This book-in-progress is about an Irish-born Canadian newspaper columnist trying to solve the mystery of what happened to his ancestor who came to Canada in the 1840s and then disappeared. New chapters are added frequently, so check back often. Or subscribe to the blog via THIS page and receive automatic notifications of new chapters by e-mail. All comments on and suggestions about the manuscript are most welcome.

Because it’s a work-in-progress, I revisit chapters periodically to make them better. Chapters One, Two and Three, for example, are somewhat different now from what I posted originally in November 2015. When the book is finished, I will publish the complete text as an e-book and possibly a print volume.


Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015

Chapter One

Jerry Burke, veteran Calgary Herald journalist, learns that his newspaper column is about to be cancelled, 1992.


Calgary, Alberta, June 1992

The windows of the Calgary Herald newsroom offer a splendid view of the downtown skyline. The Rocky Mountains loom in the background and the big sky spreads over all. On a clear day – which is almost every day – you can see forever. Jerry Burke likes to say he spent the first 23 years of his life in a country – Ireland –  where nobody ever died of skin cancer. Now he sings in the sunshine and laughs every day. He’s a staff columnist at the Herald. He’s 49 years old and he loves his job. He gets to write every day and get paid for it, what could be better than that?

He arrives at the newsroom at 6:30 a.m. on a Friday. He likes to avoid the morning rush hour. The morning sun makes the downtown glass-and-steel high-rises glisten like precious stones. There’s a note from the city editor sitting on his desk. It’s hand-scrawled in capital letters on a sheet of Herald stationery. Burke wonders if the guy knows how to do cursive writing.

See me when you get in, Jerry. I’ve something important I need to talk to you about. Thanks, Dave Webster.

A warning light flashes in Burke’s head. Webster doesn’t usually arrive until it’s time for the section editors to have their mid-morning show-and-tell meeting. What can this note be about? Burke starts speculating. Webster is a recent hire. He’s a hard-news guy, a former cop reporter from the Sun. He was brought in, it appears, to give the Herald’s local news coverage a kick in the butt, so here it comes. Crime stories will dominate, just like they do at the Sun. If it bleeds, it leads. Soft stories will get kicked to the back of the bus. Everyone in City will take turns working the police desk. That could include the columnists. Their independence, up to now, has been sacrosanct. They don’t take assignments and they don’t do police checks. But who knows what could be in store for them?

“Hey Dave, what’s up?” says Burke. He doesn’t usually drink coffee first thing in the morning but today is an exception. He gulps down the dregs of a cup of French Roast from the cafeteria. He wishes he still smoked.

“Close the door, Jerry, and take a seat.” Melissa, the editorial assistant, is sitting by the window next to Webster’s desk, with pen and notebook in hand. What’s she doing here? Behind her, the Rockies look majestic. They always look majestic. Best view in the city. Burke wishes he had a desk in the newsroom next to the front window. But the management brains trust once decided that columnists should occupy individual offices, down the hall in windowless Editorial Row.

Webster has an open file on his desk. Burke can see that the document on top is one of his employee evaluation forms. Back in the day, when he was still on the cop beat, he became adept at reading documents upside down. What’s he doing with my personnel file? This can’t be good.

“I’ll get straight to the point, Jerry. We want you to go on the copy desk. We’re going to be needing a lot more deskers to design pages on the new computers, and we’d like you to be one of them.”

Burke groans inwardly. He can feel a migraine coming on. He hasn’t had a migraine in weeks, but stress is a trigger. Melissa takes notes. She doesn’t say a word.

“Why me, Dave? I’ve never worked the desk before. Why would you want me to do something I haven’t trained for.”

Webster smiles indulgently. He’s obviously prepared for Burke’s reaction. Knowing how to give employees bad news is the first thing managers learn after they get promoted. Knowing how to fire them is the second. Webster leafs through the stack of documents in Burke’s file and pulls one out.

“It says here that one of your duties when you were in Entertainment was to lay out the book pages every week.”

Burke has fond memories of those days. Not of laying out the book pages, because he could never get his head around the intricacies of column widths, picas and agate, but the part of the job that involved browsing the publishers’ catalogues and picking out the books he would like to see reviewed in the paper. It was like Christmas every spring and fall. He would select the books he wanted to add to his home library – usually books about music, theatre and Ireland – and also books that he knew would appeal to his freelance reviewers. One of the reviewers was a sailing enthusiast. Burke had him review a coffee-table volume about boating in the Azores, and the reaction from the editor-in-chief was swift. “Why, in god’s name are we reviewing books about sailing?” he wrote in a memo to Burke. “We live in this muscle-bound Switzerland where there are more snowmobiles than boats.”

“I can’t lay out a page to save my soul,” says Burke. “When I was in Entertainment, I used the same template every week. I couldn’t even size a picture correctly.”

“You don’t have to worry about that now, Jerry. You’ll just be editing copy in the first instance. You certainly know how to do that. Every good reporter knows how to edit copy. When the other deskers finish their layout training on Quark XPress, then it’ll be your turn. We expect to double the number of deskers without making any new hires.”

“I don’t know anything about Quark XPress but I seriously doubt that it’s going to turn me from a klutz into a layout artist.”

Melissa is scribbling furiously in her notebook. What does she have to write about? Is a record of this conversation going into the personnel file as well? Burke wonders what else might be in the personnel file. He asked to see it once but the HR person told him it was “classified.”

“You’ll find it’s a lot easier with the new computers, Jerry. They do all the heavy lifting. If you can drag and drop, you can lay out a page.” Drag and drop, what the heck is that? Is this some new kind of computer-speak that’s now infecting the language?

“What about the Passages column? Will I still be able to do that?” This has been his dream job. Burke worked in journalism for more than 20 years to get it. He always wanted to have a newspaper writing job where he would have total creative control – just like a novelist or short story writer – and Passages has been it. He chooses his own subjects from the death notices in that day’s newspaper, phones the family for information, and then tells the story of a life well lived.

“We’re retiring Passages at the end of the month, Jerry. Anderson wants to see more hard news in the City section.”

Burke takes a deep breath. This is the sucker punch to the solar plexus. He thought his column was untouchable. He can’t believe they’re going to scrap it. If they do, he has no compelling reason to remain in the newspaper business.

“You’re retiring the column? Just like that? No discussion with me? No consultation? Didn’t anyone tell you what the ombudsman said about it? ‘One of the best new features this paper has introduced to its pages in a long time.’ And now you want to get rid of it? Why couldn’t I do it, say, for Life?”

“We’re merging Life with City, Jerry. There just won’t be any room for the column. Like I say, Anderson wants to see more hard news in the paper. What’s left of Life will be a bunch of recipes and fashion photos.”

“I can’t believe you want to get rid of Passages. The readers love it.” He has the letters and the faxes to prove it.

“Some readers love it.”

“What do you mean?”

“There have been complaints.”

“Nobody told me about complaints. What do you mean complaints?”

“Anderson said he had to put out a few fires on your behalf. He didn’t tell you about them. I think he was trying to protect you.”

“Do you have specifics?”

“One was from a woman nursing a husband with cancer. She said too many of your columns deal with people who have died of the disease. Another was from the kids of a dead woman whose first husband had been an alcoholic. The children from the first marriage didn’t like their father’s drinking problem being made public like that.”

“A lot of people die from cancer, Dave. I’m hardly going to reject someone just because I’ve already written about a number of other cancer victims that week. As for the alcoholic, I don’t know which one you’re talking about. But I’m sure I wouldn’t have said he had a problem unless there was good reason. You know, I don’t write the column to hurt people.”

“I know, Jerry, but you know how people read things into things. Regardless, Anderson has made the decision to terminate the column. We did give some consideration to running it once a week on Saturday or Sunday, and having you do other stories for the rest of the week. But you haven’t worked on Cityside in a long time, and I don’t know that you’d be able to handle it. I think you’ll be happier on the desk.”

Burke bites his tongue. Webster is now being patronizing. Burke has to measure his words carefully. He knows this is not a move to make him happy. It’s a move to get him out of the way so that two 22-year-old writers with twice the energy and none of the attitude can come in and do cop stories for half his salary. The bosses want him to languish on the desk until he can stand it no longer, and then bugger off and die.

“Couldn’t I work the desk part-time and continue to write my column for the weekend papers? It would be a shame to have it simply disappear from the paper without trace.”

“That would be setting a dangerous precedent, Jerry. Other deskers, especially those who like to write, would be looking for a similar deal. And, with the new computers coming in, we simply can’t afford to spare them the time.”

“Then I think you should give me a chance to show what I can do on Cityside. I’ve been a reporter for 25 years, Dave. I know how to do this job.”

“I know, Jerry, but you haven’t worked the street for a while. People get rusty. Besides, do you want to go back to doing what you did when you first started in the business? This is an opportunity for you to develop some new skills and make an important contribution to the Herald.”

“What if I simply don’t want to go on the desk? What are my other options?”

“None, I’m afraid. You either go on the desk, or …”


“I’m sorry, Jerry, I hate having to put it to you like this. If you don’t go on the desk, I’m afraid your employment at the Calgary Herald will come to an end. Your writing contributions have been deemed expendable.”

“Light a fire under my fingernails. I’ve worked all my career as a writer, Dave. If you don’t think I can handle doing cop stories on Cityside, transfer me to some other place where I can write. Let me write editorials. Let me write about business. Let me go back to Entertainment. Don’t put me on the desk, Dave. I’ll die there.”

“You’re a hard guy to place, Jerry. Believe me, I’ve tried. Joslin doesn’t want you back in Entertainment because he thinks you’re arrogant. When he took over the job from Matthews, he looked at some of your old theatre reviews and wondered why you seemed so hell-bent on applying New York Times standards to local dinner theatres. Peterson would probably like to have you in Business, but you haven’t taken the Canadian Securities Course and that’s an impediment. As for writing editorials, Campbell says he doesn’t need another leftie on the board. He already has one token liberal in Stirling, and that’s one too many as far as he’s concerned.”

“What makes him think I’m a leftie? I’ve never written about politics for this paper.”

“They’ve heard you talking about unions at the lunch table, Jerry. Campbell thinks you’re a bit of a Red.”

Burke wonders who the mole is in the cafeteria? The lunch-table discussions about unions have been nothing more than dreaming-in-technicolour idle talk. Pure speculation about what it would be like to have an organized newsroom.

“Campbell doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I bet he’d be surprised to learn I’ve got a membership in the Reform Party. But, regardless, I can’t go on the desk, Dave, I really can’t.”

Webster picks up an envelope from his desk and hands it to Burke. Melissa scribbles some more.

“Here, read what Anderson says in the memo that’s going out to all the newsroom staff today. I can get you two months’ salary as severance if you decide not to take the desk job.”

Burke swallow hard. Two months’ severance? That’s all he gets after 18 years at the paper? He earned this paper a National Newspaper Award citation with the Passages column, and now they want to toss him on the scrapheap with a handful of silver. This is gratitude? Burke takes another deep breath.

“I need some time to think about this, Dave. It’s a big decision.”

“Sure, take all the time you want. Why don’t you think about it over the next few days, and get back to me when you decide. They won’t start the next round of training new deskers for a couple of weeks yet.”

The mountains are now obscured by cloud. Burke wonders if anyone in those office towers might give him a PR job. He goes back to his work station, takes a Fiorinal pill, and pulls out the little time-worn, red-covered book from his desk drawer. Its title, in Gaelic, is The Poetry of Yellow Mary O’Leary. She was Burke’s 19th century ancestor; his paternal grandfather’s great-grandmother. Burke knows that her youngest son, Jeremiah, came to Canada in the 1840s and he’d love to know what happened to him.

Chapter Two

Jeremiah Burke, Jerry’s ancestor, prepares to say goodbye to family and friends in Inchigeelagh and move to Canada, 1846.


County Cork, Ireland, August 1846

The Duke of Devonshire’s estate is one of the largest in southern Ireland. Measuring 80,000 acres, it is home to 5,700 tenant farmers and their families. Many face eviction because the duke wants to consolidate some of his smaller tenant holdings into larger units yielding more rent. One of the farmers is Diarmuid de Búrca (Jeremiah Burke), who lives on a small five-acre holding in a section of the estate called Keimaneigh. Additionally, he works as a lowly-paid schoolteacher at one of the recently established national schools funded by the State. Also living on the estate, near the village of Inchigeelagh, are Jeremiah’s parents, and two of his brothers and their families. His mother, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire (Yellow Mary O’Leary), is well known in the area as a folk poet. Born before the establishment of the national schools, she was educated in the oral tradition at an illegal hedge school. She can speak Latin and Greek as well as Gaelic, but struggles with English. Her husband, Séamas de Búrca (James Burke), is a horse trader as well as a small farmer who makes a modest living buying and selling animals. The following are excerpts from Jeremiah’s 1846 journal, translated from the original Gaelic.


Aug. 2, 1846 – His Lordship, through his agent Mr. Barry, has raised the rent on my property to £140 a year. Mr. Barry says His Lordship is required by law to subsidize the construction of another workhouse on the estate. The workhouse will serve as a group home for the poor people who have nowhere else to go. Like my fellow tenants, I am stuck in a quandary. I can ill afford the rent increase on my teacher’s salary and will soon start to fall into arrears. Might I be evicted? I fear it will just be a matter of time. It is happening to others.

Aug. 12 – The potato crop has failed again. This is a terrible state of affairs. The blight struck last year and now it has struck again. The thunderstorms in July brought lightning and heavy rain followed by a fog that left a sticky frost-like residue on the potato stalks. The residue then developed into brown spots, with the eventual blackening of the tubers and the loss of the entire crop.

Sept. 1 – The bailiff came today and evicted my parents. He also evicted my brother Alec and his family. They are now living with my brother Micheál. He received a reprieve when his monthly rent was lowered by £5. I am not sure why he qualified for a reduction when the rest of us are being forced to pay more. I could be next on the eviction list. But I do not want to move in with Micheál because he now has more than enough people living in his small house.

Sept. 12 – I have managed to keep the bailiff at bay by paying off some of the back rent I owe. It was not easy because the Board of Education is still late with my salary. I have thought of applying for relief. But that would require me to leave my small house and move into a workhouse, and the workhouses are already full. What is one to do? The whole situation makes me feel so helpless.

Nov. 4 – Word has started circulating around Inchigeelagh that “volunteers” are needed for emigration. Those of us who are falling behind in the rent are classified as “surplus” tenants and are being encouraged to accept His Lordship’s offer of paid passage to Canada. I must look into this.

Nov. 6 – I have talked to the men at the Inchigeelagh registration centre. They tell me I will be paid five shillings for knocking down my cabin (to prevent illegal tenants from moving in after my departure) and that each of us will receive 10 shillings from His Lordship’s agent in Quebec upon arrival at that city. We will also receive 100 acres, free, from the Canadian government. That would be twenty times as much land as we have now. And it would be freehold. It sounds like a very attractive offer.

Nov. 8 – I am in a dilemma. Should I take His Lordship’s offer or stay in Ireland and hope the Board will start paying my salary more regularly? Should I hope that my small potato patch might yield a good crop next year? Or should I follow in the footsteps of my brother Risteárd, who has already gone to America? Large questions with no easy answers.

Nov. 9 – My mother encourages me to leave. “If Séamas and I were younger, we would go with you,” she says.

“But what about my students?” I ask. “And what about the songs you said I should be writing after you have gone?”

“Someone else will teach the students, and someone else will write the songs,” says my mother. “Donncha Lynch has the gift, too.”

Dec. 14 – My mother has told me I should marry Nell. She does so in a song. She has not written it down, because she still worries about the English finding out about her rebel poems. But I will write it down here because I do not want to forget the words.

Young man of the Burkes from Keimaneigh, where the deer wander at will

Return and bring back with you this woman who will be amenable to your wishes.

Do not leave that girl behind you because of a small dowry.

If her kin were at your side in a quarrel, you would emerge victorious.

Were it not for life’s misfortunes, and her father’s death,

There would be stock in abundance there on the rich, smooth meadowlands.

Big-boned Michael’s daughter, Nell, is a well-mannered, swan-like maid,

Kin of upright, generous men, ever worthy of fame and respect.

Bright, well-furnished rooms are theirs, and herds of milking cows.

Famous are their household women for providing abundance of bread.

Oh young man of the Burkes, down there at Keimaneigh,

You will deeply regret it if you abandon the maid of pretty tresses.

A quiet and pleasant wife she would be, this handsome cheerful maid,

Whose sway is rightly acknowledged from the foot of the glen to the bay.

Feby. 2, 1847 – Nell has agreed we should marry and go to Canada. My mother has composed a lovely verse about our betrothal.

On God’s own Sunday morning early, she came to us at Keimaneigh, 

The gentle-mannered maiden with toothsome smile so neat.

The bright lustre-red of berries glowed on her fresh, soft cheeks

As skipping over the dew, she swept young Burke off his feet.

Nell has her mother’s blessing too. “Your late father, God rest his soul, would also have been pleased,” said the mother. I wrote in the Emigrant Book that we will be ready to leave at the end of the school year, near the end of May.

Feby. 7 – I spoke with Father O’Mahony after Mass today. He told me I have made the right decision.  “Ten shillings a head and 100 acres would give an Irish family as good a start as ye could hope to get anywhere.”

“But what if the offer turns out to be false, and there is no 10 shillings and no 100 acres when we get to Canada? Can I trust His Lordship?”

“I believe His Lordship is an honourable man,” said the priest. “That is more than I would say about some of his agents here in Inchigeelagh. Even if the offer is counterfeit – and it is my belief that it is legitimate – you will still have a better chance of making a life for yourself and Nell in Canada than you do in Ireland. Think about it, Diarmuid. Canada is opportunity. Ireland is hopelessness.”

Feby. 15 – The word has gone around the parish by now. One of the students asked me today if it was true that I would be leaving Inchigeelagh. I told him what little I know about Canada: “I hear it is a wild place, cold in winter and hot in summer.”

I was about to add that there is plenty to eat there, but that would have been cruel. Every day the children come to school with pains in their stomachs from the hunger. I can bring them buttermilk and sometimes bring them oat or barley meal. But I can barely afford to buy the meal because of the excessive prices, so I just keep little more than a small supply for myself.

Feby. 16 – Two more of my best students died today. Others are now so weak they can no longer walk to school. It is tragic enough when older people go hungry, but it breaks my heart to see this happening to children. God forgive those landlords who have plenty of food in their larders, but will not share a crumb with His little ones.

Feby. 17 – The cursed potato blight is the cause of all this misery. The sad part is that it did not have to happen. Why could not our farmers have realized they were working the land so much it was bound to become “potato sick?” I look at all those beautiful green potato plants, stretched out as far as the eye can see, and not one spud among them is safe to eat.

March 3 – We need a central soup kitchen to feed the hungry. At dinnertime you can see the poor lying down by the roadside because they have no food to eat. Many have green stains on their teeth from eating grass and nettles.

March 10 – My mother has completed what I consider to be her finest poem. It has taken her 25 years to compose it. It shows that at age 73 she still has the gift. It is about the Battle of Keimaneigh. Its seven stanzas are filled with power and intensity. My mother brings the battle alive with her scornful words about the militia “vigorously surrounding us, shooting and loading and firing in our direction.” She says in the last stanza that she will sing no more because she has grown too old and has no more to say. I hope this is not true. I could be writing poems for the next 40 years and I would never have her gift.

April 1 – A dreadful fever is killing the inhabitants of the workhouse. There are so many bodies coming out that they do not have enough coffins to bury them all. They have dug a trench for them at a place outside the village, and they are stacking the bodies four deep.

April 4 – The annual distribution of blankets took place today. Only 66 were given out in the Inchigeelagh area, yet we have a population here of 5,700 inhabitants. No food has been available for 14 weeks.

April 8 – The soup kitchen is finally open, feeding 1,200 daily. Father O’Mahony and the Rev. Dr. Baldwin of the Established Church are helping run it. One man told the Rector he would “change” if he could get a regular supply of food for his family. The Rector replied that the man must have a low opinion of the Protestant Church if he thinks it bribes potential converts.

May 7 – Nell and I were married on Monday morning, and then spent four happy days at her cousin’s home in Macroom. Much now has to be done before we depart. Our ship, the Sir Henry Pottinger, is due to set sail from Cobh on Sunday May 23. I have to give up my school, dispose of my furniture, give away my little dog, and knock down my cabin. We are allowed just one chest between us, into which we have to pack all the belongings that will fit. His Lordship’s estate pays for the chest, and also for the carriage that will take us to Cobh. It will take us most of the day to get there.

May 22 – Father O’Mahony gave us his farewell blessing this morning. My parents and Nell’s mother came to see us off, but my brothers stayed away. They still accuse me of deserting our aging parents even though my mother urged me to go. I am disappointed that they did not come to say goodbye.

We were lucky to have a carriage to take us to Cobh. Other emigrants had to walk the full distance. They had donkeys and carts provided by relatives and friends, but those were piled high with luggage. There are about 400 of us all told. I bought two £2 tickets for a second-class cabin, and then booked Nell and myself into a nearby boarding house for the night. We hope to start our voyage tomorrow, and hope that Canada will be the fulfillment of our dreams.

Chapter Three

Jerry and his friend Dick Delahunty embark for Canada, 1966.


Shannon, Ireland, November 1966

The two 23-year-old friends are sipping pints at Shannon Airport, waiting to board the Aer Lingus Boeing 707 that will take them to Montreal. They are wearing dark-blue suits, their Sunday best, with white shirts and matching green ties. They look like Mormon missionaries heading for a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

“No regrets,” says Jerry Burke. “No regrets,” says Dick Delahunty. They clink glasses. “It will be a great adventure,” says Burke. He has been looking forward to this trip for a long time.

They’ve been friends for five years. They met shortly after both joined the Irish civil service as junior executive officers. The pay was good but the work was boring. That’s why they’re going to Canada. They want to see what else life has to offer. Burke hopes to make a living playing music while Delahunty hopes to do the music thing for a while and eventually work in the field of international peace and development.

“I can’t believe how quickly this whole thing came together” says Delahunty. “A month ago, we were gainfully employed by the taxpayers of Ireland. Now we’re out of work and on our way to the land of who knows what?”

“Why are we going, again?” asks Burke, smiling because he knows the answer. He’s known the answer since that day, five years ago, when a senior colleague told him an essential part of the civil service job was to bring a book to read in the office. The book became his saving grace. Bellow, Camus, Tolstoy and Joyce helped get him through those long working days.

“We’re going to see if the grass is greener,” says Delahunty. “Did you bring your accordion?”

“No, I sold that; it’s an instrument for culchies. I have my guitar, though.” He knows just enough chords to get by. If the Vancouver pubs don’t have pianos like they have in Ireland, Burke can strum his way through the choruses of “The Holy Ground” and “Kelly the Boy from Killane.”

They both like to sing. They have performed together in the pubs and folk clubs of Dublin and Cork since they first met. Delahunty knows all the lyrics and Burke knows all the chords. They are a dynamite combo. Or so they like to think.

“The Clancy Brothers had better watch out,” says Delahunty. “Dick and Jerry are about to take America by storm.”

“We don’t have to worry about the Clancys, my friend. They’re based in New York. We’ll be in Vancouver. We’ll have Canada’s Irish folk music market all to ourselves.”

“Except for the Irish Rovers,” says Delahunty.

“Who’re the Irish Rovers?”

“A group from the North, I think. My sister told me they’re big in Vancouver.”

Burke doesn’t think another Irish group will pose a serious threat. In fact, it could be advantageous to have them there. You can never have too much Celtic music in a city.

“The more the merrier,” says Burke. “Maybe the Rovers can get us in with the right people. First, we’ll have to give ourselves a name, though.”

“Why, don’t you like Dick and Jerry?”

“Makes us sound like a couple of cartoon characters,” says Burke. “We need something with a little more gravitas, preferably one with an Irish or Celtic connotation.”

“Gravitas? When did you start getting all hoity-toity? How about the Croppy Boys?”

“I’ve a feeling that one’s been taken already. Good name, though. I also think there should be something in the name to suggest movement; to suggest the fact that we’re on the road.”

“The Travelling People?”

“Makes us sound like a couple of tinkers. You’re on the right track, though.”

“The Gypsy Rovers?”

“Too much like the Irish Rovers.”

“Ramblers Two?”

“That name was already taken too, but I think they’ve broken up now. I like it a lot. Definitely one to consider for the Canadian market.”

Burke signals to the bartender to bring them another round; a Guinness for him and a pint of Harp for Delahunty. He wonders if they’ll have draught Guinness in the pubs of Canada? Probably not. He’ll have to settle for something else, like Carling Black Label. He can’t stand the bottled Guinness because it isn’t as creamy and smooth as the draught.

“So, you think this emigration thing could be a mistake?” says Delahunty. “We don’t have jobs to go to, and we don’t have any contacts over there. We don’t even have a place to stay.”

“I never said it was a mistake,” says Burke. “Besides, it’s too late to start thinking about that now. If things don’t work out, we can always come back. The service will keep our jobs for at least a year, maybe two.”

“How do you know that?”

“I checked. My principal officer said it’s standard practice for the service to treat a situation like ours as a temporary leave of absence. We haven’t really quit our jobs. We’re on unpaid sabbatical.”

“And just remember what the man at the Canadian embassy said,” adds Burke. “Lots of office jobs in Canada for young men like us.”

They look out the window at the scrubby patches of brown fields adjoining the runways. No forty shades of green out there. They hoped they might be able to catch a last glimpse of the river before taking off, but it’s not visible from the lounge.

“Remember the time we took that cabin cruiser up the Shannon?” says Burke. “That was a great holiday.”

“Great until we hit the choppy waters of Lough Derg, and you puked my fine Indian curry all over the side.”

“You’re a very good cook, you know that, Delahunty. That’s why I chose you as my travelling companion.”

“I hope they have better burgers in Canada,” says Delahunty. “Those Wimpy burgers taste like grilled dish cloth.”

“I want to try pissa.”


“Is that how you pronounce it? P-i-z-z-a. It’s a kind of Italian pastry dish, like a big fat pancake, that you can get in America. I read about it in the Independent.”

“Never heard of it.”

Aboard the plane, Burke pulls the tattered copy of the Mary O’Leary poetry book out of his bag, along with his Irish-English dictionary. He starts writing in his notebook.

“How are you doing with the translation?” asks Delahunty.

“It’s slow going,” says Burke. “The biographical material is relatively easy, but the poetry is a killer. This old Dineen dictionary is no help at all. It’s only good for the Ulster dialect and Máire Bhuí, of course, spoke Munster Gaelic.”

Yellow Mary O’Leary was born in Tooreenanean in the year 1774, and it was there she spent her early life until she married James Burke around 1792 …

Would that the rest of the words could come to Burke so easily.

“Any surprises in the book so far?” asks Delahunty.

“There’s a charming story about how she met her husband. He was a horse dealer who travelled to the fairs around West Cork, buying and selling animals. He met Máire Bhuí at a fair in Tooreenanean where she was living, and he was smitten. She was just 18. They eloped to Skibbereen, got married, and moved to Inchigeelagh to begin their lives together. Isn’t that romantic?”

“A bit schmaltzy, I would say. When did she start writing poetry?”

“Nobody knows. She never wrote her poems down because it wasn’t prudent for the peasants to let the English authorities know they could read and write. Better for the authorities to think they were illiterate, because an uneducated peasantry was easier to keep under foot. Máire Bhuí sang her poems and passed them on orally – passed them secretly – to her children and their children. They weren’t collected and transcribed until several years after her death.”

“It’s amazing that they survived, particularly with the famine having killed off so many of the population during that period.”

“That’s why I want to translate them,” says Burke. “There are not many aspects of the famine that you want to hold in your memory. But these poems are an important legacy.”

“Did she write about the famine?” asks Delahunty.

“Not specifically,” says Burke. “But clearly she believed the English were to blame. She referred to them as ‘big-bellied porks’ and ‘venomous hounds.’”

It was a lucky find, this little red-backed book containing Máire Bhuí’s poems. Burke stumbled upon it in a second-hand bookstore in Dublin while looking for some reading material to bring with him Canada. A gem among the dusty stacks, he knew immediately it was the one book he should have in his satchel. His father and grandfather had told him about their famous ancestor when Jerry was a child, and now he had something tangible to remind him of that connection.

“What will you do with the translation when you’re finished?” asks Delahunty.

“Not sure yet,” says Burke. “Maybe have it mimeographed and circulated to family. The cousins in England and America would like it, I think.”

“And she had a son who came to Canada, weren’t you telling me that?”

“Yes, he’s the mystery man in the family,” says Burke. “We’ve no idea where he ended up. I hope to find out when we get there.”

Chapter Four

Jerry phones Carol to tell her about his column being canned, 1992.


Calgary, Alberta, June 1992

After his fourth martini, Burke picks up the kitchen phone and dials Edmonton. A friend in need is a friend indeed. Burke knows he can always call Carol when he has a work-related problem. They have soldiered together in the trenches of journalism – often in different cities – since they graduated from Vancouver City College in 1969.

He lives alone in a one-bedroom unit at a housing co-operative in the gentrified inner-city community of Sunnyside. It’s a quiet neighbourhood once populated by students and hippies and now inhabited by urban professionals. Burke decided long ago he never wanted to deal with the hassle of mortgage payments or home repairs so he opted to live in a co-op that shares responsibility for such big ticket items as landscaping and property insurance. He also decided, after he and Delahunty went their separate ways, that he didn’t want to live with someone else any more. He did try living with Carol for a while but eventually found they got along best by living in separate houses.

“What’s the matter, Jerry?” says Carol. “You sound as if you’ve been drinking.” She mutes the sound on the television and pours herself a glass from the re-corked bottle of shiraz. She figures that if he’s drinking, she might as well be drinking too.

He does his drinking in the evening after working his daytime shift at the Herald. The bang of the grape, he calls it. He starts with a glass of Wolf Blass Yellow Label while watching the local news on CFCN, finishes half the bottle while having supper – usually the microwaved second half of the daily special he orders for lunch in the Herald cafeteria – re-corks the wine and then has for dessert a small glass of Taylor’s port that he sips while watching Jeopardy!

“Sorry, Carol, I had to phone you,” says Burke. Tonight he’s into the martinis, which often happens when something is bothering him. He knows he’ll regret it in the morning but right now the bigger bang of the vodka helps dull the pain.

“The bastards are trying to get rid of me,” he says. “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry? The hard-news guys have won. They’re killing Passages and I’m walking the plank.”

He thinks of the struggle he had to put up to have his column approved in the first instance. He had argued that ordinary people mattered because they were real. Ordinary people often did extraordinary things, he said, and thus they deserved to be remembered. The former city editor agreed with him, and so he was assigned to what his colleagues cynically call the “dead beat.”

“You’re being fired?” says Carol. She too likes to limit herself now to half a bottle of wine at supper. Much better for her health than the two-bottle-a-night drinking they did when together. The second bottle sometimes led to a third bottle, and that’s when the trouble often started. One night it was an argument over where they would spend Christmas. She wanted to go on a skiing holiday to Banff. He wanted to lie on a beach in Playa del Carmen. They ended up going nowhere and not talking to one another for a week.

“Yes, I’m being fired,” says Burke. “They want me to go on the desk. That’s the same thing, right? Constructive dismissal. Webster doesn’t think I have the chops to work the street any more and he says the other editors don’t want me to write for them either. They don’t have room in their departments for someone like me.”


“You know, Webster, the new city editor. Used to be at the Calgary Sun.”

“Can’t say I ever met him. What did he do at the Sun?”

“Worked the cop beat. That’s the only news he understands. If it bleeds, it leads.”

“You really don’t want to back to working the street, Jerry. That’s what you graduated from when you started writing theatre reviews. I think you should be talking to a lawyer. They made you a columnist and they can’t change your job description just like that. They’re giving  you a licence to fail. If the Herald was a union paper, you wouldn’t have to deal with shit like this.”

It’s a familiar refrain. Carol has been urging Burke to get the Herald newsroom certified ever since she worked at the unionized Vancouver Sun, where there’s a formal procedure in place for dealing with staff grievances. But Burke and his lunch table companions have no idea how to get from talking about unions to actually organizing a certification drive. They don’t have a Cesar Chavez in their midst. And management will only deal with them individually, not as a group.

“They’re offering me two months salary if I want to leave,” he says.

“That’s not enough, Jerry. You definitely must talk to a lawyer. Look, if they’re going to push you out the door you should be getting at least six months to a year, given the length of time you’ve been working for them. Maybe you should come up to Edmonton to talk about this. Sounds like you need a big hug.”

“They want an answer from me soon.”

“You could drive up tomorrow and spend a couple of days here. I’d suggest you come up tonight, but it doesn’t sound like you’re in any shape to drive. Why don’t you come up in the morning?”

“They want me to work on the desk. They want me to write headlines and lay out pages.”

“Yes, you told me. I know it’s a bummer.”

“I don’t want to write headlines for someone else’s stories. I want to write my own stories.” He’s now drinking the vermouth straight out of the bottle.

“I understand, sweetheart.”

“Nobody wants to work on the desk. Nobody. NOBODY WANTS TO WORK ON THE BLOODY DESK!”

“I hear you, Jerry. Why don’t you get some sleep, my love, and we’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

“The bastards are trying to get rid of me.”

“I know, Jerry, we’ll talk about it in the morning.”

“Nobody wants to work on the bloody desk. You go on the desk and you never get off it. You go there and you die.”

“I’m hanging up the phone now, Jerry. Goodnight, sweetheart, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“G’night. G’night. Talk tomorrow.” He stumbles into the bedroom and falls into a troubled sleep.

Chapter Five

Jeremiah and Nell wait in Cobh for the ship to set sail, 1847.


Cobh, Ireland, May 1847

(The journal of Jeremiah Burke)

May 23 – Though I have lived for almost 31 years, I have never seen a tall ship before. It is quite a magnificent sight, with the three masts reaching up to the sky, four flags flying in the breeze, and the sails neatly furled. The Sir Henry Pottinger is advertised to sail tomorrow but I doubt if it will be ready. Carpenters were still building the berths for the travellers today, and there is a mountain of freight to go on board that the ship is not ready to receive.

Nell and I were able to go aboard briefly to look at our “cabin.” We could have saved ourselves the extra £4. It’s nothing more than a windowless storage shed on the deck. There is more room in the cargo hold down below, where every bunk is six feet square. But I fear those bunks are already spoken for.

One of the ship’s crew said there will be no food or shelter supplied while we are waiting to board. This will not be a problem for Nell and me because we have enough money to stay in the boarding house again. But many of the others will have to spend the night on the quay. Fortunately, the weather is dry.

May 24 – I told the captain we should be entitled to food and shelter because we arrived on time for departure. He just shrugged and referred me to the ship’s broker, who has an office in the town. The broker referred me in turn to the government emigration inspector, who was no help at all. He said that passenger ships are only required to provide food and shelter when the passengers are actually on board. When I tried to argue with him he ordered me out of his office and said he would not be subjected to abuse by a mere schoolmaster.

May 25 – I talked to the ship’s broker again. He referred me this time to the ship’s owner, who happens to live in Belfast, which is hundreds of miles from here. Clearly, there is no satisfaction to be gotten there. The weather has now turned cold and wet, and many of the emigrants have no blankets or proper clothing. But a few of the men have been able to find casual work as dock labourers along the quays, and are using the money to buy bread for the hungry children. Nell remains cheerful, God bless her heart. She says we must look forward to the good life that awaits us in Canada.

May 26 – Tragedy struck today on the quay. Two babies died from exposure. A priest came to bless their little souls and he told us it was quite usual for ships not to sail on the day appointed for departure. The owner receives £30 a head from the landlords for every passenger on board, and he will not let the ship sail until the crew has packed four passengers into every berth built for a single traveller. The more they can squeeze on board, the greater the profit. The owner bribes the government officials to look the other way while he defies the regulations.

May 27 – Some of the emigrants tried to get on board today but were driven back by the first mate and his crew. One of our men was brutally beaten. I sought another meeting with the captain, but he still refuses to deal with me. He now calls me an “informer” because I spoke to the government inspector. I am writing a letter of complaint to the Duke of Devonshire, but I doubt if I will ever hear back from him.

May 28 – It has now been five days and we are still waiting. The carpenters have finished work on the berths and the ship is ready to sail. But still they will not let us board. Someone said it was because the sailors are superstitious. They believe that no good luck will come to a ship that sets sail on a Friday.

May 29 – This morning we were finally allowed to board, and the reason for the delay became clear. After our own 400 people had gone down the gangway into the cargo hold, several more people arrived at the quay and began to board the ship. They crowded on until there was hardly any room to move. They were followed by the government inspector, looking official in his cap and blue uniform and gold buttons. I tried to complain to him that the boat was overcrowded, but he brushed right past me and walked into the captain’s cabin. When he emerged, I tried to speak with him again, but one of the crew members tripped me from behind and I fell face down on the deck. I could hear the inspector laughing. “The drink is the curse of the Irish,” he said.

Our people, who have been surviving for four days on scraps of bread, were finally given some food: some “government inspected” ship’s biscuits that are supposed to last us for three days. The biscuits were stale and mouldy. The inspection must have been done months ago. However, our people are so hungry that they ate them without complaint.

The overcrowding is appalling. Two-thirds of the passengers are without berths. They will be sleeping on the floor or on top of their luggage. The rest will be crammed, four per bunk as the priest predicted, into berths designed to hold one person. We have agreed that these bunks should be given to the old people, women and children. There will be no privacy aboard this ship. I am now feeling guilty that Nell and I have a cabin to ourselves.

Chapter Six

Jerry suggests to Dick that they hit the road as travelling musicians, 1967.


Vancouver, British Columbia, April 1967

“I’ve made an executive decision,” says Jerry Burke. “I think we should quit our day jobs and go on the road.” He’s eager to do what was never possible for him in Ireland.

He and Delahunty are having dinner at their walk-up third-floor apartment in Kitsilano. Burke doesn’t cook so he relies on Delahunty to make the meals. This evening it’s beef Wellington with all the trimmings, washed down with a couple of Heinekens from the fridge. They prefer Heineken to any of the other beers they have tried since coming to Canada.

“Wouldn’t leaving our jobs be a bit risky?” says Delahunty. He works as a time and motion study analyst at a firm that manufactures ship’s engines. The work doesn’t tax his brain but the money is good.

“No more risky than quitting our jobs in the Irish civil service and coming to Canada,” says Burke. He still has the spirit of adventure in his soul. Travelling and making music for a living has been his dream since he was a teenager.

“But we’ve just got these new jobs,” says Delahunty. “Shouldn’t we wait, at least, until we’ve got more money in the bank?”

“Do you like being a work study officer?”

“Not particularly.”

“And I don’t like being a customs broker.” Burke was happy to land that job after a series of interviews with managers at financial services firm who never had any intention of hiring him; they just wanted to hear his Dublin accent. But checking imported goods in and out of bonded warehouses isn’t exactly the most challenging work either.

“So let’s do it,” says Burke. “Let’s hand in our notice and hit the road. We’ve got that job in Dawson City coming up in a couple of months, and I’m sure there’ll be lots more if we go to Toronto.”

The Dawson City gig came about after a chance encounter that occurred when the two men were playing for a Sunday brunch at a pancake house in Burnaby. A Vancouver impresario caught their performance and immediately booked them as a featured act in the Gay Nineties summer variety show at the Palace Grand Theatre. Burke and Delahunty didn’t necessarily see themselves as a vaudeville act, but a gig is a gig. This one will last for the whole summer.

“So why would we quit our jobs now?” asks Delahunty.

“I don’t mean right now. I mean just before we go to Dawson. Instead of coming back to Vancouver in September, let’s head east.”

“But we don’t have any contacts down there.”

“As a matter of fact, we do. Weinstein has given me the phone number of a colleague of his, an agent named Billy O’Connor.”

“What do we know about him?”

“Weinstein tells me he’s a piano player who used to have his own show on television. One of the regular performers on the show was a singer named Juliette. She and O’Connor had a fight of some kind, the CBC cancelled the show, and gave the time slot to her. O’Connor then opened an agency. He handles some big names: Gordon Lightfoot, Rich Little and so on.”

“And you think he would be interested in handling the Ramblers Two?”

“Why not? We’ve made a mark for ourselves here, and we have that album that was picked up by RCA.”

“The album we paid for ourselves.” This has been a sore point with Delahunty. He thought the record company would cover the studio production costs when it picked up the album for distribution. But it only paid for pressing the discs and printing the sleeves.

“No matter,” says Burke. “The record is still in the RCA catalogue, and they want us to make a second album. Which they will pay for, of course.”

“I don’t know, Jerry. This music business is so volatile.” He likes singing ballads part-time and is looking forward to the summer in Dawson City, where he figures he’ll see moose roaming the streets by day and thirsty miners using gold nuggets to pay for their drinks in the bars. But committing to music full time is a scary prospect. Delahunty would prefer to finish his degree and become a teacher or social worker.

“Listen,” says Burke. “Remember what we said when we were leaving Ireland? If Canada didn’t work out, we could always go back home again. Well, if this doesn’t work out, we can always go back to Vancouver again.”

“Or back to Ireland.” This is where the two friends are beginning to part company. Burke likes Vancouver, and sees it as a place where he could happily hang his hat for years to come. Delahunty likes it too, but he misses the pub life in Dublin and the company of family and friends he left behind.

“Whatever. Why don’t we give it a try?” says Burke. “Maybe O’Connor can get us on The Ed Sullivan Show.

“How long do you want to do this for?”

“For as long as it takes.”

“To get on the Sullivan show?”

“Something like that.”

“Dream on, Macduff.”

“I’m serious, Dick. Canada is the land of opportunity. This is an opportunity. The Rovers have moved to California so we have Canada’s Celtic music market all to ourselves.”

“Maybe the Rovers know something about Canada that we don’t.”

“The Rovers know that the big opportunities are in the States, yes. But it’s also more competitive down there. Weinstein tells me that the clubs back east book their acts for one and two weeks at a time. That’s practically full-time work, Dick. We’ve gotta do this.”

Chapter Seven

Jerry re-reads the memo from the managing editor outlining the technological changes in store for the Herald, 1992.


Calgary, Alberta, June 1992

Burke wakes at 10:00 a,m., looks at the half-empty bottles of vodka and vermouth on the kitchen counter, and is relieved to feel only a slight headache. He pours himself a glass of grapefruit juice and retrieves the crumpled-up Anderson memo from the kitchen garbage can. He has already read it several times but he wants to take another look.


All Calgary Herald Newsroom Staff

Dear Herald staff member:

Over the next few months, the Calgary Herald newsroom will undergo major adjustments to meet the challenges of producing great journalism during a time of rapid technological change. We will begin by retiring the mainframe computer that has served us well for the past 10 years, and will replace the newsroom terminals with stand-alone desktop computers. These units will be used for designing and laying out pages as well as writing stories and editing copy, which means that many of the tasks previously done in the composing room will now shift to the newsroom. Our copy editors will develop higher levels of skills and versatility as they become proficient in the use of the new layout software.

Coinciding with this major internal technological change will be a wholesale revamping of the various sections of the paper. The front page will be redesigned to give it a livelier, crisper and more modern look, with a new masthead, larger graphics and striking new typefaces. Life will merge with City as we put more focus on the kinds of news stories our readers tell us that they want to see in the paper every day. Sports will be expanded to give readers the most comprehensive sports package in the city. Entertainment will shift its focus from arts coverage to emphasize movies, television and the cultural interests of our younger readership. Business will focus less on the speeches made at annual general meetings, and more on the personalities of the business leaders who have helped build our great city. All told, we expect these changes will create new and exciting challenges for newsroom staff, and add value for our customers, be they readers or advertisers.

The changes will necessitate a redeployment of our current staffing resources.  We will be inviting a number of people to become part of our expanded desking team, eliminating some writing positions and adding others throughout the newsroom according as the departments shrink or expand. We will also be offering incentives for voluntary severance and early retirement to individuals whose jobs are being eliminated and who do not have to be replaced. Details of this staff reduction program are included on the attached sheet. If you have any questions about it, please talk to your individual department head. It is important that we all have a clear understanding of this process.

This is an exciting time in the history of the Herald newsroom. The technological change gives us more control over the look and content of the finished product than ever before. The revamping of the various sections comes on the heels of the focus group sessions conducted last fall, and we believe the changes will lead to a better newspaper, provide better service to our clients, and make the Herald an even better place to work. Your co-operation and assistance in getting us through this transition period is greatly appreciated.

Yours truly,

William G. Anderson

Managing Editor


Burke crumples up the memo and returns it to the garbage, Normally, he files away every piece of paper that crosses his desk, but this one he doesn’t want to keep. Anderson’s message is simple and straightforward enough: It’s my way or the highway.

Our copy editors will develop higher levels of skills and versatility. Yes, because they will now be doing the jobs that used to be done by the guys in the composing room. So what will happen to those composing room people? Will they be given other jobs or will they just be pushed out the door? I suspect they’ll be gone, just like the linotype operators before them. That’s the way industry works. Out with the old, in with the new, and to hell with the consequences.

More focus on the kinds of news stories our readers tell us they want to see. So it has come to this. We invite a bunch of civilians into the building and ask them how we should do our jobs. If they tell us they want to see more stories about kittens getting stuck up trees, do we disband our investigative team? Do we stop doing stories like the cowboy-welfare piece about ranchers getting rich on energy industry tax money? Do we stop doing the kind of work that earns us awards and the respect of our peers across the country?

Incentives for voluntary severance and early retirement. Shrinking our way to greatness, are we? Why don’t you just call a spade a spade and say you would like to make it worth our while to leave the building and never come back? Why don’t you say these new computers are going to cost a pile of money so you would like to reduce labour costs to pay for them? Why don’t you say the way of the future is to do less with less? I can’t believe that only a few years ago we had a dozen writers in an Entertainment department that’s now staffed with four over-worked scribes.

This is an exciting time in the history of the Herald newsroom. Technological change doesn’t make for exciting times. National newspaper awards make for exciting times. Being the first to hit the streets with an exclusive story makes for exciting times. Technological change makes for disrupting and stressful times. Technological change makes for redundancy.

Your co-operation and assistance is greatly appreciated. Do we have a choice? What if we were to strap ourselves to our 10-year-old terminals and say we like things just the way they are? Would you guys put a stop order on the desktop computers purchase and leave us be? I seriously doubt it.

Burke could go on and on, but that would only make him want to start drinking martinis for breakfast. He notices that the message light is flashing on his phone.

Chapter Eight

The Sir Henry Pottinger finally departs, and Jeremiah and Nell are on their way across the ocean, 1847.


Aboard the Sir Henry Pottinger, May 1847

(The journal of Jeremiah Burke)

May 30 – We had a good view of Cape Clear today as the ship sailed westward into the Atlantic. Beyond is the town of Skibbereen, where my parents were married more than 50 years ago. I wonder if I will ever see them again.

May 31 – Nell asked me today if I thought we might ever come back to Ireland. Sadly, I don’t think so. For most of us, this will be a journey with no return ticket. This ship will be our home for the next four to six weeks, and after that we will be exiles. The wild geese of Ireland fly only in one direction.

June 1 – We are now sailing upon the bosom of the broad Atlantic, and many people are becoming ill. Some are suffering from seasickness, and a few in the hold are infected with the awful fever that killed our people in the workhouse at Inchigeelagh. I asked the second mate to tell the captain about the fever cases. He replied that nothing could be done for them because there is no doctor or nurse on board. He said the sailors protect themselves against the disease by drinking rum, and that any of us who want to pay sixpence for a quarter pint can do the same. I told him I was not interested.

June 2 – Our first casualty is a five-year-old boy who died of the fever last night. The second is his mother, who died this afternoon. They tied them up in biscuit sacks and dropped them into the sea. We are now sailing across a watery graveyard.

The steward has started serving us cornmeal because the biscuit has run out. But we don’t have access to hot water, so the cornmeal has to be eaten uncooked. Some say this is a lethal mixture that will kill anyone with the fever.

June 3 – My Nell is a ray of light in this sea of darkness. She persuaded the steward to give her some discarded biscuit sacks, and now she is busily sewing dresses for the little girls down below who came aboard with barely a stitch on their backs. One little girl was showing off her new sack dress this afternoon. She might have been a princess in a gown, she looked so radiant and happy. .

June 4 – This afternoon we had our first big storm at sea. A strong wind came up from the northeast, accompanied by driving rain. By sunset the sea was churning violently. The sailors scrambled to batten down the hatches as the waves pummelled the sides of the ship and washed across the deck. Nell, calm and serene as always, just got down on her knees and prayed.

June 5 – There was no sleep for us last night as the storm continued to blow. The ship tossed and turned on the sea, and we tossed and turned in our berth. The wind roared, the timbers groaned, and the waves flooded our little cabin. The storm finally subsided around noon, and we were able to assess some of the impact down below. A young girl, already stricken with the fever, died during the worst of the storm. An old man, thrown against a trunk, had three ribs broken.

June 6 – I tried to talk to the captain about the plight of the people down below, but he was not receptive. When I invited him to come down and see all the misery for himself, he accused me of trying to usurp his authority.

“You could ease their agony by giving them clean water instead of the foul-smelling liquid that the sailors leave in the buckets every day,” I said.

“They receive everything required by government regulations,” he said. “I’m not obliged to give them anything more.”

“Please help these people, Captain,” I persisted. “Let it not be said that in fleeing from the famine in Ireland they found harder hearts and a worse fate aboard ship.”

“You have said enough,” he said. “Go back to your cabin and do not speak to me again. I will have no insubordination on my ship.”

Chapter Nine

Jerry meets Carol while playing a gig in Dawson City, 1967.


Dawson City, Yukon, July 1967

The evening’s Gaslight Follies show at the Palace Grand Theatre has gone well. Burke and Delahunty have put away their tweed caps, green pants and Irish sweaters, and repaired to the lounge of the nearby Westminster Hotel to entertain the drinking customers until closing time. They haven’t seen any miners paying for their drinks with gold nuggets yet, but they’re hoping some generous patron might leave a nugget or two in their tip jar.

“Good evening, my name is Jerry and this is Dick …”

“An act as exciting as its name,” interjects Delahunty. He once heard a Vancouver comedy duo using that line and decided it would be perfect for himself and Burke.

“And we are the Ramblers Two,” says Burke. “Has anyone here ever seen us before?”

A few people in the audience put up their hands.

“Has anyone here ever NOT seen us before?”

Most people put up their hands. Dawson is a tourist town and the majority of the crowd are just passing through.

“Are there any people here from Winnipeg, who didn’t understand either question?”

It’s an old joke but the audience laughs and the evening of music and merriment is under way. Ballads and blarney, Burke and Delahunty like to call it.

They’ve been enjoying their summer in this town where the sidewalks are still made of wood and the streets paved with mud after every rainfall. At the Palace Grand, the Vancouver troupe’s offering of melodrama, magic, vaudeville sketches and sentimental old songs is a big hit with the bus-tour crowds. At the Westminster, where Burke and Delahunty have the entertainment program all to themselves, the three-hour gig gives them plenty of opportunity to polish the act they’ll be taking to Toronto after they wind up their affairs in Vancouver. Delahunty is still unsure about this move but he knows Burke can do a good job of selling the act. He got them an agent, Ben Weinstein, within days of arriving in Vancouver, and they’ve worked steadily ever since.

The lounge in the Westminster is known to the locals as the Snake Pit. “Here you will find all kinds of Yukon wildlife in their natural habitat,” Burke tells the crowd. “If you like the songs we are singing for you tonight, be sure to tell all your friends about it. If not, just keep your bloody mouths shut.” He hopes the hotel manager got the piano tuned like he promised.

Sitting near the front are two women in their early twenties who sing along to the choruses of the Irish songs. “Wild Rover,” “Black Velvet Band,” “Whiskey in the Jar” – they seem to know them all. One is a fresh-faced brunette, the other a willowy blonde. Burke fancies the brunette. He chats with her during the break.

“How do you know all the Irish songs?” he asks.

“My mother is from Tipperary. She just loves the Clancy Brothers. She has all their records.”

Her name is Carol Dawson. She lives in Vancouver – “I have my own place” – and works for an insurance company as a secretary. But she is thinking of quitting. She wants to go to Vancouver City College and study journalism.

“I was thinking of becoming a journalist too,” says Burke. “But it wasn’t that easy in the old country. First you had to be accepted for membership in the Society of Professional Journalists, which is a bit like having to join the musicians’ union before you can actually play an instrument. Then you had to learn shorthand and typing, which are necessary skills that take time but don’t necessarily lead to a job when you complete the courses. I didn’t have the patience for all of that so I went into the civil service instead.”

“Are we going to make love tonight?” she says.

Wow! Irish girls were never this forward. Burke can’t wait to tell Delahunty. “Yes,” he stammers. “If you like.” She strokes his goatee and he squeezes her thigh. He can’t wait until he and Delahunty get through the next two sets. He’s only just met her and already he’s in love. She smiles at him constantly throughout the remainder of the evening.

After they finish the last set, with a stirring rendition of the Irish national anthem in Gaelic, Burke walks Carol along the wooden sidewalks to the furnished cabin where he is staying for the summer. It was once rented by a bank teller and poet named Robert Service who wrote about the “unharnessed big land” with the “silence that bludgeons you dumb.” Burke believes his spirit still haunts the cabin. “It seems it’s been here since the beginning. It seems it will be to the end.”

The pale moon is in the southern sky and the marauding dogs are howling at every street corner. Burke and Carol make love until the early hours of the morning.

“Maybe I’ll see you in Vancouver,” says Burke.

“I hope so,” says Carol. She really means it.

“Your last name is Dawson, right?”

“That’s right.” Nice of him to remember.

“Any family connection to the town here?”

“We do actually. My great-grandfather’s brother was a geologist who mapped this area in the 1880s.”

“No kidding?”

“God’s truth. I never met him, of course, but it’s kinda nice to have a celebrity in the family.”

“You’ve got that right. I had an ancestor who was a famous folk poet in Ireland.”

“Male or female?”

“Female. She was my grandmother’s great-grandmother.” He remembers reading somewhere that women poets were considered part of the aristocracy in Celtic Ireland.

“You must tell me about her some time.”

“I’ll be glad to.” He considers pulling out the red-backed poetry book to show to her, but figures he’ll wait until they reconnect in Vancouver.