The Irish-Canadian experience

By 
  • October 20, 2008
{mosimage}A Story to Be Told: Personal Reflections on the Irish Immigrant Experience in Canada by M. Eleanor McGrath (Liffey Press, 215 pages, hardcover, $65.00).

TORONTO - Between 1940 and 1990, the reasons behind Canada’s last great wave of Irish immigration were about more than Ireland’s poor economy — there were social, cultural and political factors too.
And most immigrants were adventurers, said Eleanor McGrath, editor of A Story to be Told: Personal Reflections on the Irish Immigrant Experience in Canada, which was launched at different Toronto venues this fall.

Out of love for the culture, McGrath conducted and transcribed 128 interviews with Irish immigrants living mostly in and around Toronto, Barrie, Lindsay and Peterborough, Ont., including her husband who immigrated to Canada from Cork, Ireland, in 1982. McGrath has spent so much time with the Irish that at first it’s hard to believe she’s a seventh-generation Canadian.

{sa 1905785461}“If you hear a lilt — (it’s because) if you hang out with all these Irish people you pick it up,” she said with a laugh.

McGrath, an investment advisor with RBC Dominion Securities, has had a strong interest in her Irish roots for many years. About two years ago, after leaving her volunteer position as executive director for The Ireland Fund of Canada, a charitable organization raising money for different causes in Ireland, she got together with photographer and friend William C. Smith to brainstorm their next Irish culture project together.

The glossy coffee-table book includes about a page for each person, transcribed verbatim from McGrath’s interviews. She wanted it to be “raw and personal” for future generations to see how their forebears talked and to simply preserve their stories, their social and personal histories. It also includes a photograph of each person before and after their move.

“(The book) captures a time when Ireland was almost what you call a Third World nation,” she said. “And as much as people think of the poor Irish (as) poor Catholics, actually Protestants, Catholics and Jews are all in this book.”

During that time period, everyone was viewed differently depending on religion, which school they attended and who they knew. The stories of Irish immigration to Canada are not well told, especially in her children’s history textbooks where the Irish are barely mentioned, although about four million people in Canada claim Irish roots today, McGrath said. That’s nearly the entire population of the current Republic of Ireland. She hopes to create awareness about Ireland’s striking past by including anecdotes from each of the immigrants from both before and after they left Ireland.

Some of the differences between Irish and Canadian society were very stark, she said — although that has changed since Ireland’s inclusion in the European Union.

“Can you imagine, my husband, who is 51 this year, went to school without electricity,” she said. “(He went) to school in Cork city, in Douglas, which is the second largest city in Ireland in the south and yet ... he had to stoke the fire in grade school.”

McGrath said the stories, many of which are heart-wrenching tales, help to appreciate being Canadian and are stories which immigrants from other countries could easily relate to. To illustrate this point, she included the story of a Muslim friend, Anas Diri, who immigrated to Canada from Syria in the 1970s.

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