The Disappearing Real and the Bright Ideal: Situating the Irish Past and Guiding the Canadian Future in Nineteenth-Century Irish-Canadian Poetry

Author: Raymond Jess (Concordia University)

Dear old Killynoogan, thee,
Once so full of life and glee,
Lifeless, desolate, I see!

But, beloved and sacred spot,
Nought of thee shall be forgot,
Till what I am now—is not.

—John Reade, “Killynoogan”[1]


In his poem “Killynoogan,” the Irish-Canadian poet John Reade invokes the idea that memories of life in Ireland are embodied within the people who inhabited the space of Ireland. While this allows for the continuing evocation of his Irish past in his new Canadian homeland, there is also a realization that when Reade dies, his unique and specific memories of Killynoogan, County Derry, will die with him. Like other Irish-Canadian poets of the second half of the nineteenth century, Reade’s fear is that while the space of Ireland will endure into the future, the distinctive culture that existed within that space will begin to fade with the disappearing of bodies from the landscape (especially during and after the Famine). Each Irish individual contains a memory bank of distinctive experiences of Ireland, of its people, and of its society and culture. The death or disappearance of those individuals from the space of Ireland is accompanied by an erasing of a store of memories, unvoiced and unrecorded. It is no surprise, then, that people thrown into great social and political upheaval in the aftermath of the Great Famine would turn to the past for a sense of continuity and cultural pride that would help them face the future with a greater degree of self-worth. The seismic demographic change that occurred in Ireland in the aftermath of the Famine is starkly evident in the census numbers. The census of 1841 put the population of Ireland at 8.1 million. By 1911 the population of Ireland was just 4.2 million; an extraordinary decline at a time when the other nations of the United Kingdom, and indeed other parts of the British Empire, would see a population increase. For the emigrants who found themselves scattered across the globe, the cultural memory of this seismic demographic movement would become central to the creation of a diasporic ethnic identity. In response to such rapid and profound change there was an attempt by many Irish diaspora writers to uncover what was most stable and enduring about Irish identity. Often this search for a sense of endurance across time and space was based on personal memory, such as memory of the Irish countryside, or memory of an Irish childhood. At other times it was based on the collective memory of Irish history or the collective religious desire for a spiritual state unburdened of the temporal experience of pain and hunger.

However, such reminiscing about the Irish past was not just an exercise in willful nostalgia. For post-Famine Irish-Canadian poets, memory of home in Ireland also had a practical function in helping them imagine a new future in Canada. As many of these writers did not know yet what it meant to be Canadian, they had to look back to an older idea of nationhood in order to foresee what kind of Canada they hoped to inhabit in the future. Personal memories of Ireland were often evoked as a way for Irish-Canadians to imagine what it was once like to feel completely at home in their surroundings. The pros and cons of each national landscape were often played off against each other in this search for an idea of home, with Ireland seen as a space of comfort but confinement, in contrast to Canada, a space of freedom but also of alienation. Similarly, collective memories of Irish history were often evoked as a warning to Canadians to try and avoid repeating the political mistakes of the past. This process of remembrance and anticipation is what social psychologists have often referred to as mental time-travel—that is, the conscious selection of specific episodes of the past to aid in providing better foresight about the future.[2] A survey of Irish-Canadian poems of the second half of the nineteenth century will show that memories of a pre-Famine past in Ireland had both a cognitive and a political function in helping Irish-Canadian individuals imagine a post-Famine future in Canada. But while this idealization of the Irish past worked to help new Irish emigrants solidify their identity in their new home, their increasing isolation from the social changes that were occurring in Ireland in the early part of the twentieth century meant that new narratives of the Irish past would not be updated.

The process of migration is often an ambivalent one, given that moving across political borders can undermine the comfort and assurances of old identities. Unmoored from the sometimes ethnic homogeneity of the homeland, migrants may become self-consciously aware of an identity that marks them out as “other.”[3] In reaction to such awareness, understandings of the self may harden due to a cognitive desire to maintain a fixity of identity affiliation in a migration process that moves continuously through different social and cultural situations.[4] In her study of second-generation Greek-Americans who have decided to settle in Greece, Anastasia Christou has highlighted how identity is a process rather than an essence, and that it is constantly being rearticulated in relation to historical and contextual circumstances.[5] Identities are continually refashioned through a combination of internal self-definition and external ascription by others.[6]  Surveying poems by Irish-Canadian poets in nineteenth-century Canada is one way of trying to understand how writing links this process of internal self-definition, on the one hand, and external ascription of identity on the other. All creative writing can be about a personal search for meaning, using the literary imagination to explore the nature of memory and identity-formation. But writing also communicates via a shared language that ascribes meaning and identity to groups, communities, and societies. The focus, then, in this survey of Irish-Canadian poems is not on the individual life stories of the poets, but rather on how Ireland is remembered in their poems, and how notions of “Irishness” are constituted in reaction to those memories.

The relationship between memory and identity-formation among the Irish diaspora has been dealt with at length in the second volume of the recent four-volume series Memory Ireland. Several contributions have highlighted how the search for identity is often a forward-looking quest for a sense of permanence and wholeness, what the series editor, Oona Frawley, characterizes as looking for something “unitary, solid and utterly predictable.”[7] In a chapter specifically related to the Canadian experience, Katrin Urschel notes that writers of the Irish diaspora often view the space of Ireland as a fixed place of cultural memory. In her study of late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century Irish-Canadian writers, she highlights how these writers initially viewed the Irish landscape as a collection of “static” spaces that allowed them access to the ongoing presence of the Irish past via its material detritus.[8] Urschel notes that much of the more fast-paced changes of contemporary urban Ireland are ignored in these writings as they do not seem to conform to the search for fixed, stable origins. These writers look to burial sites, ancient monuments, and rural habitations as examples of Ireland’s deep cultural past that endures into the present. Urschel highlights the importance of creating new memories in order to better orientate the writer in facing the future. There seems a strong desire among Urschel’s contemporary Irish-Canadian writers to fix the Irish past as a reference point from which they can develop their own literary imaginations.

But as Jason King has shown in his 2005 article “Prefiguring the Peaceable Kingdom: The Construction of Counter-Revolutionary Sentiment in Irish-Canadian Romantic Verse and Prose,” the search for a permanent sense of place inimical to the social and political changes of the present has a long literary history. King notes that early-nineteenth-century Irish writers such as Thomas Moore and Anne Chetwode viewed the Canadian landscape as a “peaceable kingdom,” a frontier space that would transcend the conflicts of the Irish past. The character of Albert Fitzmaurice, the Irish protagonist of Chetwode’s 1829 novel The Young Reformers, is sent to British North America by his parents in order to remove him from the baneful influence of the republicanism of the United Irishmen. Finding himself in the placid surroundings of the Canadian landscape, he undergoes a religious epiphany. The untouched grandeur and majesty of this new environment allow him to abandon his interest in the new republican ideals of the United States and France, and instead to contemplate the nature of God’s creation outside the discord and disharmony of human societies.[9]

In both King’s and Urschel’s texts the encounter with new space is an opportunity for writers to reflect on their individual relationship with historical time. Both sets of writers specifically situate these new spaces outside the everyday experience of their contemporary worlds. Just as Urschel’s modern Canadian writers view the Irish landscape as a pre-modern space, King’s early-nineteenth-century Irish writers view the Canadian landscape as a pre-historical space, a space free of the Irish political history that pitted Catholic against Protestant and landowner against peasant. In both of these studies Ireland and Canada seem to be set against each other as spaces that contain some sense of identity-genesis that the other lacks. For Urschel’s writers, the Irish landscape contains the origins of Irish identity, the material reference points of a diaspora consciousness that has travelled around the world. For King’s writers, the Canadian landscape represents a world before historical time, a religious-like Eden that connects the individual with the beginnings of the world.

Attempting to verify and establish one’s own identity often comes about through this relational contrast with other times and places. In his celebrated study of the Irish literary renaissance and its twentieth-century influence, Declan Kiberd demonstrated how historically Ireland was often desired as a mirror to Englishness, a binary interpretation of difference that helped to define how the English saw themselves. If the English wanted to view themselves as “controlled, refined and rooted,” then it would help to compare themselves against an image of the Irish as “hot-headed, rude and nomadic.”[10] This mirror imaging of identity was also a reflexive process that Irish-Canadian writers would engage in throughout the nineteenth century, often setting hope about a buoyant Canadian future against an Ireland in decline. Canada and Ireland therefore were not just different spaces; they also existed in different temporalities, and a linear narrative of social and political progress required that Ireland's national tragedy be irreversible, so as to make Canada's bright future seem more inevitable.  

It is in such contexts that communal narratives play a crucial role in bridging personal and collective memory. Psychologists Phillip L. Hammack and Andrew Pilecki posit that the story of the nation-state helps us to cognitively situate ourselves within time and history. In researching how notions of narrative are understood in various social, political, and psychological studies, they conclude that “individuals appropriate discourses of the nation-state as they strive to make meaning and coherence out of a complex social and political reality.”[11] These collective discourses create the boundaries of social reproduction designating what becomes normative and what becomes transgressive. Emigrant narratives of migration not only help to situate emigrants in their new home space, but also orientate them toward desiring a future that will unfold in a particular way—for example, a future where the mistakes of the old country are not repeated. In such textual representations, it is important to establish the certainties of the past in order to better interpret the contingencies of the present and determine the best path for future possibilities.

A recurring motif in many of these Irish-Canadian poems is the sharp contrast between memories of an Irish homeland and the experience of new settlements in Canada. By the second half of the nineteenth century there was a strong hope within Canadian political circles that Canada would be able to provide various solutions to Irish problems. The success of Canadian Confederation meant that there was now a new model of sovereignty that Ireland could turn to with regard to achieving Home Rule. Indeed the British North America Act of 1867 became a template for British Prime Minister William Gladstone when drafting the first Irish Home Rule Bill in 1886.[12] In addition, in economic terms Canada was in constant need of new labor to settle the country, and the offer of land for new emigrants coming from the United Kingdom would allow Irish people of modest means opportunities for economic success that they could never hope to achieve in Ireland.

But the political and economic themes that emerged in many of these poems were also marked by a sense of loss and desire for home. Movement to a new territorial space had made emigrants acutely self-conscious of what they left behind, and one of the enduring themes of this poetry is the comparison between Irish space and North American space. The vastness of the ocean that was recently traversed seemed to continue in the vastness of the land that now lay before these new arrivals. The problem, then, for many new Irish immigrants was that the Canadian landscape was always novel, and never familiar; it just seemed to go on and on. In his famous 1977 work Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan described space as the desire for freedom and place as the desire for security.[13] The alienation that many Irish-Canadians experienced led not only to a physical search for place but also a cognitive and emotional search for security. In helping them to find this physical space of home and security in the Canadian landscape, first-generation Irish-Canadian writers often needed to journey back to the memory of home in Ireland. For example, Edward Hartley Dewart’s poem “Erin Remembered” begins:

Fair Canada, land of the maple and pine,
Though liberty, grandeur and beauty are thine,
Yet in sweet, dreamy sadness my thoughts often roam,
To re-visit loved Erin, my country—my home!

Though the wide-ocean parts from that beautiful isle,
Yet memory and fancy oft sweetly beguile,
And bear me on pinions of rapture to gaze
On the scenes where I sported, in youth’s sunny days.[14]

The line “memory and fancy oft sweetly beguile” indicates how memory is often infused with a future-orientated desire for stable contentment. Here the “wide-ocean” is not just a geographical boundary in space; it is also a historical boundary in time. Youth exists on the other side of the ocean. It’s also notable how Dewart relates liberty and grandeur to Canada, perhaps implying that Ireland is in possession of neither. This would seem to tally with Tuan’s belief that a sense of space, or a sense of its lack, is intimately connected with how much freedom individuals believe they possess in any given situation.

In contrast, Irish space is often perceived as limiting but cozy. A striking feature about such poems is the relative lack of people that inhabited these remembered landscapes of Ireland. This may have been partly due to the fact that nineteenth-century North America was full of Irish people, and that if one wished to encounter them and their culture one would not have far to look. As such, it was not the people of Ireland that were the objects of longing in these poems but rather the places of Ireland, and it’s notable that there are frequent images of the poet as a solitary figure walking through the landscape of his own personal memories. The land of Ireland was not just visual background scenery; it cultivated sensitivities and sensibilities. In Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s “Home-Sick Stanzas,” the poet talks of the difficulty he has in identifying with his new Canadian surroundings as everything reminds him of home:

I felt a weight where’er I went—
            I felt a void within my brain;
My day hopes and my dreams were blent
            With sable threads of mental pain;
My eye delighted not to look
            On forest old or rapids grand;
The stranger’s pride I scarce could brook,
            My heart was in my own dear land.

Memories of Ireland, then, are a cognitive portal to strong emotional evocations, and memories of Ireland seem to arouse feelings of nostalgia, melancholy, and sometimes even anger. Phrases such as “dreamy sadness” and “mental pain” conjure images of figures being out of place in their surroundings, knowing that what they have lost can never be fully recaptured.[16] It is also noticeable that this portal to strong emotions is associated with innocence and impetuosity, a place where Ireland is seen as some sort of prelapsarian id full of spontaneity, unselfconsciousness, and naked joie de vivre.

However, these feelings may have more to do with the life stage of the poets themselves rather than any sense of Ireland existing in a pre-modern state of unabashed instinct and emotion. The different conceptions of Ireland and Canada in these poems do not just rely on spatial differences but also on the time of life of the observer and how they are contrasting their childhood and adulthood. In fact, in Dewart’s poem it is difficult to see how time and space can be disassociated from one another. Is Dewart nostalgic about Ireland or nostalgic about his youth? The eulogization of Ireland as a static space conforms to a childlike interpretation of one’s surroundings. The child accepts the world for what it is without the ability to be able to contrast it with an older historical time. The inability to observe this change through time gives the child a sense of the ever-present, a sense of spontaneous novelty that can only disappear with a consciousness of historical time. In The Bush Garden, his classic work on Canadian literature, Northrop Frye underscored how the pastoral myth often associates childhood with some earlier form of rural society, a time and space before the here and now of adult life and its economic and material obligations. The cold rationality of modernity is contrasted with the nostalgia for some simpler way of life, one characterized by an easygoing and “spontaneous response to nature.”[17] Many of these Irish-Canadian poets had to emigrate with their families for a better material life, but it is only in mature adulthood that they are able to appreciate the richness of the world they left behind.[18] Consciousness of space as it changes through historical time can only then be a consciousness of loss. In later life reminiscences, childhood and the home associated with it are often remembered through a prism of comfort, security, and complete belonging. It is therefore not surprising that adulthood for many Irish emigrants has meant abandoning the security of the childhood home for an unknowable future in an unknowable land.

For the twentieth-century writer and intellectual Raymond Williams, the pastoral myth in the literature of England was part of a long and enduring history of political commentary; a critique of the prevailing social and economic order. England’s landless peasantry would look back to a time before landlords existed, a time when land was shared by all. Such retrospection in the search for foundational myths is a powerful comment on the cultural and social poverty of the present. As Williams explains, the myth of pre-historical unity becomes a prospective hope of better times ahead: “It is retrospect as aspiration, for such an idea is drawn not only from the Christian idea of the Garden of Eden—the simple, natural world before the Fall—but also from a version of the Golden Age […] This persistent and particular version of the Golden Age, a myth functioning as a memory, could then be used, by the landless, as an aspiration.”[19]

In the Irish case, this myth of pre-historical unity was brought into sharp focus in reaction to the rapid global dispersion of Irish people during and after the Famine. Marguérite Corporaal has underscored how the event of the Famine and the two hundred years of political upheaval that preceded it altered Catholic Irish people’s vision of their homeland to that of a lost idyll, identifying the country with a pre-colonial Gaelic age when Irish culture was at its most triumphant.[20] Pre-colonial Ireland was authentic Ireland and political freedom for Ireland was the ability to return to an idealized past; for Ireland’s great tragedy was to have been brought into the unfolding of European history. That historical record of kings, queens, political conquest, and internecine religious conflict had largely not worked out in Ireland’s favor. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in many of these poems there is a hope that Ireland can return to the grandeur of a pre-modern Celtic past when its cultural distinctiveness was at its greatest.[21] In the poem “Bearla Feine” James McCarroll looks back to this Celtic Ireland at the dawn of civilization:

When, standing in the empty womb of space,
The Great I Am the silence first had broken,
When light and darkness first met face to face,
What then the sovereign language that was spoken,
The words that ushered in the primal dawn?
Was the sublime command—“Biols lus awn?” [sic][22]

McCarroll eulogizes a great Celtic past as a way of giving to Irish people a strong sense of a foundational culture that has endured across the centuries. Initially a proud Canadian, McCarroll would eventually become disillusioned with his adopted home and moved to upstate New York where he became a bona fide Fenian.[23] In 1868, in the aftermath of the initial Fenian raids into Canada, he published a novel under the pseudonym “Scian Dubh” (Black Knife), titled Ridgeway: An Historical Romance of the Fenian Invasion of Canada. In explaining the background for the invasion, McCarroll spells out the importance for the Irish Republican movement in adopting the ancient term “Fenian” as its own. McCarroll recognizes that because the name Fenian was a name from remote antiquity, it was not tied up with the political and religious divisions of the recent past. He highlights the practical functionality of such ancient terms for the creation of national identity:

The rarity of the name [Fenian] led to newspaper expositions of it, and moved the inquiring patriot to look into Irish history in relation to it; and in this manner a knowledge of much of the ancient greatness of Ireland became the common property of those who were formerly but slightly acquainted with such lore. The result was, thousands of the Irish became interested in relation to the past of their race […].[24]

Conceiving of the deep past as a stable “other” to unpredictable change in the present has many precedents. Following the work of Russian literary formalist Mikhail Bakhtin, Gabrielle Spiegel has shown that medieval historical writing was obsessed with creating originary myths, myths of places so far away in time that they become resistant to relativization, thus providing a source of authority and privilege. For aristocratic classes the greater the temporal depth of their relationship with their ancestors, the greater the social distance between them and their social inferiors.[25] Social inferiors here can be understood as a people who are perceived to be without a past. Unearthing and creating strong personal and communal ties to successful ancient societies is a sort of social capital; one that provides a sense of both social distinction and cultural distinctiveness.

Within British imperial thinking this type of Celtic primitivism became associated with what were understood as the finer feelings of poetic sentiment and national patriotism. But while the Celtic ideal became associated with feeling and emotion, it was also associated with a seeming lack of logic and violent irrationality. While for McCarroll, ancient Celtic histories provided myths of male heroism and bravery, the experience of the Irish-American Fenian raids into Canada during the 1866–70 period, and the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee by a suspected Fenian in 1868, meant that some Canadians were wary of how those ancient histories could be interpreted. In the wake of McGee’s assassination, the Scottish-Canadian poet Evan MacColl lambasted the Fenians for appropriating an honored Celtic name for the propagation of political violence. His poem “A Word with the Fenian Brotherhood” uses the tripartite image of the shamrock as a symbol of the unity between England, Ireland, and Scotland.[26] The irony here is that McColl himself uses an ancient Irish symbol to underline the unity of the British Empire. As the McGee biographer David Wilson points out, the malleability of ancient Celtic culture in the hands of writers and politicians such as McGee and others meant that any myth or traditional symbol could be easily adapted to validate their own political outlook.[27]

Declan Kiberd has highlighted how many Irish writers of the Revival period sought to put this Celtic malleability to work by rebranding negative stereotypes of the Irish and using them as positive cultural traits. The tactic of the revivalists was to substitute words with negative connotations for those with positive ones: “for superstitious use religious, for backward say traditional, for irrational suggest emotional.”[28] Descriptors such as “religious” and “traditional” show how kinship with ancient societies was coveted as the mark of identities that were strong, enduring, and resilient to natural disasters and historical contingencies. Religious devotion was a central aspect of Irish experience and the search for an Ireland before history had strong religious overtones. Many Irish-Canadian poets sought to eulogize a distant land outside of time; one that was not overburdened with the demands of the Canadian future or the tragedy of the recent Irish past. As theologians have reminded us, in confronting the existential despair generated by the unrelenting passage of time, religion can provide the certainty of the soul at rest in an eternity outside time.

Such religious overtones were prominent in the writings of two second-generation Irish-Canadian Catholic poets of the late nineteenth century, Thomas O’Hagan and Joseph Kearney Foran.[29] In his poem “Ireland in 1880” O’Hagan conjures up the very Catholic image of Ireland as purgatory, where the people exist in a state of limbo after the physical death of the land, awaiting their deliverance to the new Eden of North America. O’Hagan calls on God to intervene in a food crisis that has spawned an Ireland full of crying souls and spirits. Ireland is pictured as an imprisoning space where the people are helpless to save themselves. This helplessness is mirrored on the other side of the ocean where O’Hagan can do nothing but observe the horrifying fate of the Irish people. He has to question himself as to whether this vision of Ireland is a dream, meaning a state similar to purgatory, a place between sleep (death) and wakefulness (new life): “Oh My God! is this a dream? | In the midst of wealth and plenty.” [30] The credulousness of O’Hagan’s surprise is also a comment on Ireland’s position as the western part of the then most powerful nation in the world, and the absurdity of its economic state. O’Hagan views Ireland as existing in a state of permanent decline, even going as far as to ask, “Oh affection! can it be | That the homes of happy childhood | Sink beneath this woful sea?”[31] This is a vision of complete annihilation, that Ireland could disappear from the face of the earth leaving the Irish people with only two avenues of escape; physical death and ascendency to the peaceable kingdom of heaven, or emigration to try and find such a peaceable kingdom in the New World.

The rise of the Land League in Ireland in the late 1870s and the subsequent land war that endured until 1882 were widely covered in the Canadian press. Potato crop failure would once again hit Ireland in 1879, although this time it was more localized to the west. As well as authorizing aid provisions to Ireland during this period, politicians in the Canadian House of Commons thought that this was the perfect moment to encourage Irish people to come to Canada to settle the Northwest, a place crying out for new settlers.[32] Many Canadian politicians were open to the idea that Ireland’s difficulty was Canada’s opportunity. With fresh fears of violence surrounding the actions of the Irish National Land League, the Canadian political establishment believed that Canada could offer everything to the Irish they desired but could not achieve in their own country—in other words, home rule, land ownership, and safety from political violence and religious bigotry. Burdened by the weight of an intractable political history and perennial economic mismanagement, the Irish could only hope to fulfill their ambitions outside of Ireland.

In the last third of the nineteenth century, this theme of decline in Ireland and rebirth in Canada in the wake of the Famine was perennially evoked through the image of Ireland as a dying old woman. The vision of Ireland as female or as a mother is a symbolic identification that goes back a long way in Irish cultural history. The psychoanalyst Ernest Jones noted that for island peoples there is often a strong association of their native land with the ideas of “woman, virgin, mother and womb.”[33] This association evokes an idea of the island as the womb of a mother waiting to give birth to her diaspora population. The Quebec-born poet Joseph Kearney Foran was especially taken by this maternal image of nation, and he expressed his double consciousness of nationality as being the child of two mothers. In an address given at the Quebec Music Hall on St. Patrick’s night in 1875 he stated: “Canada is a good mother for whom we should labour and to whose interests it is our bounden duty to consecrate our energies and our talents. But out of the length of a whole year placed at her disposal and employed for her advancement honour and glory, is it naught but just that one day should be taken to go back to the grave of the old mother Erin?”[34]

Returning to the “grave” of old mother Erin is a bold pronouncement on Ireland’s state of nation. But with Ireland’s population numbers in free fall during this time it is easy to understand how many members of the Irish diaspora could see little hope for Ireland’s post-Famine prospects. The title of another of Foran’s poems gives some indication of how he viewed the potential of Canada’s future for Ireland’s emigrants. The poem “The Answer” is a reply to a preceding poem called “The Enquiry,” which asks after the health of old mother Erin. In “The Answer” Foran contends that there is no use mourning the dying mother of Ireland because not enough was done to try to save her in the first place:

She is dying—ah! to die,
            Sad it is, indeed, for her.
Thousands then would yield a sigh—
But too late the bootless cry—
It would be a living lie,
            And of little need for her!

Foran goes on to observe that though the land was once fertile, the “poisoned gale” has turned it into a bed of sterility.[36] While “The Answer” exclaims that old Ireland is at death’s door, there is hope in the form of a call to bring people to the New World where they can re-establish themselves through the opportunities of work and enterprise in Canada.

In another of Foran’s poems, “Have You Seen?,” the Irish chronicler questions his Canadian interloper as to whether the deep poetical nature of the Irish environment can be found in Canada. For the questioner Ireland is a mythical place where the land itself has an anthropomorphic presence. In the second stanza, after describing such scenes as fairies dancing around the “Moat at Knockgraffon,” the images suddenly turn violent, “Have you seen her look down | on your red fields of slaughter?” This is followed by light beaming on the “shrines of devotion,” and later “the spirit that ’rose when | the foe would molest her.” [37] Political violence infects the landscape while images of spiritual intercedence herald the reawakening of the Catholic faith. The last stanza of the poem is a back-and-forth between the Irish inquisitor and his Canadian acquaintance where the inquisitor asks if the Canadian has heard about the suffering and decline of the “once brilliant story” of Ireland. The Canadian makes it known that in Canada there is no history of sorrow and weeping, and that political rights are recognized and defended. In the last two lines Foran places special emphasis on the difference between the tragedy of Ireland’s past and the hope of Canada’s future,

Of your own native Isle
                        you have heard of the sorrow—
Yours was dark as the night—
                        ours is bright as the morrow!

The difference between the present and past tense (“was,” “is”) denotes a temporal disparity between the two countries, as if Ireland is living in the past at the same time that Canada exists in the present. The difference between the night of the past and the “morrow” of the future also suggests, like O’Hagan’s poem “Ireland in 1880,” that both countries exist at a time between sleeping and waking, or between the end of one life and the beginning of another.

This sense of living between worlds can also be found in another of O’Hagan’s poems titled “The Cry of Ireland.” Here, the invocation to try and reach the Promised Land has both religious and political connotations:

We are living in the valley—not alone, in isolation—
            For our patriot souls hold kinship with the Just in
                        every land;
God’s finger points us onward to our place among
                        the Nations,
          And we march toward Freedom’s height ’neath His
                        pillar’d Light and Hand.[39]

From a nationalist standpoint God is pointing the Irish toward national independence that will let them take their place among the nations of the world. But God’s direction can also be viewed as an invocation to emigrate to the new nation across the sea. In this sense, it is a religious journey through space rather than a political journey through time. While an earlier line in the poem, “And we see the tapers burning on the altar of our birth,” [40] could mean that the birth of the Irish nation is soon to come, it also evokes the idea of rebirth and reincarnation after physical death. Like other Irish-Canadian Catholic writers of the time, O’Hagan pays special attention to the endurance in Ireland of the Catholic faith. Catholic Ireland’s devotion through the Reformation and after will be rewarded by sailing away to a new world where the Catholic faith is not persecuted and where the culture of Catholic Ireland will have space to blossom.

However, it is not just the geography of place that allows people to situate themselves in relation to where they come from and where they are going, but also socially agreed upon collective narratives of the past that rely on their perpetual enunciation by individuals. Ireland may be overburdened with such historical narratives, but they provide a ready-made cultural toolbox that allows Irish people to situate themselves in relation to their past, in relation to the people around them, and to direct them toward action in the future. To be Irish, then, is to be part of a long historical narrative, one that provides a cognitive order among the contingencies of history. The re-telling of collective narratives of the past is not just a social act of sharing, but, especially in literature, it is also a performative act that reorients how people should feel or emote toward that narrative. How someone reacts emotionally to particular situations such as the death of a loved one or the setting of the sun can elicit an approved or socially expected response that can tell us about the cultural expectations of that era. But sometimes the subjective experiences of the individual do not lend themselves to easy expression in linguistic form. Part of this frustration with linguistic expression can be seen in John Reade’s “Killynoogan.” In the poem Reade tells of his childhood in the small townland of Killynoogan, County Derry, but he also expresses the difficulty he has in describing the boundless and dynamic nature of his own memories: “Words are cumbersome at times, | Thought could visit fifty climes, | While I’m seeking useless rhymes.”[41] Words are sometimes not enough to express the idiosyncrasies of one’s memory. Writing necessarily objectifies a subjective experience, and the writer has to make compromises with literary form and the demands of rhetorical fashion to be able to communicate something of a personal memory that may never be entirely replicable in print.

This stability of identity may be needed, then, to deal with the dissonant, disordered, and partial nature of ongoing subjective experience, especially the experience of emigrants in a process of transition. From the standpoint of the Canadian present, with its imprecise national boundaries and continually changing ethnic character, the island of Ireland provided a certain coherence; both geographic fixity and historical continuity. Shared narratives of the Irish past could then be employed to fashion new narratives of the Canadian future. The often-fractious history of the Irish-English relationship, for example, needed to be overcome in the “peaceable kingdom” of Canada in order for people to unite for the success of the country. The Irish-Canadian MP and journalist Nicholas Flood Davin believed that the success of Irishmen like himself outside of Ireland showed how much the denial of home rule was negatively impacting Ireland. He would go on to state that the British Empire was a better space for Irish people to reach their full potential, as they would be free from the Old World prejudices that they had to contend with back home.[42] Canada could become a better Britain because the political, economic and cultural differences that divide the United Kingdom would be superseded in Canada. Removing English, Irish and Scottish people from their national land would remove the territorial and political underpinnings of their identity, leaving only an ethno-cultural identity to work with. Canadian poetry at this time was full of symbolism of the union of the English, the Irish, the Scottish, and the French, trying to acknowledge heterogeneity while doing away with otherness.[43] An example can be seen in Davin’s poem “Young Canada”:

Ierne’s heart, compact of joy
            And sorrow, wealth of feeling brings;
France, sweetness for each word and act—
            The gaiety that ever sings.

From Scotland, thrift and strength you borrow—
             John Knox’s strength and Burns’ liberal heart;
The Saxon breadth and
             Shall lead; but you the larger part […].[44]   

Assimilating stereotypes from the past allows the poet to fashion new discourses of identity for a Canadian future. And it is this Canadian future that provides a space for agency and self-creation that does not seem to exist in Ireland.[45] The narratives of the Irish past can help an Irish person to cognitively situate him or herself in historical time and act as a sort of psychological reassurance against the doubts engendered by social upheaval. But these narratives can also become overbearing and deterministic as Irish people may feel that they must constantly bear witness to the sacrifices of people of the past and answer for events that may have occurred long before they were even born. In contrast to the Irish who seem to be over-determined by Irish history and the Irish landscape, Canadian identity in these poems is often eulogized as an act of self-creation. By founding a brand-new nation Canadians are seen as determining—rather than determined. If Irish people are produced by Ireland (by both its history and its landscape), it is Canadians who produce Canada (both its history and its landscape). Katrin Urschel has shown that this dichotomy between the burdensome essentializing of identity in Ireland and the more creative and relational practice of identity-formation in Canada is still in evidence in Irish-Canadian writing of the twenty-first century.[46]

Different host environments, then, can have a great influence on how an immigrant group situates itself in viewing the history of the homeland. In contrast to their Irish-American counterparts who were quick to highlight the common experience of the Irish and the Americans in resisting British imperial rule, Irish-Canadians tended to underscore the differences in the political histories of Ireland and Canada. There is no doubt that the history of the Catholic Church in Canada was an established fact that helped to ease the integration of Irish Catholics. Although the Church was especially strong in Quebec, Mark McGowan has shown that even in Protestant Toronto Irish Catholics successfully integrated into their host environment over time.[47] In contrast to the revolutionary politics of the Fenians in the United States, Irish-Canadian writers such as O’Hagan and Foran viewed Irish Catholics as pilgrims of anglophone Canadian Catholicism. In their view, the Irish Catholic tradition in Canada should be cherished for establishing the roots of an anglophone Catholic culture, one that should be remembered as a history of stoic forbearance rather than ressentiment anger. It was a religious rather than a political identity that came to the fore in many of the writings of Catholic Irish-Canadians.

The contrast between how post-Famine Irish-Canadians and post-Famine Irish-Americans viewed their common homeland was a product of the different political spaces they inhabited on the North American continent. But the increasing divergence between Irish Canada and the Irish motherland was largely a product of historical change in Ireland itself rather than any fundamental change in the character of Irish-Canadians. The failure of two Irish home rule bills (the Canadian solution to an Irish problem), as well as a steep decline in emigration to Canada that began before the Revival period of the 1890s, would mean that the bulk of Irish-Canadians were generationally disconnected from the radical changes occurring in Ireland during the revolutionary period. Their evocations of Irishness were tied to a belief that Ireland could achieve a level of self-sovereignty within the British family of nations, and that their Celtic heritage would help to romanticize and modify the harshness of the British imperial image.

This article has tried to shed light on how emigrant narratives of migration, home, and place are often understood as cognitive tools used by the individual to situate the self in time, in space, and in relation to one’s contemporaries. The thrust of this argument can neatly be summed up in a stanza by Foran in his poem “The Exile’s Vision”:

Once I sat down to ponder,
As my spirit, fond and fonder,
From my exile home did wander
               Far away across the sea:
And the disappearing Real
Blended with the bright Ideal
’Till I thought I could see all
               The scenes once dear to me.

The lines “And the disappearing Real | Blended with the bright Ideal” is a perfect summation of how the recording of subjective memory in the aftermath of the Famine became assimilated to a culturally sanctioned nationalist narrative. Blending memory and desire underscores how the past and the future are mutually constitutive of each other, and how a desire for a particular future is related to a need to redeem a particular past. These poems, then, are an archive of how the material expression of personal memory can be put to work in the service of the imagined community of the nation, whether that nation exists in the Irish past or in the Canadian future.


[1] John Reade, “Killynoogan,” in The Prophecy of Merlin and Other Poems (Montreal: Dawson, 1870), 97.

[2] Thomas Suddendorf, Donna Rose Addis, and Michael C. Corballis, “Mental Time Travel and the Shaping of the Human Mind,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 364, no. 1521 (2009): 1317.

[3] Paul White, “Geography, Literature and Migration,” in Writing Across Worlds: Literature and Migration, ed. Russell King, John Connell, and Paul White (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 3.

[4] Tim Edensor, National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 57.

[5] Anastasia Christou, Narratives of Place, Culture and Identity: Second-Generation Greek-Americans Return ‘Home’ (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 44.

[6] Richard Jenkins, Social Identity, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 20.

[7] Oona Frawley, introduction to Memory Ireland, vol. 2, Diaspora and Memory Practices, ed. Oona Frawley (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2012), 6.

[8] Katrin Urschel, “Chronotopic Memory in Contemporary Irish-Canadian Literature,” in Memory Ireland, 46.

[9] Jason King, “Prefiguring the Peaceable Kingdom: The Construction of Counter-Revolutionary Sentiment in Irish-Canadian Romantic Verse and Prose,” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 31, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 42, accessed October 31, 2016,  

[10] Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 9.

[11] Phillip L. Hammack and Andrew Pilecki, “Narrative as a Root Metaphor for Political Psychology,” Political Psychology 33, no.1 (February 2012): 84, accessed October 31, 2016,

[12] Deryck M. Schreuder, “Gladstone’s ‘Greater World’: Free Trade, Empire and Liberal Internationalism,” in William Gladstone: New Studies and Perspectives, ed. Ronald Quinault, Roger Swift, and Ruth Clayton Windscheffel (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 278.

[13] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 33.

[14] Edward Hartley Dewart, “Erin Remembered,” in Songs of Life: A Collection of Poems (Toronto: Dudley & Burns, 1869), 195.

[15] Thomas D’Arcy McGee, “Home-Sick Stanzas,” in Canadian Ballads and Occasional Verses (Montreal: John Lovell, 1858), 67.

[16] Katrin Urschel has noted that such feelings of alienation were also a feature of the poetry of early-nineteenth-century Irish-Canadian poets such as Adam Kidd and Standish O’Grady. See Katrin Urschel, “From Assimilation to Diversity: Ethnic Identity in Irish-Canadian Literature,” in Multiculturalism and Integration: Canadian and Irish Experiences, ed. Vera Regan, Isabelle Lemée, and Maeve Conrick (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010), 177–91.

[17] Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (Toronto: Anansi, 1971), 239.

[18] James McCarroll was born in County Leitrim in 1814; Thomas D’Arcy McGee was born in County Louth in 1825; Edward Hartley Dewart was born in County Cavan in 1828; John Reade was born in County Donegal in 1837; and Nicholas Flood Davin was born in County Limerick in 1840.

[19] Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 42–43.

[20] Marguérite M. Corporaal, “From Golden Hills to Sycamore Trees: Pastoral Homelands and Ethnic Identity in Irish Immigrant Fiction, 1860–75,” Irish Studies Review 18, no. 3 (2010): 333, accessed October 31, 2016,

[21] See also “The Waking Dream of the Westbound Celt” by Alexander Charles Stewart and “Earth’s True Lords” by John Daniel Logan.

[22] James McCarroll, “Bearla Feine,” in Madeline and Other Poems (Chicago, New York, and San Francisco: Belford, Clarke & Company, 1889), 96. This is a misspelling of “Biodh solas ann,” which translates as “Let there be light.”

[23] Michael Peterman, “From Terry Finnegan to Terry Fenian: The Truncated Literary Career of James McCarroll,” in Irish Nationalism in Canada, ed. David A. Wilson (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009), 151.

[24] Scian Dubh [James McCarroll], Ridgeway: An Historical Romance of the Fenian Invasion of Canada (Buffalo: McCarroll & Co., 1868), 70.

[25] Gabrielle M. Spiegel, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), xiv.

[26] Evan MacColl, “A Word with the Fenian Brotherhood,” in The English Poetical Works of Evan MacColl (Toronto: Hunter, Rose & Co., 1883), 288.

[27] David A. Wilson, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, vol. 1, Passion, Reason, and Politics, 1825–1857 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), 31.

[28] Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 32.

[29] O’Hagan was born in Ontario to parents from County Kerry in 1855. Foran was born in Quebec to parents from County Tipperary in 1857.

[30] Thomas O’Hagan, “Ireland in 1880,” in The Collected Poems of Thomas O’Hagan (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1922), 67.

[31] Ibid., 68.

[32] See House of Commons Debates, 4th Parliament, 2nd Session, vol. 2, p. 1450 (April 16, 1880), (statement by Edward Blake). 

[33] Ernest Jones, “The Island of Ireland: A Psychological Contribution to Political Psychology,” in Psycho-Myth, Psycho-History: Essays in Applied Psychoanalysis, Volume 1 (New York: Stonehill, 1974), 98.

[34] J. K. Foran. A Garland: Lectures and Poems by Dr. J. K. Foran (Montreal: Gazette Printing Company, 1931), 1.

[35] J. K. Foran, “The Answer,” in Poems and Canadian Lyrics (Montreal: D. & J. Sadlier & Co., 1895), 27.

[36] Ibid., 28.

[37] J. K. Foran, “Have You Seen?,” in Poems and Canadian Lyrics, 79, 80, 81.

[38] Ibid., 81.

[39] Thomas O’Hagan, “The Cry of Ireland,” in The Collected Poems, 74.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Reade, “Killynoogan,” 95.

[42] See House of Commons Debates, 6th Parliament, 1st Session, vol. 1, p. 106 (April 25, 1887), (statement by Nicholas Flood Davin).

[43] See “Canada’s Birthday” by Agnes Machar, “Canada” by Charles G. D. Roberts, “Peter Ottawa” by Edward William Thomson, and “Dominion Day” by John Reade.

[44] Nicholas Flood Davin, “Young Canada,” in Eos: An Epic of the Dawn, and Other Poems (Regina: Leader, 1889), 134.

[45] It is notable, for example, that as well as writing about Ireland, many of these poets also wrote poems about their hopes and desires for the future success of Canada. Some examples include: “Arm and Rise!” by Thomas D’Arcy McGee, “Ode to Canada” by Edward Hartley Dewart, “Dominion Day” by John Reade, “A Song of Canada” by Nicholas Flood Davin, “We’re All Canadians” by Thomas O’Hagan, and “Canadian Song” by Joseph Kearney Foran.

[46] Urschel, “From Assimilation to Diversity,” 188.

[47] Mark G. McGowan, The Waning of the Green: Catholics, the Irish, and Identity in Toronto, 1887–1922 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999).

[48] J. K. Foran, “The Exile’s Vision,” in Poems and Canadian Lyrics, 81–82.