The Luck of the Irish or, Believing in Magic
My Irishness is as invisible as the wind, not so much seen as felt. I grew up more French Canadian, but always the Irish part informed my heart, my ears, my mouth. I reached for Celtic sounds, words, feelings - more at home in the sub-text than in the literal. In 1995, I lived in County Cork, Ireland. The place felt as familiar as an old shoe. I listened to the stories of the ring forts and stone circles; and heard the slow awakening of the Irish to the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine. So many families fractured on that horror, disappearing into the great maw of the New World. Never to be heard from again. Where their history ended, ours began.
Nothing spoke more about that than a book I read in Ireland. I remember thinking what a haunting film it would make. It was the diary of man escaping the Potato Famine on a fever ship, and arriving in Québec in 1847. He mentioned a Canadian priest who had offered him such tenderness and generosity. That little nugget must have rooted in my mind, but it lay buried for two years.
If you're Irish at all, you probably believe in omens, though you won't admit it out loud. My first good omen was finding Siobhan Roberts, my researcher. Not a drop of Irish blood, but what an Irish name! (Months later she claims to have a great-great-great grandfather who emigrated from Ireland in 1814.) We combed through all kinds of material together, looking for the perfect character to illustrate the story of the Irish in Canada. I wanted to focus my film in Québec, perhaps telling the story of the Irish building the Lachine Canal or hoisting up the bridges of Montreal. It fit my soul, this intersection of my two people, Irish and French.
But our research kept leading us to the quarantine station on Grosse Isle and to 1847, when the Famine Irish swamped Québec. The first emigrant ship had arrived at the island on May 14, my birthday. Surely another sign! I came across the picture of an Irish priest in a book, along with a small bit on him - hardly enough for a film, I thought. We turned the page on him. But late that night, the book fell open on Father Bernard McGauran his portrait again, as if he was turning the page himself. The Irish in me takes these things seriously. Father McGauran was asking me to listen and to remember. He was tugging me to Grosse Isle.
Father Bernard McGauran had left several letters which I began pouring over. McGauran had led the Catholic mission to Grosse Isle during the horrible summer of 1847. He'd witnessed everything. He'd even got sick with typhus himself. I was moved by his single-minded determination to help his people. He complained loudly about the fever ships, about the condition of the tents that were erected on the beach for the dying, writing firey letters to the Archbishop. He could turn a phrase just the right way, so the sharp end stung but never drew blood. So Irish.
And then another omen presented itself to me. I began re-reading the book I had read in Ireland, rushing to the part where the author meets the priest. I couldn't believe it. The priest was Father Bernard McGauran. A tingle went through me, followed by a deep and peaceful certainty. Father McGauran had been tailing me since Ireland! What else could I do but surrender.
I went to Grosse Isle a week ahead of my crew. I needed to feel the place, to get its blessing. Not a lot remains from the summer of 1847. A few ghosts and a single fever shed. There is little electricity on the island and at night the place is black and the winds carry whispers. I could make out the weeping of a small boy, lost, looking for his mother. Every night I could hear him, especially in the fever shed. He was never frightening, just sad.
Grosse Isle is a national park now, a homage to all immigrants who dared to dream. But for me,it's a place where my people's bones lie - fiercely Irish and sacred.
The luck of the Irish, the very luck that had abandoned so many immigrants in 1847, was with us during filming. The fall weather was unusually warm and allowed me to re-create summer scenes. Each of us was touched by some part of the place and by Father McGauran.
At the end of the shoot the winds were raging. We lugged our heaps of equipment through the dark, onto a waiting boat. It was a stormy ferry ride back to the mainland. One of the boatmen looked deep into me, perhaps confirming an instinct people sometimes have about each other. He matter-of-factly wanted to know if I'd met any ghosts. "Oui, seulement une," I told him - Yes, only one. He seemed disappointed. The place was full of ghosts, he told me. And they had to be approached gently. The boatman then recounted how he had hurried to the graveyard one night, only to feel a cold slap on his face and a wall of angry spirits. He went back many weeks later, walking slowly this time, asking their permission to approach. They had obliged him.
We smiled at each other, two believers in mysteries. And as the Northern lights danced through the clouds above us and the tide pulled us back to the sureness of land, we left the dead to dream, and moved into the good fortune of the nation they had left us. Somewhere, somehow, Father Bernard McGauran was pleased.
Postscript: Weeks later, during the film edit, another omen offered itself. In downtown Toronto a woman was having difficulty pushing an old man in a wheelchair. As I bent down to offer assistance, the old man's blue eyes brightened, as if he knew me. He thanked me in a lilting Irish accent. "You've done well, child," he said. The man was a priest. Perhaps a gift from Bernard McGauran.
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