Friends become family for Irish women in Canada

Facebook is helping connect young Irish mums in the absence of family support

Samantha White’s homesickness kicked in when she was six months pregnant. When she dropped her mother off at Vancouver International Airport, at the end of an eight-week visit after little Ava was born, it got much worse.

“When I dropped her at the plane, had I a ticket, I would have put me and Ava on it and said to Andrew, ‘Get yourself together and I’ll see you in a year’. For three weeks after she left, I was looking at jobs at home,” she says.

While White no longer feels the same urgency to return to Ireland, she and her husband Andrew are still "considering it". They moved to the Canadian city in 2009, never intending to stay so long.

She spoke to The Irish Times at a meet up of theIrish Mammies in Vancouver Facebook group, in Rachel Healy's downtown apartment. Originally from Dundalk, Healy and her now husband also left Dublin for Vancouver in 2009.


“We came for a one-year adventure and it’s been seven,” Healy says, adding they wanted to escape the “misery” of the recession. For years, her parents even told her to stay put.

But things changed when she had her son Max last December, far away from her family’s support.

“You’re on your own completely, and it dawned on us that we need help,” she says.

Healy has moved back to Dublin since meeting with The Irish Times, though both she and White say the Irish Mammies group helped ease the longing for home they felt after having children.

The 90-plus members of the group post about everything, from meet-ups at the beach, to taking breast milk or formula onto a flight.

“I think becoming a new mum for the first time, you can feel very isolated. It feels like you’re going to crack up when you’re sitting in a tiny apartment, and you can’t even call home because of the time difference. And it’s just somewhere where you can comment, saying: ‘I’m going to the pool at 2pm, anyone want to come?’ And four or five mammies can join in. Otherwise, you’re going for a walk on your own. It’s just a great way to stay sane, to be honest,” Healy says.


New mothers are a particularly vulnerable group, according to a Government-funded report on the needs of emigrants, published by the University College Dublin's Clinton Institute in 2014.With mothers so far from their family and friends in Ireland, that sense of vulnerability is heightened without a local support network of other Irish immigrants.

Cathy Murphy, executive director of the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre (ICAN) in Toronto, was concerned about isolated young mothers, particularly those without a network of coworkers to rely on in lieu of family.

“It was a concern that if you’re new and you don’t know to reach out... and find a mothers’ network, you might be pretty lonely. Although we really encourage the networking with Canadians and getting integrated into your community, when you’re a new parent, what you want more than anything is a sense of home. And they need that from each other.”

Ms Murphy and her colleagues started a weekly family group at the ICAN office in Toronto.

“They’d come in, have a cup of tea, talk. And they would know more about the mothering community than we would so they were able to help each other,” she says. Its members now run the group themselves, and Ms Murphy refers Irish parents to it.

Urban family

Ita Kane-Wilson calls this finding your "urban family", and she found hers in the Irish Women's Network of British Columbia (IWN). Now the group's secretary, she has lived in Vancouver for 11 years with her Canadian husband. They have two young children.

Even though she was more interested in making Canadian friends at first, she says being dragged to an IWN meeting was one of the best things that happened to her.

“You have to have an urban family in Vancouver, and most of the people in my urban family are Irish and are in the IWN, and how lucky am I to have that? I’m delighted to see Facebook groups like the Irish Mammies in Vancouver that weren’t around when I started having kids. They’ll create their own urban families and those kinds of things are crucial if you want to live here for good,” she says.

Sharon Woods also understands the importance of having a support network. She is the president of the Irish Club of White Rock, near Vancouver. The Irish community there is tightknit and active, and members organise an annual St Patrick's Day dance, potluck dinners, pub nights and much more, while sitting around her dining room table.

She has lived in Canada for four years with her husband James and three children, first in Manitoba, then in White Rock.

Shortly after she moved to White Rock, she fell outside her daughter’s school and broke her leg. She needed four surgeries. Her youngest, James, was nine months old at the time, and her husband was away with work for two out of every three weeks.

“I wasn’t able to drive and had to grocery shop online. I couldn’t walk up steps…and couldn’t go anywhere. It was really hard,” she says.

Members of the Irish club brought up her situation at a meeting.

“Next thing, all the Irish rallied around me and cooked and baked, and they fed us for months. I genuinely wouldn’t have survived here without them because I didn’t know anyone else at the time,” she says.


Another way Irish women in Canada are building their support systems is through the GAA. According to Cathy Murphy, the number of women playing camogie in Toronto “has skyrocketed”. There are now senior and junior teams to accommodate demand. Several years ago there was no camogie team at all.

Katie McMahon plays football with the Toronto GAA and drives five hours round trip to the matches. She lives and works on Griffith Island, a private hunting club, with her gamekeeper boyfriend. From December to April, the island is closed to guests, but Katie, her boyfriend and two staff remain to do upkeep.

“It has pros and cons like everything. I love the island, how pretty it is… but then you miss this interaction. That’s why I don’t mind travelling two and a half hours to play a game for an hour and then go back again. Because it’s this group and this team I miss so much, being part of a team. I’ve always been part of a Gaelic football team no matter where I’ve been, so it’s very important to me to interact with other like-minded people,” she says.

A group of women from the Irish Sporting and Social Club in Vancouver echo the sentiment. Dubliner Nathalie Behan, Rachel Quinn from Co Armagh and Elmarie Cronin from Co Cork say the GAA is a huge part of their social lives.

“No matter where you are in the world, once you join a GAA club, that’s your home away from home… We do everything together: Thanksgiving, Christmas. We are each other’s family. If you’re homesick, you contact your friends. You don’t contact your parents because you don’t want to worry them,” Behan says.

She thinks her close group of GAA friends will stick together. “We’ve gone through a journey together.”

This project was supported by the Global Irish Media Fund.