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Being Irish – bedrock of Quebecois culture

by Archives March 14, 2001 28 comments
This coming Sunday, some of us might be hitting our favorite bars early, perhaps catch a raucous parade down St. Catherine street, don a clover leaf, and be Irish for a day.
It’s fun being honorary Irishmen from time to time; it’s one of the rare occasions when it’s socially acceptable to wear green, it’s a great excuse to drink thick beers that are meals in themselves. We can believe in the mystical powers of green leaves, funny looking little men and pots of gold. What other time of the year is it OK to be stupid-drunk in broad daylight on the Lord’s Day?
But is that all there is to the Irish? Michael Kenneally hopes not. This Irish-born doctor of English literature heads a foundation for Canadian/Irish Studies that he hopes will soon become a minor program at Concordia University.
“It appeals to people on different levels; it evokes a world that is familiar, but not quite the same. The issues that are often raised in relation to Ireland are issues that many others are concerned with.”
Many of Ireland’s facets are now being studied at Concordia, from its language, to its prolific literature, to its art, culture and music, all the way to its geography and economy. The Canadian/Irish studies cluster is one of Concordia’s most cross-departmental.
Leslye Lang is a mature student taking a film studies class that concentrates on Irish films and the Irish conflict. Lang visited and studied in Ireland five years ago, and said she took this class “for the sheer pleasure and interest of it.” Lang said what initially drew her to the Irish culture is the incredible story of its struggle. “[The Irish] are a very mystical, romantic, close-to-nature personality. But in today’s society, [it’s also] survival oriented; it’s tragic, it’s doomed.”
Lang added that, “[Irish culture] is one of the bedrocks of our culture. A lot of people don’t know their story. It’s important for people to know about the Irish support in the history of Canada.”
Green coursing through our veins
There are many reasons for Quebecers to take interest in the Irish, mainly because they are very present in Quebec. According to Kenneally, almost half of French-speaking Quebecers can trace some Irish ancestry. The Irish were the second largest ethnic group in the 19th century. The shamrock is even one of four symbols on the Montreal flag.
Many figures in Canadian history were of Irish descent: Thomas D’Arcy McGee, George Vanier, David Ross McCord, and former Quebec premier Daniel Johnson. Irish names and descendants are still prevalent in today’s politics: Brian Mulroney, Paul Martin, Jean Charest, and Louise Beaudoin among others.
Kenneally says Quebec has often felt akin to Ireland, sharing more than a few key causes. Both have strong Catholic contingencies surrounded by a sea of Protestantism. Both peoples have struggled to preserve their language and culture. They have fought hard to define their identity and right to nationhood.
Among other accomplishments across the country, Irishmen are credited for having helped build such Montreal monuments as the Victoria Bridge, the Lachine Canal, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and Loyola College. The Irish were also brokers and negotiators between the English and the French in Canada’s infancy.
The Irish story of emigration to Canada is about more than just orphans and refugees from potato famines and plagues. According to Kenneally, there has been a constant flow of Irish into Canada. Many Irish soldiers came over as hired guns for the French, but changed their names to hide from the British after the Seven-Year War.
In the past, the plethora of Irish immigrants made them an easy labour source for menial jobs, giving them a diminutive stance in North American society. Kenneally adds there were decent, well-meaning families who just wanted a new start. Since they wanted to be successful, many hid their names and culture. This led to the “frenchification” of some Irish names. Now there are common French family names in Quebec of which there are no trace in France.
More recently a new generation of Irish immigrants have come over, escaping tensions and poor economy in their homeland.
“Around the world, the Irish diaspora have come of age,” said Kenneally. “There’s kind of a buzz about the Irish and all things to do with their culture.”
The “Celtic Tiger”
According to Kenneally, Ireland is now a booming and flourishing country. This comes after centuries of poverty and being at the bottom of the European totem pole.
Kenneally says that as a young, up and coming country, and with some help from the European Union, Ireland has been able to turn itself around. In the span of two decades, Ireland has gone from being comparable to a Third World country, to currently enjoying an economic boom and acting as model for other struggling nations. Also, free post-secondary education has made native Irish highly employable.
“You can’t believe what’s going on there, Dublin is like a forest of cranes. You can’t get Irish workers cause they’re in the high-tech business. Many of my students go over right after graduating and get hired over the Net.”
There’s also been a “renaissance” in Irish culture and arts in the past few decades, Kenneally says, as the country is finding its own distinct voice. “For such a small country, it’s been extraordinarily expressive and active.”
Celtic art and themes have been on the rise in North American pop-culture. Kenneally admits there is an americanized generalization of the Irish, but feels people are starting to move beyond the preconceptions, mentioning that the Irish are one of the lowest per-capita drinkers in the world. “People know there’s more dimension of Irishness, not just social drinkers.”
Lynn Doyle is a Canadian who’s rediscovered her Irish roots and is the Chairman of the St. Patrick’s Society. Doyle feels growing interest in the Celtic culture is exciting and long-overdue, though she agrees that some erroneous generalizations still remain in North American pop-culture. “I think it’s a shame, but I think it’s going to change.”
Some within the local Irish community feel Ireland still has a way to go, both socially and structurally. There are still strong social rifts within the country, and the usually closed and introverted island is weathering one of the side-effects of the EU, injection of migrant workers from different countries.
Tim Fagan is a Communications student and a second generation Irish-Canadian who regularly returns to Ireland with his father. “To solve the problems there, in order to have peace, you have to create a culture towards peace.”
Four-leaf classrooms
It has been a slow but steady process for Kenneally over the past decade. With a lot of fund-raising and promotion, he’s built up from preliminary classes offered in 1990, to the creation of the Irish Studies cluster in 1995, and finally the formal recognition of the Irish studies program in January.
Kenneally has petitioned numerous organizations to help with the creation of his program, including the Irish government. Kenneally even raised about $25,000 to build an Irish studies collection at Concordia’s libraries.
The Board of Directors of the Canadian-Irish Studies Foundation consists of members from across Canada, and an academic journal on the topic is now printed at the school. Kenneally says he has a lot of fire in the oven to promote the proposed minor, but “it’s really day one for us. Now that we’re established formally within the university, we have to get the word out.”
Kenneally will be competing with two already established and renowned Celtic studies programs at the University of Toronto and St. Mary’s University. But he says his minor will concentrate more on the role of the Irish in Canada and present-day Ireland. Kenneally says the program will be useful within the school, not only as relevant to today’s society in Quebec, but also as furthering tradition at the Loyola campus.
Although there are many Irish related classes that are popular, there are only around 24 students enrolled in the Irish-Canadian cluster. Kenneally hopes with more publicity, this number will raise and hopes to be able to offer a minor in Irish-Canadian studies in a year or two.
Kenneally has already been actively promoting Irish-Canadian lectures and events, like Synigale, a recurring Irish film fest organized by Doyle. This is the first year that the films have been shown in conjunction with a Communications class taught by Father Marc Gervais, who studies different film genres from semester to semester.
Fagan is in the class taught by Father Gervais. “Their culture is really vibrant and has a lot to offer, part of a culture that we don’t often see. Usually we get a lot of Hollywood culture and the Canadian government throwing Canadian content at us.”

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