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Through the Eyes of a

BELFAST CHILD

Greg McVicker


Copyright © 2014, 2018 by Greg McVicker

Smashwords Edition

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information browsing, storage, or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

First Edition – May 2014
Second Edition – March 2018
Cover photo by Roman Zaremba.
ISBN: 978-1-7751622-8-5 (Hardcover) 978-1-7751622-6-1 (Softcover) 978-1-7751622-7-8 (eBook)


Through the Eyes of a

BELFAST CHILD

Life. Personal Reflections. Poems.

Belfast Child Publishing


Table of Contents

Acknowledgements

Notes to the Reader

Scattered Youth

Knockagh Monument

Stranger To My Land

Hallows’ Eve

The Socialization of Hate

The Confessional

An Ode to My Aunt Sadie

Whispers in the Breeze

The Enchantment of Achill

In The Name of Religion

Shenanigans of the Scattered Youth

Belfast Craic

The Pulse of Derrylin

Mum’s Lament

From a Child to the Man

Imagine That

C’est La Vie

Taking a Stand

Alcohol Saviour

A New Beginning

And We Call Ourselves Human?

Cry of the Wild

Whose “Home and Native Land?”

Hearts Entwined

Little Angel

Lament for a Child

Empty Promises

Bruised and Battered

Hate Crimes Against Humanity

Disposable Humans

Surreal, Nine One One

Going Forward in Reverse

A Time to Reflect

Brandy

With Love from an Irish Mother

One Final Thought

Godspeed, Madiba

Special Note to the Reader

About the Author

Connect with the Author


Acknowledgements

THERE ARE COUNTLESS people who need to be thanked for their support in the development of this book, including those who have had the profound strength and unwavering courage to share their personal stories with me. It is from their experiences I’ve learned that countless others go through similar or differing traumas, which highlight the discrepancies that exist in the human journey of life.Whether reflecting on past negative experiences or present-day realities, I was driven to write about numerous issues around the world as seen through my own eyes. Not every experience is traumatic, however, and as such, I’ve tried to capture a delicate balance between these pages.

In my professional career as a social worker, I’ve learned that there is always a glimmer of hope that someone will take the time to listen to a person’s painful story and offer solace, comfort, and support, or perhaps help the individual find light at the end of an arduous and difficult journey. Sadly, there are those who may never see that day, as they feel so controlled, trapped, or helpless within their environment that they are terrified to seek assistance for fear of retribution.

For years prior to penning this book, I wrote poems about various experiences.While speaking to my dear friend Melanie who was undergoing her own personal difficulties, she asked if I would let her read a sample of my poetic compositions. One that touched her most was “Mum’s Lament,” which she said I had written about her beloved father. Although she did not need my permission whatsoever, she believed this gave her the ability to recognize her strengths, and it provided her with an opportunity to begin a journey of healing through introspection. Melanie encouraged me to write more, as she felt others could see themselves in my thoughts.

Another wonderful friend who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for over twenty years called Patricia, had an extremely traumatic upbringing as presented under the guise of a traditional, patriarchial family unit.As she read “Bruised and Battered,”she visualized the events occurring and was infuriated by the actions of the male while wanting to help the female whom the reflection and poem are based upon. In her words, “I wanted to climb through the page and knock some sense into him while helping her get out from under his authority.” By her own admission, Patricia’s family wanted her to follow their cultural ideologies, whereby women are treated as second-class citizens and are expected to follow patriarchal directives. She challenged these norms and has since moved to be out from under those bitter influences and live life how she chooses, not by some outdated belief or authority system.

As humans we all have a story to tell, but when hearing someone else’s difficult journey, we can find strength, encouragement, and inspiration within their words and apply those teachings to our own daily struggles.There are those who are much better or worse off than we are, but we all have a cross to bear. As I have learned through my own path in life and from countless experiences whether positive or negative, laughter and humour are some of the best medicines we have at our disposal.This provides us with an opportunity to at least smile, even if only temporarily.

My hope is that those of you who read this book take time to reflect upon yourself or others within your social circles who have had the courage to share their journey; to look deeper into what was used as a coping mechanism in addressing those issues and what can be done to make change for the greater good.You may also find comfort in knowing you are not alone. Simply writing about such issues does not provide me with any immunity from them or their impact.

My daughter, Caitlin, who is currently in her third year at the university of Winnipeg and still exploring her options.

My son, Ciarán. As a goalie of six years, his most respected player in the NHL is Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings. Ciarán hopes to follow in his skates one day and play at this elite level of hockey!

My biggest inspiration for writing this book is my mum. She encouraged me to embrace this writing gift and would spend countless hours going over my work, no matter how good or bad the piece started out. She helped me develop many of the pieces to the point as now presented within the following pages for you to read and reflect upon. Thank you, Mum, for all you have done for me over the years. Without your encouragement and guidance; without your support and love; and without your sacrifices while growing up in bitter, war torn Northern Ireland; none of this would ever have been possible. You gave us everything and asked for nothing in return but our love.

I have to thank my dad, Charles McVicker, for his belief in his family. He spent years at sea and would send home his pay-packet to keep us alive. Growing up during “The Troubles” remains a large part of who we are. Our bloodied history, both political and religious, kept him from finding work in our native homeland.Although we were not involved in the conflict and had absolutely no interest in it, we were always directly impacted by the ignorance of others. As a result, we only saw my father two weeks out of every year.Thank you, Dad, for all you have done.

I’d like to give a special mention to my sister, Karen McVicker, who on September 23, 2011, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. She spent an amazing amount of time and effort carefully articulating her courageous battle against this disease through social media, and remains a warrior, having successfully undergone a bone marrow transplant. She has met with her donor, to whom I would like to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving my sister a second chance at life. I would also like to give a mention to her co-workers, who embrace the true spirit of humanity and go to great lengths to help her out while she continues her battle.You all know who you are and in my eyes, are truly special!

My wish remains that one day, Karen will take the time to write a full memoir of her journey, as she could inspire an entire generation of people who unfortunately may also have to face a chronic illness. Karen is a published author, a fantastic artist, and a survivor! But to understand where she found her strength, one really only has to look at our mum and the gifts she gave us to overcome any challenge.

Caitlin and Ciarán, my two beautiful children, have been a tremendous support to me while writing this book. As a parent, I have learned so much from them both over the years and have seen through the innocence of their eyes. Thank you for being such amazing and wonderful children. You leave me smiling to no end for all of your accomplishments in your young lives.You are my world, my life, and you mean absolutely everything to me. You make me laugh, smile, and pick me up when the chips are down. I am truly blessed to call you my kids. Be sure to pursue your dreams. Cherish your Irish heritage.

I would like to personally thank Molly Kavanagh, Melanie Chartrand, Teresa McAuley, Patricia Mancini Holt, Jean Camp, Ruth McDonald, Angela Timchuk, Danica Richardson, Rosetta and Novella Troia, Joe McVicker, Paul Devlin, and Karl Milnes, as well as my amazing fellow Irish authors William Falls, Tony Macaulay, J.P. Sexton, and Mark Rickerby for their unwavering words of encouragement and in supporting me to write more.

To the entire Maher clan, Heath Finch, Rosie Henderson, Tara Cahill, Kathleen Lebel, and Jeff Sweetland, thank you all for being a special part of our family. And for those colleagues who I wanted to acknowledge but asked that I not publish their names, I thank each of you for your guidance and insights. You also know who you are.

Finally, I would like to offer my heartfelt and sincerest appreciation to my dear friend, Marianne Curran, for taking the time to review my manuscript and give it a fresh look through the eyes of an Irish lady. Thank you for spending countless hours on the phone to provide me with your motivating insights. Your feedback has been invaluable, for which I am forever grateful.

Cheers!

Greg.


Notes to the Reader

I HAD OFTEN THOUGHT about writing a book, but never took the challenge seriously until one day in August of 2010. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this would take more than three years to complete, but realistically has been fifteen years in the making.

Although the poems are based on my own experiences—being born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and having to leave my country due to the political and religious persecutions my family faced; then to my experiences in Canada, where I have lived for the past twenty-eight years—I have also written about people who came into my life or shared their stories with me. These include things I have seen through my own eyes, such as the difficulties and challenges people face throughout this world regardless of their gender, race, stature, cultural background, geographical location, or social standing.

I struggled to find a sense of identity growing up, as I was labeled through the lens of others based on their ignorance and hatred as passed down through generations. Through this book I have begun looking at my lifelong quest to try to find out who I am and where I belong, as I do not identity with religious views, political rubbish, or other social constructs that try to place me in pre-determined categories.

One thing I’d like to note is that I have written this not so much as a narrative as is seen in other books.What I have tried to do is write this using the Irish method of storytelling, as if I was sitting directly across from you and speaking.There are those who refer to this as having the “Gift of the Gab.”

I have seen and heard though the First Nations population, whom I have the honour and blessing of working with daily, several parallels in comparison between the struggles their people went through at the hands of their colonizers, to that of what the Irish faced. People from differing nations and all walks of life come together in sharing circles and listen to one person tell a story while holding an eagle’s feather or talking stick. I’ve very much done the same here in that each composition takes you through different areas of my life at various intervals, and how the knowledge gained from these experiences applies to the defining of my worldview.

I’ve included six compositions I wrote in the final year of my social work degree, as I see their relevancy when compared to the nature of the issues regarding global inequities that I’ve tried to address. Unfortunately, six years on, not much has changed.

Although dedications are included within each reflection to those who are or have been a part of my life, this book is dedicated in its entirety to the beloved memory of my Mum, Catherine Philomena McVicker (nee Devlin), and all she stood for. As captured within her In Memoriam notices, published each year and in the language of our ancestors:

Mna na hÉireann, mo mháthair, mo chroí, tá tú go hálainn.

(Woman of Ireland, my mother, my love, you are beautiful).

Finally, to those of you who have had negative experiences in life and seek change from past sufferings, to those of you who understand what homesickness is all about (as I suffered immensely from it for eighteen years), to those who are trying to understand your spiritual side, and to those who do not believe you can make a difference in the life of another, I offer you these words:

Cuir do lámh i mo láimh, agus ná féach siar go deo. (Put your hand in my hand, and never look back).

I would love to hear your story, for who knows what kind of higher learning or healing can come from it, or perhaps how it can help influence someone else in knowing they are not alone in their journey.We can all learn from each other and apply similar experiences to the greater good for all humankind. My contact information is at the back of this book. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Sláinte, mo chara! / Health, my friend! Greg McVicker, BSW.


Scattered Youth

MY STORY BEGINS on a sunny day in 1985, when I faced one of the toughest moments in my short fifteen-year existence. I had to say goodbye not only to my best friend called Denis, but also to everything that was near and dear to my heart. My mum and dad had told me I was to forget all I knew, as my life was going to start all over again.We were uprooting and moving.

Denis became my best friend at an early age. He and his family had become a part of my life when we attended primary school together in Northern Ireland. We lived in the Knockview area, from which he and his family lived within a ten-minute walk. Our homes were made of brick and mortar, and had slate roofs, along with gardens and rosebushes that were carefully groomed. Coal or oil was used for heating, along with an electric fireplace to take the chill out of the Irish air.

He and I would walk home in the afternoons with his mum and siblings, as Denis’s house was just outside of what was once our peaceful, middle-class neighbourhood of Newtownabbey. This district was made up of families from both sides of the religious community, but without the sectarian violence we witnessed daily on the evening news.

After dropping me off, I would stand on our back doorstep, and, along with my mum, I would wave to them as they walked along the Doagh Road before disappearing out of sight. A few years later they would move to the Woodford area, which was around the corner from our school. Later, this would become my introduction to many of our friends who also resided in this area.

For one year, my siblings and I knew the day of our immigration was fast approaching. The date was July 19, a day normally associated with my dad’s birthday, but now also with the day of our relocation to Canada. The struggles leading up to this were immensely difficult to deal with, as my parents asked us to keep our pending move to ourselves. I was haunted by this and struggled to compose myself when telling Denis about it in private before eventually sharing it with the rest of my mates while standing on the corner of Woodford Drive and Woodford Park. Denis and I had discussed this before I made the official announcement. The problem was that we often spoke in secrecy about it. We didn’t think it to be fair to our other friends, who were very much a part of our social circles but were being excluded from our conversations on the basis that we were not to say anything to anyone. Shock and awe rippled throughout our chatter that evening after I broke my silence.

The decision for this move was made in 1984 after my mum and dad had chanced upon a three-week holiday with two of my aunts and uncles who were already settled in Winnipeg, Canada, and had been for many years. My parents found the freedoms something to be very thankful for as we had faced years of trauma and persecution in the only land we knew: Northern Ireland.

We were not part of any sectarian movements. We were not involved in the bombings that became a daily part of our very beings after we started attending secondary and grammar schools outside the safety of our neighbourhood. We had no political affiliation nor were such views ever allowed to cross the doorstep of our middle-class home. No matter our attempts to keep ourselves free from the bitterness and cancerous hatred in Belfast that we were somewhat removed from, we were always affected and impacted by it.This became amplified after council houses were built just beyond the perimeter of our enclave. Our status as untouchable from the persecution of taunting, name-calling, or being stopped on the streets had come to an end.After being questioned about our backgrounds by individuals from the other side of the religious community regarding what church we attended, where we lived, or what school we went to, we’d end up getting punched, kicked, or pushed off of our bicycles as a result of our honest answers.

On the night of July 16, 1985 I was out with Richard, who was another good friend of mine from Woodford.At around 9pm, he walked me down and left me off at the SADOW at the bottom of Woodford Road, which was also known by its full name: the Smokers And Drinkers Only Wall. Although this was named by my brother Joe and his mates, it stuck with us all. It was where Joe, his mates and eventually my friends and I could do as the name suggests - smoke and drink out of sight.

The SADOW was a field located along the Doagh Road, joining the Knockview and Woodford area together. This is where we spent many nights and weekends growing into our teenage years, getting into countless fights with those from the council housing district, who had nothing but loathing in their view for those from outside of their own pungent enclave. Although not everyone from this area can be painted with the same brush, those that came into our inner circles carried this same bitterness with them no matter where they went or who they met.

I crossed the SADOW but stopped halfway over and decided that I also needed to say goodbye to other friends of mine, who were leaving the following morning for holidays in France. I would be long gone before they returned and wanted them to remember me. This was our last chance to say goodbye to each other, as I never knew when I’d ever see any of them again.

I met the youngest lad Andrew at the end of his family’s driveway. He led me to the back of their house to where everyone was already gathered. I said hello to each of them. Elaine, June, and Judith were standing on the back porch with Nicola, who would often come down from the Glebe district approximately twoand-a-half miles from our home.Was it coincidence they all stood there awaiting my arrival? I never asked, and to this day still do not know, but I spoke with them all, including their parents.

It was a tearful night, as I knew my time in my homeland was drawing to a close and that within three days I wouldn’t see them out on our streets any longer. I did not want to go and wished I could have jumped on the ferry with them to escape my pending move.

After saying my final goodbye, Andrew accompanied me out to the end of the driveway. I walked along Woodford Park and made my way towards the SADOW. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Andrew had quietly followed me. He watched as I put my hands to my head while I gazed off towards the night sky. I was lost deep in thought, struggling with the idea that I did not know when I would see my friends again. Andrew did not believe me when I told his siblings that I was moving. He thought that I was trying to pull the same wool over his eyes as other friends had done when they were leaving for family holidays to Spain, but would tell him that they were moving away and would not be coming back.

This is my granny, my uncle Jimmy, my mum, and my aunt Josephine all together in 1985, one-week prior to us leaving for Canada. Almost twentysix years after our departure, they have all been reunited and watch over me every day.

After they left the following morning, I wrote my name in giant letters on the tarmac directly across from where Denis lived in the Woodford area. This would be later eulogized in a tongue-in-cheek letter from Nicola that read, “It’s really hard to forget you as there is a massive GREG scrawled on the footpath.” I felt I’d left my mark, at least until the next torrential downpour erased my memory from their minds. I still have all the letters I received from them tucked away in a shoebox, as I hoped one day we would all get together to look back on our letters while laughing at our childhood innocence and cheek.

Even before we left for Canada, my troubles began. On the night of July 18, and after Denis and Richard had walked me home from Woodford, I went into our bare house.The only thing left for me to stare at or appreciate was the carpet on the floor that would double as my bed, since everything else had been shipped overseas. Yet not even a week before, on the eve of July 13, we were all laughing and mucking around while sharing in a celebration, as my parents had an open house for family who came by for a farewell bash.

There was plenty of alcohol to be had. Denis and I happily helped ourselves to this. I snuck several tins out to the front street and out of my parent’s view for us to drink. Harp lager became a favourite for us, along with whatever I could get my hands on and subsequently dump into our guts. After downing each drink, I’d go back into our house and tell the adults that Joe and his mates, who were near legal age, wanted a few drinks, and that I was their messenger. I did not inform them that the plan was for me to go back outside and celebrate with Denis with a cache of free booze. I had a denim jacket with inside pockets, so I’d place an extra few tins inside to avoid having to make so many trips and hopefully not have anyone become suspicious of my frequent visits.

Since I grabbed whatever was available and made a hurried exit each time, we ended up selling two of the four tins of Guinness I’d pinched to two wee lads we knew from the area for 50p each.We could not stand our first taste of this famous stout, and wanted to recoup our losses.We’d nothing to lose and everything to gain— including getting polluted for free.

This night was different though. After getting home and putting my head down on the bare carpet within the empty shell of what we once knew as our house, I called my mum and dad every name imaginable while I slept. The following morning they would be taking me away from my homeland, my friends, and my childhood. I’ve no recollection of doing so, but my parents never forgot it.They often questioned themselves as to whether or not they had made the right decision, since I had become so bitter and angry toward them.

July 19 marked a few occasions for me.The day I would get onto an airplane for the very first time.The day my life would forever be changed, trying to find a lost identity that I never really knew, aside from how I had defined it among my mates. I became caught between two worlds and did not know which one I belonged in. I wanted to stay in my country, no matter how much the surrounding environment—its hatred, political wars, and religious views—impacted me while growing up.This was where my heart belonged. And so that morning I begged my mum to leave me to live with my Uncle Jimmy in Belfast, who I argued could take care of me while I finished school.

My uncle Barney and my cousin Mark, who came over from England to buy my parents’ car, came around to pick us up.They loaded our suitcases and remaining items into one of the two cars. Since my pleas fell on deaf ears, Denis, Richard, and I went to tour the grounds of our neighbourhood one last time. I vowed it would not be long before they saw my face again.At the time, however, I did not realize this would not occur until seven years later, and at that time would be very much incomplete. Richard had by then joined the army and gone to serve his mission overseas. I often pondered his decision to do so, but it was not my place to question his direction in life.

After being loaded into the cars and beginning the trek outwards from our house, I looked back at my mates, catching the outlines of their wristbands, jeans, t-shirts, and their headbanger mops of hair.This image was to be an everlasting one in my mind.

We took what seemed to be the ride of doom to Belfast International Airport for one final and tearful farewell to all of our family that had come to see us off. From there and after going through the security checkpoint and after being cleared for boarding, we walked down the ramp to the plane, got buckled in, and waved goodbye to our beloved land. I watched as people fussed about loading luggage into overhead bins or pulled magazines to pass the time.

Although I had turned fifteen only four days before, I’d no idea what to expect and wondered why vomit bags were inside the seat pocket in front of me. My mum laughed at me as we taxied away from the gate and the pilots put the engines into full throttle, preparing for take-off. I panicked and began yelping while watching the concrete disappear from beneath us.

Rolling green fields along with mountainous terrain and Irish loughs disappeared when we rose above the fluffy cloud cover, which so often held rains that soaked the lush landscape below.All I could see out the window was a blue sky. My home and native land were completely gone from sight, but not from my heart. I was already planning my return trip home, even though we had only been in the air for about a half-hour by this point.

People were allowed to smoke on the plane, and the thick, stale air it created would choke the life out of anyone caught in its path. It caused such a blue haze that it was difficult to watch the movie. My eyes watered. I decided to get up and go to the bathroom halfway towards the back of the plane. It was very busy, and an American man said to me in his thick, southern accent, “You’d need a nickel to use the washroom around here.”

Since this was my first time flying and as I did not know what the man meant by his statement, I bolted back to my seat.“Ma, some American back there says I need a nickel to use the bogs.What does he mean by a nickel? Where do I get one of those?”

My mum found this to be quite humourous, although I was personally not impressed since I needed to go to the bog really badly and didn’t want to be on the plane in the first place.

After about eight hours flying across the length of Ireland and over the Atlantic Ocean and eastern seaboard, we landed in the “capital” of Canada:Toronto.As this was five hours behind us, I was knackered.We had to stand around while my mum and dad went through the process of clearing customs and our landing papers before we could catch our next flight.

While they were doing that, I decided to wander around the airport. I stopped at a water fountain to get a drink but found it to be completely disgusting. It was not from home and carried a very different taste that my palate was not used to. Life here was already making a negative impression, but I really wasn’t giving the first few hours a chance, and we hadn’t stepped foot outside an airport at this stage.We were in transit to our destination and what would become our new home.

Finally, at 6pm on July 19, 1985 and on the very same day we’d left behind our beloved country, we landed in Winnipeg and were immediately greeted by our large family, including my aunt, two uncles and numerous cousins I’d never met before. With the exception of my mum’s sister, Maureen, and my uncle Malcolm, both of whom I’d last seen in 1981 when along with my cousin, Treasaigh, had moved back to Northern Ireland, everyone else had Canadian accents that sounded both funny and weird to me. They spoke at about the same pace as a snail crawls compared to our way of speaking, which is approximately two notches down from the speed of sound.

The very first photograph taken shortly after our arrival in Canada. We were met by my aunt, my uncles, and my cousins, along with a very hot day, which was something that we were not used to. Pictured left to right are: my aunt Maureen, Larry, my cousins Maria and Jim, my mum, my uncle Malcolm, my cousin Patrick, my brother Joe, my uncle John, me (doing my best Angus Young impersonation), and my sister, Karen.

Aside from jeans, their style of clothing was different from anything I had ever seen before, which left me wondering how on earth I was to adapt to this county.There was no way I would dress the same way as everyone else. I wanted to go back to the airport I had just come out of and catch the first plane home to tell my friends that my pending move was a complete hoax.

When we stepped outside, it was a bright, sunny, hot day. My first thought after collecting our bags and walking towards the carpark to our transportation was,“Warm wind? How the hell do you get warm wind?”We had never experienced this before. It was always bloody freezing in Ireland!

At first glance, the landscape had no appeal or attraction to it whatsoever.There weren’t any mountains or lush green grass. No sheep causing traffic jams, double-decker buses driving around, or rolling hills to climb. The scenery was flat, drab, and very bland compared to Ireland. Winnipeg lies in the middle of the prairies within the province of Manitoba. Basically the best way to describe it is that if your dog were to run away, you could watch it do so for three days.

There were no streams, no castles, no loughs, and no ferries.The place was a concrete jungle filled with skyscrapers, train tracks, and people who drove on the wrong side of the road.Vehicles had something called an 8-track, which took cartridges bigger than our Atari. Cars were parked in one direction along the same side of the street, which actually seemed preferable, since people could walk up the footpath without having to step foot onto the road to get around them.Yet this was so far removed from home that somehow I knew trying to blend in to this country was going to be a cultural shock.

After driving around in a blistering hot vehicle with the windows rolled down to act as air conditioning and going to a drive-thru beer vendor to pick up a few cases of Club for my cousins, we arrived at my Aunt Maureen’s house. She promptly asked if I’d like something to drink before saying, “Do you want some root beer?”

I responded, “Aye, I’ll take some root beer!” and thought about how brilliant my aunt was for getting us such a product. Beer! I neglected to ask what she meant by the word “root,” although I was not worried about it since I had freely drank to my heart’s content the week before and no one had said anything about it. Then again, they did not know about my antics on our front street. Nor was she offering me Guinness, so I thought I was in good standing.

Needless to say, after she poured the glass of fizzy, foamy drink, I choked on it before spitting it out. I asked if that was how beer tasted in this country – like Tiger Balm. It was nothing like I had ever tasted before, and I would certainly avoid at all costs. Putrid wouldn’t have come close to describing it.

Adjusting to life proved to be a tremendous struggle. Trying to fit into a land that I had no understanding of or appreciation for proved difficult. The furthest I’d been from my district was in 1981 when we went over to Iverness, Scotland to visit my dad, who was in from sea after returning from the Falklands War.This was a brutal time in our lives.There were more than enough close calls for my dad, as their supply ship had artillery shells rain down upon it. From there we traveled down to see my aunt, who lived in England.

It was going to be a social struggle for me to try to learn the ways of life (as taken for granted by those who lived within the shores of this country), since it was so far removed from everything I had ever known.

When my parents came over in 1984 to look at the possibility of moving to Canada, they were also considering New Zealand and England. My mum felt New Zealand was too far from home and that we might experience difficulty from having Belfast accents and due to “The Troubles” if we were to move to England.

After their holiday, my parents decided the City of Winnipeg, which has been the World’s Slurpee capital for fourteen years running, would become our home.

Speaking of Slurpees, I had only been in the city for two days at this time, but as I had brought some pounds over with me, I decided to exchange them into local currency at the Bank of Montreal located on the corner of Osborne Street and Morley Avenue.The paper money was smaller than the pounds we used, and trying to understand what was a quarter, a dime, or that bloody nickel (as the American man told me I needed to use the bog on the flight over) proved to be yet another challenge.

From there, I made my way over to the 7-11 and wanted to get a Slurpee. My mum had shown us pictures of them and had told us about how great they were and tasted. As much as I dreaded our move, I was definitely anticipating my first taste of this icy treat.

I walked into the 7-11 and approached the cash register and asked the sales clerk,“Do you sell Slurpees?” He pointed behind me and said they were on the other side of the counter.“Great,” I thought, walking around to get one while licking my chops. However, I came across several machines with spinning wheels, white and blue levers, and a coloured ice-looking type liquid swooshing around behind windows that had different flavours listed on top of them.These contraptions were completely foreign to me, and for all I knew, could have been part of a scientific experiment conducted by NASA.

I stared in awe for a moment before looking back and forth between the machines and their contents. From there I made my way back over to the counter to the same sales clerk whom I’d spoken to five minutes before and asked, “Can you please show me how to make a Slurpee?”

The clerk must have thought I was either having him on, or perhaps from the sound of my accent realized I was definitely not from this part of the world. It was not as if he was up to his eyeballs serving customers as I was the only person in the store.

He shuffled his way over to the machines, and in a slow, deliberate, and almost taunting voice began showing me the steps as if he were talking to a young child.

“You decide what size of Slurpee you want. Look up above you and you can see the prices. You then take whatever size of cup you want and put it under the spout. Do you see this lever? Move it from the left to the right and that will allow the Slurpee to go into the cup.When you close the lever the Slurpee will stop flowing.You can add another flavour if you like.After the cup is full, take a lid, put it on top, and get yourself a straw.Then come over to the counter and pay for it.That is how you make a Slurpee. Understood?”

I nodded, but did not pay much attention to him making fun of me.At the time, I did not realize he was doing this, since I was so busy salivating as if I were a dog waiting for a meaty bone from its owner.This was something I could write about in my letters to my mates to tell them all about my new-found experiences.

I don’t think my mates were as excited as I was, as I wrote about the various flavours I’d buy at every opportunity and would try out several combinations (with the exception of body-rub-flavoured root beer), only to end up with a sugar high and something else I’d never experienced before: brain freeze. Those hurt, and I’m sure I must have looked like a right eejit on more occasions than not, especially when walking around with my face screwed up and my hand squeezing my forehead when drinking Slurpees in the middle of winter. I tried a beer-flavoured Slurpee once, but that was made by my own hand after attending a party.

About a week after arriving, my cousin Patrick had stopped over at my Aunt Maureen’s house and asked if I wanted to go with him to a place called Thunderbird Billiards for a few games of pool. We used go to the 147 in Belfast to play (this is the name given to the highest score a player can attain in a game of snooker), so I thought this would be great.We were fans of several of the world’s greatest players back home and often marveled at their skills as we watched them on TV. It would also give me the chance to get to know one of my cousins, whom I hadn’t met prior to landing— they’d immigrated to Canada in 1970 at the beginning of “The Troubles.”

After walking along Walker Avenue and reaching Osborne Street, we turned the corner to make our way over to the pool hall. Upon looking up at a sign posted outside a building on the same side of the street as we were on, I froze in my tracks. Without thinking, I looked at the busy street beside me and, not taking into account the amount of traffic flow (all of which was coming and going in a direction completely opposite to that which I was accustomed to), I ran across the street, all the while dodging vehicles until I got to the other side.

I heard my cousin screaming after me, his voice peppered with colourful swear words asking where I was going and what I was doing. As I was running, I shouted that I’d meet him at the pool hall. Once on the opposite footpath, I made my way up the road and waited for him outside the Park Theatre. Patrick walked up the street opposite to where I was standing, crossed Rathgar Avenue, and joined up with me again.

“Greg, what the fuck are you thinking? You’re in Canada now. This isn’t Ireland. You can’t go jaywalking over here like you do back home. Do you see this thing here?” He pointed to a large button attached to a lamppost of sorts.“This is a pedestrian crosswalk. Here in Winnipeg, you press this button to activate the lights.You wait for the traffic to stop.THEN you cross the street.”

Still breathless from playing a real life version of Frogger, I exclaimed, “Aye right.We’ve those things too.They’re called zebra crossings. But I can’t be over on that side of the street!”

Patrick looked at me with his eyebrows furrowed and said “WHAT?”

I repeated,“I can’t be over on that side of the street because of that store right there.” I pointed to the sign that had made me freeze before bolting.“I was warned about those places just last week and was told Canada has lots of them so to avoid them at all costs.”

Patrick, obviously still quite dumbfounded, looked back to the strip of shops that lined the streets, including a Warehouse One, a Royal Bank, and a store that sold carpets. “What store are you talking about?”

“Do you see that store right there with red lettering on the sign? That’s a bad place.They sell drugs. I was warned about those places and was told to stay away from them.”

Patrick looked at me, completely exasperated, and said,“What? Are you talking about Metro Drugs? For Jesus sakes, Greg. Do you not know what that is? It’s a pharmacy, you flippin’ eejit!”

I looked back at him and said,“WHAT DOYOU MEAN? WHY WOULDN’T THEY CALL IT THAT THEN? They’re called chemists. If it had of said chemists, or a friggin’ pharmacy for that matter, I wouldn’t have near half killed myself running across the bloody road to get away from the place.”

What Patrick did not know was that on the night of July 16, when I went to visit my friends and said my final farewell before they left for France, their dad told me about how bad the drug problem was in Canada. I made a vow to him that I wouldn’t use drugs and took his advice to avoid them at all costs. I was young, innocent, and a complete stranger in a strange land, taking words at face value without questioning their meaning. My other thought was that, as my mum used to tell me, I was as thick as pig’s shite and here I was proving that very statement.

My early days in Winnipeg were not easy, as I got myself into a lot of trouble. One day in August of 1985, I snuck back into my Aunt Sadie and Uncle John’s house after visiting them and before they were due to go out, and phoned my friends, as I knew Elaine and her family had returned from their holidays. Sure enough, they were all there, and we spent a good hour or two talking. I did not realize that phone companies documented all calls made from a landline. So when my aunt and uncle got their phone bill and seen the listing for a call to a number in Belfast, I was in deep shite with my parents. Live and learn? Not quite…

Adapting to school life here was just as painful as trying to find myself within this country. On my first day I was to attend Churchill High School, I was actually very excited. My mum had taken me down two weeks before to register, but I fought with her every step of the way against going into Grade Ten, since I would have only had one more year of secondary school had we have stayed in Belfast. I did not want to do three more years at school to get a Grade Twelve education, so opted for the two-year plan instead. This did not quite work out to my benefit. I miserably failed everything in my first year from a lack of interest, a lack of caring, and wanting to go back to my mates.

The reason for my excitement on my first morning of school was that I could put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and not have to worry about wearing a dress shirt, tie, blazer, slacks, polished shoes, or any other part of the uniform we had been forced to wear. I could also put on white socks (our secondary school had banned them, since they felt these challenged the appropriate attire that we were expected to wear). Boys found in breach of this policy would be grabbed by their ears, dragged into the school by our rotten bastard teachers, and strapped mercilessly. Our school systems were very much like the meat grinders depicted in the classic Pink Floyd song “Another Brick in the Wall.”

After walking to school with my cousin Treasaigh, I presented myself at the office on the second floor to try and find out where I was to report.The information was given, and so I made my way downstairs to the lower level. Upon reaching the classroom, I was met at the front door by a man who went on to become one of my favourite teachers. However, during this first introduction and in his slow, growling, and methodical (almost robotic sounding) voice, he spoke to me through clenched teeth and said,“Are you supposed to be in this classroom?”

I responded that I had just been sent down from the office, and that this was where I was supposed to be. Obviously the teacher did not believe what I was saying, as his response was,“You sound like a foreigner to me. I don’t think you are in the right class. You need to go back to the office and find out where you are supposed to be.”Thinking back on that day, his voice reminds me of Professor Snape from the Harry Potter movies.

Given his direction, I turned on my heel and went up to the office to explain what the teacher had just told me. One of the staff members walked me back down to the same classroom, only this time I was allowed to enter. I suppose her explanation made much more sense to him than anything I had previously said.

I found a seat in the second to last vertical row and sat one seat back from the front of the classroom. From there I looked over to my right to see a girl I knew called Sherri was in the same class as me, so I nodded over to say hello. I became lost in my own thoughts at this point, as Sherri’s brother Larry was married to my cousin Maria. He had always reminded me of the rock star Prince back in his Purple Rain days, although Larry didn’t have a purple motorcycle or a horn-shaped guitar.

Suddenly I was snapped out of my daydreaming by a voice that had come literally out of nowhere and given a couple of announcements. I looked all around the classroom to try and determine the source of this, only to finally see a loudspeaker above the chalkboard.

Without any forewarning, every student suddenly jumped straight up and out of their seats, facing forwards, while my arse stayed firmly planted in my own seat. It was as if a call to military inspection was about to take place.

I looked around to see what the fuss was about as the crackle of a record came to life and started playing a song that I had never heard before! Still unaware of what was going on, I looked over at Sherri for a clue. She seemed aware that the teacher was shooting an evil eye in my immediate direction. Sherri mouthed the words “Stand up” while slowly making a gesture to the same effect with her left hand, making every attempt to not get caught.

I nodded and stood up, though I planted my arse on the end of the table attached to my chair, put my hands behind me, and half sprawled myself out. I still had no clue what was going on or what I was listening to.The teacher continued to watch me and was obviously very quickly losing his patience at my behaviour. He snapped his arms by his sides and expected me to stand to attention like a soldier. Although I did not realize it at the time, I was being disrespectful towards the Canadian national anthem, which was played every morning before classes began. Since we did not follow this practice in Belfast, I didn’t see the necessity of it.

At the end of the anthem the person making the announcements asked everyone to remain standing for the Lord’s Prayer. Knowing this along with the Hail Mary in my traditional tongue, I recited the Lord’s Prayer in English and the Hail Mary in the language I was taught in secondary school and was expected to speak. I closed my eyes, crossed my thumbs over one another to make the sign of the cross, and began my recital:

Sé do bheatha, a Mhuire, atá lán de ghrásta,

Tá an Tiarna leat.

Is beannaithe thú idir mná,

Agus is beannaithe toradh do bhroinne, Íosa.

A Naomh-Mhuire, a Mháthair Dé, guigh orainn na peacaigh, anois, agus ar uair ár mbáis.Amen.”

As I was coming to the tail end of the prayer, I opened my eyes and looked around at the entire classroom only to see that several students were either stunned, shocked, or in awe, all of whom were staring directly at me, their mouths hanging open. I had recited my Our Father in the time it took them to reach the end of the verse “And lead us not into temptation,” and was already into my Hail Mary in my traditional language. I was simply doing what I knew and had been taught to do.

The classroom began to empty out, but upon looking at my schedule, I saw that my first class was math with none other than the same teacher who did not want me invading his space in the first place. As the room filled up, I stayed in the same chair I’d found that morning. Once everyone was seated and the lesson started, the teacher made no effort to look at anyone else but me. In his low growl, he asked,“Did they teach you about Pythagoras’s theorem in that foreign place you came from?”

The answer was easy, as it had been severely beaten into us within our militant school system.Without blinking an eye, and brimming with excitement, I hurriedly responded,

“The square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides.”

A girl sitting to my immediate right and another girl who sat directly behind her blurted out in unison,“What did he just say?” while others sat just as stunned, with their eyes affixed upon me, jaws hanging. I thought to myself that not only was this going to be a long day, it was going to be a long life of trying to fit in. It was already starting to lose its appeal—the appeal of not having to wear a school uniform ever again. At that moment I wished I could leave and head overseas where I wouldn’t face these troubles, even if it meant I had to wear an ugly blazer with a school crest on the pocket, trousers, dress shoes, and a hideous tie at my shite school.

Word about the new kid (along with my sister Karen and brother Joe) must have spread throughout the school like wildfire as we were suddenly thrust into the spotlight.Although my siblings had gained a much higher standard of knowledge and education, they would need to complete their Grade Twelve in order to get work, and so they had to attend school all over again. This country seemed ass backwards.

Suddenly I found myself surrounded by girls who wanted to hear me speak to them. Although I’d ask them to engage me in a conversation for sake of interaction, they would simply reply, “Just talk” from which I would lose interest. I’d point out they themselves had strong accents but they disagreed with my statement. On the other hand, guys would try to impersonate me but sounded ridiculous. In their own minds, while trying to be funny they thought they were the next best thing to sliced bread. In their ignorance, they’d tell me to speak English, learn how to talk properly or to get back on the boat I came from and go back to my own country in the mockery of my voice.

I found that the easiest way to shut them up was to ask where their family came from or if they were originally from Canada, which would define them as being “truly Canadian.” I’d point out that unless they were Indigenous, they themselves were also immigrants. This left then in stunned silence, as their parents and grandparents had arrived on these shores from Europe or elsewhere and still spoke with an accent. My younger sister Angela went through much of the same at her school, but she assimilated very quickly into the dominant society and lost her brogue within a year of our arrival. It sure felt that life in this country was not offering much in the way of the welcoming I was told and was expected to believe. I lost interest in school, and didn’t care much for whatever freedoms were supposedly associated to Canada. I sure as hell wasn’t seeing or finding them outside of the insults and taunts from the guys.

At the end of classes and before the days of the Internet, I snuck into the computer room at school and used the phone that was set up for use with a modem. I’d called Elaine’s house again for another 90 minutes.The principal was furious after getting a bill for this. I was in much deeper shite than the first time, as my parents got called to the school. The phones went into long-distance lockdown, and I was banned from ever using them again. At the time, no one understood how homesick I was and would do just about anything to get permanently kicked out. I almost succeeded in my efforts.

During the first Halloween dance I would ever attend, which was held at Churchill High School, I went out with a group of friends, who helped me purchase a twelve of beer. I drank nine of these within two hours behind an abandoned semi-trailer in a field north of Osborne Street and across from the transit garage in Fort Rouge. I hadn’t eaten beforehand, so a fifteen-year-old who weighed 8½ stone at the time had a stomach full of beer.

I was completely blootered out of my skull and ready to take on the dance.That didn’t last very long, so a mate who shares my first name and was out drinking with me decided the best course of action would be to take me somewhere to sober up. Good idea, but a bad mistake. I went totally ballistic. My homesickness had reached its first of many peaks, only to be fuelled by my alcohol intake.

I kicked an old rusty refrigerator frame in the back alley of Arnold Street just across from our school and immediately split my baseball boots and right foot wide open. Bleeding like a stuck pig and swearing at the destruction of my footwear, I cursed Canada to no end for causing me this pain. In my mind, it would never have happened if I had been granted permission to avoid immigration.

Somehow, Greg managed to get my drunken arse over to Maria’s house. Here they tried to settle me down with the help of a very well-built man by the name of Tony, who was a friend of theirs. They tried to restrain me but were not successful in their efforts. Unbeknownst to me though, Maria had child proofed her home since she and Larry had two young children.The mechanism did its job quite well but became my worst enemy. In my drunken stupor, I could not figure out how to escape. Every handle I grabbed had a protective device that prevented the door from being opened easily unless first squeezing the plastic cover.


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