Three Homelands: A Revelation In Ireland

Three Homelands: A Revelation In Ireland

In December 2010, on a bright but cold afternoon, I took a serious blow to the ego, and what’s left of my cultural pride. It probably did me good, but I’m still rubbing the sore spot: it’s like a bruise that just won’t heal.  It started out fine, when I got off a bus not far from Waterford, Ireland, just in time for an interview.


Some weeks earlier, an enterprising Irish student of TV production named Cormac had tracked me down on the net. He had discovered that in 1967 I was part of a large antiwar protest in Buffalo New York, organized by Quakers from near New York City, during which  we walked across the Canadian border near Niagara Falls.

Sure, I remembered.  We were carrying medical supplies for Canadian Quakers to distribute among wounded civilians on all sides of the Vietnam War; my stash was a packet of band-aids.
It was illegal for Americans to do this, under something called the Trading With The Enemy Act.  So our border walk was open civil disobedience, and we were prepared to be arrested.

But we weren’t arrested. I didn’t recall publishing anything about this protest, one of many from those years; so how did Cormac, who emailed me from Ireland, know about it, and why was he interested?

Cormac, Nicola & Katie, Waterford Ireland
Cormac, Nicola and Katie

Turns out there was an Irishman named George Lennon living near Buffalo at the time. He joined the border protest and noted it in his diary.

Now, 43 years later, Cormac and two classmates were making a postmortem documentary about George Lennon, based on this diary. (Decades earlier, Lennon had been part of the Irish war for independence from Britain, then later emigrated to the U.S., where he evolved into something of a pacifist.) Surfing for material, they found one mention of the Buffalo border protest: turns out it was by yours truly, buried in a talk to a Canadian group of Quakers, back in 1997, which I had since uploaded to an obscure web page (and completely forgotten about).

Which once more goes to show the marvels of the internet, the glory of google, yada yada.

Well, I told Cormac I didn’t know George Lennon, but could describe the border walk. And perhaps even better, I was headed for Ireland in December, so we could talk about it live, on camera.

Which is what we did, in the coastal town of Dungarvan: Cormac, his crew of Katie & Nicola, and me. (That’s them in the photo.) It was sunny but we all shivered in an icy wind off the Celtic Sea. The camera rolled and I did my best to talk telegenically about somebody I’d once almost, but not quite, crossed paths with.


(BTW, their 27-minute documentary got finished, was shown on Irish TV, and in due course found its way to YouTube, and you can watch it here. And I’m in it briefly.)

As soon as we were done filming we headed for the nearest pub, and warmth. There we talked about life and work and all that until the next bus came, and I had to head off to Waterford to catch a train.

I don’t think I was with these three for more than two hours. But the conversation has stayed with me ever since. And that brief encounter is what I really want to talk about here.

First off, the three: Cormac and Nicola and Katie embody the spirit of what was formerly called the Celtic Tiger: bright, appealing, energetic and devoted to their craft. They had an unforced friendliness that is almost archetypically Irish.

They were also caught in the collapse of the Tiger and its bubble economy. The financial news from Ireland then was bad (and hasn’t gotten much better since, even with a different government). The unemployment figures were (and are) especially gloomy.
Buffalo New York - Peace Bridge to Canada
The Peace Bridge: Buffalo New York to Ontario Canada

Which naturally had me asking, what they were going to do when they finished school? Surely TV production jobs in Ireland were few and far between?

True, they said, but they weren’t daunted. “We’ll just go somewhere else.” After all, emigration, temporary or permanent, is almost as ancient an Irish tradition as the cloverleaf, including, for that matter, many of my own ancestors. All three had relatives abroad, mainly in the States, as they called it, or Canada.

Well then, I said, surely their prime destination had to be New York or LA, the world centers for TV production, right?

That’s when the blow came. Nope, I was told, with those cheery grins, they were thinking of Canada. Especially Vancouver.
What? Canada over the US for aspiring video and movie types? And Western Canada? I mean, I hear the scenery there is great, and the winters are milder. But we’re talking video and cinema. You’re kidding, right?

They weren’t. We only had time to get started on this before my bus arrived, and I climbed aboard and sat back to ruminate on this startling bit of news.

I’ve been ruminating ever since. Okay, so I’ve learned that B.C. is the third largest movie center in North America, after New York and LA. But even so; who wants to aim at being Number Three?

But the more I ruminated, the more I tried to put myself in the place of Cormac and his colleagues, the more an eerie hollow feeling grew that they had figured out something that I as an American, and maybe many others like me, hadn’t noticed, even though it was right there in front of our faces.
Celtic Tiger Lost

What’s the something? Let’s call it the Emigrant’s Homeland Comparison Shopping List. That is, if I was Cormac, gazing from Dungarvan across the Atlantic, how would these adjoining alternate homelands stack up? I had plenty of time to ponder this query on the flight back to the States.

By the time we were passing Greenland, pondering had turned to brooding: the blows to my cultural pride kept on coming.
Keep in mind I’m a typical American boy, raised to presume that the USA is Number One, the place to which the “huddled Masses” of the world naturally yearn to go, to “breathe free,” right?
But as I mulled and pulled together some data this presumption got shakier and shakier.

[But wait, I hear some of you cry: haven’t you been disillusioned about American glory since as far back as Vietnam, as far back as that border walk in 1967? Well yeah — at least I thought so . . . . I guess it creeps back, like mildew.]

Anyway, let’s tick off some items on this “Homeland Shopping List”:

  •  In November of 2010, just before I got to Ireland, the Canadian unemployment rate was two points lower than that in the US.
  • And as for opportunity, income inequality in Canada is much narrower than in the US.
  • What about the soundness of the economy? Think back: the US borrowed trillions to bail out crooked but “too-big-to-fail” banks, which are still crooked and rickety. How much did Canada, with lots of their own big banks, spend? — Nothing. Not a dime; not a single freakin loonie. Seems they have some regulations the US doesn’t, which kept their banks from crashing. Oh, and their banks still make money. Hmmm.
    A Canadian dollar that was NOT spent on a bank bailout.

This Canadian dollar was NOT spent on a bank bailout.

  • >> Then there’s support for the arts; Canada is far ahead of the US, even in these hard times.
  • >> Soon enough I was turning to non-cultural matters: I doubt Cormac and Katie and Nicola think much about getting sick; they had that invulnerable glow of the young that I remember well enough.
  • But if they do get sick, or hurt, there’s no contest: Canada wins by a mile. Compared to their system (which has its flaws) ours is unconscionable. Even with Obamacare, it’s still pretty pathetic by comparison.
  •  Then there’s crime. In Canada, violent crime has been rising — but the rates, even in their big multi-cultural cities, are so much lower than comparable US cities that the difference is mind-boggling. When filmmaker Michael Moore, in “Bowling for Columbine,” walked down a Canadian street opening the unlocked doors on houses, there was some exaggeration in the scene — but not that much.

Sociologists have been puzzling over that huge discrepancy for years, without a clear explanation. But I have one factor to highlight  in the mix:

 >> the fact that Canada isn’t running an Empire, and hasn’t invaded any countries lately. (Yeah, I know, their governments, especially the current one, have often been loyal junior partners in US imperial ventures, and British ones before that. But it’s still not the same.)
Here’s the formula: Empire & war abroad equals violence and crime at home; or, in more technical terms, we reap what we sow.

>> Then there’s a mysterious but real thing called cultural ethos. A key U.S. motto is “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In  Canada, the counterpart is, “Peace, order, and good government.” That’s what they’re raised on. It makes a difference.


>> For that matter, one other item I just learned about is that there’s no Fox News up there, a fact that galls their right-wingers. Seems there’s a Canadian regulation forbidding broadcast “news” programs from telling blatant untruths. That wouldn’t fly down here in First Amendment land, where public prevarication by the “press” is a precious part of our national heritage. But maybe there’s an upside in less mind pollution.

  >> And did I mention that while the Canadian immigration process can be bureaucratic and complex, US procedures have become both maddening and counter-productive? Besides, Canada is still smart enough to see skilled young newcomers as assets to their economy. The US used to do this, but the brain drain of bright foreign techies from Silicon Valley and other innovation centers shows how we’re determined to cripple ourselves, and doing a right good job.

By the time my plane landed in Philadelphia, reflecting on this depressing laundry list had put me into a definite funk. But buck up, I told myself, Canada’s not perfect; it’s no Shangri-La. Consider the downside:

  • Higher taxes; no question about it.
  • More winter.
  • Pressure to learn French. (Actually, I think this would be fun; but not all agree.)
  • Hockey. (Some say the sport is their substitute for war, but the jury’s still out on that. So are many teeth.)
  •  An excess of political correctness; Canadians can drive you crazy that way. (But honest, Officer, I really WAS going to recycle this plastic bottle, and put my crumbs from lunch in the compost — but no, not the bones — and really, I have sanitized my hands half a dozen times since I left home an hour ago. Yeah, Merci beaucoup to vous, too.)
  • Ditto for the no-Fox-News thing; there’s more censorship up there.

Yet, even after considering these mitigating factors, I can see how Cormac and his friends would head north when they get to this side of the pond rather than going to LA. Again–I thought I knew better; but it was still really a bummer to confront that truth in their comely Irish faces. I’m an American, after all.

But there’s always hope: maybe if they strike it big in Vancouver, then they’ll heed the siren’s call and go south: just one or two megahits, and they can probably afford California health insurance rates, get a house with adequate security systems, such as their own squad of Blackwater goons. Then they can do lunch nonstop, become Scientologists and secretly vote Republican, just like many of the natives.

Yeah, that sounds like a plan. So here’s to them:

Cormac, Nicola and Katie, you’re great, you three. It was an honor and a pleasure to meet you, even if it did leave my American ego battered and reeling.

But one bit of advice, guys: even after you make it to Malibu, keep your main stash in a Canadian bank, and hang on to that passport. I mean, you never know, eh?


Previous “Dog Days” posts: 
>Who Needs a Machine Gun?

>George & The Cottonmouth 

>Grace In Your Face: Remembering Bill Kreidler

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