Retracing the Roots of Canada’s Emerald Soul

Dunluce Castle on the rocky coastline of Northern Ireland. Photo: Mick Hunt/Getty Images

“Over in Killarney, many years ago,
My mother sang a song to me in tones so sweet and low,
Just a simple little ditty, in her
good old Irish way,
And I’d give the world if she could sing that song of hers today.”

And with that, the opening verse to “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby),” Gordon Lightfoot embarked on his first-ever public performance, delivered via his elementary school P.A. system, earning him that rare distinction of fourth-grade folk sensation.

The Orillia, Ont., native’s Celtic heritage originates in Scotland, but it was “the Irish air,” as he explained in an interview years ago, that came to him at an early age, a byproduct of his parents’ love of music from the shamrock shore. That Irish air picked up again almost three decades later after reading news of a nautical disaster involving the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. “I already had a melody in my mind, and it was from an old Irish dirge that I heard when I was about three-and-a-half years old,” he said in a separate interview. “It was one of the first pieces of music that registered to me as being a piece of music.”

The Irish air carried many a dirge across the Atlantic, notably in the 1700s and again in the mid-1800s with the cohort known as the Famine Irish, on disease-ridden coffin ships – a journey most befitting a Lightfoot lyric: “Does any one know where the love of God goes/When the waves turn the minutes to hours?”

In reality, the name “coffin ship” is misleading, which I learned while touring a replica in Northern Ireland’s Ulster American Folk Park, a remarkable monument to Irish existence before the great migrations. While the ships were claustrophobic and ripe for spreading disease, they rarely served as coffins. Instead, as my guide, Belfast playwright and historical lecturer Ken McElroy explains, if you died during the journey to the New World, they’d simply dump your body overboard.

The mass emigrations, McElroy says, were spurred by “the push and the pull,” with millions either pulled by the opportunities Canada and the United States offered or pushed out by religious discrimination, political oppression, poverty or as indentured servants tasked with constructing the infrastructure of the New World.

“Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold or some other crop,” U.S. President John F. Kennedy, a descendant of the Famine Irish, noted upon returning to his ancestral homeland in 1963, “but Ireland has had only one export, and that is its people.”

Unlike the emigrants, McElroy and I disembark in short order to explore the rest of the Folk Park. As luck of the Irish would have it, we arrived during the annual Bluegrass Music Festival, which is like Northern Ireland’s version of Coachella but with fewer flower-haired hipsters and far more women wearing 18th-century clothing and distributing dried apple snacks. Here, old Irish ballads echo from multiple stages across 40 acres of country fields, dotted with architecture dating back three centuries.

Ulster Folk Park
A street lined with historic storefronts in Ulster Folk Park. Photo: Mike Crisolago.

The Folk Park is built around the ancestral home of Thomas Mellon – a local kid pulled to America in 1818, where he later founded Mellon Bank – and bluegrass serves as the soundtrack while we weave along a cross-section of paths, coming upon various centuries-old buildings transported from all over Ulster, Ireland’s second-largest province. We pass the whitewashed walls of the Tullyallen Mass House, circa 1768, where Irish Catholics once worshipped, and stop into the Castletown National School, circa 1845, where the desks are aligned in neat rows as if expecting a rush of students at any moment.

Then there’s the remarkable Ulster street, where we meander in and out of an entire row of authentic storefronts, including R.J. Blair Printers, W. Murray Drapers and Hardware, the doctor’s surgery and W.G. O’Doherty’s grocery shop, circa 1871. The interior of the latter boasts a door leading to an adjacent pub that women could use to sneak a shot of whiskey while running errands.

But the weight of the park’s history is felt when we enter the homesteads, like the 18th-century single-room cabin where six or more members of a family called Devine are thought to have lived with little beyond some scattered wooden furniture and a plot for growing potatoes. In the distance, guitar and banjo harmonies filter through the trees, a reminder that long before Irish rockers like U2 jetted around the world performing for millions, poor Ulster families like the Devines helped import bluegrass when they immigrated along Canada’s east coast and across the Appalachians, into the modern day Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee and beyond.

“Even the name ‘hillbilly’ comes from Ulster,” McElroy says, noting many of the early immigrants named sons after the Protestant King William of Orange.

“When they settled in places like the hills of Tennessee, because so many of them were called ‘William’ or ‘Billy,’ they were to become known as the hillbillies.”

Upon arriving in Canada many Irish immigrants met with shoulders as cold as an East Coast winter, but the social chill didn’t deter their culture from taking root.

“We have all come to this country to make our livelihood and build up a new nation,” William Halley declared in a speech before Toronto’s St. Patrick’s Society in 1860. He implored his countrymen to ensure “when [Canada’s] history comes to be written, and its heroic ages described, that the Irish element of its population will be properly represented in the pages.”

They were – on Canada’s pages and Canada’s stages. If music, as poet Thomas Davis wrote, “is the first faculty of the Irish,” it’s no wonder that the lyrical structures and musical patterns of their ballads, which gave voice to the turmoil and the Troubles, wars and rebellions Ireland endured for centuries, formed the foundation of Canada’s own folk and fiddle legacy, from the songs of Maritime fishermen through the settlers of French Canada and Ontario. Newfoundland, in particular, was dubbed Talamh an Éisc, or “land of fish,” as well as “the other Ireland” for its large Irish population. In 1933, folk song historian Elisabeth Greenleaf heralded the Irish in Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland for “a large share in keeping the Newfoundland folk music so melodious” – traditions continued by “rock” bands like Great Big Sea and The Irish Descendants.

And it’s those shared roots, linked across the Atlantic, that allow a displaced Canuck to feel oddly at home navigating the Folk Park crowd, strolling between stages and century homes while bluegrass fans settle in to watch a show or pluck a few banjo strings of their own. The Irish Rovers, the award-winning Irish-Canadian folk group, would feel right at home here, as would Kate and Anna McGarrigle, whose mixed Irish and Quebecois heritage exemplified the merging of cultures, or B.C.-based bluegrass band Viper Central, which headlined one of the Folk Park stages in 2017.

In fact, music infuses the Northern Ireland landscape, from rural community festivals to local haunts where musicians cut their teeth nightly, like the Rocking Chair Bar in Derry, nestled next to the historic city walls that, legend has it, originated the term catwalk when common folk would gather below it to gawk at the upper class crowd strolling along the top in their finest fashions.
And then there’s Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital city, besieged by decades of terrorist attacks and civil war between the IRA and loyalists, the Troubles lamented in U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and by other artists, from punk band The Pogues (“Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six”) to rockers Simple Minds (“Belfast Child”). Despite a 1998 peace agreement and a municipal makeover, memories of the conflict persist – a fact I learned firsthand when a local noted my hotel, the Europa, holds the dubious distinction of being the most bombed hotel in the world.

Yet, while wandering along Hill Street one evening, I come upon a dimly lit, low-ceilinged spirit den dubbed The Dirty Onion. What the pub lacks in name appeal it makes up for in history as Belfast’s oldest building – a 1680 structure that survived the Troubles and, while once used to store booze barrels, now serves a bustling crowd of boomers and millennials alike who line wooden tables and wash down bags of potato chips with whiskey and Guinness. I grab a whiskey and a seat near an old stone fireplace and a group of musicians, all 60-plus and all strangers. They’re among the random locals who show up each night with an instrument of choice and play old Irish standards together, their only compensation free cheer from the patrons and free booze from the bar.

It’s exactly the sort of salt of the earth haunt you’d imagine Stompin’ Tom Connors making his legend in, had his paternal family not emigrated from Ireland, putting boot to board while belting out “The Rugby Song,” “Belfast Saturday Night” or “Bud the Spud,” which would play remarkably well given the Irish penchant for potatoes.

If Northern Ireland has a patron saint of music, though, it’s a Belfast legend born about a 10-minute drive from The Dirty Onion. Now 72, Van Morrison, who Gordon Lightfoot named as an influence, grew up in the 1950s along with rock ’n’ roll itself, which evolved, in part, thanks to a blending of old Irish bluegrass acoustics with the musical stylings of segregated African-American performers. And by the time the 1960s and the rise of so-called “blue-eyed soul” hit, a 22-year-old Morrison shot to superstardom on the back of his most famous tune, “Brown Eyed Girl.”

Van Morrison
Van Morrison in 1967. Photo: Gab Archive/Contributor/Getty Images.

He’s arguably one of Belfast’s two most famous exports – alongside the Titanic, constructed in the city, a symbol of both its ship-building legacy and its tragic history – and it’s difficult to say which casts a longer shadow. While a revitalized waterfront neighbourhood known as the Titanic Quarter attracts aficionados of the doomed ocean liner, the Van Morrison Trail pinpoints key locales from the music legend’s formative years, winding through residential streets to glimpse his childhood home, his school and the famed hollow referenced in “Brown Eyed Girl,” where you’re welcome to go laughing and a-running or, hey, hey, skipping and a-jumping, too.

I decide to skip the hollow and, instead, go skipping and a-jumping to an authentic Irish whiskey distillery. McElroy, in true hospitable Irish fashion, directs us along quaint country roads lined with old farmhouses and a breathtaking coastline that could be mistaken for an afternoon drive in the Maritimes, if it weren’t for the ruins of a medieval castle and the fact that we’re driving on the wrong side of the road. We arrive at the Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, purportedly the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. Like Canadians, the Irish enjoy their booze, even if it is 10 a.m. and you’re throwing back a tumbler of 12-year-old for breakfast. I soak in the surrounding wood barrels and polished copper pot stills in the tasting room while Niall, our genteel distillery guide who never stops smiling, explains the complex inner workings of the operation that dates back to 1608.

The Irish immigrants brought their whiskey-distilling prowess with them to the New World, too, but as McElroy notes, their skills extended beyond bluegrass and booze. “They always had a work ethic they took with them wherever they went,” he says, adding that many excelled in agricultural vocations. Others, meanwhile, bet the farm on entrepreneurial pursuits. Consider Timothy Eaton, the 20-year-old shopkeeper’s apprentice from the town of Ballymena, who brought his Northern Irish retail know-how to Ontario and cemented his legacy as a Canadian business pioneer by founding one of the nation’s biggest department store chains. Though his stores have since closed, his Ballymena home remains open to visitors.

Then there are the statesmen, like Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the Earl of Dufferin, whose statue McElroy points out on the lawn in front of Belfast City Hall. Of the many Irish-Canadian governors general, the Ulster native, in a six-year term beginning in 1872, oversaw the creation of Canada’s Supreme Court and fought to preserve Quebec City’s gated fortifications, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, among many other notable achievements.

Meanwhile, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a Father of Canadian Confederation, immigrated from Carlingford in 1857 and helped establish the nation before a fellow Irishman assassinated him in 1868. And in August, 2017, Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister, Leo Varadkar, marched alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Montreal’s Pride Parade – the first world leader to ever join a Canadian prime minister in doing so – a symbolic nod toward shared values of inclusiveness and acceptance between the two nations. Canada was the first non-European country to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2005, and Ireland the first country in the world to legalize it by popular vote, in 2015.

Before I bid Northern Ireland goodbye, McElroy and I take another drive along the coast, the fields peppered with farm animals and stone ruins, making our way up Binevenagh Mountain in County Londonderry. We stand on the lip of the summit, as if on the edge of Northern Ireland itself, gazing out across the green slopes and rural patchwork framed by blue ocean and sky. McElroy gestures off into the distance, noting, “If you took off on a ship from here and headed west, your next landfall would be Nova Scotia,” before walking away, leaving me alone with the faint sound of grazing sheep and that Irish air, which filled the sails of so many immigrant vessels that headed west from Ireland, unaware of what the next landfall would bring or that four of their descendants – Sir John Thompson, Louis St. Laurent, Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney – would serve as Canada’s prime ministers.

More than 200 years after those journeys began, it was Mulroney, as prime minister, who met with then U.S. President Ronald Reagan on St. Patrick’s Day, 1985, in Quebec City at what became known as the “Shamrock Summit,” a landmark tightening of diplomatic ties that helped reset a strained Can-Am relationship. To cap the night, Mulroney and Reagan, also a descendant of Irish immigrants, crooned a duet of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” And 32 years later, in February 2017, Mulroney reprised his performance at a charity event hosted by President Donald Trump at his private estate at Mar-a-Lago, once again turning to diplomacy through song, reflecting his behind-the-scenes work for current PM Justin Trudeau on NAFTA.

“I apologize in advance,” Mulroney, then 77, joked, before performing to great applause, perhaps signalling another Irish-inspired diplomatic breakthrough. Or perhaps they’d just simply witnessed a living example of that old Irish proverb: “The older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune.”

If you go: The annual Bluegrass Music Festival takes place every September at the Ulster American Folk Park. For more information on the festival or the historic park, go to

A version of this article appeared in the March 2018 issue with the headline, “The Shamrock Effect,” p. 78-82.