leary Story

March is Celtic-Canadian Heritage month. If you, like me, are one of the 10 million Canadians who claim full or partial Irish or Scottish descent, this month gives you an opportunity to proclaim your heritage and celebrate it. I have already done so by publishing two books. One – Songs of an Irish Poet: The Mary O’Leary Story – tells the story of an ancestor of mine who was a renowned Irish-language folk poet of the 19th century. (Her name in her native tongue was Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire.) Normally, this book sells for $20 CAD plus $3.50 for shipping and handling. But as previously promised in the post below, I will give away a free personally autographed copy to the first 15 readers of this blog who get in touch with me during the coming days. If you are one of those lucky 15, you only have to pay the $3.50 cost of the envelope and postage to receive a copy.

Why am I doing this? Where’s the catch? Well you may ask. Let’s say that this is my way of giving something back, of sharing a part of my heritage with some of my fellow Celtic travellers. I only ask that in return you tell your friends about the book, mention it in your blog if you have one, send me a message saying what you think of the book, and perhaps post a review of it on I would also encourage you to check out my other Irish book, my recently published volume of memoirs, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada. Both of these books are my way of celebrating where I came from and how the fact of being Irish has shaped my life. I am very proud to be a Canadian – I have lived in this country for 45 years and been a naturalized citizen for more than 40 – but I also maintain with the old country a strong connection that can never be broken.

If you would prefer to receive the Kindle edition of Songs of an Irish Poet, you can get it from amazon for just $0.99 by clicking here. This might strike some as being a better deal because you don’t have to pay for shipping and handling. However, you should know that the Kindle edition is the “lite” version of Songs of an Irish Poet. For formatting reasons it does not contain the original Irish versions of the Mary O’Leary poems, nor the sources, references, tables, and explanatory footnotes contained in the print version.

Time is of the essence so act now. Get your free copy of Songs of an Irish Poet by clicking on the “Buy Now” button below. Enjoy! And do raise a glass to me on the 17th!

Calgary’s economic boom of 1912

Eighty-nine people have already registered for the Community Heritage Roundtable on Wed. Jan. 25 when Don Smith, Aimee Benoit and I will talk about Calgary’s economic boom of 1912. It’s great to see so many people interested in the history of our city. This is the first of several centennial celebrations that have been planned for this year. Watch for future announcements regarding the centennials of the Calgary Public Library, the Stampede, the Grand Theatre, and other local institutions.

Where the heart is

“Would you ever consider moving home again?” asked the cab driver as we made our way out to the Dublin airport after a short holiday in Ireland.

Home? I’ve lived in Canada for almost 45 years. I spent just 23 in Dublin. Much as I still love it, I haven’t thought of it as home in a very long time.

It is quite a different Dublin now from the city I left behind in 1966. The restaurants are more appealing, the public transit system more efficient, and the place is crawling with tourists, even in rainy June. They crowd into Bewley’s Oriental Café and convince themselves the coffee served there is better than the caffè misto brewed at Starbucks. They have their pictures taken with the statue of “Molly Malone” at the bottom of Grafton Street just like they have their photos taken on the Spanish Steps in Rome or with Eros at Piccadilly Circus. The Irish go to Bavaria for their vacations while the Germans come to Dublin. Go figure.

Molly Malone is the tragic heroine of a popular Dublin anthem called “Cockles and Mussels.” It’s not known if a real person by that name ever existed. Doesn’t really matter. She lives on in song and story like the heroes of renown. The locals, in typically irreverent style, refer to her statue variously as “The Tart with the Cart” and “The Dish with the Fish.” Dubliners love to give catchy names to public monuments. When a bronze statue of Anna Livia (representing the River Liffey) was unveiled in O’Connell Street in 1988, they dubbed it “The Floozy in the Jacuzzi.” Even the sculptor got a kick out of the name. The “Floozy” has since been relocated to make room for a singularly unprepossessing monument called “The Spire of Dublin,” which stands on the site formerly occupied by Nelson’s Pillar. Nelson was blown to kingdom come in 1966. The IRA claimed responsibility but charges were never laid. Nobody expected they ever would be. There was cheering in the pubs the night after the old admiral was finally toppled from his perch.

I climbed the Pillar once. Dubliners used to let the visitors indulge in that sort of activity, like kissing the Blarney Stone or riding in a horse and trap around the Lakes of Killarney. But I wanted to see the view from the top. Joyce used to say that if the British ever bombed Dublin, it could be reconstructed brick by brick from the descriptions in his books. I wonder if Joyce ever climbed the Pillar.

The Pillar and the Theatre Royal are gone, as are the Metropole Cinema and the venerable “Bono Vox” advertising sign on O’Connell Street from which the lead singer of U2 famously derived his stage name. But some things remain the same. The eyeless Bank of Ireland still has bricked-in windows all around, the locals still feed the ducks in Stephen’s Green with stale bread crumbs, and the traditional musicians still jam nightly at O’Donoghue’s Bar in Merrion Row hoping to follow in the footsteps of Christy Moore and Ronnie Drew.

Drew was an unlikely pop star, a basso profundo ballad singer who performed as front man for The Dubliners and knocked the Beatles off the Irish charts with his gravelly renditions of “Nelson’s Farewell” (celebrating the demise of the iconic Pillar) and “Seven Drunken Nights.” The Clancy Brothers did the same, topping the charts with such rebel songs as “The Rising of the Moon” and “The Foggy Dew.” Both the Dubliners and the Clancys wrote the soundtrack of my life during the 1960s and gave me a greater sense of my Irish identity than any of the historical propaganda drummed into me by the Christian Brothers through 12 years of schooling.

Dublin in the 1960s was a sleepy provincial backwater on the western outskirts of Europe. Dublin today is connected, cosmopolitan, and aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world. I like it better now than I did when growing up.

Would I ever consider moving “home” again? In a way I have, by writing about it. My memoirs will be published this fall by RMB. But my true home remains in Canada, in Calgary, where I have lived most of my adult life. Dublin bore me but Canada made me. It calms my nights and invigorates my days.