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Sunday 9 July 2017


The Irish and the Canadians: grievances, guns and socks

Wherever we went, many of us had the bad habit of taking our history with us to cause more trouble

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Photo: REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Photo: REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Well, there seems to be international agreement that our Taoiseach won the sock war. 'Trudeau Visits Ireland to Discuss Trade', said a New York Times headline that was typical of many around those parts of the globe that pay attention to politicians' nether regions, 'but Host's Socks Steal the Show'.

Aren't we great?

And yes, Leo Varadkar's maple-leaves-and-mounties socks undoubtedly were a winner, if socks are, as it were, your bag. Presumably Trudeau's people had wisely rejected leprechauns-and-Guinness themes when they handed him the grey stripy ones.

But much as though I'd like to explain why I think sock diplomacy is pants and Leo should give it up now that he's delivered a knockout blow and established himself on the world stage as cool, I want to write about something just a bit more important.

Canada. Yes, I know the very word brings on yawns, but actually it's a terrific place that I'd recommend to anyone and what the Irish got up to there deserves far more attention than we usually give it. In 2011, four-and-a-half million claimed Irish ancestry, but though that might seem like a small proportion of a population of 34 million, boy, have we made our presence felt.

How we behave abroad is a great insight into what we have been and what we are.

I went back to the subject because a colleague was enthusing about having met at the Dublin Castle dinner in Trudeau's honour last week the architect Jonathan Kearns, the Irish immigrant who designed and developed Toronto's Ireland Park, who told him how in 1847 many Canadians died trying to treat the typhoid-ridden Irish famine victims and Canadian families took in their orphans.

Now I have to make an admission. When abroad, I try to avoid matters Irish. I've been to Toronto twice and loved it, but spent most of my time carousing with crime writers or marvelling at the transformational theme in Inuit sculpture. I brought home a soapstone dancing bear communing with the unknown that raises my spirits every time I look at it. But I had a look on the internet at Ireland Park and wish that I'd gone to it.

There are five bronze statues by Rowan Gillespie, who gave us those haunting figures in the Famine Memorial on Custom House Quay, but while this was about suffering, there was also a transformation theme. There's an emaciated man lying on the ground and a frail figure praying, but also a pregnant woman clutching her bulging stomach, a wide-eyed child and a man "whose arms are extended to the sky in salvation".

Many of the people who arrived in the late 1840s wanted to be in America, but it was reeling from the vast number of desperate people with contagious diseases and becoming less hospitable and Canada took them in. It had many Irish immigrants already, but they were mostly Protestants loyal to the crown, English-speaking and happy to integrate. Now they had thousands of disease-ridden, destitute, unskilled, Irish-speaking Catholics and the generosity shown to them was extraordinary. Toronto, with 20,000 inhabitants, tried to look after more than 38,000 arrivals, many of whom died in fever sheds. Among those who died helping them was the Catholic bishop Michael Power.

Canada already had religious and political differences. The Grand Orange Lodge of British America established by Ogle Robert Gowan in 1830, the year after he arrived in Canada, was essentially a support system for settled and immigrant Protestants and grew rapidly in numbers and influence. It attracted English, Scots and other European Protestants and even Jews and native Canadians. The Mohawk Orange Lodge still sends a delegation to its international gatherings.

Gowan, who had left Wexford in his 20s, was from a family that had helped put down the 1798 rebellion and himself enthusiastically assisted in defeating a similar venture in 1837 by armed French-speaking Catholics seeking independence from British rule.

So the fault lines were already there, with the Protestants wanting order and loyalty to the established order and many Catholics thinking otherwise. The Irish were soon busily fighting each other politically and in the streets, while as a sideshow, they joined forces in Ontario to wrestle control of the Catholic Church from the French.

Irish politics at its most violent erupted when in the 1860s the Fenians decided to attack the British Empire by conducting raids on Canada from the United States. Five unsuccessful forays in the mid-1860s further divided the Irish, with substantial numbers of Catholics unhappy at this challenge to their loyalty to their adopted state. Among them was Thomas D'Arcy McGee, from Carlingford, a Catholic journalist who had first left Ireland at 17 in 1842, returned to foment revolution in 1848 and then escaped arrest fleeing back to America.

Having initially wanted America to buy or seize Canada, he took against republicanism and the American way of life, became a staunch British imperialist and decamped for Canada where he tried to persuade Catholics to support a pro-British confederation. Fervently anti-Protestant, he was dedicated to undermining the increasing dominance of the Orange Order and now a Canadian nationalist, he became so influential a politician that after he was murdered by a Fenian he was given a state funeral.

As you can imagine, his extraordinary life bears much examination. I've been to the D'Arcy McGee Summer School in Carlingford (August 21-23, this year) which is fascinating and fun.

There isn't room here to talk about which Irish are fighting which in the Canadian disputes over the Quebec independence movement and the culture wars over multiculturalism and political correctness, but looking at our record, I'm reminded yet again that we not only have too much history for our own good, but we have a dangerous tendency to export it in a way that causes trouble abroad.

On second thoughts, maybe we should stick to sock diplomacy.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards