Denis Sampson: On the Paucity of Irish-Canadian Memoir

Book Cover A Migrant Heart

Canada's Celtic connections are well-documented (and soon to be more so, if Ken McGoogan has anything to do with it), and such Irish-Canadian writers as Anakana Schofield and Emma Donoghue are some of our country's best, but in a literary culture that so prizes immigrant stories, where are our Irish-Canadian memoirs? 

It's a question Denis Sampson, biographer of Irish-Canadian novelist Brian Moore, considers in this guest post, and a question he's answered by writing his own Irish-Canadian memoir, A Migrant Heart

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"That’s a good title," many people said to me when they heard of my recently published memoir, A Migrant Heart. I think it may be the contradictory emotions that radiate from it. How can the heart be "migrant" since the word suggests moving on, displacement, while the heart is the emblem of attachment, love, belonging? And yet, we Canadians, so many of us hyphenated, know that there is a state between emigration and immigration, a state of confusion and uncertainty, of learning and discovery, of settling and integration.

Much writing of the past century, at least, has originated there, in what used to be called exile, but what has surprised me is that there is so little writing about being Irish-Canadian. The Irish are celebrated as writers and talkers, but those who have come to Canada in such great numbers appear to have fallen silent. Few have explored the experiences of their migrant hearts.

I arrived in Montreal and was checked in as a "landed immigrant," and then, not so many years later, became a "dual citizen" of Ireland and Canada, and then some years after that, with my Irish passport, became a Euro citizen. I am lucky to possess such official certifications of doubleness, but where do I belong? Or what does belonging mean in our contemporary world of instant global communication and ease of travel? A Migrant Heart is an attempt to answer in a small way what belonging has meant during the lifetime of this Irish-Canadian.

My title is borrowed from a wise and witty poem "Dublin-Poughkeepsie: Breadknife in Exile," by Eamon Grennan: "And I settle a migrant heart again in this otherwhere". It is a poet’s shorthand for something that has taken me a lifetime to realize and many pages of prose to articulate. But it struck me some time ago that memoir is the right genre for me and my subject, for allowing the reader to follow all the strands of experience, all the currents of feeling that flow through the heart, all the ways in which the false choices of either/or can be felt and then outgrown. Instead of separating the Irish and the Canadian, the hyphen joins and creates something new.

Brian Moore Chameleon Novelist

I first realized that I might have something worthwhile to articulate about my own place in the world after I completed a biography, Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist. I had been drawn to Moore’s work soon after I arrived in Montreal and read The Luck of Ginger Coffey. My discovery that the celebrated author of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne had actually written it while he lived in Montreal naturally sparked my curiosity in his whole career. He had emigrated to Canada from Belfast in 1948 and had discovered himself as a novelist during the dozen years he spent in the city. I read everything by Moore as one novel after another appeared through the 1970s and 1980s and into the '90s, but it was evident that he was not really considered a Canadian writer, nor an Irish writer, nor, indeed, an American writer, for it was in the United States he had eventually settled. He called himself a “chameleon novelist,” and so I borrowed the phrase for my biography, but what I didn’t realize is that it is shorthand for migrant.

When I’d finished the biography, I realized that I had some talent for imagining a lifetime’s evolution. A biography or an autobiography could be a lens for clarifying the relationships between the many possible lives a person might live. Situating my subjects—and there have been others besides Moore—in the circumstances of particular places and historical moments might become a way of understanding how each one of us negotiates change and all the challenges that time brings to us.

Finishing The Chameleon Novelist, I realized that in some way I didn’t really understand, I had been writing about myself. I had identified with Moore in his migrant state, for indeed that is how his entire life’s work may be seen, its multiple settings in Canada, Ireland, France, New York and California only one way of tracking his unsettled nature. More significant is his talent for creating many different voices, many different kinds of characters grappling with a set of homeless issues, and also significant are his many experiments with the novel genre itself.

Just think of the homeless Judith Hearne, or Ginger Coffey, and then I am Mary Dunne (Nova Scotian Montrealer living in New York, her life explored in a stream of consciousness). More striking still is Black Robe (an historical allegory of early French contacts with Huron, Iroquois and Algonquin communities, yet the racial and religious conflicts that fueled Northern Ireland’s Troubles overshadow it). It is Moore’s constant shape-changing as a novelist, not his residence in any one place, that characterizes his work. Somehow I felt drawn to him for what lay beneath this life-long act of searching. And then I knew that it was time for me to begin a memoir that would mine some of that territory in my own experience.

Moore was not in any practical sense a model I could learn from, nor was there any other Irish-Canadian writer of memoir. There are a few novels, Jane Urquhart’s Away comes to mind, and Charles Foran’s Kitchen Music and Carolan’s Farewell. Foran has also written a memoir of time spent in Belfast during the Troubles. But in fact I was on my own. There is no other memoir of Irish-Canadian experience, or, at least, an extended exploration of what that might mean in broader literary terms. It took me 15 years to discover how to do it. Over those years, short pieces were published in Brick, in Irish Pages and Dublin Review, and many radio essays on Irish national radio, RTE. A kind of patchwork emerged in which patterns of theme and variations, repetition, development, revisiting became a form in itself. And over those years a searching, reflective voice began to feel natural.

In spite of this, I felt I was addressing two different audiences, with reflections on different aspects of my life, here and there and back and forth, for something that happened during these years is that I created a routine of spending long periods in Ireland. In short, I no longer thought of my life in terms of either/or and even the chronological sequence of growing up, leaving, settling, returning began to loosen into something less bounded by time and change in a linear sense. I am lucky, of course, that I am deeply rooted in the city of Montreal, to which it is always a pleasure to return, but the same is true of the new home my wife and I have created near Kilkenny.

I no longer thought of my life in terms of either/or and even the chronological sequence of growing up, leaving, settling, returning began to loosen into something less bounded by time and change in a linear sense.

In fact, the most disturbing aspect of this migrant life is how quickly one place replaces the other in my consciousness, almost the way we realize that the language we are using at present pushes other languages back into the shadows of our mind. Bilingual, bicultural, multicultural are common markers of a world in which increasing numbers of people live, and while financial crises, never-ending wars and climate change appear to be the significant historical phenomena of our time, it strikes me that the extraordinary migrations of the past 60 years have laid the foundations for a new sense of identity and belonging.

Understanding the migrant heart is very much a work in progress. I would like to think that my contribution from my small world of Montreal and Ireland is part of that work of imagining the integration and cohabitation of people of diverse cultural origins. Could anything be more Canadian than that? At least this is the impression of Canada in the world that makes me feel I am at home here, and that this is something we can offer to a world that is increasingly in transit. And so, my memoir may be one of the first to explore Irish-Canadian identity, but it takes its place with other memoirs of hyphenated Canadians, and I believe this literature is of central value to what Canadian literature can offer to the world.

Denis Sampson is the author of Outstaring Nature’s Eye, The Fiction of John McGahern, Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist and Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist. He lives in Montreal and Kilkenny.

March 17, 2015
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