Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Once, I was Irish; now I am just ‘me’

After three decades struggling with my identity as an Irish person in Canada, I realise now that I don’t belong to Ireland, Canada or anywhere else; I belong to me, writes Patrick McKenna.

Wed, Aug 22, 2012, 08:14


After three decades struggling with my identity as an Irish person in Canada, I realise now that I don’t belong to Ireland, Canada or anywhere else; I belong to me, writes Patrick McKenna.

Patrick McKenna

For decades after I arrived in Canada I clung fiercely to my Irish identity. I wasn’t ready to relinquish something I paid a steep physiological and emotional price for as I came of age in Belfast in the early years of the Troubles. And, on top of my pride in my Irish identity, you could add my love for Ireland’s land- sky- and sea- scapes; her culture, music and stories.

Managing an Irish identity in Belfast wasn’t my only coming of age challenge in the latter half of the 1960s. Like many others of my “demographic”, that is Northern Ireland’s working class minority I was traveling the social mobility trail the only way I could – through education.

Perhaps unfortunately for me, my strong suit was science, which, at that time, in the Queen’s University of Belfast, was very much the preserve of the majority community. Arriving in 1967, in the Chemistry department, I didn’t feel a rapturous welcome, especially since I skipped first year studies, parachuting into the second year of the honours programme. My fellow students weren’t over the moon about that.

Between this cool reception and what was happening on the streets, I set myself a goal of achieving a first class honours. That, I reasoned was a peaceful way of showing that I, too, had a right to be here. The problem? To achieve my goal I had to work like a dog, which made my university undergraduate years less than stimulating, socially speaking.

All the same, I succeeded in obtaining my first class honours, went on to a master’s and my degrees landed me a job, in January 1973, with an employer that – I discovered later – had recently been dragged into the world of equal employment opportunity by its new American masters. Once more, I was the odd man out – especially at tense times such as the Workers Strike in May 1973.

Whether I would have had any warmer a reception, in a university or with an employer in Dublin, Cork, or in a city somewhere on the mainland, is a moot point. Also I must say that not everyone in university or in my workplace was hostile or cold. There were a lot of good times, even during the Troubles.

By 1974 I was struggling with the major learning curves of upward social mobility, dealing with the Troubles, and coming to grips with the challenges of adulthood – job, mortgage, marriage, and so on. So in the fall of 1974, during a vacation in Canada, when I scored a job offer in Ontario I thought I had found the perfect solution to all my problems.

Back home, with the job offer in hand, the Canadian consulate fast tracked the visa that I had applied for six months previously. I was gone before I had time to reflect on what I was getting myself into. I left on 31st January 1975; barely a month after the job offer came through.

From the moment I arrived in Canada I fought to hang on to my Irishness and fend off the North American Dream that was, and still is, way too materialistic for my tastes. I was the classic homesick immigrant; I wrote letters, made the phone calls ($10 for 3 minutes), sent money orders home, made regular, and then frequent, (once per year) visits back home, on my Irish passport, of course. I collected cherished LPs of the Dubliners, O’Riada sa Gaiety, the Chieftains, Planxty, Boys of The Lough, and so on.

The price I paid for maintaining my Irish identity was high: about twenty percent of my gross salary (I wasn’t earning a lot), persistent homesickness, nostalgia, and feeling not at home in either of my houses: Ireland or Canada.

This state of affairs continued more or less for 34 years, and then suddenly, in the course of the summer of 2009, my homesickness just fell away from me. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to have that blight removed from my life. I felt like a serpent that has just wriggled out of its old skin.

However, this personal change wasn’t that simple: when I shucked off my homesickness, my cherished Irish identity went with it. Suddenly, I no longer felt Irish. Ireland was “just another country”. I was so gobsmacked I had to find out what had happened to me.

Was it because my job disappeared in January 2009 when the company closed its doors? Could it be that the job, and all my previous jobs, plus the three hours spent on the daily commute had prevented me from fully enjoying the Canadian experience? Probably, especially the modern workplace that is increasingly “a take no prisoners” environment.

Then, on the home front, my parents had passed away; dad in 2007, and mum two years later. Did their passing reduce my attachment to Ireland? My numerous siblings aren’t great communicators, not with me, and from what I gather, not with each other.

What about some more pragmatic causes? I have built a fairly comfortable life; I have a good doctor and dentist and my state pension – the only pension I’ll ever see – is only two years away. There’s my stable 16-year relationship. And I love my environment in Montreal’s Plateau district.

I also thought of the aging process. There’s no getting away from that. In the summer of 2009, I turned 60. This is the age, I had learned from my reading, that the slide in happiness that sets in in the mid-twenties (prime emigration age, by the way) is finally reversed. So there’s another possible cause.

I suppose you may be saying, or thinking, “It must be great to be a Canadian now”. Well, there’s a problem with that. You see, my “Road To Damascus” moment hasn’t made me feel any more Canadian. And I am certainly not Quebecois, for whom I am, no matter how good my French, an “Anglo” – so ironic for someone with my pedigree.

What I do embrace is the thought that I don’t belong to Ireland, Canada or anywhere else; I belong to me, which I find so very liberating.

I’m now at the stage of wondering if maybe I have stumbled onto a perspective on immigration. Could immigration be a modern equivalent of the mythic hero’s journey, a path to transforming a person worldview? Well, I’ve no answers to that question, for now.

I’m just happy to be what and where I am – neither Irish, nor Canadian, just me.