Set my compass north, I got winter in my blood”
Acadian Driftwood, by Robbie Robertson
Friday, July 25
Today was my best day in Canada so far, and the first half took place in a most unlikely setting, the fictional village of Avonlea. Avonlea, for those of you who don’t know it, was home to one of Prince Edward Island’s most famous characters, Anne of Green Gables.
Anne is the creation of author Lucy Maud Montgomery, and 2008 is her 100th anniversary. Anne was a little orphan girl who came from Nova Scotia, to be adopted by an older couple who had thought they were getting a boy to help with the work around their farm. In the book she is always getting into trouble (naturally) but she endears herself to everyone in the community (who could have guessed?) AND (are you ready for this?) she’s a little red head with pig tails and freckles!
Just the kind story a 69 year old ex-Marine lives for. It’s not only ‘chick stuff’ it’s adolescent chick stuff, but I’ll say it again - this was my best day in Canada so far, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a good time at Avonlea. And why is that? Well - I’ll try to explain, but you really had to be there.
For starters I wasn’t the only guy in the place. There were other men there with their families, and there was also a cast of characters which included some very manly men who not only played their parts well, but who actually seemed to enjoy it all immensely. One of these sat down on a bench to talk to me, and that conversation was one I will always remember.
His name is Leon Gallant, and he’s an Acadian born and raised on Prince Edward Island. Gallant identifies himself as descended from one of the original Acadian families who settled the island. He said it makes him related to half the people on the island, and his wife’s name (also an original) relates him to the other half of the island’s population.
We started talking about the weather (it was hot) and over the course of the next half hour we talked about history, politics, geography, philosophy and music. Leon is a fisherman and a musician, and it was another of those random encounters that profoundly remain with you for a very long time. At the end of it I felt I’d been given a gift, a momentary glimpse into the very soul of the island.
The title of this page is taken from the song Acadian Driftwood, by Robbie Robertson. Leon quoted the entire lyrics, but the line, “Set my compass north - I got winter in my blood” gave me one of those chills of recognition. Growing up in Wisconsin I developed a special affection for winter and the north. All I wanted to do was travel to Canada and Alaska, and I soaked up everything I could about Eskimos and the Arctic.
The song is about an Acadian deported to Louisiana who still feels that pull of the north and has winter in his blood. Hearing Leon quote the words it was obvious that the same sense of place flows in his blood too, and seeing his face as he talked about it was as moving as the song.
An hour later we had the opportunity to see and hear Leon perform in concert, along with half a dozen other men as deeply connected to the island as he is. They sang and played a mixture of traditional songs, as well as many of their own compositions. After the concert we talked with them briefly and bought a CD made by Leon and Mike Pendergast, another of this witty and compellingly soulful group.
Madolyn asked Mike about where we could go to attend a ceilidh, and he recommended one taking place tonight at the Irish Hall in Charlottetown. He gave us good directions and we left Avonlea determined to make it a date. At the time we didn’t even know how to pronounce ceilidh (it’s kay-lee) but it seems to be a popular event on P. E. I. and one unique to the island.
A ceilidh is a concert, often held in a church or assembly hall, that features Irish and Celtic music and dance. Many Irish emigrated to P. E. I. during the Irish potato famine of the 1800’s, and the island’s near perfect growing conditions kept them here farming potatoes to this day. In Charlottetown there is an Irish Hall, and the Benevolent Irish Society, now in their 183rd year puts on a ceilidh every Friday night.
We happened onto what was probably one of their best ones of the year. They had a couple who go by the stage name, Guinness. They are a husband and wife named James and Laurie Farrell who have played all over the world. The stage was loaded with enough instruments for ten musicians, and before the concert was over they played every one. There were ballads and reels and jigs to melt the heart of anyone remotely moved by Irish music, and as luck would have it there was a busload of visitors there from Ireland - all from one Irish family. They were loving it!
They sang the Ballad of Kevin Barrie, a young IRA soldier who was captured trying to bring food to his comrades and was executed at the age of 18. There were jigs on the tin whistle and party songs with lines like, “It’s getting dark for the second time since we got up!” It was all great fun, and before it was over they had a story teller and the Irish visitors sang several songs acappella. They served ‘lunch’ at the intermission which was included in the $8.00 price of admission per person, and two and a half hours after it began the program ended with the Irish visitors singing the Irish National Anthem. It was certainly a night to remember, especially coming at the end of such a great day.