The most Irish island in the world is in Canada

As the winter sun rises over Tilting Harbour, Norm Foley is on the beach at Oliver’s Cove, pitchfork in hand, green rubber boots on his Levi’s trouser legs, iPhone in his shirt pocket. The 55-year-old will spend hours that day extracting kelp from the shaggy brown heaps choking the shore, stuffing it into heavy-duty plastic containers.

Then, rope over the shoulder like a horse, he will tow container after container to his vegetable garden – the same land where his parents and ancestors grew potatoes when they arrived from Ireland in the 1730s.

It’s a practice that Foley’s ancestors brought from the shores of the ancient land, and one that has kept them alive in the rugged and barren lands they settled. The kelp will rot over the winter, creating a rich fertilizer for carrots, parsnips and, yes, potatoes during the short growing season.

Such are the ancient ways of life at Tilting, a living artifact of 2½ centuries of Irish migration that helped give Newfoundland its identity. A National Historic Site, the small harbor community of Fogo Island has survived relatively intact for eight generations and is so quintessentially Celtic that the BBC has called the area “Canada’s little-known Emerald Isle.” the irish time dubbed it “the most Irish island in the world” and “Irish on the rocks”.

Tipping, Fogo Island, Newfoundland. (Paddy Barry)

The name Tilting is thought to derive from the humble shelters that early Irish settlers in this part of northeastern Newfoundland called “tilts”. And its location – tucked away in a harbor without roads or ferries, electricity or running water until the 1960s – has helped preserve its old-world sensibilities. Ocher fishing structures and fish scales still cling to the rocky shores. Salty one-and-a-half-story houses stand in clusters on family plots, while spruce log fences criss-cross the subarctic lands, remnants of a time when cattle and sheep roamed around the farms.

But with only about 200 residents, Tilting faces the same fate as other isolated ports in Newfoundland, where children once numbered like cod. The local school closed years ago: the other 17 village children are being bussed to another part of Fogo, and many of their parents are traveling off-island for work. Foley, the youngest of six brothers, sees the Irish way of life disappear: “We cling to it but we have a job. It fades. »

In March, for the third year in a row, this sense of loss will intensify. No time of year makes residents think about the place’s Irishness like St. Patrick’s Day, an occasion that rivals Christmas on the local calendar. For decades, residents went from house to house for a drink and song, then marched in procession from St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Parish Church to the Parish Hall for more rejoicing.

Over the past few years, people from all over Fogo Island have arrived on snowmobiles, dressed in green, for a game of poker. They went from cabin to cabin all day in the woods, eating and drinking, singing. The entertainment continued into the night at the parish hall.

But in Omicron’s day, cramming into galleys and huddled around cabin stoves is something less recommended by doctors. The evenings will be “bubbling”, like last year, with a few friends drinking beer in a cabanon.

This seems to strike a blow at one of the last vital links to Tilting’s identity. But like their counterparts in other parts of the province, people here have a practical vision of the future, including the possibility that a less Irish version of their city will survive. Slowly it becomes a place that celebrates its past rather than living it.

Almost ten years ago, a luxury hotel called the Fogo Island Inn opened in the nearby village. Foley, who had recently moved away after working more than 20 years as a house builder in Toronto and St. John’s, began selling his vegetables at the inn and arranging porridge for his guests, whose fares room and board rates start at $2,575 a night.

The hostel and the charitable social enterprise that owns it have boosted the local economy. Young people and artists have restored saltbox houses and moved in, at least seasonally, and a cafstar opened. It’s not enough to restore the place to its pre-cod moratorium peak, but it does create local jobs.

Foley shed at Tilting (@joelandjustyna)

Foley shed at Tilting (@joelandjustyna)

How long the old Irish version of Tilting remains is an open question, says Gerard Foley, a distant relative of Norm and a mayor of Tilting before it merged into the town of Fogo in 2011. It will be in 15 or 20 years,” the 64-year-old says in a noticeable Irish brogue. “I hope we can keep it for a while longer. It’s in our blood.

For Norm Foley, providing food at the inn squares fits well with his way of life – one that, without the iPhone, his ancestors might have lived a century ago. He lives in his parents’ house, preserved as his mother, Thérèse, had it, with the wood-burning stove burning from late summer to spring, floral wallpaper and portraits of Jesus hanging on every lintel. .

He eats what he catches and grows, except for the odd bottle of ketchup. He mows his grass, salts and dries his cod, and pickles his own beets. He picks partridge berries and dries his own herbs for soups and stews.

On March 17, Foley will wear the same clothes he wears every St. Patrick’s Day for this year’s scaled-down, pandemic-friendly celebration: a light green parka, a t-shirt with a shamrock that says Kiss me if you’re Irish,” and a green cap with “Tilting” written on it, given to him by his mother.

This article appears in print in the March 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the title “Irish on the rocks”. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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