Heritage preserved in story and song
By Tom G. Kernaghan
Their ancient ancestors roamed Europe, often telling stories and playing music. Today, the descendents of Irish and Scottish immigrants are still on the move, forever drawn to sad tales and sweet tunes. And here in the west end, people inside and outside the Celtic community enjoy the beat of the bodhran and the fling of the foot.
“[The Irish and Scottish] are very generous with their music,” says Sandy MacIntyre, a local resident and Cape Breton native who teaches Celtic fiddle and dance lessons with his wife Lucy at the Former Memorial Baptist Church (293 South Kingsway). “And there are no age barriers. I’ve seen 90-year-olds dancing like 10-year-olds.”
MacIntyre, who also plays regularly with his seven-piece band, Steeped in Tradition, is a relative or friend of such well-known musicians as the Leahys, Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie McMaster, and the Rankins – many of whom hail from the East Coast. In fact, MacIntyre attributes much of the west end’s love for things Scottish and Irish to the large number of transplanted easterners in the area.
“The Celtic spirit is alive and well in the west end,” says MacIntyre. “There are a lot of Maritimers here.”
And while the Scottish and Irish are culturally and ethnically quite similar, MacIntyre points out that the way in which the two communities approach their music differs somewhat.
“They have their own styles,” he says. “The notes and songs are the same but the bowings are different. The Irish do an awful lot of slurring of their notes.”
While many Canadians enjoy the festive spirit of Robbie Burns Day and St. Patrick’s Day, and many got caught up in the Irish fever that swept Canada during shows like Riverdance, fewer are familiar with the hardships suffered by these two pioneering communities during their early days in Canada, when the country was in its infancy.
The Great Famine (1845 – 1849) is a defining immigration story for the Irish. When their potato crops were destroyed by fungal rot, the Irish fled their country in droves, and immigrated to Canada by the tens of thousands. “Their stories are very tragic,” says Nan Brien, a local storyteller and retired teacher who performed No Irish Need Apply: Fleeing the Irish Famine, they found no welcome here on April 1 at Montgomery’s Inn (4709 Dundas St. W.). The event was a recreation of an Irish benefit that took place at the tavern in the summer of 1847. “It was a summer of sorrow…. But we take the past and make it palatable for today, to teach and amuse.”
Irish stories are best accompanied by music and Brien’s show, which featured seven women in period roles, also included musicians Catherine Campbell and Chris Wilson.
“The [music] is important to help us feel the experience,” Brien says. “It’s important for the soul.”
It’s also important for a night out. And Celtic parties are known for their warm, inclusive nature.
“We start with two or three regular older gentlemen,” says Nigel Naimol, manager of Whelan’s Gate Irish Pub (1663 Bloor St. W.), where there is an open Celtic jam every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. “Others join in and by the end of the night, they are sometimes 15 strong. If you can play and you’re into it, you’re in.”
Similarly, MacIntyre has welcomed many different students to his classes.
“We’ve had all ages and all backgrounds,” says MacIntyre, who is compiling a tribute CD to the legendary musician and storyteller John Allen Cameron in order to raise money for his cancer-related expenses. “They’re all drawn to [the music and dancing]. Though, most have some Celtic roots somewhere down the line.”
So many Scottish and Irish people immigrated to Canada when it was young and growing that their cultures became deeply ingrained in our national psyche. Today many find something embracing about the music that was often born of the need to alleviate the sorrow of loss.
Perhaps that’s why so many in a country like ours, a country of immigrants, find such joy in Celtic stories and songs.
“The music drives you,” says MacIntryre. “It’s very uplifting.”
Or in the words of Naimol, who says he has no Celtic roots: “It reminds you of home.”
(Gleaner News, Toronto)