On March 17, everyone gets the opportunity to claim Irish heritage for the day, among other luxuries such as drinking Guinness with a breakfast of black and white pudding and revisiting the days when U2 didn’t sing songs for BlackBerry commercials. This year, it’s a claim that’ll actually be true for a rising number of people in Toronto.
As Ireland’s economy continues to struggle, with its unemployment rate reaching 14%, the country’s emigration rate sits at about one thousand people a week. And Canada—Toronto in particular—is proving to be a popular destination for Irish emigrants, many of whom represent a generation of well-educated young people facing a bleak job market back home.
One of these young and well-educated expatriates is Robbie Dore. He arrived in Toronto from Dublin last month, looking for work in wealth management—an industry, he notes, that isn’t doing too well back home, as people no longer have much wealth to manage.
“I kind of wanted a new challenge for myself. Although I’ve travelled a lot, I haven’t actually lived anywhere else, and I figured Canada might be a good opportunity to restart my career,” he says. “Lovely Canada,” he adds, has a bigger and more stable financial district in Toronto, with the promise of more jobs.
Dore is one of five thousand Irish citizens Canada expects to give working holiday visas this year. These visas are designated for people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, allowing them to work in the country for up to two years. As reported in the National Post last month, this year’s number is more than double the visas offered in 2009.
Though unfortunately a result of an economic crisis, the latest wave of Irish newcomers to Canada is breathing new life into Toronto’s aging Celtic community. Dore, for example, found it quite easy to connect with other Irish Torontonians and quickly became involved in one of the GTA’s seven Gaelic Athletic Association clubs, where he’ll both play for the St. Michael’s Gaelic Football and Hurling Club and coach the women’s team.
Sandra McEoghain came to Canada from Belfast in 2002—while Ireland was still experiencing a period of economic growth—and had a tougher go at meeting fellow Irish people her own age. She resorted to starting the Irish Association of Toronto in order to connect with immigrants of a younger demographic.
“At that time, most of the Irish people I met emigrated [decades] ago. I didn’t meet anyone else like myself,” she says. “Then, you know, the economy tanked and we got a lot of people coming.” Today, her association boasts almost five hundred members, and most fall within the eighteen to thirty-five-year-old age bracket.
Statues in Ireland Park, honouring those who emigrated to Toronto during the Irish famine of 1847. Photo by Seekdes (Mike in TO) from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
This has, McEoghain points out, led to a divide within the Irish community that spans two generations. Canada’s last influx of Irish immigrants, following Ireland’s War of Independence and the Great Depression, ended by the 1960s.
The age difference between the two groups doesn’t go unnoticed: “I think there’s a bit of a void,” says Donal Ward McCarthy, who moved to Toronto from Cork in 2002. “There’s a clear gap between the older generation and growing number of young Irish immigrants in Toronto.”
Norita Fleming, who’s been active in Toronto’s Irish community for twenty-five years and recently won the title of Canada’s Irish Person of the Year, also acknowledges the gap, but points to a number of initiatives her generation has put into place to offer help to new arrivals and unify the community.
“We’re now beginning to get involved, to connect with the young people coming,” says Fleming, who emigrated from Cork in 1966. Their outreach is both practical and social. For one, the Ireland-Canada Chamber of Commerce launched an Irish Jobs website, where newcomers can post their resumés, and put on a seminar last month about job hunting in Canada. Fleming also organized a Welcome Sunday series at the Emerald Isle Seniors Centre. “It’s a way to connect the new arrivals with the newer members of the community…create the emotional bond,” she says. February 27 marked the series’ first Sunday, complete with tea, sandwiches and authentic Irish music. Although about forty people showed up, only five were from the new wave of Irish immigrants. “It’s going to take time to connect,” Fleming says.
While meeting up with fellow Irish community members can provide an immediate support group to newcomers, the move to Canada also means starting anew and an opportunity to find their own place in a diverse city.
“Irish people tend to hang out with Irish people,” Dore says. “I think when I get working, actually, I’m going to try to make a bit more of an effort to meet Canadians.”
Ironically, on a day devoted to celebrating the Irish, St. Patrick’s Day might give Dore ample opportunity to get a head start on meeting more Canadians, as we make a much bigger deal out of the day over here, explains McCarthy. “I love watching Canadians celebrate St. Patrick’s Day,” he says. “Everyone just gets so hammered.”