Emigrant voices: In praise of Irish rain

Patrick McKenna couldn’t wait to leave damp Irish days behind, but now in Montreal, he yearns for them


Growing up in Belfast, rain was the backdrop to so much of life. On dreary winter Sunday afternoons, it confined my siblings, along with mum and dad, and me, indoors, huddled around the coal fire, in the living room, watching an old British war movie, on our black and white TV. It rained as I waited on the Antrim Road for the bus that took me to school; it rained as I delivered newspapers around our estate, and, it rained as I hitchhiked or cycled (it once was safe to do such things), along the Ards Peninsula, the Antrim Coast Road, or around the Atlantic Drive.

The rain, I am sure was a “push” factor in my decision to emigrate. Of course, the Troubles, my being degree rich and cash poor, the feeling I was spinning the wheels of my life, were all push factors too, but behind those, I am quite sure, was the rain. Lately, though, perhaps because I am older, I have begun asking myself if that is the whole story – is there no upside to the rain?

After all, in regions of the world, threatened by drought and desertification, or by bush, or forest, fires, people would love to have “our” rain. My Bangladeshi friend tells me that, when the monsoons broke, she and her brothers and sisters splashed danced on the flat rooftop of their home in Dacca. In Zimbabwe in 2002, the third year of drought, I found myself imitating the locals, studying the sky, looking for traces of clouds. Someone explained to me, “In Africa, Patrick, water is more precious than blood”. And so it is.

Once, on a trip back home, I shared a seat on the airport bus into Belfast with a gentleman from Atlanta. Since it was – as usual – raining, I felt I should apologise. “Not at all,” he replied, “back home, after two months of scorching heat I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I called my travel agent and asked about going someplace cool, somewhere where it rains. So here I am.”

In ‘The weather where I am’ Catriona Doherty in Abu Dhabi says: “The locals love the rain, they crowd at the windows to look out at it and sometimes will run outside, kick off their shoes to jump and splash around in it. They thought I was lucky to be from Ireland where it rains all the time.” In the same post Ursula Halpin in Adelaide says, “The first time I smelled rain after living out in the bush, I was brought straight back to Ireland in my mind. I hadn’t realised that I had missed the rain.”

In ‘Good music, bad signposts, fine rain’, singer, songwriter and Oscar-winner Markéta Irglova (in conversation with Rosita Boland in October 2009) says: “I don’t mind the rain. It doesn’t stop me being outdoors, I kind of embrace it. I think a lot of the art here comes from the fact that people down the years have been spending a lot of time indoors. …It’s very possible if it was always sunny here, people would be playing football outside and there would be no music at all.”

Perhaps, for Edna O’Brien, the rain paid off. Some fifteen years ago, during an interview on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) radio I listened as the great lady of Irish literature said this (if my memory serves me well) about the rain: “It’s great for the writing but bad for the living”. Now, I ask you, would Edna have become the author she is, if Co Clare habitually basked under the sunny skies of say Tuscany, or Bondi? – Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not.

My own perspective on rain turned a corner one night, in the summer of 2013, when at 3.30am I woke to the sound of rain falling from the upstairs balcony onto mine. “How peaceful,” I thought. The only sound in my little apartment was that of raindrops. You should know that even at 3am, in summer or winter, even on the back side of my high rise, even at 40 or so meters above street level, I usually can hear a fair amount of noise: a car braking, and then racing away from the lights, tyre sounds, sirens from emergency vehicles, snow clearing equipment in winter, a drunk shouting in the alleyway and so on.

Silence is golden, and, in a big city like Montréal just as rare. The Plateau district, where I live, with its 300 licensed establishments, attracts up to 100,000 visitors per day in summer. In addition, its parks have, in recent years, morphed into open-air bars where the action, and the noise, begins at midnight. At weekends, the police deploy all available resources to empty the parks of hundreds of revelers. Obviously the noise from the parks and the bars reduces the quality of life for residents – especially for those with infants and young children. Last year, the Plateau’s police force responded to 6,000 complaints about noise. I am sure the police force would appreciate some Irish style rain at the weekends.

I now can see (and hear) that rain is a friend of silence. It has the power to faire taire la ville (silence the city), including its outdoor revelers. When I emigrated, at age 25, how I yearned to escape the dreariness and quiet of the Belfast rain! Now, so unexpectedly, here I am, appreciating the value of those grey, rainy, Belfast Sundays of my pre-emigration days.

Patrick McKenna is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read his previous articles about learning to love the harsh Canadian winter, feeling lonely at Christmas time, becoming ‘at home’ in Montreal, letting go of his ‘Irish’ identity, getting ‘that call’ when abroad, living with homesickness for 34 years, and 10 things to consider when moving abroad.

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