Montreal’s Irish story gets a new chapter
Irish writers played a prominent role in Blue Metropolis festival, telling new Irish stories in a Francophone city rediscovering its Irish roots dating to the Famine and beyond
Several Irish writers visited Montreal last week as guest stars of the Blue Metropolis international literary festival
The Blue Met’s Irish events included a walking tour of Old Montreal, following the annual pilgrimage route of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, culminating in the Black Rock by the Victoria Bridge that marks the burial site of 6,000 mostly Irish immigrants who died of ship fever in 1847-’48. Photograph: Kevin Wright / Bloomsday Montréal
Slán, sectarian politics. Dia dhuit, boom and bust and bailout.
When several top writers of contemporary Irish fiction visited Montreal last week as guest stars of the Blue Metropolis international literary festival, they connected with local readers in a decidely 21st-century way: over economics and identity.
More precisely, over how economic austerity and recovery affects people. Or not.
“We’re a small island on the tip of western Europe – we don’t really have anything to complain about, you know?” first-time novelist Sara Baume (Spill Simmer Falter Wither) said during a Q&A.
“We do have politics – extremely boring. The IRA is not really an issue anymore,” the Cork author said after a fellow in the audience named O’Neill, in a shamrock green jumper, ventured a question on politics and literature.
“It depends on how we approach the word ‘political’,” added Danielle McLaughlin, a solicitor turned short-story writer (Dinosaurs on Other Planets), also based in Cork, who contributes to The New Yorker.
“I’m inclined to think,” she said, “that if you’re writing truthfully about matters that affect people in their everyday lives and how they live their lives in society, well, then you are writing politically.”
Founded in 1997 and now backed by $1 million in public and private funding, the annual Blue Met festival attracted more than 37,000 visitors this year to 233 multilingual events (French and English, plus Spanish, Hebrew and more.)
Between April 11th and 17th, the fest hosted 235 writers and participants from 10 countries. The half-dozen Irish events were sponsored by Culture Ireland, the Ireland Literature Exchange and the Embassy of Ireland in Canada.
In previous editions, the festival has featured Irish writers Kevin Barry (last year) and Colm Tóibín (the grand prize winner in 2013).
Ireland’s recession, people’s financial difficulties, their struggle to find proper mental-health care – the Irish writers at this year’s festival said they manage to explore those and other themes through character, not polemic.
The issues are hardly unique to Ireland, they pointed out – they’re universal.
Christine Dwyer Hickey (The Cold Eye of Heaven; The Lives of Women) takes on difficult subjects like abortion and alcoholism. “It’s the human condition that interests me,” the Dublin author said. “I’m interested in the people we become.”
Ditto for novelist Paul Lynch (Red Sky in Morning; Black Snow). The former chief film critic at Dublin’s defunct Sunday Tribune used to think his life “was a lie” – now he explores “the dream of Ireland” and what it means.
“Black Snow is a lot about the romance that’s in the heads of the people who are no longer living in the country and whether the reality meets the expectation - and in the book it certainly doesn’t ... Tribalism is always at play.”
It’s a message that resonates here in Quebec, where four out of 10 francophones – until the 1960s, staunchly Roman Catholic and rivals of the economically dominant Protestant English – have some Irish blood in them.
Most can trace their roots back to the mass immigration of famine-stricken Irish in the mid-19th century. Others go as far back as the mid-17th, when an ex-soldier named Tadhg Cornelius O’Brennan became New France’s first Irish immigrant.
(In 1670, “Tec Aubry”, as the French called him, married Jeanne Chartier, one of the many filles du roy that King Louis XIV sent to the colony to help boost the population. The couple had seven children; the youngest had 14 of his own.)
Irish heritage is now undergoing a revival in Quebec, where politicians named Johnson, Mulroney and Charest have made their mark over the years, right down to Montreal’s current mayor Denis Coderre, who is one-quarter Irish.
Brooklyn, the Bafta-winning coming-of-age movie starring Saorise Ronan, was partly filmed in Montreal, and Irish dance, Celtic rock and Irish university studies are flourishing here and down the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec City.
The Blue Met’s Irish events included a walking tour of Old Montreal, the Lachine Canal and neighbouring Griffintown (now undergoing heavy gentrification) and Pointe-Saint-Charles, both once heavily Irish.
There’s enough local lore there to – fittingly – fill a book.
Participants followed the annual pilgrimage route of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, culminating in the Black Rock by the Victoria Bridge that marks the burial site of 6,000 mostly Irish immigrants who died of ship fever in 1847-’48.
The area is now a urban wasteland cut through by a heavily trafficked motorway and a railway, with a big-box shopping mall at one end and a Loto-Québec parking lot at the other.
Proceeds of the tour went to the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation, which wants the area redeveloped into a commemorative park that does justice to the memory of the dead, some of whom died building the original railroad.
“There’s an expression here that goes: there’s an Irishman under every railway tie,” said tour guide Donovan King, himself of Irish descent. “They were seen as expendable labour.”
That gritty reality is also something that Montreal’s Irish look for when they read Irish writers – harsh modern times that for some reflect their own upbringing in Canada.
Hearing and seeing the Irish writers helped retired nurse Geraldine Sanford “understand behaviours here that carried over, old demons like alcoholism but also the strong family, the humour, the sharp tongue, the sharp wit.”
Her Irish grandparents (Catholic and Protestant) lived in Griffintown and she sometimes catches herself using old expressions like “to be honest”. (“It’s not something to be taken literally,” she said wryly).
Montreal actress Kathleen Fee read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses at one Blue Met event hosted by Festival Bloomsday Montréal and took in two Irish writers’ panels at Concordia University.
“They really have a handle on what it means to be a human being,” Fee said of the authors. “The sense of place is so intense, so integral to their writing. It’s not about Ireland qua Ireland, it’s about that house, that farmstead, that suburb at the edge of the woods. There’s a freshness to the writing.”
Communications consultant Judee Ganten was drawn to Martin John, the new novel set in London by Irish expatriate writer Anakana Schofield, who lives in Vancouver – and met the author herself.
“It’s just so satisfying to read Irish writers,” Ganten said. “There’s this lyricism – it’s in the music, in the poetry, in the fiction. It’s a passion and human warmth and exuberance, all within a literary tradition.”
Schofield explores social class in her novels, an issue she says “unites genders.” Writers, and especially women writers, in her opinion, “put people on the page who have no station in life” – the “freaks, geeks and miscreants”, as a late-night panel she spoke at was titled.
At first, Ganten hadn’t intended to pick up Martin John, a very profane book, as Schofield showed when she read a passage filled with F-bombs and other expletives.
“Why would I want to read a book about a man who’s a sexual deviant?” Ganten said later. “But when I heard her read, it made me want to buy it. It sounded worthwhile.”
Proof, perhaps, that in the new economy the Irish authors of austerity and recovery are getting a run for their money.
Jeff Heinrich is a Montreal freelance journalist, translator and author. More at jeffheinrich.com.