A CAPE Breton Scot sojourning in Londonderry for the Fleadh before heading to the Outer Hebrides to trace his ancestral roots says he’s been blown away by the city and that it really is the people who make it special.
Calder Morrison and his wife Louise run a chain of big petrol stations around Chatham, Ontario. They landed in Londonderry on Tuesday, August 13, for what they reckon is a once in a lifetime chance to conduct a leisurely exploration of Great Britain and Ireland.
And with eyes of objective outsiders, they like what they’ve seen, heard and experienced, sofar.
“What’s totally impressed me about Derry is that we’ve met people from both sides. What wonderful genial people they all are,” said Calder. “You can tell they are totally in love with their community. They show respect for each other on a daily basis.”
“The city of Derry is just marvellous. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a city as clean,” he added.
Now living in Chatham - 40 miles across the border from Detroit - Calder originally hails from Cape Breton and given that area’s profound links with this part of the world he feels a strong affinity with North West Atlantic Europe.
This has been personally cemented by the fact that Louise and Calder are both guests of Paul O’Kane, a local retired fire fighter, who received an MBE for his services to the community, not least in his response to the Droppin’ Well bomb in 1982, and his wife Éilis (née McGarry) a former teacher at St Joseph’s Boys’ School and Strabane Grammar.
Calder explains how this Scots-Canadian and his wife Louise ended up naming one of their children after an Irishwoman from Belfast.
“Our friend Éilis O’Kane lived in Canada from when we were all young. We became very good friends, to the point that our eldest daughter is named after her, which is kind of different.
“I’m a Cape Breton Scot. Our own family roots are traced back to 1620 in the Isle of Lewis. So it was a bit unusual for a Cape Breton Presbyterian to name their daughter after an Irish girl.
“Because of our relationship, Éilis’ daughter was named after mine and again because of the different cultures and the different religious make up it was a strange thing at the time.
“It was a tremendous honour, an honour for Louise to have Éilis’ daughter named after hers.”
It’s a particularly opportune time for the Morrisons to have landed here given our strong links to the Eastern provinces of Canada.
The music of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland - the only place outside Europe with its own Irish name (Talamh an Éisc) - is being showcased during the Londonderry UK City of Culture Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2013.
On Thursday, for example, Troy and Sabra McGillviray, starred in a Nova Scotia Kitchen Party. The music of Calder’s ancestors on this side of the pond is also being aired.
The Campbells of Greepe, whose music comes from the Inner Hebrides, and Margaret Stewart from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, have both participated.
Calder said the Fleadh played a big part in the timing of the trip.
“I’m really interested. Whilst I’m here, I’m trying to sponge and absorb it all. I don’t know if Derry’s a hidden treasure but the Fleadh will help show it to the world,” he explained.
“It’ll be a marvellous thing for the city, for the people coming in and the people in it. When we came into the town on Tuesday night we were on the hill up to the cenotaph (Shipquay Street) when we got to the corner our friends from Derry said, ‘Oh, we’re not going up there. There’s too many people.’
“I was dying to go up in it! There were thousands of people and it was all good cheer.”
The couple say that despite the sometimes negative perceptions of dereliction in Londonderry city centre, they’ve been amazed by how well the city looks.
“This is the first time I’ve been in the Waterside,” he said. “I was looking at how the buildings were all painted and was asking Paul if this was just done for the celebrations, but he said, ‘No, no, it’s always like this.’
“In Canada you see old down town buildings. So many of them are derelict. Everything has moved to outside of communities. So called ‘big box stores.’
“Downtowns are starving, they’re hurting, they’re empty, they’re ugly. I look at this and it’s marvellous, just marvellous.”
The pair are off for a whistlestop tour of the Outer Hebrides next, in search of blood relatives from Lewis and Harris.
They’ll then head to Cork where they’ll stay in the Egmont estate, the ancestral home of Spencer Perceval, the only Prime Minister ever to have been assassinated.
And then - for something completely different - they’re off to the Rosscarbery Horse Fair.
Calder says he views the visit, which included a meeting with Mayor Martin Reilly on Thursday (August 15) as a once in a lifetime experience.
And despite a scheduled trip to Krakow in Poland, the Morrisons say Londonderry’s definitely been the highlight sofar.
“We are so impressed with the community and the people of it. There’s a weekly public interest thing in our community were they talk to business people and they always ask ‘What is good about Chatham?’
“They always give the same answer. It’s the people. I suppose, any community in the world, people could say the same thing.
“I often look at Chatham and think: ‘That’s an easy answer.’ But observing in such a short time the people of Derry, I think people in Derry really have a right to say that. You’ve earned it.
“As tourists we see the openness. Little things.
“Even coming up to roundabouts in total fear though I’m not driving. What we’ve noticed people constantly wait to let each other through.
“They give a little courtesy wave. In North America they’ll drive over you. You have to fight for every inch of space. That respect isn’t there.”
Louise and Calder are here as guests of Paul O’Kane who was at the scene of both the Droppin’ Well and the Claudy bombings.