Each Other’s Families
Mary K. Nolan, Hamilton Spectator, March 16 2002
The lads were a long way from Ireland and they were lonely, longing for the familiarity of the “auld sod.” One of them spied an ad in The Spectator. A dance at the Emerald Club! It sounded like the perfect balm for their homesick souls. Off they went to Kenilworth Avenue, apple–cheeked, fresh off the boat, anticipating a night of jigs and reels. “We had the impression that the only Emerald Isle was Ireland,” says 74–year–old Kieran Hynes, still laughing after all these years. “Turned out it was a Jamaican club, not an Irish club at all. They were very nice to us,” he chuckles, “and pointed us in the direction of the Wonder Grove down on Parkdale.”
Culturally enriching as it was, the incident served to further illuminate the desperate need for some kind of social club for the city’s growing Irish expat population. “In the ’50’s, there was a huge influx of immigrants from Europe. And there were plenty of Irish coming into the area,” recalls Hynes, who hails from Banagher, on the banks of the River Shannon in County Offaly. “And even though Ontario was Anglo–Saxon, we did find it a culture shock when we came here.”
They were Dubliners and Galwegians and Kerrymen with names like Flanagan and Slattery and Roche. They would get together of an evening in each other’s living rooms, most often at the Melbourne Street home of Jim and Chris Lyons, or congregate at church after mass. The end of that same year, 1952, saw Hynes and 27 countrymen gather at the old Knights of Columbus Hall downtown for the inaugural meeting of the Irish Canadian Club, which is celebrating its golden jubilee this year.
“We missed our homeland, we missed our culture, and we decided to do something about it,” says Hynes, a retired production foreman at Stelco and one of about a dozen founding members still on the membership roster.
When it came to naming the fledgling group, there was no consideration given to Emerald Club. That name, as they well knew, was taken. The debate extended only as far as whether “Canadian” should precede “Irish” or the other way around. The latter prevails, as the Celtic–lettered sign outside the club’s Concession Street premises proudly proclaims.
Many of them never intended to stay. Some came this way simply because the ship did, others because a cousin or a neighbour from two fields over had settled on these shores. For fellows like Hynes, his brother Michael and their friend Jack Daly, Canada was intended to be just a bit of an adventure, a way station en route to the true land of milk and honey, to “America”. But their impressions of the United States had been shaped by Hollywood. What they saw stateside when they crossed over to visit various Irish–American clubs those first few months was a different picture altogether. “After looking around over there, we decided we preferred Canada. What really did it was Niagara Falls, New York,” Hynes says with a shudder. “It was just a slum.”
And the clubs weren’t much better, he recalls. They were ersatz Irish, awash in images of leprechauns and shillelaghs and Clancy lowering the boom. Hynes and company envisioned an entity that would function more like a social service agency, at least initially, by helping new immigrants adjust to the huge challenge of resettling. The Irish were leaving Erin because the economic prospects at home were so bleak, and they were arriving with little in their pockets and less in their larders. They needed help with the most basic of needs—finances, food, housing, jobs—and found it at the Irish Canadian Club.
“We were each other’s families,” Hynes explains. Members established useful links with influential people across the city—clergymen, bankers, personnel directors. Hynes got chummy with Joe O’Grady in the immigration department, who cheerfully passed the club contact names along to Irishmen who’d just arrived. The club’s ranks swelled. So did its coffers.
“One of our first big goals was to own our own building,” says Hynes, who credits savvy spending, sound fiscal management and shrewd fund–raising with providing the capital to achieve that goal by 1958. The first money–maker was a 1953 St. Patrick’s Day dance that was held, of all the ironies, in the newly opened British Imperial Hall on Main Street. It was such a success that the club arranged to hold weekly Tuesday night dances at the hall, establishing a spirit of ecumenism that exists to this day. “It is an Irish club and the flag of the Irish Republic is the one we fly,” the Roman Catholic Hynes said recently, as he shared a table at the club with its Presbyterian president, Eileen McNab from Belfast. “We have always tried to be inclusive, and that’s something we decided right from the start.”
Along with the dances, there were the requisite bingos and, later, charter flights at prices that would bring a tear to the eye of anyone trying to book transatlantic nowadays. The club negotiated with the old Trans–Canada Airlines to fly charters to Dublin for $225 return, a deal that lasted for 11 years, until 1974, and made pots of gold for the club.
The club had outgrown Erie Avenue by the mid–60’s and moved briefly to a hall on Fennell Avenue before settling at a new home on Parkdale Avenue in 1970. Club membership peaked at about 240 families, and the club was in its heyday. There were concerts by the club’s celebrated ladies’ choir, theatre productions, educational scholarships, visiting soccer teams, golf games, parades, picnics and pool tourneys. Weekly broadcasts of Tommy Makem and Ryan’s Fancy were produced and taped at the club by CHCH–TV. The club hosted annual field days and feises (festivals) that drew Irish and wannabes from near and far. And the music, of course, always the music. The hornpipes and fightin’ songs and melancholy medleys about loves left behind.
Hynes remembers the first feis of Irish music and dance at Civic Stadium, now Ivor Wynne Stadium, back in the 1960’s when a pre–Riverdance Michael Flatley was among the dancers. The competition dance floor in the middle of the football field had to meet stringent international standards and had been carefully hand–built for the occasion. “There was a terrific thunderstorm and an army of volunteers actually lifted the stages over the fence and rebuilt them under the south stands,” he says in fond recollection. “They were great days.”
Happily, Ireland’s fortunes finally changed for the better. The wave of immigration subsided, and club membership fell away as families grew up and moved on. It’s quieter there now, and the club has a lower profile in the community that belies the wealth of activities still taking place—gigs by the in–house band Crooked Jack, the men’s choir, trivia contests, corn roasts, car rallies, the renewed feises, productions by the Anna Livia Players, St. Paddy’s day lunches of Irish stew and soda bread, and the odd slowly poured, foaming pint of Guinness.
And now, 50 years it’s been. Fifty years of hurling matches and corned beef dinners, of bowling leagues and Bloomsday tributes, of stout and storytelling and sweet, shared memories of that misty little isle. There will be celebration, done only as the Irish can do, with elegance and formality tempered by a roguish twinkle in the eye and a nod to the humble roots from which they came.
A grand ball will be held on a Saturday night, Oct. 19, at the LIUNA Station where so many of them first stepped off the train into new lives. Canada’s first couple of Irish descent—former Ontario Lieutenant Governor Hilary Weston and her husband Galen—have been invited. Irish Ambassador Martin Burke will attend. Heritage Minister Sheila Copps has her eye on a ticket. All 17 pieces of Harry Waller’s orchestra will play, and dancers from the O’Raighne School of Irish Dance will kick up their heels.
“This is not the end of 50 years,” says anniversary chairman John O’Gorman with the enduring optimism typical of the Irish. “It’s the start of the second 50.”