Monday, July 23, 2012

'Toward a brilliant dream': an immigration story

Mam and Dad's Irish passports.
In 1956, the year in which my father, my mother, and my brother emigrated from Ireland, my father was the first to leave Ireland. When my dad emigrated he did so with the sole purpose of providing a better life for his family.

Ireland was experiencing tough economic times, and with job losses all over the country, many men were forced to go to England to look for work. Just like many of the over 40,000 Irish who immigrated to Canada between 1951 and 1960, my father and mother believed Canada was a brilliant dream holding the possibility of unlimited success.

Dad left Dublin Ireland on 10 April; he was 27 years old. He did not know if he would ever again see the land of his birth, or set eyes on the brothers and sisters he loved, but he was going toward the new world filled with hopes and dreams, and a little fire in his belly. His boss at the company for which he had worked in Dublin told Dad he was a fool for leaving a good posting and immigrating to Canada. However, less than a month after Dad emigrated, the company closed down, and many men were left without employment.

My mother and my brother followed Dad to Canada in October of that year. First they flew to Liverpool, with Mam's father and two of her siblings, so Mam could say goodbye to her beloved brother Patrick. In Liverpool on 31 October they boarded the ship that would take Mam and my brother to Dad, and to their new life in Canada. Mam would never again see her father.

Throughout her life my mother spoke only occasionally about their immigration to Canada, my father spoke about it even less, and my brother was too young to recall anything of their journey. Clearly it had been a very difficult time for my mother and my father. Although the 'brilliant dream' of Canada held great promise, there were aspects about the entire process which were very upsetting.

The Irish were lucky in that they were a part of that group of countries from which immigrants were deemed 'preferable'. Still, with the changes in Canadian immigration law, the directives were just ambiguous enough to ensure anyone could be refused.

To begin with there were rigorous medical and dental examinations to ensure that the prospective immigrant was in the best possible state of health. As a bright and vigorous young woman, my mother found the whole process humiliating. 'It was', she said, 'as though they were trying their best to find something wrong with me, so they could reject me. Even my teeth had to be perfect. Not a single cavity allowed.'

'Immigrant - Landed', the visa stamp
in Mom's passport.
Once they arrived in Canada, any feelings of doubt or discomfort were quickly quashed by Mam's happiness at being reunited with Dad. My brother, at nearly two years of age, had not seen his father for months, and was a little shy at first, but soon delighted to once again be drawn up into Daddy's arms.

From the very beginning, right after they disembarked from the ship, there were odd little things to which Mam had to adjust, the sight of tea bags, for a start. After my mother and brother were 'processed' through immigration, Mam and Dad sat down in a nearby restaurant to have tea together before boarding the train which would take them 'home'.

Mam found it odd that the tea was served in paper cups, but that oddity was quickly surpassed by the sight of a mouse floating in her tea. With tears in her eyes she begged my father to throw it away. Trying his best not to laugh at her, Dad quickly took the 'mouse' out of the cup to reveal that it was in fact a tea bag. Given that she was raised in a country in which her tea had always been loose leaves brewed in a tea pot, poured through a strainer, and served in a china cup, Mam's first cup of tea in Canada was a bit of a shock. This little episode was a bright spot about which they always laughed.

Although light hearted moments such as these dot the landscape of my mother's memories of emigrating from Ireland, there were also unpleasant memories of their early times in Canada.

Dad's Canadian Immigration
Identification Card
When Dad first arrived he stayed with the man who had 'sponsored' his immigration. An immigrant had to have a sponsor in order to immigrate into Canada. It was the duty of the sponsor to ensure the immigrant had a place to live, and had gainful employment. You could not simply arrive and go on a job hunt. If Dad had any illusions about Canada, his sponsor quickly disabused him of those notions, and gave him a true idea of what he might be up against as an Irish immigrant. Although Dad was among the 'preferred' immigrants because of his skills and his country of origin, some ordinary citizens were not so receptive to new immigrants, believing they were taking jobs away from Canadian men.

Once he was settled into his new job, Dad went in search of housing for his family. The task was not without its challenges. In some cases as soon as they heard his Irish accent the door was slammed in his face. When finally he entered into a lease agreement with a landlord, Dad was surprised at being sternly warned that the house must be kept clean. 'How else would you keep a house, other than clean?', he wondered.

My mother was also surprised to discover people were much less welcoming than she imagined they would be. Mam found it very strange that the fact of her Irish origin created odd expectations in the minds of some people. She recalled a neighbour who said she was surprised to discover how clean and well kept Mam and Dad's home was, given the stereotype of the dirty Irish. Another found it odd that Mam and Dad had no alcohol in the house, given the stereotype of the drunken Irish.

In this strange land where people behaved oddly, Mam dearly missed the warmth of her family and her friends. Once, she told me that she spent the first two years of their time in Canada crying, and longing to move back home to Ireland. Dad very much missed his friends and family too, but they both recognized Canada as a place in which he would have steady reliable employment, and a future of bright possibility for their little family.

In his working life in Canada my father encountered men who clearly had a disdain for the Irish. In the first establishment for which he worked his boss called him by the nickname 'Paddy', instead of his proper forename Michael. Some of his co-workers quickly followed suit, and if he protested they would just laugh at him. Eventually he developed a thicker emotional skin, so to speak, in order to just get through the day. As time passed and his employers saw the good quality of his work, he began to rise in their esteem. For the most part the name calling stopped, but there were still a few who engaged in it.

Throughout my father's working life this sort of name calling was something he often encountered. In the last company for which Dad worked, the son of the owner used to call him 'Muldoon'. I recall myself as a seventeen year old going to meet my father at his work one day, and angrily calling out to this man saying, 'Sir, my father's name is Michael or Mr. Geraghty, not Muldoon, and you will please address him as such'. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I thought I would be in trouble, but the man just smiled, apologized, and said I was a good kid for standing up for my dad. Dad told me not to worry about it, to just ignore the name calling, but I truly believe he found it hurtful. I think it chipped away at him over time, and made him a more negative person.

A few months before she died, I talked to my mother about their emigration from Ireland. She said that despite her initial uncertainty, she had absolutely no regrets about the choice they made to come to Canada. Mam reminded me about the fact that she felt so very proud to be a Canadian. She talked about the year she and my dad and brother became citizens. Mam said she had been in Canada for so long that she now felt more Canadian than Irish. I'll admit I was little skeptical, still am I suppose. My parents found success in Canada, good jobs, the full ownership of their own home, and money to travel the world, but I have always wondered if there wasn't still a place in their hearts with an emptiness, a longing for home that no amount of success could ever fill.

As I think back to those cool winter evenings on which my father sat alone in our darkened living room, softly crooning songs of home, I wonder if the brilliant dream of Canada had lost a little of its glow along the way, but my father knew he could never again go home.



  1. Your posts get increasingly more heart rendering. This is maybe your best. Tears running down my face, the pain, the wonder and the tea bags. Thank you Jennifer for a lovely post.

  2. Dear Carol,

    Thank you so much for your lovely comments. Now I have tears in my eyes.

    Cheers to you,

  3. Huge amount of courage to move to another country - your parents had a lot of determination. My grandparents with my 7 year old dad and his older siblings came from Barrow in Furness England, in 1911, and I've always wondered about their experiences in this new country. They were originally from Northern Ireland (co. Tyrone).
    I was surprised by all the negativity about the Irish your parents experienced - I was a teen/young adult in the 50s, and I don't remember anything like that. However I've always lived in Vancouver BC - which, as a port city with a great climate, has always had many groups of immigrants over the decades. Hmmm. Lovely post and story, Jennifer. Thanks for posting.

  4. Hi Celia,

    Thanks for your comments; as always, they are much appreciated.

    Initially I was also surprised by the negativity given the cultural diversity of Southern Ontario, Toronto, and Canada in general; however, after doing some research into modern immigration history in Canada, I discovered that their treatment was not unique.

    Also, I discovered that there were times when certain ethnic groups were not only disliked, but explicitly banned from immigrating into this country (particularly shocking is the ban of the Chinese with the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act). The Irish were very fortunate not to be included in these groups.

    In the case of Irish immigrants, about half of the 40,000 Irish who immigrated between 1951 and 1960 settled in the area in and around Toronto Ontario. If you add these to the almost 400,000 people who left Europe and immigrated into the GTA (greater Toronto area) in this period, then I would say that they had fairly reached a saturation point. Given the overall numbers of immigrants coming into the area over such a relatively short time period, the lack of a welcome doesn’t really surprise me.

    Cheers to you,

  5. The courage of emigrants always amazes me, and their fortitude at learning new ways and being the underdog. A beautifully evocative story with the mouse-y tea for light relief. It must have been so hard for them leaving family behind.

    1. Hi Pauleen,

      Thanks for your comments; as always, they are much appreciated. I too am amazed by the courage it must take for someone to leave a place they've always known, especially to head somewhere they had never before seen. I guess the draw of dreams can be very powerful.

      Cheers to you,

  6. This is a beautiful retelling of your parents' journey to Canada and their efforts to make a new life for your family. How similar is this story of your parents - such relatively recent emigrants - to so many of the stories of mine and others' emigrant ancestors from many countries and many different decades.

    I'm so glad that you've taken the time to share your family's story with us. It is beautifully written!


  7. Hello Lisa,

    Thanks for your comments; it is lovely to hear from you. I hope that all is well with you and yours. It is so true that no matter what the time period there is something which connects all the stories of ancestors who emigrated. No matter what their reason for leaving, they shared fear and trepidation, but also the hope of a better life.

    Cheers to you,

  8. I loved this story. It is soooo similar to my maternal grandparents' story. My grandmother told me she cried for 5 straight years in her rocking chair every night when she first came over. She never saw her parents again either and didn't see her siblings for 47 years. They also did not speak of immigrating much. We were at her sister's house in Ireland back in 1983. I was ill and was homesick for my parents. She broke down for a few minutes crying stating how she wasn't much older than me when she came over to the U.S. never to see her parents again. It has always stayed with me. I think she was always a bit tormented. On one hand, she loved her life here in the U.S. but on the other hand, she missed out on the life she felt she was supposed to have surrounded by her family back home. Such a hard thing to live through I believe.

    1. Hello Colleen,

      Thank you for your comments; they are very much appreciated. Thank you too for sharing the story of your grandmother with me. We can only imagine how our family members truly felt being pulled toward a new life while leaving so much behind. It is very sad that so many had to make the tough decision to leave the life they loved in order to emigrate from Ireland. It makes it all the more important that we keep their stories alive.

      Cheers to you Colleen,



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Cheers, Jennifer

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