Category Archives: Memoirs

Meet Your Local (Calgary) Authors

This Saturday, October 4 2014, is Meet-Your-Local-Authors Day at the Parkdale Community Association, 3512 5th Ave NW, in Calgary. Here’s a link to the Facebook Page publicizing the event. We’ll be there between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., 45  of us, talking about our books, selling and autographing copies.

I’ll have six of my titles available for purchase. They are:

Songs of an Irish Poet: The Mary O’Leary Story. The biography of a 19th century Irish folk poet, with translated editions of all her known poems. I’ll be giving away free copies of this book (a $20 value) to everyone who buys one of my other titles.

Building a Province: 60 Alberta Lives. My first published book. Biographical sketches of 60 remarkable Albertans who helped make the province what it is today.

How the West was Written: The Life & Times of James H. Gray. The biography of a great Prairie social historian whose best-selling books included Red Lights on the Prairies and Booze.

Leaving Dublin: Writing my Way from Ireland to Canada. My autobiography, published three years ago when I was 68. The story of how and why I gave up a well-paying job in the Irish civil service to establish a life for myself in a country where I had no friends and no family connections.

Romancing the Rockies: Mountaineers, Missionaries, Marilyn & More. A collection of stories about various individuals who came to the Rocky Mountains to explore, climb, take photographs or make movies.

The Good Steward: The Ernest C. Manning Story. The biography of the Alberta premier who served the longest (25 years) and oversaw the evolution of the province from a farming region into one of the western world’s most significant suppliers of oil and gas.


Thoughts on turning 70

Today I am three score and ten. Not quite ready yet to fly away, but certainly aware that more of my life is now behind me than up ahead

What has life taught me? Three things. There may be more, but three will suffice for now.

The first thing I learned was that Mother knew best. My father knew a thing or two as well but my mother was the one who – consciously or otherwise – pointed me in the right direction.

My mother enrolled me in piano lessons when I was six. She knew nothing about music but she sensed – rightly as it turned out – that I might have some incipient talent worth cultivating when I started rocking in my crib in time to the music on the radio. After I had taken piano lessons for seven years she got me a paid gig as organist for our church. That pointed me in the direction of eventually drawing on music as a secondary source of income. Mother knew best.

My mother taught me to touch-type. How did she know this clerical skill would one day stand me in good stead when I became a journalist? She didn’t, of course. But she probably knew that in the years to come the ability to type a letter without looking at the keys would bring me as much satisfaction as playing the piano without looking at the keys. Mother knew best.

The second thing I learned was to trust my gut.

When I was in my early 20s, I worked for the Irish civil service as a customs and excise regulator. The pay was good and the benefits were generous. But my gut told me the job wasn’t right for me. My gut also told me that Ireland wasn’t right for me. So I quit my job and immigrated to Canada.  My friends told me I was crazy but my gut told me I was right. Trust your gut. What did my mother say? She hugged me close and said, “Look after yourself.”

When I got to Canada I had an opportunity to go on the road playing music – singing Irish ballads as one-half of a recording duo named the Dublin Rogues. My practical-minded father thought I should look around for something more stable; something more like the Irish civil service perhaps. But my gut told me I should try making it in the music business, at least for a while. Trust your gut.

I met the woman of my dreams while playing a gig in Halifax. I knew within a short time that I wanted to spend my life with her. I didn’t talk to my parents about this. They probably would have told me to wait until I had a stable job and money in the bank. My gut told me I should get off the road and settle down with this wonderful woman who would soon become my wife. Zelda and I have been married now for 45 years and we have an amazing daughter, Nico, who is the apple of our eye. Trust your gut.

The third thing I learned was to follow my dream. This is a slight variation on trusting your gut.

Life, to paraphrase Wayne Dyer, is not a dress rehearsal; it’s the actual show. Find what you love to do and go do it. If you don’t like your job, quit and try something else. If you don’t like the second job, quit and look for a third.

My father was a civil servant. My mother was a civil servant before she married my father. They both believed the civil service was the best employer in Ireland. That’s why I joined the civil service; I was following their dream.

But I wasn’t following my dream. My dream was to play music and write stories. I didn’t know if this dream would butter any parsnips for me in Ireland, so I moved to Canada to pursue it. Within a few weeks of arriving I had a regular piano-playing gig at a pancake house in Burnaby. I spent my first Canadian summer in Dawson City playing nightly at the Palace Grand Theatre. I followed that with a year on the road playing nightclubs from Toronto to Halifax. Follow your dream.

When I quit the road I went to journalism school. That brought me a job at a newspaper, writing stories. That’s all I’ve done ever since: write stories. Today I market them on the Internet, which is the way everyone does business in the 21st century. I still play music from time to time but that’s now mainly for pleasure. Hauling keyboard equipment to the gig is no longer my idea of a good time. My musical friends keep telling me that the manufacturers are coming out with lighter and lighter gear every year. Maybe I’ll get me one of those feather-light keyboards before I give up the business entirely.

So there you have it. Three lessons that life has taught me during my 70 years on this planet.

I don’t like to think about death. But it’s the destiny we all share so I have to think about it sometimes. When I was in my 20s I bought my first life insurance policy. The broker offered me a hypothetical rationale, something along the lines of “How would you look after your family if you were diagnosed tomorrow with a terminal illness or were to get killed in a traffic accident?” Nobody of my generation actually believed that our families would ever have to deal with such a morbid prospect. Now it’s no longer a hypothetical concept. It’s a reality I have to face: My life will end.

I am still blessed with reasonably good health. My mother died of colon cancer when she was 62, and I used to worry the same might happen to me when I reached that age. Now I savour every moment, cherish every hour, enjoy every day. Life is more precious to me than ever so I try to focus on the good things – love, family, friends – and forget about the stuff that ultimately I have little control over anyhow. What the politicians might be doing to the economy or what industry might be doing to the environment is still a concern. But at the end of the day it will have to be somebody else’s concern. I will have done my bit. I cast my ballot and I rode my bike.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 60th wedding anniversary celebration of an American aunt and uncle who were good to me when I first came to Canada. She is now in her late 80s; he is in his early 90s. Their oldest children are in their late 50s. At first I didn’t think I would go to the anniversary bash, in Rochester, because of the distance and the cost involved. But now I’m glad I did. Family and friends, more than 80 of them, came from Ireland, Alberta, Ontario, California, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts and upstate New York. Some I hadn’t seen in eight years. We shared a lot of stories and a lot of laughs. I came away with one more life’s lesson to add to the three I’ve given you:

Family comes first.

The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney had died a few weeks before I went to Rochester. In the first poem of his first published collection he wrote about his father, who dug potatoes, and his grandfather, who cut turf:

I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

In another poem, Heaney wrote about his aunt, describing how she baked bread:

And here is love

Like a tinsmith’s scoop

Sunk past its gleam

In the meal-bin.

He wrote about his mother:

When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

And, in a poem reprinted by the Irish Times on the day after his death, he wrote about his four-year-old brother, killed in a road accident when Heaney was away at boarding school:

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

Family comes first.

Remembering Diana – and my own parents

(Published in the Calgary Herald on Sept. 6, 1997)

The death of Princess Diana and the memories of my dead parents are much on my mind this weekend. As the princess goes to her burial place today, I think of my Irish father who died in Dublin a year ago Sunday, and of my mother who died 20 years ago this week. My parents would have had much to say about the life and death of this glamorous English princess with the Pepsodent smile and the soap-opera life.

My news-savvy father, who read two newspapers every weekday and four on Sundays, would have had tough questions for me — the journalist in the family — about the unrelenting media glare shone on the princess during the 16 years of her public life, and the paparazzi-goaded car journey that brought her to an untimely end in a Paris underpass.

My independent-minded mother, who died four years before Diana shyly entered the public stage, would have seen a great waste in the gruesome death of this luminous young woman who broke through the royal bubble to make a genuine emotional connection with those outside her privileged world.

My mother admired strong women who broke the rules, especially rules made by men. I expect she would have liked this thoroughly modern princess who took her children shopping on High Street, shook hands with lepers, and talked to reporters in her swimsuit.

I have been at a loss to understand my own feelings of sadness around Diana’s death, because she was never my princess. I grew up in republican-sympathetic, post-war southern Ireland where the Royal Family was viewed as an absurd foreign institution with its pomp, glitter, and overblown rituals. Why should I care about some social-climbing child-minder from the ranks of the minor aristocracy who willingly became part of that privileged world of palaces and pageantry, went to the disco with Elton John, and went yacht-hopping in the Mediterranean, while the rest of us went to work for a living?

I think about my late parents as I grope for explanations, because we look to the past for the answers that elude us today. We hope the wisdom our parents gleaned over the course of a lifetime will help us make sense of the world we inherited from them.

My practical-minded Irish father, who came from a time when being Irish meant defining yourself against what you were not, i.e. British, would have told me that you could still be Irish and appreciate the best of what the English had to offer, including their poetry, their songs, and the refreshing presence of an unstuffy young princess who thumbed her nose at “the Firm” and showed the world that you don’t need a palace to be a princess.

My mother, who cried when she heard of President Kennedy’s assassination, would likewise have wept at Diana’s death. In November, 1963, my mother’s tears were for a young widow and her two young children. The fact she was an American president’s widow, and that she lived across the sea, did not make her remote in my mother’s eyes. Like Princess Diana, the Kennedys had a special ability to make real emotional connections with those outside their exotic world, because the Kennedys seemed real and warm and frailly human.

My mother’s tears last weekend would have been for two sons left without a mother who clearly adored them. To a cold-looking family where public demonstrations of affection were limited to ritual kisses after royal weddings, Diana brought spontaneous hugs, laughter, and fun. She too was real and warm and frailly human. What kind of glum-faced fate awaits her sons within that staid family now that their vibrant mother with the 1,000-watt smile is gone? A beacon of light, as Lady Thatcher said, has been switched off.

Because she left us in the same autumnal time of year as my parents, Princess Diana now forever occupies the same spiritual and cultural place in my life and memory. The world we inherit belongs to the dead, to the people who made the poetry and the songs. The song of my parents was the song, now playing in my heart, that urges me to muddle on through patches of achievement and decline, triumphs and shadows. The song of Diana will be the song that reminds me that one small candle can light a thousand.

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 heritage endangered

As soon as I read in the paper yesterday morning that the old Calgary Herald building was slated for demolition to make way for a 50-storey office tower, I wanted to have my picture taken in front of the 7th Avenue landmark. A CBC Radio reporter, Mary-Catherine McIntosh, kindly obliged after first interviewing me for a story about the seven years, 1974-81, that I spent working in the building as a reporter and columnist.

I told Mary-Catherine I was saddened to hear about the pending demise of this former workplace of mine because it’s another part of Calgary’s history that’s being sacrificed at the altar of commercial progress. Granted it’s not the most architecturally striking building in the world – a functionalist 1967 makeover took away much of the aesthetic character of the original 1912 structure – but it’s still an important link with our city’s past.

A lot of good journalism was done in that building. A columnist for the competing  Albertan used to dub our paper “The Old Grey Lady of 7th Avenue,” which he intended as an insult but which we accepted as a compliment because of the obvious comparison with The New York Times. Like the Times, we saw ourselves as the trusted newspaper of record for our region, not as a purveyor of cheap thrills or sensationalism.

We earned that trust by dint of hard work and independent reporting. We didn’t pander to politicians and we didn’t pander to advertisers. Of course I can be accused of bias but I always felt we were standing on the shoulders of distinguished predecessors who  believed their fight to preserve the freedom of the press was a fight for democracy itself.

That’s me on the left circa 1980, with a lot more hair than I have now!

During my first week on the job there I was surprised and pleased to discover that back in 1938 the Herald, along with four other Alberta dailies led by Edmonton Journal publisher John Imrie, had been honoured with a special Pulitzer Prize – the first one given outside the United States – for its spirited crusade against the Social Credit government’s attempt to gag the press. I was proud to be part of a news organization that would take a government to the Supreme Court of Canada to establish its right to tell the truth.

The 7th Ave building was the Herald’s headquarters from 1932 to 1981. Located across the street from the Bay, it was connected to the downtown’s beating heart in a way that’s never possible when you live in the suburbs. City hall, the police station, the courts, the library, the school board and the corporate head offices were all within easy walking distance. We did most of our interviews in person, not over the phone. If a freight train had derailed near the Palliser Hotel, the Herald’s reporters and photographers would have gotten to the scene before the fire trucks.

I was disappointed when the Herald moved in 1981 to a new building northeast of downtown near the intersection of Deerfoot and Memorial. Our bosses told us there was a practical reason for this. We had purchased new printing presses that the paper’s 7th Avenue mechanical building was too small to accommodate. But did we have to move the paper’s editorial offices out there as well? I never thought so, but then I was just a reporter. I didn’t have any say in the executive decisions made by senior management.

We did maintain a Herald presence in the 7th Avenue building for a short time after moving out to the Deerfoot and Memorial location. If you wanted to buy a classified ad, you could still do so at the downtown office. But maintaining two separate offices proved impractical during the ensuing economic downturn, and the downtown office was quietly closed in 1982. Removed from the front window were the big clocks announcing the time in Tokyo, Berlin and Los Angeles, and the only remaining visible reminders of the building’s journalistic history were two small “Herald building” signs outside on the southeast corner.

The City of Calgary considers the Herald building to be of significant historical value and has included it in its heritage inventory. It seems baffling to me, therefore, that a developer can simply send out eviction notices to 60 existing tenants and announce this pending demolition without any word of protest from city council or the city’s heritage planning department. This is supposed to be Calgary’s big year for commemorating its cultural heritage, with centennial celebrations planned by the Calgary Public Library, the Stampede, the Grand Theatre (just across the road from the old Herald) and the Pumphouse. Let’s not spoil it by destroying one 100-year-old landmark while remembering the others.

Postscript: The Herald building, unfortunately, has now been demolished. Photographer Paul Saulnier has documented the demolition with an excellent photo essay that you can view by clicking here.