perm_identity A journey through Celtic past, present, and future

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 166 ~ March, 2011

A simple “hello” to the right person, at the right moment, can open a conversation to unexpected and amazing areas of common interest and experience. Such was what happened once I started talking with Treasa O’Driscoll, author of Celtic Woman, her memoir about what she considers life’s poetic journey, published by Blue Butterfly Books of Toronto (

On the surface, Treasa and I really don’t have much in common. She was the eldest of seven children raised in a Catholic family in Ireland, and I’m the oldest of four who grew up in the New York City area, with parents who were born and raised in Ontario and met at the University of Toronto. As far as religion goes, there was no United Church of Canada in the Borough of Queens or northern New Jersey, where I spent my childhood, and my father, a renowned psychiatrist, was a prominent religion unto himself, so I think we were supposed to consider psychotherapy as what one should truly worship.

Treasa, on the other hand, grew up in a family in which her father’s generation believed that to be Irish was to be Catholic, a credo many maintained to their dying day. In Treasa’s case, though she remained grateful “for the sheltering Catholic ethos” of her childhood, which, for her, “acknowledged the divine origin of every human being.” As a result, she was able to move forward with a predisposition toward enquiries into the mysteries of Christianity later in life, while also embarking on a personal journey of self-discovery.

So, how did I end up speaking to Treasa? What was the common link? Actually, it was a town I remember from childhood in Ontario, which today has spread out to become quite a city, and that is the City of Barrie, just north of Toronto, population approximately 128,430. Treasa has lived in Barrie for the past 11 years, where she is currently the coordinator of the Novalis Project, responsible for providing presentations of drama, music and dance, and performances and workshops in the arts for adults with developmental disabilities who work and reside in a neighborhood together.

Actually, when I think of it, it really wasn’t simply knowing Barrie that led me to Treasa, but if I delve deeper, without my mother, I never would have had any connection with Canada, or Ontario, and certainly not Barrie. And specifically, it was a lake, Sparrow Lake, just north of the City of Orillia, a bit north of Barrie up Highway 11, which was instrumental in leading to meeting Treasa. My mother and her lifelong friend, Barbara Flynn, met at Sparrow Lake in the late 1930s when they were about ten-years-old. Both Barbara and my mother graduated from Trinity College at the University of Toronto and I remember a black and white framed photo of the head shots of their graduating class, in which Barbara and my mother’s photos were side by side because in alphabetical order, their surnames of Butler and Cannon, respectively, placed them as such.

Like most photos from earlier times, preserved moments, one can never imagine what future twists and turns, or meetings, greetings, connections, and future friends, as well as places, may lie ahead. My mother and Treasa, one in Toronto and the other in Dublin, at about the same age, each met and married dynamic, charismatic figures who both presented a glow of confidence and success to the outside world, while simultaneously fighting off internal demons of personal fear and doubt. Both women, my mother and Treasa, were young and loyal, looking forward to a limitless future with hope and excitement, though the impending bumps and challenges, expected or otherwise, thrown in one’s path by life in the actual world frequently force one to adjust or change, and at times, adjusting ultimately means major change.

My mother and her friend Barbara, once married with children, returned to the lake of their childhood each summer where they stayed in cottages next to each other until their final years many decades later. Barbara had three children, her two oldest a year or so younger than my sister and I, and it was Barbara’s middle child, Kathleen, who subsequently married Matthew Corrigan, an author and now retired Professor of Creative Writing at York University in Toronto. I mention all this because Matthew and Kathleen currently live just outside of Barrie, and it was Matthew who recommended Treasa’s book, Celtic Woman, to me, which prompted me to seek out Treasa, getting to know her, and thus, writing what I’m writing.

“Treasa is the only person I know go can quote Rilke’s Duino Elegies by heart,” Matthew said with admiration.

In commenting on Celtic Woman, Matthew observed, “In her glorious Celtic Woman memoir, Treasa O’Driscoll has captured an amazingly full life in its myriad phases of growth and the result is illuminating and deeply moving.”

Matthew, Treasa and I all share backgrounds with dual heritages. With Treasa, of course, it’s Ireland and Canada, which she now considers home, moving there at the age of nineteen after getting married. Matthew ended up in Toronto, though he was born in Dublin and remained there until the age of nine, while his mother worked for a spell as a governess in New York City during World War Two, before returning to bring her son across the ocean with her to North America for good. And in my case, my Canadian parents started a new life in New York City in 1949, with my father completing his internship and becoming a psychiatrist.

I was very aware of my Canadian relatives while growing up — as Treasa was of her large family in Ireland after she landed in Toronto — particularly my mother’s father, who was born and grew up on a farm not far from Ottawa, becoming a teacher, his first job in a one-room schoolhouse before eventually serving as Deputy Minister of Education for the Province of Ontario until his retirement in 1961. Treasa was also in the academic world through her husband, the late Robert O’Driscoll, who taught at the University of Toronto for many years, establishing Celtic studies at St. Michael’s College, and introducing it as a subject of serious study in Canada, culminating in the crowning achievement of organizing a highly successful international conference on Celtic studies in 1978.

Describing her married years, Treasa states, “Our home in Toronto became a kind of unofficial Irish embassy, a first port-of-call for Irish scholars, poets, musicians and artists.” The house was indeed a center of hospitality where ideas were freely exchanged, Treasa added, and “animated discussion continued late into the night.”

Treasa also used the word “hospitality” to describe an integral dynamic in her childhood home in County Galway, and the same could be said of my mother’s parents house in Toronto, where people of all backgrounds were welcomed without a trace of pre-judgment, which simply didn’t exist within my grandfather’s character. My grandfather, Gramp, came from a line of relatives originally from Ireland, with two brothers generations back coming to Canada during what was known as “the Sailing Season of 1817.” I was heartened to learn while reading Celtic Woman that Treasa’s husband’s PhD thesis centered on the work of Sir Samuel Ferguson, a Northern Irish Protestant, who once declared, “I am an Irishman and a Protestant but I was an Irishman before I was a Protestant.”

While talking with Treasa, I immediately recognized an inner strength, similar to my mother’s, which I’m not sure Treasa is aware she possesses, but it’s always easier to recognize positive character traits in others rather than in oneself.

For Treasa, it was obvious that life, love, and literature, especially literature and stories rooted in the oral Celtic tradition, gave particular strength and meaning to day-to-day living. I must confess I never thought much about Irish language as a spoken language unto itself and was interested in learning that half of Treasa’s classmates when she was a student at a convent in County Mayo were from Connemara where Irish was their first language. “They spoke in musical tones,” Treasa writes, “with the clear intonation, the attention to vowels and the richness of expression that I have since associated with the Irish language.”

With the financial assistance of some close friends, Treasa returned to Ireland to write her book with what she said was “a sense of coming home” where she worked in “the territory of her ancestors” and even ended up staying in a house which turned out to be the site where her great-grandmother provided fabrics for quilt-making. Upon discovering that unexpected tidbit, Treasa writes, “To think that I would weave my tapestry of words under the same roof! I had so often thought about the continuity of tradition and how one skill metamorphosed into another between generations.”

Treasa’s personal odyssey, and engaging journey of enlightenment, is far different from mine. I’m not musical at all, and forget about poetry. When I was in the fifth grade I took violin lessons at school, mostly because when I tried to blow into the clarinet or the trumpet, no sound came out, musical or otherwise. Unfortunately, there were two girls in the violin class who were advanced ringers, so the teacher sent the rest of us, fifteen to twenty would be virtuosos, toward the far side of the classroom and told us to practice plucking on the strings of our instruments with our fingers. To my credit, I suppose, I possessed a stubborn or determined streak because after less than two weeks I was the only plucker who remained.

I’m aware of what I’m proficient at and what I’m not, but I’m also able to appreciate the talent of others, and Treasa has a natural melodious gift of lyric wonder, making poetry come alive as song performed with a wonderment that makes one revel in the moment — in my case, at least, mesmerized with awe. Even her natural speaking voice has a rhythmic quality of song. Treasa says she inherited the gift of singing from her mother, and the Clare County custom, which continued in her family, was to automatically, and naturally include music and dance at every gathering.

From an early age, Treasa memorized poetry, eventually learning “to perfect the shaping of themes around memorized poems and songs, the success of which depended on an art of selection” which resulted in retaining a work’s source of inspiration and leading to freedom for contemplation. I was neither surprised she had recorded an album or starred in a one-woman show, I am of Ireland, performed throughout the seventies in North America, Ireland, England and Scotland, or winning a prize cup for singing at a Connaught feis, or festival of music, at the age of twelve.

“A repertoire of memorized poems and songs was a legacy of my Irish schooling, and the foundation for a lifelong practice of learning by heart — my guarantee of mental wellbeing and the basis of a performance career that would blossom many years later,” Treasa writes in Celtic Woman.

“Poetry is my means of keeping faith with a stream of wordless thinking that hovers over everyday life as meaning but which requires a slowing down of tempo and mental alertness to capture in words,” O’Driscoll added.

The influence of the literary tradition of her homeland played an essential part in Treasa’s development and growth as an individual, and a performer, especially W. B. Yeats and the author AE, the pen name of George William Russell, an Irish mystical writer and poet, who was editor of The Irish Homestead, a journal of the Irish Agricultural Organization Society (IAOS), an agricultural co-operative founded in 1894.

Treasa confessed that living in Canada for most of her adult life, the poetry of W. B. Yeats “provided imaginative continuity” with the country of her birth. And although Treasa carries the influence of the Irish poet within, it came as no surprise that she is well known by a contemporary poet and teacher I know, Bruce Meyer, the author of The Golden Thread: A Reader’s Journey Through The Great Books, and Professor of English at Georgian College. In fact, I chanced to have coffee and danish with Bruce Meyer over the Christmas holidays at a charming spot, Casa Cappuccino, near the lake on Dunlop Street in downtown Barrie before heading back to New York City, and before Matthew told me about Treasa.

Actually, Bruce Meyer, who was recently named the official Poet Laureate of Barrie, first met Treasa in 1979, has read Celtic Woman and I recently came across his comments about the book. “Celtic Woman is a magnificent chronicle of an individual’s journey toward the progress not only of self-healing, but of understanding and growing with the word around her,” Meyer stated. “Had St. Augustine continued the Confessions into a record of his more mature years, assisted by science and modern spirituality, he would surely have found a fulfilling companion voice in Treasa O’Driscoll.”

High praise indeed, but not surprising. Drinking coffee and talking with Bruce Meyer, I was struck once again by the idea of “hospitality,” and Bruce, like Treasa, and Matthew Corrigan, was very generous in sharing the names of Canadian writers and poets he encouraged me to contact, being sure to say it was on his recommendation. He reminded me a lot of my grandfather, and other relatives on my mother’s side of the family, who easily and immediately accepted one as part of an extended family, no questions asked.

As I consider all the links and connections I have in common with Treasa, I remember a wise anecdote she recounts about AE in Celtic Woman. Apparently, one day, AE was in conversation with the Irish writer, James Stephens, who relates that AE once said, “If, when you come to my age, you can claim that you have had six friends in your life, you will be a luckier man than any man has a right to be.”

Stephens says he jumped in and immediately responded, “I am one of your six,” to which, AE, in turn, responded. “You are one of my four.”

With complete certainty, after reading Celtic Woman, and learning about the ups and downs of Treasa O’Driscoll’s life, and subsequently talking to her at length on a number of occasions, I have no doubt that her friends, and close friends at that, far outnumber four or six.