Finding My Canadian Self in Ireland

By Kath Halloran

I grew up in Toronto’s East End in the 1970s when the city was so painfully white “Catholic” was considered “ethnic.” My only taste of a wider racial world came from my Jamaican nannies, Peggy and Rosie, generous, patient, indulgent women who raised my brothers and I five days a week to support their own children, both those in Toronto and those left behind in Jamaica.

I loved these women dearly. One of my earliest memories is refusing to watch Gone with the Wind, angered to the point of tears by the idea of slavery, let alone that anyone should watch a movie about people who owned slaves who were clearly bad people because they owned slaves. Morality is gloriously binary to children – the good do good thing, the bad do bad things. Racism, particularly the ugly, murderous racism of the Antebellum (and post-bellum and, in many ways, the contemporary United States) offended my burgeoning sense of decency and my innate sense of fairness. And I loved my Rosie; a world where she was an unperson because of her skin was an intolerable concept.

Growing up, as opposed physical or legal adulthood, is a series of realizations – some sweet and many others bitter. Over the span of a life, you hope that these moments lead to wisdom. The specifics have faded over time but I still recall the quizzical wonder that not everyone was Catholic and that, despite TV and the movies, not only was not everyone American but that I was, in fact, Canadian. Perhaps it is a natural stage in children’s development that the awareness of otherness is followed by a desire to reject otherness, to find your identity within the group. Catholic school taught me both “the Good News” and the superiority of Catholicism. It reinforced the pop culture victimology of the Irish Catholic diaspora (by most any metric, the most successful  in history – 70 million people worldwide claiming ancestry from an island that never boasted a population greater than eight million). It cut a sharp line between my father’s culture – Catholic, Irish, oppressed – and my mother’s –  English, Anglican, oppressor. Within this arrangement of identity, “Canadian” trailed a distant and little thought of fourth place.

If Catholic school taught me sectarianism, the Beach(es) taught me whiteness. A cul-de-sac of a neighbourhood where Queen Street ends, the Beach(es) is defined as much by the desirableness the address as the line of the lakeshore that it hugs.  Hemmed in by the railway to the north, the Gardiner Expressway to the west and the Scarborough bluffs to the east, the Beach(es) has never truly grown beyond the its roots as a WASP enclave, the kind of place where local residents formed a “Balmy Beach Swastika Club” after the Christie Pits Riots to protest “foreigners” infiltrating the neighbourhood.

As much as the Beach Hebrew Institute has since become a point of pride for the neighbourhood, I didn’t meet my first Jewish friend until I enroled in a private school at Bloor and Spadina. In the 1980s, there was one Korean kid in my class. My graduating class from Malvern Collegiate Institute had a single, painfully preppy, black student. From this middle class, comfortable, monochrome world, I learned that to be normal was to be white, Christian and middle class. To be Canadian was to be white, Christian and middle class. To be other was to be exceptional, unique. And so long as the other remained unique – my Jewish friend, my black friend, my Korean friend – it was acceptable.

By the time I was in my 20s, I considered myself if no long quite Irish-Catholic then firmly Irish-Canadian. I enrolled in the Celtic Studies Program at St. Michael’s College. I taught myself to enjoy the taste of Guinness and I hunted the world music sections of HMV and Sam’s for tracks by the Bothy Band and Davey Spillane. I would talk to Rosie from time to time. She was far more faithful in checking in on my progress than I was in keeping up with her. I would ring off with a promise to get together soon. I never followed through.

Much of the passion for my Irish “heritage” passed with age as these things do. Yet when I found myself traveling to Dublin to enroll in the Master of Arts in Creative Writing at University College Dublin, there was still a hard kernel of starry-eyed romance lodged deep within my soul – the emigrant’s daughter returning to Mother Ireland from the New World. I think the romance lasted about as long as the bus trip from Dublin Airport to the seaside suburb of Blackrock in South Dublin where my college residence was located. The Partton Flyer emerged from the Port Tunnel to a panoramic view of the Dublin skyline (all seven stories of it) studded with construction cranes like a flock of giant storks had overtaken the city. It was September 5th, 2007, and the bottom was about to fall out of the Irish economy.

But in those last halcyon days of the Celtic Tiger, I was stuck out like a sore thumb. Beyond the Pale, the “culchies” (Dublin slang for Irish from the “country” i.e. anyone not a Dubliner) might have been happy to sling that Quiet Man nonsense to American punters but the Dubliners were beyond all that. Dublin was a modern city, ready and eager to take its place among the great cities of the world. The city’s tastes ran to exclusive nightclubs and Arcade Fire in Phoenix Park, Top Shop on Grafton Street and Miller Genuine Draft on tap in the bars. I was a fat, North American student in jeans and Blundstones. I was the wrong shape, wore the wrong clothes, was, in the opinion of the public at the time, from the wrong part of North America, and in search of a culture that only every existed in the beery nostalgia of expatriates and Hollywood. Despite the fact that the greatest linguistic hurdle I had to overcome was the particularly thick brogue of the driver on the No. 7 Bus, my first weeks in Ireland were some of the most dislocating and achingly lonely of my life. The first friends I made in Dublin were three other North American women – an Edmontonian and two Americans, from Cleveland and Atlanta respectively. Draw together by the sound of our drawling North American English among the Irish rounded vowels and rhotic consonants. We created our own ‘arrival city’ in the Blackrock Starbucks – a place of familiarity amongst so much difference.

Mark Twain wrote that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Before living in Ireland, I would never have considered those to be among my faults nor imagined that Ireland, of all places, would be where I would confront what it means to be Canadian, specifically a white, Christian, anglophone Canadian.

Toronto prides itself on its diversity and it’s easy to think that because you cross the railway bridge on Main Street to ride the subway with East African women in burkhas, eat falafel from the Libyan guys on Yonge Street, and attend the Portuguese mass at St. Mary’s that you’re progressive and open-minded, free of prejudice or privilege. And then the faces of colour disappear. The babble of Mandarin, Tagalong, Italian, Bengali that forms the audible background of public transit and shopping malls is replaced by lilting English leavened only by the occasional Slavic outburst. You find yourself staring when a mixed-race girl gets on the No. 7 because she’s the first black face you’ve seen outside the movies in three months. You mention it once then learn to ignore the brutal, casual bigotry that falls from the mouths of certain classmates, racist cant so far beyond the pale in “politically correct” America (Canadian, American – they see it as all the same in 2007) you can’t bear yourself to repeat it in the privacy of your own mind. The difference are small. The differences are significant. You wonder why you notice and why you never noticed before. You miss Toronto – you miss buses that run past 11:30 at night and paperback romances you can buy at two a.m. in the drugstore when you’re too tired to think and too wired to sleep. You miss drugstores open until two a.m. and coffee shops open after seven p.m. and American (as in from the U.S.) TV and feeling like you fit in. You miss sitting on the streetcar next to middle-aged Asian women and complaining about the delay.

You miss the feeling of recognition when the middle aged Asian women bitches out the short-turn at Kingston Road in a fluent Toronto drawl. You think about the pinch of shame when you realize you expected her to have an accent. You think about how you still don’t dress right but everywhere is a 10-minute walk away (and it’s a 10-minute walk to the place that’s only 10 minutes from the place you want to be) and you’re broke more often than not, so your shape is slowly changing but your voice has picked up a lilt and your vowels have begun to stretch and curve like you’re Daniel Day-Lewis in In the Name of the Father. If you stay 10 years, five years, two years, soon enough you’ll fade into the crowd. The woman beside you on the streetcar lived in Canada her whole life and some people will always assume she got off the boat yesterday.

I went to Ireland to find the land of my fathers and met myself instead. I came home more conscious of being Canadian but also more conscious of what it means to be white and Canadian. Being white in Canadian society is to be privileged. It is the privilege of being assumed to belong. The privilege of belonging to what is deemed culturally normal. It is the privilege of looking on a movie screen and, consciously or unconsciously, recognizing the ways in which you resemble Julia Roberts. It is watching TV and hearing people who speak with the same accent you do. It is picking up a book and never once questioning your mental image of the protagonist (and sometimes being somewhat surprised the first time the narrator passes a mirror). It is the privilege of having your identity constantly validated in a society where our heroes from Superman to Sir John A. MacDonald are white. Where Abraham Lincoln is credited with freeing the slaves and racism can be passed off as a mere one congenital flaw, like a beauty mark, in a great romantic heroine.

I still hate Scarlett O’Hara, but I see more of her in me now – her blasted Irish romanticizing, her overweening arrogance to assume the way she sees the world is the way it should be, her failure to ever question if the gifts life handed her were ever deserved. I work harder to see the world around me these days, more conscious of how far Toronto and Canada have to go to become “multicultural” and less proud that we’re no longer the same as we were in the 70s. As Canadians we have a tremendous advantage over the rest of the world, one that goes beyond our wealth of natural resources and the dour pragmatism of our banking system – we can choose to be more than we are. The flipside of the nostrum that a Canadian is as Canadian as possible is that we are all as Canadian as we choose to be. This is the gift of the New World. For whites, this means setting aside the comfort of the norm and embracing difference rather than fearing it. And drawing strength from it.

I still hate Scarlett O’Hara. But I suspect she was more loyal to Mammy than I was to Rosie.

Kath Halloran is a Toronto writer. She is very fond of cycling, books and cheese. But not necessarily in that order.

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One thought on “Finding My Canadian Self in Ireland

  1. So white ‘privilege’ finally shows up – plainly portrayed as opposed to mixed into “itgirlisms”. Why the reduction to mere comfortability?

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