Montreal's love of all things Irish


Languages matter in Quebec, a region proudly divided between French and English speakers, and now Irish is getting the chance to flourish there too

In Montreal in the Canadian province of Quebec, English and French communities mix like oil and water, together but separate, with mass immigration making the city one of the most diverse in North America. Language is pervasive here. At Concordia University, an Anglo island in a sea of French, the Canadian Irish Studies School was established in 2009.

“It’s not about nostalgia, that ‘my grandmother came in the famine and I want to know more about her’ or something like that,” says principal and chair of the school, Michael Kenneally, who moved from Youghal to Canada in 1964. “It’s presented as a case study for a whole series of issues that go beyond Ireland, things like colonialism, cultural nationalism, linguistic preservation, violence, rebellion, peace and reconciliation, emigration and exile. They may be interested in those issues for another context.”

Quebecers tend to see in Ireland something that they find in themselves. A Catholic hold on political and social life dwindled from the 1960s onward, and, according to Kenneally, “the badge of identity now is language and nationalism, they’re the new kind of religions of identity.” To mix more easily with the French majority, Irish immigrants often changed their names – Reilly became Riel and O’Sullivan became Sylvain. More recently, Canadians and Quebecers have been looking at their past as they try to understand their future.

“There’s a lot of discussion about two languages, two cultures, and so they look around for models. There are people in Quebec who look to Ireland in terms of its colonial past; they see parallels to reflect their own ideologies and political points of view,” states Kenneally.

If language is the new religion, then the classroom is the new church. In a nondescript corner of Concordia, the Irish language is taught by Spiddal native Aoife Ní Churraoin. With every student here having chosen to take the course, the atmosphere is very different to that found in many school classrooms in Ireland. “They’re really enthusiastic about the language,” says Ní Churraoin, after two hours of class that began with learning verbs and culminated in a céilí. “It’s very fulfilling to come out of the class, even though it’s tiring.”

Amy Megran and Laura Sol are two students. Megran has never been to Ireland, but her family moved to Montreal from Belfast. Ottawa-born Sol, on the other hand, has no family ties to Ireland but was enchanted after a visit. “I saw that they had a distinct culture because I visited Ireland and England on the same trip and I found that there actually was a significant difference between them, which is something that I wasn’t expecting,” she says.

“It’s hard, harder than I thought. It’s a challenge, but it’s important to have at least two languages,” says Amy, who is also taking courses in Irish history. The school offers a wide range of courses, with a heavy emphasis on Quebec’s history in relation to Ireland.

One of those taking such courses is 34-year-old Raymond Jess from Limerick, who moved to Canada to marry his French-Canadian girlfriend. “I’m a lot more interested in Irish now that I’m older. I appreciate it a lot more,” he says. “My daughter is Canadian, she speaks French and I’ve been here for eight years. I’d like to give my daughter something beyond shamrocks and green hats.”

Perhaps the most inquisitive person in the class is 20-year-old Armenian-Brazilian Matthew Karamanukian, who thinks that Irish “sounds German a little bit”. Though he has never been to Ireland, he will be finishing his course in Irish Studies at University College Cork later this year. “I want to know about every aspect that I can while I’m there. I want to dip into a whole bunch of little things and be with the people,” he says.

With the school in its embryonic stages, Kenneally is planning bigger things. “We’re involved in creating something that will be permanent,” he states. “It’s wonderful to see the students appreciate the richness and there’s outreach to the community.

“The university is very pleased with what’s happening and we’re beginning to have an international reputation. I absolutely love it. It’s like I won the Irish sweepstakes.”

Kenneally’s optimism is certainly reflected by the passion of the students taking courses. With so much recent emphasis on Irish immigrants moving to Canada, the school is a small reminder that the relationship is reciprocal. For many people here, Irish and non-Irish alike, the language and the country remain relevant.