I’m Acadian and Irish by birth, but the only language that I can speak is English. As a child growing up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, I always felt like something was missing. I could not speak the language of any of my ancestors. Words were lost that defined so many generations of my bloodline.
I am particularly interested in heritage – my own, that of the people around me, and the history of the Maritimes. Why is it important? I suppose an argument could be made that the past lives of our ancestors are irrelevant. Whatever twists and turns, trials and triumphs that brought them from the shores of Western Europe to land on the rocky coasts of Atlantic Canada is all in the past. What good does it do to take pride in the Acadians befriending the local natives? What good does it do to reflect on the Irish potato famine that ripped generations of Irish from their homes – never to return to the hills and pastures that the fairy gods their ancestors worshipped failed to protect from famine.
As a child I read the book The Acadian Diary of Angelique Richard from the Dear Canada series. I still remember the resounding horror as I read about the world that my ancestors inhabited in 1755. Reading this in the year 2000, it should have felt like the distant past – but for me, I felt this crushing weight on my chest as I continued to read. The stories of churches being burned – of men being separated from their women and children – I may not have lived it, but the blood that courses through my veins, the DNA that came together to create who I am, some of it had.
No matter where in the world I go, the lyrics of “The Island” will follow me.
Over an ocean and over a sea
Beyond these great waters, oh, what do I see
I see the great mountains which climb from the coastline
The hills of Cape Breton, this new home of mine
Perhaps the past does not change who we are today. Perhaps it is a story that we tell those around us, a fantasy of what we are that we adopt to make sense of the world around us. Or, perhaps our history is something that runs deeper, it is set so deep on our psyche that to remove it would be to remove all that we are.
At seventeen I finally visited Port Royal. I was breathless as I walked around. My eyes searched the shores and wondered about the horrors my relatives may have faced. I thought of the hope, too. The brave people who moved across an ocean to make a new life for future generations – for my mother, for her mother, her mother’s father, his mother before him, and of course, me. Like a daydream, I thought of everything they saw. I wondered how they felt, what they thought about? I wondered what they would think of me, and even of this article. Of the world they built.
My Irish ancestors who moved across the sea – and my French ancestors who made the similar journey, are responsible for starting the world in the Maritimes which we call home. Without their influence, perhaps we would still be in Europe, the world that we have come to love is unimaginable without the last 300 years of history that have guided it forward.