[This dates back to a time, in the late 1990s, when I wrote a monthly column for theNewfoundland Telegram about connections between Ireland and Newfoundland, where I had been brought up for a while and visited a number of times since.]
Four stories up in Canada House, looking over the tree tops of the urban oasis that is St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin and across to the magnificent Georgian houses that surround it, a softly spoken Ontarian works away quietly at developing Canadian-Irish relations.
The Honorable Ronald A. Irwin was appointed as Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland in August of last year, following a very successful legal and political career centering on Sault Ste. Marie.
His ancestors came from Cavan, a ‘border’ county with Northern Ireland, and since arriving in Ireland Irwin has spent much time in those parts reconnecting with his Irish roots.
Has he settled in? I was expecting the usual pat stuff about ‘home from away’ and ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’, but was pleasantly surprised by the fresh honesty of his answer.
He misses his Canadian friends, despite all the “pretty good Irish friends” he and his wife have gradually made.
“We’re enjoying ourselves … But I still miss Canada,” Irwin admits with endearing frankness. What does he miss most? Smiling mischievously, he lists a few things: butter on his popcorn, hotdogs, late-opening doughnut shops, and the earlier release of movies back home.
“But I’m going home next week - that’s why I’m in such a good mood. I’m packed and ready to go, and the plane’s not leaving until Monday.” He laughs heartily, surprised at his own behavior.
“But on the other side, the people here are fantastic, the culture is so rich in literature and music. I love all that.” And he isn’t just saying so – he plays guitar once a week with a local Dublin group.
Of central concern to Irwin in his official role are the statistics on Irish people traveling: 1 million going to the US; 375,000 off to Spain and Portugal; and only 29,000 making their way to Canada.
“This is a shame,” says Irwin, and only when it reaches 60,000 will he be satisfied with Canada’s efforts in tourism promotion here. He’s also conscious of the fact that most of those who go think only of the Niagara Falls and the Rockies, and wants this sadly narrow image of Canada as a holiday destination to be transformed.
The historical and cultural connections with Newfoundland, for Irwin, are a tremendous opportunity to effect the change. “Yet we don’t make it easy for people to travel to Newfoundland,” he says, referring to the fact that there are no national carrier direct flights from here. “We have to do a better job there,” he believes, and to explore the potential in twinning towns and skiing packages.
Irwin wishes that all provinces of Canada were as proactive in Ireland as Newfoundland is, and he refers to the benefits reaped by so many Canadian companies who have invested here already. “The Irish are just great people to work with,” he throws in while listing the advantages of Ireland as a gateway for investment in Europe.
He is visibly impressed and proud of the Canadian companies that have set up here (he mentions Saturn, NTS, ATI Technology) and goes to visit them personally so as to bear better witness to their success and encourage others.
Irish investment in Canada is also something Irwin is interested in, and he talks with great admiration about two companies in particular. One is a small operation in Mississauga called Western Plastics, hailing originally from Galway, brought to Ontario by Brigid Cunningham Clark to break into the NAFTA region. The other is Dimplex North America Ltd operating out of Cambridge with more than 400 employees.
It was a rainy June day when I went to visit Mr. Irwin in his office and typically the weather was a central part of our conversation. Irwin has got used to the Irish habit of not dressing for the weather, and now just puts up with getting wet all the time. He is amused at the way business men will lie out on the grass in their suits in St. Stephen’s Green when it’s sunny, but I’m not sure he’ll go that far in adjusting to Irish ways.