For the last year, I’ve been walking around the same five square kilometres of Nova Scotia. I also got burned out, quit my job and wrote a second book. This was after the first book was put on hold because of the pandemic.
Let me give you some background to all that. I live here in Halifax but grew up in Tralee, Co Kerry. In the 1980s my family moved to Chicago, where I went to high school. You could say I got the lust for travel early, although, at the time, I missed Ireland terribly. I came back for college to UCD but went teaching English in Japan after that.
When I returned in the mid-1990s, the place was completely changed, the Celtic Tiger in full roar. I did an IT conversion course and became a computer programmer. My Canadian wife, Lisa, and I lived the hectic life of that time: weekend European city breaks on Ryanair flights; buying a house off the plans in north Dublin; commuting more than two hours a day. At some point we had enough. We sold the overpriced duplex and headed for Nova Scotia, with Lisa’s parents nearby. Goodbye again, Ireland.
We were lucky, getting out before the crash. I’ve been working in IT in Halifax ever since. In the last few years, I’ve been teaching computer programming at college level. It gave me more time to write, something I’ve always loved. All this was fine until a year ago, when the world turned upside down. The last year feels like a blur of walking the same suburban streets with my house in the centre.
Maybe you’ve been doing something similar: in Canberra, Cape Town or Cahersiveen. If you’ve been working from home (or just home) because of the lockdown, what else can you do but walk around? In a strange way, we’re all immigrants abroad now, exiles from the pre-Covid past we once took for granted.
Of course there are many who have suffered worse than me; people on the front line or those who have lost loved ones. We are extra lucky in the Maritimes, as the eastern provinces are called. We have had exceptionally low rates of infection compared to the rest of the country. People follow the rules here and most people wear a mask without complaint.
It was for that reason that my college committed to teaching courses remotely for the next two years. I know this was the only option but I found it an incredible challenge. It didn’t help that the administration gave teachers little advice on how to proceed. Many students were demotivated and wouldn’t even turn on their cameras. I tried videoing all my lectures to give them more class time but it back-fired. The majority of students didn’t bother even watching them. I found myself having panic attacks over the slightest things. At some point last November, I told my wife I couldn’t take it any more. So I walked away.
Around the same time as I was scrambling to handle the stress of my job, I found success as a writer for the first time. I had always been inspired by another Irish-American wanderer: Francis O’Neill (1848-1936). He left Bantry at the age of 16, wandering the world as a sailor on merchant ships, visiting exotic ports like Alexandria, Yokohama and Honolulu. As he wrote in his memoirs, he always kept a flute nearby to play tunes from home. This hobby possibly saved his life when, sick and starving after being shipwrecked on a desolate Pacific island, he befriended a Hawaiian sailor on the crowded rescue ship. Francis taught him Irish tunes in return for proper food.
Although his life story is largely forgotten, O’Neill is still remembered for his canonical 1001 Gems: The Dance Music of Ireland. Much of the music was collected after he settled in Chicago as a policeman, eventually becoming chief of police. He wrote about how he would walk about as a cop, hearing a snippet of a tune from one of the many immigrants in the city and scramble to write it down. As he grew in rank, he wasn’t above giving the occasional Irish musician a job on the force to help them. I wrote my first novel, Chief O’Neill, to bring his story into our current day.
There are odd echoes to my own story too, although mine is nowhere near as adventurous: we both left the west of Ireland for Chicago and visited far-flung places like Japan and Hawaii; we both wanted to write but worked at something else and we both left teaching after initial enthusiasm for it.
Wandering about my neighbourhood has been my refuge from the most stressful aspects of the pandemic. When Chief O’Neill was put on hold (we even had the book launch venue planned), I took to walking with my son Martin. He is autistic and needs a lot of outside activity. On one of our outings, we came upon a grove of wooden crosses, the only remains of a 19th-century Nova Scotia poor farm for the “harmlessly insane”. This was the spark that turned into Poor Farm. My second novel is an attempt to imagine what life would be like for somebody like Martin, at that time.
As luck would have it, Moose House Press over here picked the novel for publication weeks after the first draft was written. It has just come out. Although I despaired for Chief O'Neill, it too is coming out this month. I went from someone who had given up on writing to having two books being published within a month of each other. Who knows what's ahead? I know I will keep walking: getting out of the house to get a break from the tyranny of online life. I left my old job with something positive to look forward to. I have something to always be proud of now. It keeps me going.
Poor Farm is published by Moose House Press. Chief O'Neill is published by Somerville Press on May 13th