Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On two ways Irish workers coming to Canada can find jobs

Reading the previous month's issue of Toronto Life, I was interested to come across Robert Hough's "The Celtic Invasion: why the arrival of hundreds of Irish construction workers benefits Toronto’s building boom". The main people Hough uses to illustrate the post-boom migration to Toronto are James and Sean McQuillan, brothers in their mid-20s from Dublin whose jobs as construction workers came to an end with the boom. For them, Canada was an appealing option.

What I particularly liked in Hough's article was an extended passage examining how the McQuillans, coming to Canada, came to find jobs. There's a very long history of Irish immigration to Canada, of course, and any number of networks imaginable. Two networks, though, stand out. One of these is Gaelic football, a sport that I described in January 2011 post as being hit hard by the emigration of its players--perhaps the game is itself channeling and encouraging migration. The other? Authentic Irish pubs.

Toronto has long been an Irish city. When the potato blight ravaged Irish farmland in the late 1840s, 38,000 Irish arrived in Toronto, which at the time had a population of only 20,000. While the majority of these immigrants either moved on or died from illnesses picked up on the unenviable journey over, about 2,000 stayed, making an Irish city all the more so. The Belfast of the North, as Toronto became known for many years, earned a reputation as a good place to settle, particularly when the Canadian economy was flourishing and the Irish economy was not. This happened again around the turn of the 20th century, and there was another wave of immigration in the 1950s, when Ireland became mired in a tenacious postwar recession. A large number came from Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s, and there was another surge when Ireland’s economy stalled in the 1980s.

For Irish arriving in Toronto today, there are two tried-and-true ways to find work. The first is by playing Gaelic football, a uniquely Irish game that, at least to the uninitiated, looks like soccer, North American football and rugby all rolled into one. Thanks to the most recent exodus of unemployed Irish, participation in Gaelic football has become a global phenomenon; there are now 10 Gaelic Athletic Association squads in the GTA alone (seven male and three female), and GAA teams have popped up in such unlikely locales as Dubai, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Beijing and Shanghai. “We exist as a welcome mat for new Irish arrivals,” says Mark O’Brien, an ex-president of the Toronto area GAA. “By playing football, they can meet people, make contacts and find work. The Irish, you know, are famous for helping each other out. It’s important to us, ’cause we were all helped by the older fellas when we came over.”

There’s one catch: to benefit from the GAA’s network of contacts, you have to be a decent player. Though Caolan Quinn plays with a Toronto GAA team called St. Vincent’s, the McQuillans do not: growing up, they preferred soccer. So the brothers resorted to the other ironclad method of procuring employment in Toronto: they went to the pubs.

Though there are probably 100 Irish-style pubs in Toronto, most of them are owned by corporations, frequented by non-Irish and operated by publicans without useful insight into the happenings back home. But there are a handful of
real Irish pubs. There’s McVeigh’s at Church and Richmond, which, among the older Irish, is always referred to as the Windsor House, the name it had 25 years ago. There’s McCarthy’s, a hole in the wall on Upper Gerrard near Woodbine. And there’s the Galway Arms on the Queensway in Etobicoke; the Galway benefits from the Gaelic football crowd, who play their games at nearby Centennial Park.

James and Sean visited all these pubs, nursing pints of Keith’s, talking to locals and bartenders and letting it be known that they were looking for carpentry work. (They also hung around a sports bar called Shoxs for the simple reason that it was just around the corner from their apartment. Here, they both started dating Canadian-born waitresses. James’s girlfriend is named Erin, Sean’s is Stacey; both are 23 years of age.) About two weeks after coming to Toronto, a bartender at the Galway Arms referred the brothers to an Irishman named Joe Wilson, who owns a company called Clonard Construction. Wilson met with the boys, and by the following Monday they were working at the new condo development at Yonge and Bloor.

“The first thing that struck me about them,” Wilson says today, “was how young they looked. But other than that, they were like all the Irish who come over: they were just desperate for work. It’s a real shock to the system, having to leave home just to find work.”

I recommend the whole article. It provides an interesting look at how migration can be successful and relatively painless. (The big question is how can these social networks be replicated.)

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