Reflections on National Identity, Ireland, and my childhood

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I recently read an article by Joyce Bainbridge and Brenda Wolodko titled Canadian Picture Books, Shaping and Reflecting National Identity. This article immediately resonated with me in a number of different ways, first in its summary of the Canadian picture book industry and secondly, on a personal level what it means to be Canadian from an immigrant’s standpoint.

My family and I moved to Newfoundland an eastern island province of Canada when I was a child, in 1981. I don’t believe it was the initial intention of my parents to make the move permanent for us, but I know that they liked Canada immediately. While leaving Ireland for North America was a journey that had been made by many countrymen in the prior 2 centuries, my family’s journey was perhaps different in the fact it was unclear if we would return, and in the early 80’s plane travel had become accessible, and for a number of years we returned every summer, and phone communication (although nothing like it is now) had become a relatively affordable option.

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This is a picture of me as a child in Newfoudland playing with icebergs, good times!

For those reason we stayed very close toour large family back in Ireland, and I’m still very close with many of them today. On top of trips back to Ireland, we had many relatives come visit us in Canada, and typically they would show up with newspaper articles, magazines and items that were tough to get in Canada (black pudding, Tayto crisps, Lucozade and Club bars to name a few). But my grandparents, aunts and uncles would also send Irish children’s books (some of which can be seen above), most written in Irish (or Gaelic) because they wanted my brothers and I to continue to learn about our Irish culture and language.
The Irish culture is steeped in a rich tradition of storytelling, myths, legends, poetry, song, and music. Many of these were written in books adorned by ancient art and decorative patterns such as the Book of Kells. Some of the great myths that standout in my childhood are the legends of Cuchulainn (the Hound of Cullan) who is featured in an number of stories having gained his name by killing a savage dog with a hurley stick and  sliotar. Tir na nOg which depicts an other world filled with magic beauty and everlasting youth, and the Children of Lir, where 3 children were banished as swans to spend 900 years on the lakes of Ireland. These are some example of stories that almost all the children of Ireland would grow up with. I don’t feel there is a Canadian equivalence to this experience, in regards to national legends all children would grow up with, which is in part why I have selected this theme.
The Bainbridge and Woldoko article attempts to classify children’s picture books into 3 distinct categories; aboriginal voices, immigrant voices and trans-cultural voices. The article contends that there are two things that constitute the soul of a nation. One is the “possession of a rich legacy of memories; the other is a present day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received. ” The authors argue that “The stories that immigrants bring with them to Canada are part of the rich legacy of memories all people cherish.” This concept of inclusion strikes me as being particularly beautiful.

reference:

Wolodko, Brenda & Bainbridge, Joyce (2002) “Canadian picture books: Shaping and reflecting national identity”, Bookbird, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 21-27.

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