With Western Canada’s largest Celtic celebration CelticFest 2014 in full swing for its 10th anniversary, and a sea of green brightening up our city streets with St. Patrick’s Day fast approaching, we spoke to three Vancouver residents about Canada’s affinity with the Irish and what our cultures can learn from one another.
Executive Chair of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC and former CEO of VANOC, Irishman John Furlong – an “ambassador for Canada” who was named one of 25 Transformational Canadians and winner of the top 25 Canadian Immigrants Award in 2010 (and who even made history as the first to have a Skytrain railcar dedicated in his name!) – says that the Irish and Canadians are kindred spirits as our cultures combine to make the best of both worlds.
“The Irish are naturally warm, genuine and self-deprecating, and they find Vancouver an easy place to live. Here you can be a Canadian patriot, but you can wear your Irish roots too,” he said exclusively to Vancity Buzz.
“It’s like everyone in Vancouver has a story of where they came from and what drew them here…It’s the city it is because the people of the world live here,” he continued. “Vancity has a smile on its face, a welcoming, tolerant spirit and an ‘anything is possible’ attitude.”
He joked that Saint Patrick’s Day for the Irish is “like a second Christmas!”
“It’s the one day just about everyone celebrates the Irish heritage they have, or wish they had,” he added. “For me personally, Saint Patrick’s Day is about memories, funny stories, good music and wearing something green. Sláinte!”
Maura De Freitas, publisher of The Celtic Connection, a monthly newspaper she founded with her mother, Catholine Butler, in 1991, to connect the various Celtic communities across western Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest, is a first generation Canadian. Her late father hailed from Northern Ireland and both of her parents were deeply involved in Irish cultural events since her youth.
“My parents were founding members of the Irish Society of Ottawa back in the early ‘60s,” she said, “and then went on to establish Club Tír na nÓg in Ottawa, which eventually had over 2,000 members before disbanding.”
In the 1970s, Maura’s parents established the first authentic Irish pub in Ottawa, called The Molly Maguires Pub, featuring live entertainment direct from Ireland weekly.
“My mother recruited bands for the pub and organized tours across North America, through other Irish pubs in both Canada and the U.S. There was much more ease to move back and forth across the border in those days,” she recalled. “To say it was a lively atmosphere would be an understatement!”
Two of Maura’s cousins played in well-known Irish band The Carlton Showband, which had a huge following along with their own national television show, so she said it was natural to grow up surrounded by all things Ireland.
“I was always very aware of my Irish heritage,” she said, “and I was even an Irish dancer who competed regularly.”
“My childhood was spent in the Gatineau Valley, an area of Quebec north of Ottawa, which is where my mother’s family established a homestead following the Great Hunger,” she continued. “The Irish settled the whole area as they were given tracts of lands by the Quebec government following their arrival on Grosse Ile. They were not wanted in the cities at the time as there was fear they were carrying disease following the deaths of so many onboard the coffin ships.”
Instead, Maura said, the Irish built schools and churches, and integrated into Canadian society, while never losing sight of their identity or how they came to be a part of this new world. “The people there actually still consider themselves to be Irish and the Famine is still part of their consciousness,” she added. “While Ireland moved on and evolved, many Irish traditions and customs still remain in the Gatineau.”
Maura moved to Vancouver in 1982 to escape the microcosm of the community and to explore her own Canadian identity, but she admitted she missed the humour and the cultural scene more than she expected. “While I love Canada and cherish being Canadian, the Irish part of my identity is part of the very essence of who I am, and one which I can never deny.”
“The Irish have a way of finding their feet and their own people wherever they roam,” she went on. “For decades, the Irish in the U.S. have been extremely organized and have established highly influential cultural communities to support and assist new arrivals, whereas the Irish in Canada have been no less influential, but seemingly more muted. One of the reasons I launched The Celtic Connection newspaper almost 25 years ago was to build a common thread between all of the various Celtic cultural groups in Canada, from the Scots to the Irish, as there was a time when it really felt like were on the outer edges of the wild wild west!”
A little known fact, according to Robert O’Driscoll, the former head of Celtic Studies with the University of Toronto, in The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, is that the Irish were among the first Europeans to visit the Pacific coast.
“In fact,” Maura pointed out, “the first white resident in what is now called British Columbia is believed to have been an Irishman by the name of John McKay. And there are many other records of Irish achievements in B.C., including four Irish-born premiers and another of Irish parentage.”
As proud sponsors of the 2014 Vancouver CelticFest, Maura will be marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade on Sunday on behalf of The Celtic Connection, along with a lucky leprechaun! “Our favourite leprechaun will be giving out candy and maybe even a pot o’ gold if you can find the end of the rainbow, so I hope to see many Vancity Buzz readers there for a day of fun!”
Mick Mulcahy, a bodhrán player with Vancouver’s premier and only all-Irish music group, Vagabonds, has been busy this St. Patrick’s Week, kicking off this year’s festivities with Hermitage Green at The Rickshaw Theatre last Saturday.
Vagabonds will play FanClub on Granville Street, after the Vancouver St. Patrick’s Day parade starting at 11am, which Mick assures us will be a “jam-packed day of craic agus ceol!”
“If you’re looking for traditional Irish music for the young and old, featuring mandolin, banjo, tin whistle and dueling fiddles, then come on down! We’ll also be playing old favourites from U2 and Thin Lizzy, and if you’re still standing after all that dancing we’ll also be playing Gastown’s Lamplighter bar from 6pm on St. Patrick’s evening.”
Mick, who’s originally from Cork in Southern Ireland, came to Vancouver after hearing glowing reports about the city from Irish friends living here. “Things were slowing down work-wise at home,” he said, “so I decided to see what everyone was talking so highly about! I had already lived in Australia, so I fit in perfectly here with the laid-back vibe and plenty of work on offer.”
“The first thing that struck me about Vancouver is its surroundings that make it so unique, and how active it is as a city. Everyone hits the slopes or goes hiking at the weekends,” he added, “and the seawall is the business to stretch the legs in the evening. The fact that it’s so multicultural also makes for some great food, as well as drink of course!”
Mick believes Vancouverites could learn from the Irish not to take life quite so seriously, which is why he thinks CelticFest and St. Patrick’s Day is always such a huge draw to the city every year. “We Irish always put on a good show and we know how to have a good time, so get together with us and you’re guaranteed a great gathering!”
“Lá Fhéile Pádraig and hoping to see ye all this weekend for an absolute belter!,” he added.
Visit CelticFestVancouver.com for a list of free and ticketed festival shows and events over the coming days.