The most Irish island in the world
The residents of Newfoundland don’t like being called ‘Newfies’ or Canadians, but you can call them Irish. And the town of Tilting, on its little-brother island of Fogo, is ‘Irish on the rocks’
Fogo harbour. Photograph: Getty Images
The ‘straight Irish’ town of Tilting, on Fogo island. Photograph: Don Lane
Newfoundland is not Canada, as the people there never tire of telling you. “Canada”, in this context, is not just a euphemism for “boring”, “law-abiding” or “flat”, the island only voted to join the confederation of provinces in 1948, and that vote was split 51 to 49 per cent – a cause of some abiding bitterness among the baymen, the former fishermen who live along these rocky shores.
Greg Malone, who wrote Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders: The True Story of Canada’s Confederation with Canada, says people have brought the book into cemeteries to read aloud over their parents’ graves, to tell them they were right all along.
Newfoundland was tactically vital to the allies, and its fate a matter of international agreement, so never mind the vote, Malone argues the island’s independence was effectively “sold” to Canada in return for the cancellation of Britain’s debt after the second World War.
Others do not remember the pre-confederation days with great warmth, however, recalling a time when the fishermen of the bays were hopelessly indentured to merchants in the capital, St John’s. Debt, payment and colonial plunder are recurring themes.
The first financial crisis was in 1933, when the island had to dissolve its parliament in return for a bailout from Britain. Some of these debts were incurred during the first World War, when Newfoundland, a dominion of the British empire, was proud to send soldiers to the trenches. The questions of what they got in return for that pride and what they lost are still live in Newfoundland. You could say that what they got was ridicule (the “Newfie” joke is the “Paddy Irishman” joke of Canada) and what they lost – you have only to look to sea to remember it – was the cod.
We ate all the cod, or nearly all of them. Vast shoals of fish, five feet long. Cod as big as a grown child. From the 1620s on, the Portuguese, the English, the “Spainyards” as one man calls them, with their factory ships, the Japanese and, yes, also the Newfoundlanders themselves hauled them out of the ocean. But if you look at the sweet-seeming villages of small wooden houses that cluster along the shore, it is clear that, whoever made all the money, it wasn’t the men who risked their lives on the high seas. In 1992, a moratorium was called on cod fishing and those modest wooden houses started to empty and fall – in a way that is almost picturesque – back into the water.
Many of these redundant fishermen had names like Doyle, or Walsh, or Ryan – some of them descendants of men who worked the Grand Bank, centuries before. When boats set out from the West Country of England, they stopped along the south coast of Ireland to take on extra crew – and some of these Irishmen jumped ship on the other side, and stayed.
‘It looks like Canada to me’
So you can’t call them “Newfies”, and you can’t call them Canadians, but they will let you call them Irish – unless their ancestors came from Devon, but those ones are easy to spot because they talk like people from Devon. The Irish talk like they came from Dungarvan. Their accents were preserved by the salt Atlantic air, in tiny isolated communities along the shore. It was a long time before they got roads.