Having spent only 3 days on the snow coated Lofoten Islands, shooting with cod fisherman Bjornar Nicolaisen, it was time to leave and follow the path of many Viking longships 1,000 years before across the icy Atlantic to Newfoundland, the most easterly point of North America. The debate still rages as to whether Saint Brendan reached Newfoundland even earlier – 500 years before the Norsemen, as the ‘Immram Brendáin’, written around 900 AD, strongly suggests. As the plane climbs into the air, the spectacular beauty of the islands becomes even more apparent. You get a sense of the fragility of the communities and environment here, and an understanding of why Bjornar and his colleagues are so passionately protective of their islands and fishing grounds.
I am heading to Heathrow where I will depart for St. Johns, Newfoundland, the following day. However, due to the quirks of air travel, when I land in Heathrow on Saturday evening, I have to get a plane back to Dublin and get back on the same plane the following morning, back to Heathrow, to catch the Air Canada plane to St Johns. With all of that on my mind, I just about remember to stop by the Duty-Free at Oslo airport to pick up an order for one of my buddies at home. (I was subsequently told that if I really cared for my friend’s well-being I should have kept walking, but we won’t get into that!) Either way, didn’t I leave my wallet after me at the check-out! Luckily my auntie Margaret picked me up from Dublin airport and after a good feed and sleep, dropped me back again at 6am the following morning with enough cash to get by for the next week! I still can’t figure out why booking my starting point as Heathrow instead of Dublin would have cost me another few hundred euros? With my camera as hand luggage and a suitcase full of equipment, I jump on the plane to Canada to continue following the oil story of the North Atlantic, and Newfoundland’s ‘economic miracle’!
In the late 1960’s many of the big oil companies began prospecting for oil off Newfoundland’s ‘Grand Banks‘. The ‘Grand Banks’ are a huge area off the east coast of Newfoundland, which, since the 1600’s, have been the most productive fishing grounds in the North Atlantic. This seemingly inhospitable and desolate area has been fiercely fought over by the Portugese, French and English, and through the eventual victors – the English – came a wave of fishermen from the South of England and South-East Ireland. Since the 1750’s, the Irish settled south of the capital St. Johns in various ‘outports’ along any breach in the cliffs where a boat could be landed and fish offloaded. The shoals of cod were so thick in the seas that it must have seemed to these emigrants, as to Saint Brendan before them, that they had indeed reached a promised land! From Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny and Tipperary they came to ‘Talamh an Éisc‘ (Land of Fish). No more would they suffer hunger and hardship, and as long as there was cod in the sea they would remain on the other side of the Atlantic. They would build homes and new communities, but they also brought with them their music and traditions, even their accents were preserved in the ‘Land of the Forgotten Irish’. Meanwhile the ‘Forgotten Wallet’ has been handed in to ‘Lost & Found’ in Oslo and is following the path of Sigtrygg Silkbeard back to Dublin on DHL!
As I walk off the plane at St Johns, I feel as though I am following in the footsteps of many of my fellow Tipperary county men. However, there is one prospect which they did not have to endure – Customs! Even though I am not coming to Canada to work, I do have a sizable camera and I am shunted over to one side and told to wait for a customs officer. One long hour later, and after a few explanations to a very understanding customs officer, I walk out of St Johns airport with my own personalised visa with the stipulations: Prohibited from engaging in employment in Canada, prohibited from attending any educational institution, and, ‘must leave Canada by 31st October 2013’ – which happens to be midnight Halloween …which sounds quite ominous! (Next time I will be sure to sort out a filming visa for Canada before I leave Ireland)
So back to the job, I mean the task, in hand. Since World War II the exploitation of cod became industrialised and due to massive overfishing, cod numbers decreased rapidly until they almost disappeared altogether. In 1992 the Canadian government put a moratorium on cod fishing and overnight the economic and social base of the villages along the Irish villages of the South Shore disintegrated. Over the next decade coastal villages throughout Newfoundland suffered huge depopulation. The young left and the schools closed, leaving only the older generation and a cloud of hopelessness. Newfoundland may have lost control of their fishing but when it became increasingly obvious that there were significant oil deposits off their shores, they determined to fight for control and management over it. The first major discovery was ‘Hibernia’, the latin for Ireland, and its development in the early 90’s was set against the backdrop of the disappearance of cod in the Grand Banks and the collapse of the fisheries on land. Coupled with the sinking of an exploration rig ‘The Ocean Ranger‘ in a storm with the loss of all 84 crew members on the Hibernia field, Newfoundlanders felt they had paid a very heavy price for the discovery of oil in ‘their’ fishing grounds. In a place as tight knit as Newfoundland, it seemed that everybody knew somebody that was lost that night, or knew somebody who had lost someone close. Through successive politicians, most notably Newfoundland premiere Danny Williams, they took on the Canadian Federal Government and took a strong line with the oil companies. At one point in the battle for more revenues for the province of Newfoundland, Danny Williams ordered the removal of all Canadian flags from government buildings and threatened secession from Canada. The central government compromised, and, in the words of fisherman Charlie Kane ‘It was the first time that anybody had fought for Newfoundlands resources, for the people of Newfoundland’. The resulting oil boom in Newfoundland has transformed the province, and brought young people back to the villages they left a decade earlier. Now Charlie’s son has returned to build a house and raise a family next door to where he grew up in Renews, right beside his parents, working 3 weeks on and 3 weeks off the rigs . As I drive out of Charlies house, I get stuck behind a school bus dropping off kids. First I curse getting stuck behind a bus on a narrow country road, but then as it makes 3 stops within a few hundred yards, each time dropping off a child at a house, the significance of it dawns on me, a sign that the vibrancy of this small forgotten Irish community has returned.
- Massive oil find off Canada’s Newfoundland could yield up to 600m barrels (mining.com)
- Newfoundland – a heartwarming jewel (clew.lu)
- Newfoundland in Photos (shannamama.blogspot.com)
- Preserving changing dialects of Newfoundland and Labrador (cbc.ca)