On the Emer­ald Isle Why Cana­di­ans feel the Sham­rock soul

Re­trac­ing the roots of Canada’s Emer­ald Soul in North­ern Ire­land

ZOOMER Magazine - - CON­TENTS MARCH 2018 - By Mike Criso­lago

aND WITH THAT, the open­ing verse to “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s an Ir­ish Lul­laby),” Gor­don Light­foot em­barked on his first-ever pub­lic per­for­mance, de­liv­ered via his ele­men­tary school P.A. sys­tem, earn­ing him that rare dis­tinc­tion of fourth-grade folk sen­sa­tion. The Oril­lia, Ont., na­tive’s Celtic her­itage orig­i­nates in Scot­land, but it was “the Ir­ish air,” as he ex­plained in an in­ter­view years ago, that came to him at an early age, a byprod­uct of his par­ents’ love of mu­sic from the sham­rock shore. That Ir­ish air picked up again al­most three decades later after read­ing news of a nau­ti­cal dis­as­ter in­volv­ing the SS Ed­mund Fitzger­ald. “I al­ready had a melody in my mind, and it was from an old Ir­ish dirge that I heard when I was about three-and-a-half years old,” he said in a sep­a­rate in­ter­view. “It was one of the first pieces of mu­sic that reg­is­tered to me as be­ing a piece of mu­sic.”

The Ir­ish air car­ried many a dirge across the At­lantic, no­tably in the 1700s and again in the mid-1800s with the co­hort known as the Famine Ir­ish, on disease-rid­den cof­fin ships – a jour­ney most be­fit­ting a Light­foot lyric: “Does any one know where the love of God goes/ When the waves turn the min­utes to hours?”

In re­al­ity, the name “cof­fin ship” is mis­lead­ing, which I learned while tour­ing a replica in North­ern Ire­land’s Ul­ster Amer­i­can Folk Park, a re­mark­able mon­u­ment to Ir­ish ex­is­tence be­fore the great mi­gra­tions. While the ships were claus­tro­pho­bic and ripe for spread­ing disease, they rarely served as coffins. In­stead, as my guide, Belfast play­wright and his­tor­i­cal lec­turer Ken McEl­roy ex­plains, if you died dur­ing the jour­ney to the New World, they’d sim­ply dump your body over­board.

The mass em­i­gra­tions, McEl­roy says, were spurred by “the push and the pull,” with mil­lions ei­ther pulled by the op­por­tu­ni­ties Canada and the United States of­fered or pushed out by re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion, po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion, poverty or as in­den­tured ser­vants tasked with con­struct­ing the in­fra­struc­ture of the New World.

“Most coun­tries send out oil or iron, steel or gold or some other crop,” U.S. Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy, a de­scen­dant of the Famine Ir­ish, noted upon re­turn­ing to his an­ces­tral home­land in 1963, “but Ire­land has had only one ex­port, and that is its peo­ple.”

Un­like the em­i­grants, McEl­roy and I dis­em­bark in short or­der to ex­plore the rest of the Folk Park. As luck of the Ir­ish would have it, we ar­rived dur­ing the an­nual Blue­grass Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, which is like North­ern Ire­land’s ver­sion of Coachella but with fewer flow­er­haired hip­sters and far more women wear­ing 18th-cen­tury cloth­ing and dis­tribut­ing dried ap­ple snacks. Here, old Ir­ish bal­lads echo from mul­ti­ple stages across 40 acres of coun­try fields, dot­ted with ar­chi­tec­ture dat­ing back three cen­turies.

The Folk Park is built around the an­ces­tral home of Thomas Mel­lon – a lo­cal kid pulled to Amer­ica in 1818, where he later founded Mel­lon Bank – and blue­grass serves as the sound­track while we weave along a cross­sec­tion of paths, com­ing upon var­i­ous cen­turies-old build­ings trans­ported from all over Ul­ster, Ire­land’s sec­ond-largest province. We pass the white­washed walls of the Tullyallen Mass House, circa 1768, where Ir­ish Catholics once wor­shipped, and stop into the Castle­town Na­tional School, circa 1845, where the desks are aligned in neat rows as if ex­pect­ing a rush of stu­dents at any mo­ment.

Then there’s the re­mark­able Ul­ster street, where we me­an­der in and out of an en­tire row of au­then­tic store­fronts, in­clud­ing R.J. Blair Prin­ters, W. Mur­ray Drap­ers and Hard­ware, the doc­tor’ s surgery and W. G. O’ Do her ty’ s gro­cery shop, circa 1871. The in­te­rior of the lat­ter boasts a door lead­ing to an ad­ja­cent pub that women could use to sneak a shot of whiskey while run­ning er­rands.

But the weight of the park’s his­tory is felt when we en­ter the home­steads, like the 18th-cen­tury sin­gle-room cabin where six or more mem­bers of a fam­ily called Devine are thought to have lived with lit­tle be­yond some scat­tered wooden fur­ni­ture and a plot for grow­ing pota­toes. In the dis­tance, gui­tar and banjo har­monies fil­ter through the trees, a re­minder that long be­fore Ir­ish rock­ers like U2 jet­ted around the world per­form­ing for mil­lions, poor Ul­ster fam­i­lies like the Devines helped im­port blue­grass when they im­mi­grated along Canada’s east coast and across the Ap­palachi­ans, into the mod­ern day Caroli­nas, Ken­tucky, Ten­nessee and be­yond.

“Even the name ‘hill­billy’ comes from Ul­ster,” McEl­roy says, not­ing many of the early im­mi­grants named sons after the Protes­tant King Wil­liam of Or­ange. “When they set­tled in places like the hills of Ten­nessee, be­cause so many of them were called ‘Wil­liam’ or ‘Billy,’ they were to be­come known as the hill­bil­lies.”

Upon ar­riv­ing in Canada many Ir­ish im­mi­grants met with shoul­ders as cold as an East Coast win­ter, but the so­cial chill didn’t de­ter their cul­ture from tak­ing root.

“We have all come to this coun­try to make our liveli­hood and build up a new na­tion,” Wil­liam Hal­ley de­clared in a speech be­fore Toronto’s St. Pa­trick’s

“Over in Kil­lar­ney, many years ago, My mother sang a song to me in tones so sweet and low, Just a sim­ple lit­tle ditty, in her good old Ir­ish way, And I’d give the world if she could sing that song of hers to­day”

So­ci­ety in 1860. He im­plored his coun­try­men to en­sure “when [Canada’s] his­tory comes to be writ­ten, and its heroic ages de­scribed, that the Ir­ish el­e­ment of its pop­u­la­tion will be prop­erly rep­re­sented in the pages.”

They were – on Canada’s pages and Canada’s stages. If mu­sic, as poet Thomas Davis wrote, “is the first fac­ulty of the Ir­ish,” it’s no won­der that the lyri­cal struc­tures and mu­si­cal pat­terns of their bal­lads, which gave voice to the tur­moil and the Trou­bles, wars and re­bel­lions Ire­land en­dured for cen­turies, formed the foun­da­tion of Canada’s own folk and fid­dle legacy, from the songs of Mar­itime fish­er­men through the set­tlers of French Canada and On­tario. New­found­land, in par­tic­u­lar, was dubbed Talamh an Éisc, or “land of fish,” as well as “the other Ire­land” for its large Ir­ish pop­u­la­tion. In 1933, folk song his­to­rian Elis­a­beth Green­leaf her­alded the Ir­ish in Bal­lads and Sea Songs of New­found­land for “a large share in keep­ing the New­found­land folk mu­sic so melo­di­ous” – tra­di­tions con­tin­ued by “rock” bands like Great Big Sea and The Ir­ish Descen­dants.

And it’s those shared roots, linked across the At­lantic, that al­low a dis­placed Canuck to feel oddly at home nav­i­gat­ing the Folk Park crowd, strolling be­tween stages and cen­tury homes while blue­grass fans set­tle in to watch a show or pluck a few banjo strings of their own. The Ir­ish Rovers, the award-win­ning Ir­ish-Cana­dian folk group, would feel right at home here, as would Kate and Anna McGar­rigle, whose mixed Ir­ish and Que­be­cois her­itage ex­em­pli­fied the merg­ing of cul­tures, or B.C.-based blue­grass band Viper Cen­tral, which head­lined one of the Folk Park stages in 2017.

INF ACT, MU­SIC INF USES the North­ern Ire­land land­scape, from ru­ral com­mu­nity fes­ti­vals to lo­cal haunts where mu­si­cians cut their teeth nightly, like the Rock­ing Chair Bar in Derry, nes­tled next to the his­toric city walls that, leg­end has it, orig­i­nated the term cat­walk when com­mon folk would gather be­low it to gawk at the up­per class crowd strolling along the top in their finest fash­ions. And then there’s Belfast, North­ern Ire­land’s cap­i­tal city, be­sieged by decades of ter­ror­ist at­tacks and civil war be­tween the IRA and loy­al­ists, the Trou­bles lamented in U2’s “Sun­day Bloody Sun­day” and by other artists, from punk band The Pogues (“Streets of Sor­row/ Birm­ing­ham Six”) to rock­ers Sim­ple Minds (“Belfast Child”). De­spite a 1998 peace agree­ment and a mu­nic­i­pal makeover, mem­o­ries of the con­flict per­sist – a fact I learned first­hand when a lo­cal noted my ho­tel, the Europa, holds the du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the most bombed ho­tel in the world.

Yet, while wan­der­ing along Hill Street one evening, I come upon a dimly lit, low-ceilinged spirit den dubbed The Dirty Onion. What the pub lacks in name ap­peal it makes up for in his­tory as Belfast’s old­est build­ing – a 1680 struc­ture that sur­vived the Trou­bles and, while once used to store booze bar­rels, now serves a bustling crowd of boomers and mil­len­ni­als alike who line wooden ta­bles and wash down bags of potato chips with whiskey and Guin­ness. I grab a whiskey and a seat near an old stone fire­place and a group of mu­si­cians, all 60-plus and all strangers. They’re among the ran­dom lo­cals who show up each night with an in­stru­ment of choice and play old Ir­ish stan­dards to­gether, their only com­pen­sa­tion free cheer from the pa­trons and free booze from the bar. It’s ex­actly the sort of salt of the earth haunt you’d imag­ine Stompin’ Tom Con­nors mak­ing his leg­end in, had his pa­ter­nal fam­ily not em­i­grated from Ire­land, putting boot to board while belt­ing out “The Rugby Song,” “Belfast Satur­day Night” or “Bud the Spud,” which would play re­mark­ably well given the Ir­ish pen­chant for pota­toes.

If North­ern Ire­land has a pa­tron saint of mu­sic, though, it’s a Belfast leg­end born about a 10-minute drive from The Dirty Onion. Now 72, Van Mor­ri­son, who Gor­don Light­foot named as an in­flu­ence, grew up in the 1950s along with rock ’n’ roll it­self, which evolved, in part, thanks to a blend­ing of old Ir­ish blue­grass acous­tics with the mu­si­cal stylings of seg­re­gated AfricanAmer­i­can per­form­ers. And by the time the 1960s and the rise of so-called “blue-eyed soul” hit, a 22-year-old Mor­ri­son shot to su­per­star­dom on the back of his most fa­mous tune, “Brown Eyed Girl.”

He’s ar­guably one of Belfast’s two most fa­mous ex­ports – along­side the Ti­tanic, con­structed in the city, a sym­bol of both its ship-build­ing legacy and its tragic his­tory – and it’s dif­fi­cult to say which casts a longer shadow. While a re­vi­tal­ized wa­ter­front neigh­bour­hood known as the Ti­tanic Quar­ter at­tracts afi­ciona­dos of the doomed ocean liner, the Van Mor­ri­son Trail pin­points key lo­cales from the mu­sic leg­end’s for­ma­tive years, wind­ing through res­i­den­tial streets to glimpse his child­hood home, his school and the famed hol­low ref­er­enced in “Brown Eyed Girl,” where you’re wel­come to go laugh­ing and a-run­ning or, hey, hey, skip­ping and a-jump­ing, too.

I de­cide to skip the hol­low and, in­stead, go skip­ping and a-jump­ing to an au­then­tic Ir­ish whiskey dis­tillery. McEl­roy, in true hos­pitable Ir­ish fash­ion, di­rects us along quaint coun­try roads lined with old farm­houses and a breath­tak­ing coast­line that could be mis­taken for an af­ter­noon drive in the Mar­itimes, if it weren’t for the ru­ins of a me­dieval cas­tle and the fact that we’re driv­ing on the wrong side of the road. We ar­rive at the Old Bush­mills Dis­tillery in County Antrim, pur­port­edly the old­est li­censed whiskey dis­tillery in the world. Like Cana­di­ans, the Ir­ish en­joy their booze, even if it is 10 a.m. and you’re throw­ing back a tum­bler of 12-year-old for break­fast. I soak in the sur­round­ing wood bar­rels

and pol­ished cop­per pot stills in the tast­ing room while Niall, our gen­teel dis­tillery guide who never stops smil­ing, ex­plains the com­plex in­ner work­ings of the op­er­a­tion that dates back to 1608.

The Ir­ish im­mi­grants brought their whiskey-dis­till­ing prow­ess with them to the New World, too, but as McEl­roy notes, their skills ex­tended be­yond blue­grass and booze. “They al­ways had a work ethic they took with them wher­ever they went,” he says, adding that many ex­celled in agri­cul­tural vo­ca­tions. Oth­ers, mean­while, bet the farm on en­tre­pre­neur­ial pur­suits. Con­sider Ti­mothy Ea­ton, the 20-yearold shop­keeper’s ap­pren­tice from the town of Bal­ly­mena, who brought his North­ern Ir­ish re­tail know-how to On­tario and ce­mented his legacy as a Cana­dian busi­ness pi­o­neer by found­ing one of the na­tion’s big­gest depart­ment store chains. Though his stores have since closed, his Bal­ly­mena home re­mains open to vis­i­tors.

Then there are the states­men, like Fred­er­ick Hamil­ton-Tem­pleBlack­wood, the Earl of Duf­ferin, whose statue McEl­roy points out on the lawn in front of Belfast City Hall. Of the many Ir­ish-Cana­dian gover­nors gen­eral, the Ul­ster na­tive, in a sixyear term be­gin­ning in 1872, over­saw the cre­ation of Canada’s Supreme Court and fought to pre­serve Que­bec City’s gated for­ti­fi­ca­tions, now a UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site, among many other no­table achieve­ments. Mean­while, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a Fa­ther of Cana­dian Con­fed­er­a­tion, im­mi­grated from Car­ling­ford in 1857 and helped es­tab­lish the na­tion be­fore a fel­low Ir­ish­man as­sas­si­nated him in 1868. And in Au­gust, 2017, Ire­land’s first openly gay prime min­is­ter, Leo Varad­kar, marched along­side Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau in Montreal’s Pride Pa­rade – the first world leader to ever join a Cana­dian prime min­is­ter in do­ing so – a sym­bolic nod to­ward shared val­ues of in­clu­sive­ness and ac­cep­tance be­tween the two na­tions. Canada was the first non-Euro­pean coun­try to le­gal­ize same-sex mar­riage, in 2005, and Ire­land the first coun­try in the world to le­gal­ize it by pop­u­lar vote, in 2015.

Be­fore I bid North­ern Ire­land good- bye, McEl­roy and I take an­other drive along the coast, the fields pep­pered with farm an­i­mals and stone ru­ins, mak­ing our way up Bin­eve­nagh Moun­tain in County Lon­don­derry. We stand on the lip of the sum­mit, as if on the edge of North­ern Ire­land it­self, gaz­ing out across the green slopes and ru­ral patch­work framed by blue ocean and sky. McEl­roy ges­tures off into the dis­tance, not­ing, “If you took off on a ship from here and headed west, your next land­fall would be Nova Sco­tia,” be­fore walk­ing away, leav­ing me alone with the faint sound of graz­ing sheep and that Ir­ish air, which filled the sails of so many im­mi­grant ves­sels that headed west from Ire­land, un­aware of what the next land­fall would bring or that four of their descen­dants – Sir John Thomp­son, Louis St. Lau­rent, Paul Martin and Brian Mul­roney – would serve as Canada’s prime min­is­ters.

More than 200 years after those jour­neys be­gan, it was Mul­roney, as prime min­is­ter, who met with then U.S. Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan on St. Pa­trick’s Day, 1985, in Que­bec City at what be­came known as the “Sham­rock Sum­mit,” a land­mark tight­en­ing of di­plo­matic ties that helped re­set a strained Can-Am re­la­tion­ship. To cap the night, Mul­roney and Rea­gan, also a de­scen­dant of Ir­ish im­mi­grants, crooned a duet of “When Ir­ish Eyes Are Smil­ing.” And 32 years later, in Fe­bru­ary 2017, Mul­roney reprised his per­for­mance at a char­ity event hosted by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at his pri­vate es­tate at Mara-Lago, once again turn­ing to diplo­macy through song, re­flect­ing his be­hind-the-scenes work for cur­rent PM Justin Trudeau on NAFTA.

“I apol­o­gize in ad­vance,” Mul­roney, then 77, joked, be­fore per­form­ing to great ap­plause, per­haps sig­nalling an­other Ir­ish-in­spired di­plo­matic break­through. Or per­haps they’d just sim­ply wit­nessed a liv­ing ex­am­ple of that old Ir­ish proverb: “The older the fid­dle, the sweeter the tune.”

A street lined with his­toric store­fronts in Ul­ster Folk Park Van Mor­ri­son in 1967 The Ti­tanic Belfast mon­u­ment in the city’s Ti­tanic Quar­ter Old Bush­mills Dis­tillery

Prime Min­is­ter Brian Mul­roney, U.S. Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan and their spouses at the Sham­rock Sum­mit

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