Nfld. & Labrador

'Much more Irishness': Newfoundland hears its own distinct voices from 1970s

Newfoundland's population was once half Irish or Irish descendants. That number is now estimated at around 20 per cent, but the cultural influence remains strong in the outport communities settled by Irish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries

'Real Irishman' Aidan O'Hara helped show Ireland its influence on the island population

Musicians perform and people dance to the Newfoundland Folk Festival in the 1970s. (Aidan O'Hara and the Irish Traditional Music Archive)

In the 1970s, Aidan O'Hara became known on Newfoundland's Cape Shore as "the real Irishman" who came to town armed with a recorder, gathering traditional songs and stories.

The Donegal-born broadcaster eventually produced documentaries showcasing the province's unique Irish-influenced culture for viewers and listeners in Ireland itself.

Percentage of Irish descendants has declined

The population of Newfoundland and Labrador was once almost half Irish or Irish descendants. According to the latest Canadian census, that number is now estimated at around 20 per cent, but the cultural influence remains strong in the outport communities settled by Irish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Before his extended visit in the 1970s, O'Hara recalls an Ireland that wasn't aware of the strong Irish influence in outport communities like Branch.

When people thought of the Irish diaspora in North America, they mostly thought of Boston and New York, not the sparsely populated island in the North Atlantic — so O'Hara's radio and film documentaries about the people he met and befriended in Newfoundland received a fair bit of interest when they were released back home.

Tapes donated to the archives

"At the time people in Ireland didn't think of Newfoundland beyond the weather map," O'Hara recalled. "They were astounded, naturally, at hearing these people who sounded very like themselves."

In the early 1990s, O'Hara donated his original tapes to the Irish Traditional Music Archives, a national reference centre based in Dublin for preserving traditional Irish, song, music, and dance.

This week, the voices recorded in Cape Shore 40 years ago are coming home, with the launch of a online project titled "A Grand Time: The songs, music and dance of Newfoundland's Cape Shore," a collection of images, recordings and stories to create a portrait of the lively community and its unique cultural traditions.

At 14, Eta Nash was the youngest person recorded on O'Hara's tapes.

Ryan's Fancy appears in a publicity photo from the 1970s. Newfoundland's population doesn't have the same percentage of Irish or Irish descendants it once did, but the cultural influence remains strong, especially in outport communities settled by Irish immigrants. (CBC)

Along with other local performers, she was to sing at celebratory launch events in her hometown of Branch and in St. John's this week.

"They're after me right now to sing Bonnie Hills of Scotland because that's the song I sang back then," Nash said. "I guess there's gonna be a big difference in voices."

St. John's-based writer Agnes Walsh was to be at The Rooms provincial museum in St. John's reading from her play A Man You Don't Meet Every Day, based on the life of Patsy Judge, a singer of old Irish ballads.

It's very important for the next generation because there are young singers interested in that traditional style of music that goes back hundreds of years.- Agnes Walsh

Walsh said archival projects like "A Grand Time" are important in preserving the Irish dialect that still lives on the Cape Shore, where immigrants from Wexford, Waterford, Tipperary and Kilkenny counties settled in the late 1700s and mid-1800s.

"Because of the isolation, they never lost the dialect," said Walsh.

"It's very important for the next generation, because there are young singers … interested in that traditional style of music that goes back hundreds of years."

Walsh has also worked to bring Cape Shore's culture to Ireland. Her Tramore Theatre group performed in Ireland in the early 2000s, and she said audiences were struck by the actors' distinct accents.

Musicians Sean Sullivan and Sheldon Thornhill helped get a group of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians up singing and dancing in December at Pearson International Airport, capturing the attention of the world. (Michelle Sacrey Philpott/Facebook)

"Everybody who heard our theatre over there, they were just sure we were from Wexford," said Walsh.

Walsh said the work done by O'Hara and other folklorists around the 1970s has been integral to archiving the Cape Shore's unique history, and bringing it to a wide audience.

Wherever you get guitars and accordions and people who basically unlock the past through music, you know it's going to be exciting.- Vince Roche

O'Hara says the understanding of Newfoundland's Irish roots has "totally changed" in Ireland, but even he was personally struck by the cultural distinctness he found on the Cape Shore when gathering tape in the 1970s.

"They seemed to me to have retained much more Irishness, the kind you would find in isolated communities on the west coast of Ireland, say, where traditional language of Gaelic is still alive," O'Hara said.

While the people felt their Irish heritage strongly, they were also confident in their identity as Newfoundlanders, and the colourful musical history in their blood.

More work to be done to preserve Cape Shore story

While there was Irish influence, people also picked up songs from the English tradition, or American music picked up from radio stations in Boston — something the "Grand Time" collection reflects.

O'Hara hopes to do more work to preserve the story of the friends he made on the Cape Shore, with plans to eventually translate a book he wrote in Gaelic about the Irish of Newfoundland.

For Vince Roche, the images and voices of his late parents and friends at the events in Branch this week are "bringing life" into a community that has declined in population over the years.

"It's so nice that everyone coming out here basically would have been here, or their parents would have been here dancing in the kitchen. And it's great to be able to see it still being carried on," said Roche.

"Wherever you get guitars and accordions and people who basically unlock the past through music, you know it's going to be exciting."

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