Fort McMurray's Irish workers find a piece of home in Edmonton

After a wildfire destroyed homes and changed lives, hundreds of Irish workers who came to Canada on special work visas are finding strength in each other.

'It was 4 years of memories. My daughter was raised there,' displaced ex-pat says

Geraldine Sillery, left, with her daughter Orla and fiancé Sean Cahill, lost their home to the wildfire that hit Fort McMurray. They vow to return, even if just for 'closure.' (Lucas Powers/CBC)

Tucked away in a suburb of Fort McMurray, Alta., there's a homey little pub where rugby, soccer and even the quintessential Irish sport of hurling would emanate from television screens, day and night.

Paddy McSwiggins was the go-to spot for hundreds of Irish who came to Canada to fill well-paying jobs in the oil and gas sector after Ireland's economy tanked late last decade. Many emigrated as part of a partnership between the two countries' governments to encourage work and travel experience. 

"I didn't even know what Fort McMurray was back then," says Orla Healy, 35, who moved to the town from County Kildare in 2010 and took a human resources job with a major energy company.

"But soon there were hundreds of Irish people there, working all over, and we took care of one another."

Orla Healy and her partner Dave Boutilier are waiting to learn when they can go back home to Fort McMurray. Healy says the wildfire was so intense it's difficult to explain with words. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

Now, after an apocalyptic wildfire forced more than 88,000 people from their homes, Irish ex-pats are taking care of each other again, but this time about 380 kilometres to the south. And somewhat befittingly, says Healy, their home base is in a bar of sorts.

'Can't turn our brains off'

On an unassuming street in northwest downtown Edmonton, the Irish Centre has become a beacon for families displaced by the blaze, each with their harrowing tale of escape from Fort McMurray.

They eat together, watch each other's children, and help new arrivals find a place to shelter. 

"There aren't wildfires in Ireland," says Healy, as her eyes dart to scan a passing ambulance with sirens blaring. "My partner and I are totally mentally exhausted, but we just can't turn our brains off. That siren sound still freaks me out."

The Irish Centre in northwest Edmonton has become a lifeline for survivors, helping them find food and lodging and connect with other families in the same boat. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

And they are among the relatively lucky: their home is still standing — almost certainly damaged by heavy smoke, but still standing. An older Irish couple who immigrated to Canada in the mid-1960s has offered up their basement as a place to stay until Healy and her Canadian partner Dave Boutilier, 36, get the OK to go home.

But others in the close-knit community of Irish families in Fort McMurray have no homes left.

'What are we going to do?'

Geraldine Sillery, a 36-year-old office manager originally from Limerick, fled Fort McMurray with her fiancé Sean Cahill, 32, and their four-year-old daughter Orla (no relation to Healy). They had residency permits and some old clothes, but not much else. 

With only a quarter tank of gas in their car, the family spent two nights sleeping on the side of the highway because the traffic was so bad they feared they'd run out of fuel. Finally they filled up in the small town of Conklin, and continued on south to Edmonton. 

There they connected with an older couple originally from Galway, Ireland, who offered them a place to stay, free of charge, for the next three months. 

Gareth Norris owns a pub in Fort McMurray. He says the town will be bigger and better once everyone returns to rebuild. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

While things were hectic when they arrived in Edmonton on Thursday afternoon, Sillery says, they could at least take comfort in the fact that their apartment building was still standing. Friday morning, however, they learned it had burned to the ground overnight. 

"Every morning now, we wake up and think, 'What's happening now? What are we going to do?" Sillery says.

"No matter what, though, we'll go back to Fort McMurray, even if it's just to stand before the ashes of our home. We need that closure. It was four years of memories. My daughter was raised there. I need to be there again at some point."

'We'll come back from this'

That feeling was echoed by Healy, who says that while she feels helpless right now, life will go on.

"Fort McMurray is my home. I just love it up there. It's true, we don't know what's going on right now, yes, but we'll go back."

The owner of the little pub, Gareth Norris (who is actually Welsh), has lived in town since 1982. He says that while he worries about how small businesses like his own will survive in the short term, he believes Fort McMurray will be rebuilt bigger and better than it ever was. So far, his pub is still standing. 

"Here's the thing: in Fort Mac, everyone is from somewhere else. It's 88,000 people who are all one family, and that's what the rest of the country doesn't understand," he says. 

"We'll come back from this, that much I know."

Get breaking news alerts on this story and others. Download the CBC News app for iOS and Android.


Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email lucas.powers@cbc.ca any time.