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Review: An Irish Heart, by Sharon Doyle Driedger

There are two ways to look at the Irish experience in Canada.

First, there is the option of not making much of it at all. We came and we have long since faded into the background of the complex fabric of the country. This was the preferred option for decades. White Europeans driven out of home by famine, poverty, oppression and countless internal conflicts, the Irish hesitated about asserting any sort of exceptional stature. Others had come here under similar circumstances and for the same reasons. Besides, the Irish stopped coming in large numbers a long time ago.

The second option, one more prevalent now - and I'll admit to contributing to it - is to commemorate emphatically the heart-scalding circumstances of what the Irish call the Great Famine of the 1840s, and cause Canada to remember those who barely made it then, but managed to survive, thrive and shape this country's culture. Sharon Doyle Driedger's book, long on research and richly detailed, is part of the current wave of Canadian-Irish assertiveness. It is an astonishingly detailed, elegiac history of the mainly Irish enclave called Griffintown in Montreal, an enclave that more or less evaporated in the late 1960s. Thanks to this book, few neighbourhoods in Canada can have been so closely studied and chronicled.

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The upshot is a very populist sort of history, epic in scope because it ranges far and wide into the larger history of Irish immigration to Canada, but meticulously detailed in celebrating specific people, streets and schools. Doyle Driedger, a veteran Maclean's writer, is adept at magazine-style sweeping descriptions, though the more detailed accounts of people's lives tend to be fashioned in blandly sentimental terms. Certainly the material at hand, in the case of Griffintown, is copious and her research is admirable. One reason for the wealth of history is, as she points out, the unique nature of Montreal's development as a city.

In most major cities to which the Irish fled in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, the Irish arrivals moved on. They moved to the suburbs or simply assimilated into the texture of the metropolis, as many immigrant groups do. In Montreal, as the city grew in size and became increasingly French-speaking, the English-speaking Irish tended to stay put, finding comfort in numbers and in the firm local presence of English-speaking employers, schools and hospitals. This made Griffintown an anomaly and, well into the past century, only the much-larger South Boston area in the United States existed as a similar sort of thriving, tight-knit Irish urban community.

Griffintown was certainly working-class. The picture painted here is of a place founded by labourers that never, ever lost the communal spirit of defiance. A long list of colourful characters stride through the book: politicians, small-time crooks, entertainers, boxers, priests and nuns. The latter were, it seems, universally seen as stern but fair. One cannot doubt the authenticity of the portrait, given the author's in-depth research and the many notes provided at the end of the book, but there is something odd about the sheer niceness of Griffintown. An occasional fool, a hardened criminal or depressive appears in the book, but for the most part, the residents seem to have been poor but happy, generation after generation.

Some readers will delight in this sepia-toned approach to the past, savouring the subtle nostalgia for a time and place where honest working people lived closely together and all traumatic events were survived in a spirit of co-operation and humorous self-deprecation. Politicians, in particular, get it easy here. Frank (Banjo) Hanley, city councillor and MLA, emerges as either repulsive or charming, depending on your taste for blarney-spouting, smiling, wheeler-dealer politicos. He, like Griffintown itself, belongs to another age.

The book begins with the Great Famine and the arrival, in Quebec City and Montreal in the 1840s, of countless ships carrying the starving, the diseased, the hopeful and the haunted. The true depth of the horror of the Famine and the crossing to Canada isn't here. It couldn't be; there are no words to describe it.

The book ends with Griffintown disappearing as Montreal bulldozed streets and created highways for Expo 67. In between, there is a ton of engaging material about a vanished way of life - a teeming community of working people bound by religion, language and history. It almost seems a distant, imaginary realm. But it isn't. It is part of the Irish experience in Canada, asserted as important, special. The book often surrenders to sentimentality, but the Irish do not have a monopoly on that, just as we don't have a monopoly on Canada or the immigrant experience. Only a slice of it, and the slice is served up here with great charm.

Irish-born John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's TV Critic. His book The World is a Ball: The Joy, Madness & Meaning of Soccer will be published in May.

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