Emigration tales: The Irish finding their way in Toronto

AS the sun goes down on another steamy summer day in downtown Toronto, guests at the city’s largest hostel while away the evening.

Some chat over beers, others watch movies; more tap away on their computers, messaging home, or updating resumés for the job hunt.

Amid the chatter are Irish accents, from every corner of the country.

A group of 20-something Limerick lads have been at the hostel since the start of May ; they’re working in construction and are moving out soon.

A Mayo lad has been in situ for three months.

He’s landscaping and just “hasn’t gotten around” to finding a place.

A 30-something Cork woman, fresh off the boat, has left behind a stressful HSE job, and there is a group of Roscommon women.

The Canadiana hostel, on a quiet leafy street, steps from the bustling entertainment district, has long been a landing place for Irish immigrants, but the numbers have ballooned, and the Irish — from students to architects, bricklayers to bar workers — often fill one third of its 200 beds.

Two of those are Dearbhla Hevican and Mary Finnerty, both 23 and from rural Rosocmmon. They arrived in Toronto six weeks ago. They haven’t secured long-term accommodation, but it’s not from a lack of trying.

“We’ve looked at about 40 houses I’d say,” says Dearbhla, a law student who has just completed her final exams, but is taking time out before seeking an apprenticeship.

“We didn’t think it’d be this hard to find a place,” says Mary, who’s returning home in August to go back to college. “There’s so many places advertised, but it’s harder than you’d think.” Gillian Plummer, of Student Work Abroad Program (SWAP), which assists people on working holidays, doesn’t recommend finding a permanent place to live for the first month. It is better for people to wait until they know where they’re working, and how much they’re earning.

“The hostel environment is a great way to help people get settled; they can find roommates, jobs, make great friends. You’ve got a network of people all in the exact-same situation,” says Plummer.

The numbers of Irish coming to Canada are well-documented: all 6,350 IEC visas were snapped within days earlier this year, and more than 10,000 will be given out in 2014.

What’s not known is how many come to Toronto.

Cathy Murphy, executive director of the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre, says, anecdotally, there are more new arrivals than last year.

“We can tell by the amount of daily traffic. That said, we are not keeping tabs. It’s just too busy to mark every new arrival,” she says.

Plummer says the Irish migrate towards Canada’s largest city, as many of them know someone from the last big influx, in the 1980s and ’90s.

Unlike travellers from other countries, the Irish who use SWAP’s services aren’t just students, but range up to their mid-30s, and tend to be male.

For older migrants, looking for professional work, the jobs are there, but they can take longer to secure, says Plummer.

“Remember you are trying to break into a brand-new network. People need to be prepared for the scope of the place. It is a tough slog to get those professional jobs, but it’s tough for everyone, not just the Irish.

The job market is quite good for those willing to take anything, though,” says Plummer.

Most of the Irish at the hostel are working, but in casual jobs. Dearbhla and Mary are sales ambassadors with a Toronto city tourism company.

“We thought, the house thing isn’t working, so let’s try the jobs thing. We applied on a Thursday and started on Saturday,” says Mary. Living out of a bag isn’t ideal when you are employed, but the girls say they’ve “accepted it”.

“It does get a bit annoying sometimes,” says Mary, “if you are sharing a room and you want to stay up late, or have a shower at night, but what can you do.”

For two other Irish girls, hostels have become a way of life. Dubliners Sandra Davis, 30, from Blanchardstown, and Mary Dempsey, 28, from Clonsilla, landed at the Canadiana last June. Friends for 13 years, they wanted a change and came over with SWAP, a package that includes one night at the hostel.

Both work the night shift and live in staff quarters. The staff accommodation is hostel-like — a bedroom with four bunks and a shared kitchen and living room. But the girls don’t mind. “The people here were great, it’s homely, we are very happy,” says Sandra. “The job is a bit of everything: security, cleaning, reception, you name it, we do it.”

“You have your days when you want just a door to close, your own bedroom, but, other than that, it’s great,” says Mary, who met her boyfriend, a Wexford man, through the Canadiana.

The Dubliners have seen plenty of Irish who haven’t been as fortunate. “You see some who arrive and think they are going to walk into the perfect job, and aren’t willing to settle for just anything. We’ve seen people go home, because they thought things would be easier,” says Sandra.

“They think they’re on a sun holiday, some of them,” says Mary.

Both want to stay in Canada for at least two more years. “It’s mad, because we had money at home and here we are scraping by, but we are happier,” Mary says.

Sandra agrees. “I was working in a nursing home, working ten-hour shifts. I’d go to work, come home, have a shower and go to bed. I’d, maybe, have one night out a week, and that was my life. Over here, it’s totally different, there’s always something to do, always someone around. We are ten times happier here.”

Dearbhla and Mary are feeling lucky, too. Eight weeks after landing in Toronto, they’ve finally moved into their own place.

“We have our own space, and freedom to move around without disturbing anyone,” says Dearbhla. “It’s absolutely brilliant.”

Links to help new arrivals:

* www.swap.ca

* www.irishcanadianimmigrationcentre.org

* www.irishjobs.ca

* www.torontoirishassociation.com

* www.canadianalodging.com

* www.theclarencepark.com

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