A month after arriving in Quebec City in 2013, I was at a park with my two children and we were kicking a soccer ball around. Another kid asked if he could join the kickabout, and hearing my kids speaking English he immediately asked where we were from. My eldest replied without hesitation: “Dublin, Ireland”.
The kid then asked what his name was and my son replied: “Raphael Cavatorta”. By then the kid’s mother had joined the conversation and said: “That does not sound very Irish…”.
Admittedly, it does not.
My then girlfriend - now wife - and I arrived in Ireland in the mid-1990s in our early 20s from France and Italy. We went to Dublin to study and work. We ended up staying until 2013 and in the process we found rewarding jobs, integrated, made friends and enjoyed going to the pub. We became Irish citizens, had children and, ultimately, like many "real" Irish people, we emigrated to Canada.
There are very few Irish people here in Quebec City, although a large part of the population is of Irish ancestry and the Irish immigrants of late 19th century have now been fully integrated in Quebec’s francophone world. In any case, we are proud to be counted officially as members of new wave or Irish immigrants.
We have been asked the “where are you from” question countless times here in Canada and our answer is always, and inevitably, Ireland. It is a genuine, heartfelt response, yet a problematic one at the same time, particularly when there is increasing pressure to fit a specific “nationality” box in these difficult times for people on the move.
It is a genuine answer not only because we are legally Irish citizens, but because during our life in Ireland we bonded with people and place. We were citizens in the fullest sense of the term. We participated as voters and social actors to public life in Ireland through our interactions with friends and colleagues. We integrated in all aspects of an admittedly comfortable middle-class Ireland with all of its hang-ups about housing prices, schools and holidays, as well as benefits (nice houses, good schools and holidays….).
It is also a heartfelt answer, because we loved living in Dublin. Ireland gave us opportunities we would have probably not found anywhere else. We enjoyed our life there immensely and only the ambition to discover other cultures and places drove us to leave, not necessity.
In fact, we left Ireland because a challenging work opportunity presented itself and we were at a stage where we thought, we either go now for a new adventure or we will never do it because of the kids and their need for stability.
We have no regret about our choice to leave Ireland and in many ways Quebec offers a quality of life - public services in particular - that is difficult to beat. The day we left though, we became every emotional on the plane and despite being happy about starting a new life in Canada, a feeling of sadness that we had not felt when we left our respective countries of birth overwhelmed us for a while.
It is finally a problematic answer because at times we feel like we “usurped” an identity that is not rightfully ours and we use it because, well, “everybody loves the Irish” and everyone wants to be one.
A large group of people just like us probably shares all these contrasting emotions. Since the mid-1990s Ireland has known significant immigration into the country with people coming to Ireland to make a life and a home for themselves, and eventually leaving out of choice or necessity.
What do these people bring with them when they leave Ireland? Are they still Irish when they leave or do they become something else, perhaps going back to their original identity?
In our case we feel a very strong and powerful connection to Ireland because it is the place where we became adults, where we learned about responsibilities, where we joined the workforce, where we became taxpayers and participative citizens. We are very unlikely to transmit to the kids a sense of Irishness that would make sense to “real” Irish people, but the bond with the country will never disappear for us no matter what.
It is a testament to the welcome we received in Ireland so many years ago that we feel both compelled and honoured to “fly the Irish flag” here in Quebec City.
This is why I smile with delight every time the kids are asked where they come from and reply: “Dublin, Ireland”. We do not have an Irish last name, but Irishness runs deeper than that.
Francesco Cavatorta is a lecturer in political science at the Université Laval, Québec