On Friday April 18 1997, I left Ireland with a rucksack on my back having jacked in my job, sold my house and given everything away, and emigrated to Canada. That was 20 years ago today.
[End of post for Simon and Gary, everyone else can read on!! Inside joke.]
The story has already been told of what has gone on since, but you might be interested to know what it was like in the Ireland I left twenty years ago.
My nephew and godchild Harry had just been born in West Yorkshire and later that same year his cousin Billy was born in Cork. They are all grown up now, studying complicated topics in university and drinking pints – whaaat?!
The same day as I left for Canada, my sister Sinead left for Edinburgh. Earlier that very same week, friend Mary K had left for London and later in April friend Rita moved to Glasgow … despite the beginnings of the Celtic Tiger, the Irish were still doing what they know best – emigrating.
The Number 1 song in Ireland that week was a song to be honest, I have no memory of! It’s called I Believe I Can Fly by R. Kelly.
It was the theme song for the movie Space Jam starring Michael Jordan and the animated characters from Loony Tunes. Another thing I have no memory of – ha! It won the 1998 Grammy Award in the ‘Best Song for a Movie or TV Show”. Must have been hard up for talent that year.
The formidable Mary Robinson was the President of Ireland but by September of the same year, she had given up her post to take on the role of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which she later relinquished in 2002, a tad frustrated with how the UN operates. Another strong, intelligent Irish woman took her place as President of Ireland, the indomitable Mary MacAleese – the first women in the world to succeed another woman as head of state.
Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer for his book Angela’s Ashes – a book describing the horrors of life in the slums of 1930s and 1940s Limerick. A claim my mother strongly disputed as being totally untrue. I think this probably had something to do with the fact that she did not grow up in those very slums.
After previous attempts at negotiating peace between the Catholic and Protestant groups in Northern Ireland, a credible ceasefire was agreed to in July 1997. A brave move by the opposing leaders in the North. These negotiations set the pace for the negotiation of what was to become the Good Friday Agreement that eventually became a reality in April 1998. Both George Mitchel and President Bill Clinton had a hand in guiding those negotiations.
Kerry dominated in GAA Football (beating Cork in the final. Sigh) and Limerick won the All Ireland Hurling Championship. At least the victorious teams were from Munster (the province I was born in).
Ireland hosted the Eurovision Song Contest that year in Dublin. It’s the contest we all love to hate. To the relief of everyone, we came second in Eurovision 1997. You see, Ireland has this nasty habit of winning the contest frequently. In fact I think Ireland holds the record for the country with the most wins.
The Canada I arrived to saw Jean Chretien as Prime Minister and Glen Clark as the controversial Premier of BC, the province that was to become my home.
The Red River in Manitoba flooded badly and did $500 million worth of damage. A reminder, once I arrived in Canada, I traveled across the country by train from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, and was supposed to spend a few days in Winnipeg. Because I was not a resident, I was not allowed off the train due to the rising river. I remember seeing the floods barely two feet from the track. I think my westbound train was one of the last trains to get through before the flood subsided.
The Confederation Bridge was opened in May 1997, connecting Prince Edward Island to the New Brunswick mainland by a fixed link. The bridge is 12.9km in length and takes about 12 minutes to cross. Wintertime sees the Northumberland Strait waters that flows underneath the bridge, completely frozen. The ferries that for generations had connected the island to the mainland, were put out of service soon after.
I remember the people of Prince Rupert, BC had quite the interest in the opening of the bridge and how the people of PEI would lose that sense of remoteness from the mainland. I get that, living on an island myself.
The winner of the 1997 Giller Prize was Canadian Mordecai Richler with Barney’s Version and Canadian filmaker Atom Egoyan’s fabulous movie The Sweet Hereafter was released.
The Canada I found was far more relaxed and peaceful a country than Ireland had ever been, and the diversity of it’s peoples and cultures astounded me. It really was the beginning of something beautiful … and the party ain’t over yet, not by a long shot.
All I can say is, it has been a superb 20 years! It’s a beautiful country there is no doubt, but what makes it home for me is my diverse groups of friends who love me, warts and all.
PS For those curious why I used this title, it refers to a memoir Fiche Bliain ag Fás written by Irish writer Maurice O’Sullivan and tells the story of his upbringing on the Great Blasket Island, off the coast of Dingle in Co Kerry.