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’
These days, the highway is long and the traffic serene: everyone drives like a lady or like a Canadian. “It looks like Canada to me,” I said to one dissenter and pointed out a hillside of pine trees that was only a Mountie short of a postcard. “That’s not pine,” he said (he seemed a bit shocked). “There’s no pine over there. Those trees are spruce and fir.”
It may all look the same to an outsider, but as you travel through the vast beauty of the landscape, you begin to lose yourself in the fractal variation of one bay or inlet that is crucially different to the inlet or bay before it, and the names you pass are more a story than a map: Random Island, Come by Chance, Witless Bay.
Five hours from St John’s, a ferry leaves Farewell for the island of Fogo (which is not really Newfoundland, I am told) and a road leads through the villages of Seldom, Little Seldom and Joe Batts Arm, all the way to Tilting. And, of course, Tilting is not the same as any of these other villages, because Tilting is not a patchwork community of Irish and West Country English – Tilting is straight Irish. Tilting is Irish on the rocks.
The grave of Michael Greene
Winds rake the island of Fogo, icebergs float past in the early summer and whales blow. The first Irish settler, Thomas Burke, arrived here in 1752. The first known grave of an Irish emigrant is up on the hillside: Michael Greene from Carrick-on-Suir. The headstone gets all the spellings right and says he was buried in 1856. He has a magnificent view. There is a faded wreath and a prayer, written on a piece of paper and protected by a plastic bag, propped up against the stone. They were placed there in 2011 by a group from Carrick-on-Suir and the prayer ends with the words: “God bless Michael Greene and all who followed him.”
A few Irish politicians turned up when Tilting was declared a National Historic Site in 2003 and RTÉ did a documentary in 2011. There is a Féile Tilting each September, which last year was linked live to Youghal local radio. And it certainly is freakish and lovely to hear these clear and yearning accents of a people who, after centuries, still look over the Atlantic towards home.
Maureen Foley says that when people come back for the summer, “the church is blocked”. The last 10 years they said that Tilting was dying, but she had faith the community would survive – and true enough there are people now who commute to shift work in Alberta, there are others doing well in the oil industry in St John’s who have built new houses here.
Being Irish, she says, the people are very focused on education, and the children of the community often work as professionals, far afield. But “everyone here owns their house”, she says, so it makes sense to live here, or to keep a place, if you can. What is the permanent population of Tilting? That is hard to say. Maureen tries for 200 but another woman says 95. There are no young people to be seen.