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’
The pain of emigration is repeated here, almost as a race memory, and the songs of sorrow and loss are put to new use for the generations gone since the fisheries closed. In Joe Batt’s Arm, Zita Cobb remembers the exact date she left the island for a new life in Ottawa. It was just before she turned 13. Cobb, who went on to make a fortune in fibre optics, came back to Fogo some years ago and started an island regeneration scheme, which is part international arts foundation and part internationally expensive hotel.
The hotel, just opened in June, is a remarkable postmodern building, one end propped up on stilts that are two stories high. It was built, in part, by Irish workers, who were imported, in a gang, all the way from Toronto, because there is a construction boom in St John’s.
Their names are on a map of Ireland pinned to the wall of Foley’s shed: men from Malin, Letterkenny, Westport, and Monaghan. They came here to socialise (that is what happens in Newfoundland “sheds”) and then they too left, leaving a brand new bodhrán, a dead email address, a charitable cheque for a sick child. They went back to Toronto or, some of them, home for a while to Ireland. One of them found a girlfriend in St John’s, and stayed.
The cod compromise
For two weeks in the summer and one week in the fall, the locals are allowed to catch five cod each per day and, down in the shed, Maureen’s husband, Phil, fries up a panful of fish tongues for the visitors. Later, Maureen sings You’re Sentimental Irish, Just Like Me and a neighbour does a nice version of The Galway Shawl. This woman says it was hard to find the real music in Ireland – by which she means songs sung in Irish – and that all she heard, when she went to Dublin, was the stuff you could get in the pubs of St John’s.
Ah, authenticity. It’s as rare these days as cod. Outside, the weather shifts as fast as Irish weather – only much bigger. In this part of the world, the storms can kill you, the wilderness can still swallow you, and it starts 10ft outside your door.
The people of Tilting, as elsewhere in remote parts of Canada, look out for each other in a constant and material way. The hospitality is astonishing, the values so communal they seem almost Scandinavian.
These people consider the best part of themselves to be Irish – who am I to suggest that it might actually be Canadian? Besides, this isn’t Canada. It isn’t even Newfoundland.