If you didn’t get your chance to get your Irish on on Friday, March 17th, Torontonians will get another chance to do so today, when the annual St Patrick’s Day Parade starts at noon. The route begins on the corner of Bloor and St George, heads east on Bloor, south on Yonge, and west on Queen St, before finishing up at the parade reviewing stand at Nathan Phillips Square.
The parade is still a big deal for many of Irish descent .. and there are a lot of us! As of 2006’s census, the Irish were the 4th largest ethnic group in Canada, with 4,354,000 Canadians (or 15% of us all,) have full or partial Irish descent. And more than two million Irish Canadians are in Ontario!
I haven’t been to the parade in years, though I did get to be one of the rabbit stole wearing girls waving from the back seat of a convertible many years ago as the “Miss Irish St Augustines,’ in Montreal.
When I was a teen growing up in Montreal, St Paddy’s was always a big day. My grandfather, whom I’d never met as he’d died before I was born, was literally “a man without a country.” His own parents had fled Ireland’s economic woes, and he was born, mid Atlantic, before they docked in New York‘s harbour. They stayed briefly in the United States, before moving to Montreal.
My family loved their Irish heritage. A musical lot, they were the sort to gather ’round the piano to play and sing the songs of the ‘ould country.’ I was brought up listening to a mix of classic Irish tenors, as well as the rebel songs, and of course, the lighter ‘stage Irish’ fun songs peddled in theatre and film.
There were two sides to the Irish connection, in my world. On the one hand, I loved the singalongs, the funny accents, and the camaraderie, especially on the holiday itself, when I could be guaranteed a fine old time. On the other hand, and always present, were the realities of a divided Ireland and ‘the Troubles.’
My mother’s family were not prone to arguing over politics, which was a good thing, considering that my grandmother was British, and my uncle Dennis had married a Dubliner. Hard-line rebel songs were strongly discouraged, but we’d always be in for a‘cead mile failte.’
There are some that look down upon the ‘stage Irish’ of the Irish Rovers, or even der Bingle’s portrayals of kindly Irish priests, but it must be remembered that the Irish faced a great deal of discrimination on their first arrival in North America. Early Irish entertainers and newcomers could rely on getting a rise from a hostile audience by sending up their own people as friendly, ginger, alcoholics, quick with a joke and a laugh.
“Irish men and women both had a hard time finding skilled work in the U.S. due to the stigmas of being both Irish as well as Catholic. Prejudices ran deep in the north and could be seen in newspaper cartoons depicting Irish men as drunkards and Irish women as prostitutes. Many businesses hung signs out front of their shops that read “No Irish Need Apply“, or “NINA” for short. The initial backlash the Irish received in America lead to their self-imposed seclusion, making assimilation into society a long and painful process.”
But the Irish played a significant role in American society, especially in teaching and policing occupations. Eight of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Irish descent. Irish Catholics have served in all layers of American government, in every capacity, from mayors to Presidents.
Ontario is rife with towns named after the places and last names of Ireland, including Donnybrook, Dundalk and Dublin, Enniskillen and Galway. and Tara and Waterford.
Canada has had our share of notable Irish-Canadians, in every field, from the arts, to sports, and politics. Writers like Morley Callaghan and W.P. Kinsella have explored the many facets of Canadian lives, as have my cousins Rita Donovan and Michael Donovan, while Stompin’ Tom Connors and Denny Doherty have shaped how we sound. Add to that list my husband, musician Shawn O’Shea, also of Irish descent, who’s even born on March 17th! (In a bizarre coincidence, two other members of the heymacs, Kid Carson and Carlyle Walpola, were also born on March 17th.)
I can’t picture Canadian comedy without the stylings of Mary Walsh, our Amazon Warrior. And what would the world of show biz be without Mack Sennett, producer, director, writer, actor and founder of Keystone Studios?
Politically, Irish Canadians have been integral to the country since the days of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of the Fathers of Confederation, while Louis St. Laurent, Sir John Thompson, Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney have all served as Prime Ministers.
In world entertainment, the Irish have always had a strong presence, and there’s no shortage of musical talent exported from the Emerald Isle, with memorable stylings and poetic imagery flowing from U2, Enya, Gilbert O`Sullivan, Sinead O`Connor, the Cranberries, Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy.
The Irish in North America have come a long way from the days when they stumbled off the boats, fleeing famine and political strife. Many of those marching in St Patrick`s Day Parades today have no interest or stake in the politics of modern day Ireland, but the urge to celebrate their heritage remains strong.
And the rest of us, in our green wigs, and drinking green beer, just wish we could have a little of that fabled Irish luck and good humour, if just for one day.