I gave up a suffocating civil service job for a new life in Canada
I’ve wondered for 49 years why I gave it all away for a place where I knew no one. But that place opened doors
Brian Brennan: ‘I was just a restless guy with a passport who wanted to see if there was something better on the other side.’
There was no compelling reason for me to leave Dublin. At just 23, to all intents and purposes I had it all. I had a coveted job as executive officer with the Revenue Commissioners, with a gold-plated pension plan and excellent promotion prospects. I enjoyed an active social life with lots of friends, partying and singing. Yet I threw it all away and moved to Canada, where I had no job, no friends and no family connections. Why? I have pondered this question for 49 years.
I became a wild goose on November 2nd, 1966. I packed my bags, kissed my mother goodbye, and boarded an Aer Lingus flight bound for Montreal. I told her I’d be home in a year or two, perhaps. I needed to get away for a while.
The Canadian embassy in Ballsbridge gave me a landed immigrant’s card, but I didn’t really consider myself an immigrant. Immigrants came to places to find employment or escape from repressive regimes. I already had a job. And while I might have had a thing or two to say about Church interference in state affairs, I was hardly bereft of rights and freedoms. I was just a restless guy with a passport who wanted to see if there was something better on the other side.
I had to get out of the civil service. The money was good but the job was suffocating. My working days were defined by tea breaks and earnest debates about the ambiguities of the Irish customs regulations. Should beach balls be classified as toys or sporting goods? Should linoleum be classified as a floor covering or a petroleum by-product? I couldn’t take it any longer. I was a creative soul trapped in the clothes of a bureaucrat.
What began as a temporary leave of absence eventually became permanent. Canada opened all doors. When I decided to try playing piano and singing for a living, nightclub owners in Ontario and Nova Scotia offered me contracts that kept me busy for three months at a time. In Dublin, I would have been advised not to give up my day job. When I decided to try my hand at news announcing, a trusting radio station owner in Prince George, British Columbia put me on the air. He said he liked my Dublin accent.
When I decided to try writing for a living - as a newspaper reporter - the editor of the community weekly in Smithers, British Columbia, pointed to the typewriter and told me to make the words sing. I learned my craft at a paper so small that I was able to make my mistakes in public without too many people noticing. Might I eventually end up writing national bestsellers? Perhaps not, but this was a good place to start.
I spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business as a staff writer. Most were good years. As the theatre critic for the Calgary Herald in the 1980s, I got to travel the world, check out what Broadway and the West End had to offer, and share my findings with the folks back home. Back home in Canada, that is. By that time I had exchanged my Irish passport for a Canadian one. After leaving the theatre beat I wrote biographical profiles and feature obituaries for the Herald. Some of those stories eventually became the raw material for my books.
My newspaper career ended abruptly in 1999 and not in the way I’d always envisaged. Instead of being feted by my colleagues at a merry going-away party with cards, cake and choruses of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, I found myself scurrying down the back stairs of the Herald building, clutching my dictionary and the framed photos of my Canadian wife and daughter. The first strike of newsroom employees in the 116-year history of the Herald was about to begin, and I was about to be out of work for the first time since coming to Canada.
This was an unusual dispute in Canadian labour history, in that it wasn’t about wages or vacation allowances. It was about a group of journalists who wanted to be treated with dignity and respect. Yet for all the heartache and frustration it engendered, at no point during the eight-month strike did I ever say, “To heck with it all, I’m going back to Ireland”. After 33 years away, I would have been a stranger in my own land.
I made productive use of my time on the picket line by writing my first book, about the colourful characters and social history of my adopted country. That gave me a good opportunity to figure out where I now fitted into the whole scheme of things. Canada was where this wild goose had built his nest, and where he likely would spend the rest of his days.
Brian Brennan is the author of, among other books, Leaving Dublin: Writing my Way from Ireland to Canada. He lives in Calgary, Alberta. brianbrennan.ca