Thursday, February 25, 2010

Being Irish O'Quebec or Why I don't always dislike Montreal's exhbitionary output

I have been decidedly sucky at producing entries recently. I can blame an abundance of part time jobs, but I definitely can’t complain about being employed and busy! In any event I’m finally getting around to writing an entry about the McCord Museum’s “Being Irish O’Quebec,” which I saw in the fall. Up since March of 2009 the exhibit has been extended until October 2010. The McCord has been putting up some solid exhibits in recent years and this one is far and away one of the best shows in Montreal right now.

Talking about Anglophone history in Quebec, let alone celebrating it, is a daring move. There is a great fear of elitism in Quebec, with Anglophones typically regarded as the elite. Being Irish O’Quebec delves into the hardships that Irish immigrants encountered, which is probably the best way to connect to a local francophone audience. The discussion on mutual culture shock was particularly interesting. French Quebequers and Irish immigrants shared their Catholic faith but quickly learned that they had quite different interpretations of their religion.

A timeline along the front wall shows Quebec and Ireland’s parallel and shared histories, beginning with the first Irish immigrants in the 1630s. A few confessional style chambers are set up for one or two people to sit and listen to stories about some of the first immigrants, including Guy Carlton who served as the Governor of Quebec from 1768 to 1778. The story continues until the present day with the changing nature of Montreal’s St. Patty’s Day parade and contemporary reactions to the day that "everyone in the city turns Irish for the day."

The exhibition highlights both Irish immigrants’ contributions to Quebec society as well as the compromises they made to fit in. Many settlers frenchisized their names: O’Flaherty became Flerter. Yvonne Audet (née Duckett) became a fierce defender of correct French. Audet, who cherished her heritage but championed the French language, is the model of a perfect Quebec immigrant. Their stories are the focus of an exhibition based on people. The photos and memorabilia accompanying the profiles of Irish Quebecquers helps to make them relatable.

The final text panel sums up the exhibit's underlying objects: "Why do these stories of Irish Quebec matter? They matter because they provide a glimpse into the vast – and crucial – process of creation a common culture. The Irish gradually came to belong to this place and in so doing help build Quebec’s distinct national identity. Perhaps Quebec’s Irish stories, taken as a whole, should serve as a model of how people can come together to create shared histories and diverse, tolerant communities." This exhibit is a great way to negotiate cultural tensions in Quebec, but to do so it is missing nuance. Missing are the negative attitudes in Quebec towards immigrants, the stories of those who never truly found a comfortable existence in this province, and the tensions that continue to plague our society. But there is something to be said for showcasing the positive side of immigration and revealing stories rarely told in Quebec.

If you visit, stop by the gift shop to pick up lavender shortbread and Celtic tea. Produced by the Gryphon D’or tea room in NDG (where I was briefly employed as a waitress a few years ago), these homemade treats are a must.

7 down. 25 to go.