‘Returning to live in Ireland after 30 years, I was hatched’

Generation Emigration ‘Ireland and Me’ entry: John K White, returned from Toronto

John K White: ‘When I opened my mouth, they asked if I was American. Of my Irish beginnings, they were amused’

Growing up in Toronto was the best of many worlds, but never one I called home. Home was where I was born in Dublin, Ireland, at the Hatch Street Nursing Home, half a block from John Millington Synge’s birthplace.

Upon my return to Ireland to live thirty years later though, I prefer to say I was hatched. It’s more poetic and to me Ireland was always home to the poetic - a land whose “history began before the angelic clan.”

I chose Baltimore, West Cork, a sloping seaside town. My father was a Cork man and had spent summers on nearby Sherkin Island and had stirred me by its beauty. In West Cork, I would finally assume my birthright.

The beauty of the landscape was evident. Mount Gabriel reached across the harbour, holding Baltimore in an almost embryonic embrace. Homes dotted the hillside, peeking through the gorse as sails tingled in the fresh coastal breeze.


Ireland was not entirely new. There were my parents’ stories of a young republic. I had visited for a summer as a seven year-old and as a university graduate doing the Europe thing, but then the distinction was between two of Ireland’s most hallowed stouts.

The locals welcomed me and, in the same breath, asked where I was from, but perhaps that had more to do with small towns. Baltimore’s downtown was one road, a dead-end at that. I could hardly compare Baltimore to Toronto.

When I opened my mouth, they asked if I was American. Of my Irish beginnings, they were amused and said a different Ireland existed here than in Dublin. I exchanged stories with the locals. One told me the elusive “whole” of Ireland was in fact a hole in the rocks behind the Beacon, Baltimore’s postcard attraction beckoning tourists like birds.

I listened to the deep-sea divers, who dove for steel inside the wreck of a nearby ship. They told me of the sea and friends who had died. One diver told me the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel could well be the light of an oncoming train.

I read The Sack of Baltimore by Thomas Davis, immortalizing the day in 1631 when Algerian invaders carted off over a hundred Irish as slaves. Anything to stake my claim. But would they ever stop calling me “the Canadian” I wondered?

I tried some of my own Irish lore. If my stories brought any laughter, they did as much for their Irishness as they did for my attempts at being Irish. I wasn’t doing well.

Was I presumptuous about my Irish beginnings? Perhaps, Ireland doesn’t give easily of itself because much has been taken - by colonial administrations, famine, the Troubles, the unemployed young like my parents, leaving annually by the thousands to seek work elsewhere.

To be sure, a country today must preserve its culture. Tradition and heritage are its life-blood, but there is no poetry in a country whose young must leave, hatched or otherwise.

This article was received as an entry into the Generation Emgiration ‘Ireland and Me’ competition, which is now closed.