Publication: Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood

June 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

At long last, my book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out from UBC Press.  It is available in hardcover at present, though the paperback is coming in the fall.

fullsizeoutput_4cfI am particularly pleased with the cover and design of the book.  The artwork on the cover come from my good friend and co-conspirator in Griff, G. Scott MacLeod.  He and I have worked on The Death and Life of Griffintown: 21 Stories over the past few years.

Griffintown has long fascinated me not so much for the history of the neighbourhood, but the conscious effort by a group of former residents to reclaim it, starting in the late 1990s.  I identified three men who were central to this process, all of whom have left this mortal coil in recent years: The Rev. Fr. Tom McEntee, Don Pidgeon, and Denis Delaney.  These men worked very hard to make the rest of Montreal remember what was then an abandoned, decrepit, sad-sack inner-city neighbourhood.  That Griff is known historically for its Irishness is a tribute to these men and many other former residents, most notably Sharon Doyle Driedger and David O’Neill, who worked tirelessly over the late 1990s and 2000s to reclaim their former home.  The re-Irishification of Griffintown is the central story in my book.  But I also look at the construction of Irish identity there over the 20th century, and the ways in which the Irish there performed every-day memory work to claim and re-claim their Irishness as they confronted their exclusion from Anglo-Montreal due to their poverty and Catholicism.

The Irish of Griffintown were fighters, they were insistent on claiming Home, even as that home disintegrated around them, due to deindustrialization and the infrastructural onslaught wrought by the Ville de Montréal, the Canadian National Railway, and the Corporation for Expo ’67.  But, at the same time, they also left, seeking more commodious accommodations in newer neighbourhoods in the sud-ouest of the city, and NDG.

That these former residents could reclaim this abandoned, forgotten neighbourhood as their own speaks to the power of these people.  These people were working- and middle- class men and women, ordinary folk from all walks of life, who were determined their Home not be forgotten.  They re-cast Griff in their memories without the help of the state, without the help, to a large degree, of institutional Montreal.

I cannot over-state the impressive feat of these ex-Griffintowners.  It has been a lot of fun to both study this process and work with and talk with many of those involved in this symbolic re-creation of Griff, drawing on an imagined history of Ireland and their own Irishness in the diaspora.  And I am mostly relieved that the book is, finally, out.

(Not) Commemorating the Irish Famine in Montreal

May 25, 2017 § 6 Comments

The Irish Famine was one of the great humanitarian disasters of the 19th century. A blight upon the potato crop, combined with British malfeasance, brought about a crisis that saw Ireland lose around 25% of its population between 1845 and 1852.  One million people died.  Another million emigrated.  This was the birth of the Irish diaspora as we know it today.

 

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Famine refugees in Ireland (woodcut)

Montreal is one of the great cities of the diaspora, even if most of the Irish world doesn’t know this.  Something like 40% of Quebecers have Irish heritage.  And the Irish have long been recognized as one of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city.  The flag of the Ville de Montréal features the flowers of each of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city: the French, English, Scots, and Irish, and a cross of St. George.  The landscape of the city is littered with remembrances of the Irish, from rue Shamrock by Marché Jean-Talon in the North End (where the old Shamrocks Lacrosse Club stadium was) to Loyola College (now part of Concordia University) and rue Dublin in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

 

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The flag of the Ville de Montréal

During the Famine, the city was inundated with refugees.  Even with a quarantine station on Grosse-Île, up the St. Lawrence River near Quebec, the sick and the dying still made it downriver to Montreal. They ended up in fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles, just across the Lachine Canal from Griffintown.  Upwards of 6,000 of them were dumped in a mass grave that went largely unmarked and forgotten until 1859, when a bunch of Irish construction workers, building the Victoria Bridge, unearthed them.  The workers erected a huge black rock to mark the grave.

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The Black Rock

Don Pidgeon was the long-time historian of the United Irish Societies of Montreal, until he died last year.  He liked to argue that the rock was the birth place of Irish Montreal.  It was largely due to him that the Black Rock has been preserved and cared for.  For as long as I can remember, the Irish community of Montreal sought to create a proper memorial park to commemorate the Famine dead.  The Black Rock currently sits on an island in the middle of Bridge St., the Montreal approach to the Victoria Bridge, near where Goose Village once stood.  During rush hour, Bridge St. is congested and car-heavy.  It is no way to commemorate the dead.

Montreal is the only major diaspora city that lacks a Famine Memorial.  This is shocking and so very typically Montreal in many ways.  Montreal exists as it does today in large part due to the inundation of the Irish in the early 19th century.  This is true both demographically, but also infrastructurally.   The Irish built the bulk of the city’s 19th century infrastructure: the Lachine Canal, the railways, Victoria Bridge, the buildings and factories, and their muscle dredged the Montreal harbour, expanding it for bigger and bigger cargo ships.  They were also a key constituency of the industrial working classes in the 19th century.  They were present at the beginnings of the Canadian industrial revolution in Griffintown, and they helped power the city into the industrial centre of Canada. The influx of Irish also meant that for a brief period in the second half of the 19th century, English-speaking people were the majority of the population in the city.  And while the Famine is not the means by which all the Montreal Irish got there, it is a central story to the Irish in Montreal.

This is true of both the Famine refugees, but also the Irish community that was already there.  St. Patrick’s Basilica opened its doors on 17 March 1847, at the very start of the worst year of the Famine, Black ’47.  But that the Irish could construct a big, handsome church on the side of Beaver Hall Hill in 1847 also signifies the depth of the roots of the Irish in Montreal.  Even as early as the 1820s, there was a firmly ensconced Irish population in the city.  But when the flood gates opened and the refugees began streaming in later that spring of 1847, the Montreal Irish got to work.  They donated large sums of money to the care of their brethren, they volunteered to work in the fever sheds, they helped the survivors set up in Montreal (it is worth noting that the same was true of the rest of the city’s population, whatever its ethnic background).

In short, the years of the Irish Famine were central to the development of Irish Montreal.  And perhaps more to the point, following the Famine, Irish emigration to Montreal (and Canada as a whole), dried up.  Thus, in many ways, the Irish of Montreal were able to integrate and assimilate into the wider city.  They shared a language with the economically dominant group, a religion with the numerically dominant.  And the growing stability of the population aided in this process.  In short, in some ways, the Irish experience was not as fraught in Montreal as it was in other diasporic locations, where nativism and anti-Irish sentiment held sway.

 

The Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation kicked into gear last year, with its plan  to build a proper memorial.  The goal, according to the Foundation’s website, is to create a memorial park that would include playing fields for Irish sports, a theatre, and a museum on the site.  This park would be strategically located, and presumably would be connected to the Lachine Canal National Historic Site nearby, which is itself a heavily-used park.

The Foundation appears to have had all of its ducks lined up, with support from the Irish community, corporate Montreal, and the Mayor’s office.  The Irish Embassy in Ottawa was also supportive, willing to kick in some money (as it had with the Toronto Famine Memorial).

And then, a few weeks ago, the land that it proposed to acquire for the park was sold by the Canada Lands Company (a Crown corporation that deals with public land) to Hydro-Québec, which wants to build a sub-station there, ironically due to the massive redevelopment of Griffintown.  And while there is allegedly a clause in the sale requiring Hydro-Québec to build a monument to the Famine dead, that’s cold comfort.  Who is going to go look at a monument along a busy road next to an sub-station?

And so, at least for now, the dream of a proper memorial to the Famine refugees in Montreal is dead.  This year marks the 375th anniversary of the founding of Montreal, but it is also the 160th anniversary of Black ’47.

I have a hard time believing that something like this would happen in any other city.  A project with community, corporate and political support got derailed by two Crown corporations.  I don’t quite understand how this could have come as a surprise, as in, how did the Foundation not know that Canada Lands was negotiation with Hydro-Québec?  Then again, this is Montreal, so that is also entirely within the realm of possibility.  And this entire affair is so typically Montreal.

Mis-Remembering the Patriotes

May 22, 2017 § 2 Comments

 

Today is the Journée nationale des Patriotes in Quebec.  The date commemorates the 1837 Patriote Rebellion in what was then Lower Canada, when a rebellion against the British Empire erupted in first, Saint-Denis, and then other nearby locales in November and December of that year.  And while it started off well for the Patriotes, it did not end well, with the British routing them and then ransacking the village of Saint-Eustache before martial law was imposed on Montreal.

But the rebellion only tells a part of the story of the Parti patriote.  The Patriotes, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, were a group of middle-class radicals, largely based in the urban centres of Lower Canada (Quebec).  They took their inspiration from the French Revolution, and from the wave of liberal radicalism across the Western world, from France to the United States.  They were frustrated with the corrupt politics of the Governor and his cadre.

From the early 1830s on, they formed the majority of the colonial legislature, which met in the capital of Quebec.  The Patriotes sought, essentially, responsible government.  They demanded accountability from the legislature and the governor.  And they demanded economic development for the disenfranchised, disgruntled French Canadian majority of Lower Canada, as well as the working-class, predominately Irish, in Montreal and Quebec.

In other words, the Patriotes were not a French Canadian nationalist movement.  I read an article in the Montreal Gazette yesterday that encapsulated my frustration with the memory of the Patriotes and 1837.  The article was a discussion about what to call today in Quebec.  The journalist noted that in the Montreal suburb of Baie d’Urfé, the citizens wish to call it La journee nationale des Patriotes/Victoria Day.  This is not, obviously, an actual translation.  The article then tours around the West Island and some off-island suburbs of Montreal that have a large Anglo population.  The results are more of the same.  And then there’s the title of the article, “Our Annual May Long Weekend Is Here. But What Should We Call It?”  This, of course, is typical West Island Anglo code for their exclusion from the nation/province of Quebec, at least officially.

This is also a mis-remembering of the Patriotes.  And not just by the West Island Anglos, but by almost every single Quebecer, whatever their background.  And it is one that is rooted in our education system, not just in Quebec, but nationally.  I learned, in school in British Columbia, that the Patriotes were only interested in French Canadians and were nationalists.  When I taught in Quebec, my students had learned the same thing.  I remember reading Allan Greer’s excellent book, The Patriots and the People, in grad school and being surprised at what I read.

Greer, in addition to noting the multi-ethnic background of the Patriotes, also is the one who made the argument that what 1837 was was a failed revolution in Quebec.  That had the Patriotes succeeded, Quebec would’ve looked politically more like France or the United States.  Indeed, it is in the aftermath of 1837 that the Catholic Church in Quebec came to be so powerful, as it became a member of the state in the province/nation, and gained great political, moral, economic, social, and cultural power over Catholic Quebecers, both English- and French- speaking, until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

To return to the multi-ethnicity of the Parti patriote and its supporters, Papineau’s lieutenant was Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan, who was the member of the legislature for Montreal West.  O’Callaghan succeeded the radical Dr. Daniel Tracey as the MLA for Montreal West and the right-hand seat at Papineau’s table.  Both were Irishmen.  Tracey died treating his compatriots in the fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles during the cholera epidemic of 1832.  Montreal West was the riding that contained Griffintown and other Irish neighbourhoods in what was then the west end of Montreal (now it’s the sud-ouest).  The Griffintown Irish were radicals.  They kept voting for Tracey and O’Callaghan over the wishes of their more genteel compatriots.

And then, there is the simple fact of the Brothers Nelson, Robert and Wolfred.  They were the sons of English immigrants and members of the Anglo Protestant Lower Canadian bourgeoisie who were also major players within the Patriote movement.  Wolfred led the rebels at the first battle of the Rebellion, at Saint-Denis on 23 November.  This was the battle the Patriotes won.  Robert, meanwhile, was amongst a group of Patriotes who were arrested and then freed in the autumn of 1837, which caused him to flee to the United States, where he was further radicalized.  He led the 1838 Rebellion, which fizzled out pretty quickly.  Both Nelsons survived the rebellions.  Wolfred went on to become the Mayor of Montreal in the 1850s. Papineau, for his part, returned to the legislature after being granted amnesty in the 1840s.

Indeed, the major impetus for the formation of the St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal on 17 March 1834 was exactly this: the radical nature of the Griffintown Irish was hurting the larger ambitions of the Irish-Catholic middle class of the city.  In those days, Montreal was not all that sectarian or linguistically divided.  It was class that cleaved the city.  Thus, the middle-class Anglo-Protestants, French Canadians and Irish all formed a community within the larger city, give or take the radicals.  And they stood in opposition to and apart from the working classes, who tended to be more radical.  Thus, the St. Patrick’s Society was created to separate the middle class Irish from these radicals.  The Society was originally non-sectarian, it had both Catholics and Protestants within its ranks.  It was not until the sectarian era of the 1850s that the Protestants were ousted.

It does all of us a dis-service to so clearly mis-remember the Patriotes.  While Papineau is commemorated on streets, schools, highways, buildings, and a métro station in Montreal, the Nelsons, Tracey, and O’Callaghan are not.  They have been removed from the officially sanctioned story of the Patriotes, let alone the 1837-8 Rebellions.  Meanwhile, the Anglo community of Quebec seems to prefer to forget about the existence of these men entirely, to say nothing of the ancestors of many of us who voted for Tracey and O’Callaghan in Griffintown.  Remembering the Patriotes for what and who they were would help with the divide in Montreal and Quebec.

21 Short Films About Griffintown

March 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

As regular readers will know, I have been working on the history and memory of Griffintown, Montreal for many years now.  My book, Griffintown: Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out in May (the paperback will be out in the fall).  And, of course, I have been working for a few years now with Montreal film-maker, artist, animator, and purveyor of all things creative, G. Scott MacLeod.  Our project, 21 Short Films About Griffintown, is now up on the web for all to see.

This project is based on a walking tour of Griff Scott developed, and can be followed on your smart phone.  We have 21 very short films of 21 sites around Griff, about their history and significance.

I like these clips, partly because Scott has done some great work contextualizing my stories of these sites with archival footage, his animations, and music, because all of this also minimizes my screen time.  But also because it was a fun day that we spent wandering around Griff filming these.  It was a hot August day in 2012, a day or two before I left Montreal for good.  I had my dog, Boo, with me.  He was all stressed out because of the move and had scratched his face raw.  So he was with me because I had to keep him from scratching the infection.  He trundled along with us in the 30C heat, usually with my foot on his leash as we filmed.  Boo was a massive dog, around 150lbs, a Mastiff/Shepherd cross.  He was a big, gentle giant. Boo died last year, so I see this project as a bit of a memorial to him, even if he doesn’t appear on screen.  IMG_0070

Writing the History of the Trump Era

February 14, 2017 § 4 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked how future historians will be able to tell our history?  We live in what is allegedly a post-fact era.  First things first, whatever you want to call it, post-fact, post-truth, alternative facts, these are all just lies.  I have already commented on this.  Nonetheless, whether this is just a re-labelling of lying, we are still in this cultural moment.  Every day the Trump administration deals in what White House Counsel KellyAnne Conway calls ‘alternative facts.’  What is the truth now, my interlocutor wanted to know?

I have been asked this question in a variety of ways in the past year and it is a real challenge we face.  But we don’t face in terms of future historians, academics and journalists are already facing the problem.  Michael A. Innes, a good friend of mine, has been thinking about this of late too.  He notes that

Media outlets come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are loud and boisterous, while others are more stoic. “Newspapers of record” are a recognized form of the latter.  Some try to report what happened, while others try to convince readers why and how they happened. Media output, in other words, can serve more than one purpose, and only one of them is to provide researchers and analysts with a source of evidence needed to  determine the factual basis of past events: what happened, when it happened, who was involved, what they said about what happened and so on.  Reconstructing past events is a tricky business, and some media environments are so highly politicized – the rhetoric so overheated and contentious – that verifiable facts are almost impossible to discern from the collection of color and misdirection in which they’re embedded.

Indeed.  The reconstruction of the past is indeed a tricky bit and I will go further than Innes and argue that it is an inherently political act.  This is true whether it’s on the minor scale, such as I did in reconstructing a version of the history of Griffintown, Montreal (and yes, I am enjoying linking my own book).  But it’s also what societies and cultures do anyway.

When we reconstruct the past, we do so from a variety of sources, including printed records, including government documents, diaries, published work, literature.  We also use film, TV shows, documentaries, and music.  We use oral sources, both those already collected and ones we collect.  And we also make use of the digital: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs, etc.  We have to make decisions in what gets included in our reconstructed histories.

Historians, we tend to go further than journalists.  Innes notes that some media outlets report on what happened, whilst others focus on why  and how they happened.  And quite often the latter try to convince you of the version of events they are pushing. This is the difference between, say, The New York Times and Breitbart, or the CBC and FoxNews.  The Times and the CBC deal in facts in reporting the news, and editorials are clearly labelled.  In the case of Breitbart and FoxNews, there is a blurring of ‘news’ and editorials.

When I teach, I always remind my students that we are more interested in the how and the why of history, we need to move beyond facts and into interpretation.  How do we do that? Logic and reasoning.  We use other scholars as guides.  We read what other historians have written on the subject, or an analogous subject.  We consider their interpretations based on the evidence.  We agree or disagree.  Or we agree and see another possibility.  And so on.

Back in Grade 2 or thereabouts, my teacher introduced us to the who, what, when, where, why and how? The key questions for all situations.  So in writing history, we begin with the who, what, when, and where.  We establish the facts.  And we establish these from our sources.  Even in this post-fact era, there are still facts.  They still get reported, they’re still plain to find in doing research.  And from there, we ascertain the why and the how.

So how do we source that in the post-truth world?  Innes notes the guerrilla archiving of data, creating an archive of truth and records of the real world to counter the post-factual. But there are other, more simpler ways we do this through the ‘reading’ of our sources, whether they are government documents, newspapers, novels, films, music, Twitter, and so on.  When we read these sources, we do so within a cultural context, of course.  And we do tend to have strong bullshit detectors.

My MA thesis tells the story of the Corrigan Affair, which erupted in Sainte-Sylvestre, Quebec, in late 1855 when neighbourhood bully, an apostate, Robert Corrigan, was beaten to death by a gang of his Irish-Catholic neighbours at the county fair.  When his murderers evaded capture for the next six months, all hell broke loose in a highly sectarian Canada.  Anglo-Protestant politicians and newspapers were beside themselves over the fact that these Irish-Catholic ‘hooligans’ managed to evade the state’s attempts to bring them to justice.  They did so through the help of their neighbours and an intimate knowledge of geography of the Appalachian foothills of southern Quebec.

The local Anglican priest in Saint-Sylvestre, Rev. William King, was ground zero for the ‘alternative facts’ of the Corrigan Affair.  In daily dispatches to government ministers and the Quebec City  press, Rev. King constructed an alternate reality where the Irish-Catholics of Sainte-Sylvestre were parading around openly armed and threatening Anglo-Protestant, beating them nearly to death for fun.  He told of marauding gangs of Irish-Catholics breaking into homes in the middle of the night and tearing homes to pieces and beating the men and boys of the house.  Rev. King’s invented reality was accepted verbatim by government ministers and the Quebec City press.

So how did I find out what happened in Saint-Sylvestre in the fall and winter of 1855-56?  I reconstructed events through a mixture of sources, both government and official and vernacular.  I relied on petitions from the Irish-Catholics of Saint-Sylvestre, who claimed to be brutalized by the Orange Order.  I relied on the French Canadian press of Quebec, which watched both sides with bemusement.  I read the depositions of the French Canadians of Saint-Sylvestre, who were similarly bemused by their neighbours’ actions.  and from these varying sources, I reconstructed the events of the Corrigan Affair.  I learned to tell fact from fiction, or at least something that looked more likely to have occurred than not.

And this is what historians will do when they tell the story of our time.  They will look at the lies that are produced at the White House and then compare that to what other sources say about what is going on, including the media, but also our Twitter feeds, our Facebook posts, our Reddit commentary.  Maybe even blogs like mine.

We will continue to examine history as we always have, sifting through varying and contradictory versions of events to reconstruct what actually did happen.  And, of course, being a public historian first and foremost, I will be fascinated by the myth-making at the White House, and the puncturing of that myth by the rest of society, about the hows and whys we choose to remember this time.

 

Staging an Imagined Ireland

January 24, 2017 § 4 Comments

barlow-cover_final-page-001In anticipation of my book, Griffintown: History & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood being published by University of British Columbia Press in May, I wrote an article for the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University’s new blog, Au delà des frontières: La nouvelle histoire du Canada/At the Frontier: New Canadian History.  You can read ‘Staging an Imagined Ireland’ here.

Griffintown

October 31, 2016 § 2 Comments

I just recently received the cover art for my forthcoming book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood.  It will be published in May 2017 by the University of British Columbia Press.  To say I’m stoked is a minor understatement.  The art work is by my good friend and co-conspirator on many things Griff, G. Scott MacLeod.

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