St Brigid’s Day Festival Vancouver

Welcoming Remarks

First of all, I want to say thanks and pay tribute to Maura Freitas, founder of the Irish Connection and Irish Benevolent Society of BC.  Maura and her team have put together an excellent and impressive programme of speakers.  Thanks to all the volunteers who made this possible, including my colleagues at the Consulate General in Vancouver, Jennifer Bourke and Frank Flood.  Also special thanks to the sponsors for making this possible. 

Brigid’s Day is going from strength to strength.  It has met a need for women to be recognised and to connect.  It brings balance to the celebration of our heritage in St Patrick’s Day which has traditionally been very male orientated, from St Patrick himself to the often male-dominated Irish societies over the centuries.  Celebrations of our National Day have expressed great pride in being Irish. They sustained not only the fight for independence back home but inspired love and support for Irish heritage within our Diaspora.

St Brigid’s Day adds a whole new and vital dimension to the celebration of Ireland and continuing epic story of the Irish.

There seems to me to be a number of distinct phases in the celebration of St Brigid, well captured in this programme this week.

There is the goddess Brigid from pre-Christian times.  Goddess of spring, fertility, poetry and blacksmithing. She was clearly a very powerful figure in Gaelic society. This reflects the fact that women had agency in Gaelic society and, accordingly, feature as key players in the ancient Irish mythology and sagas. Think Maebh in the Táin and the Morrigan, the great queen of the otherworld who commands war and fate. Marriage was a fluid contract: Divorce was available, relations were formed and reformed. 

I think the fluidity of marriage, its dependence on the quality of the relationship, was because marriage was distinct from property.  Property in Gaelic Ireland was held communally.  You could not alienate it from your kin and their territory, the tuath.  On your death, it reverted to the kin for re-division.   

Then there is the Saint Brigid of Christian times.  There is no doubt that St Brigid was a very powerful figure in early Christian Ireland.  We know this from the fact that she is one of our three patron saints (along with Patrick and Columkille). The order she founded began modestly as a wooden building under a magnificent oak tree that Brigid loved it.  This of course recalls Brigid’s intimate relationship with nature.  So attuned was she to nature that it was said that she could hang her cloak on a sunbeam.  Her cell was situated on a ridge overlooking the grassy plains of the Curragh.  This was probably at the close of the fifth century.  Her convent was a great success and soon expanded, and around it grew the the town of Kildare.  Kildare as a place name means the Church of the Oak.

For centuries after her death in 523, the influence of Brigid’s religious order and its convents around Ireland endured.  There are thirty-four townlands and parishes in Ireland called Kilbride, the church of Bríde.  Indeed, the legacy of St Brigid was so powerful that the episcopal heirs St Patrick in Armagh refrained from imposing their will on her domain.  When Armagh was trying to establish its position as the archiepiscopal head of the church in Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries, it stepped back from a confrontation with Kildare because of the power of St Brigid. In the Book of the Angel (part of the Book of Armagh), the angel that appears to Patrick and grants him and Armagh leadership of the church in Ireland, says:

“Between St Patrick and Brigit, the pillars of the Irish, such friendship of charity dwelt that they had one heart and one mind. Christ performed many miracles through him and her.  The holy man therefore said to the Brigit, your paruchia in your province will be reckoned unto you for your monarchy: but in the eastern and western part it will be in my domination.”

As the historian Kathleen Hughes notes, “Armagh would not forego her universal claims to sovereignty in these areas, but she recognised the area of central Leinster remained under Brigid’s authority and except from Patrick’s universal claims” (The Church in Early Irish Society, pp 113-114.)

Devotion to Brigid is then eclipsed by the cult of the Virgin Mary in the second half of the nineteenth century, in other words after the catastrophe of the Great Famine, 1845-51. Before this Irish Nakba, the peasantry of Ireland still revered the natural environment and all the invocations of ancient beliefs that came with it – the reverence for holy wells, trees, and sacred places with their immemorial traces of previous occupation, the old churches and pilgrimages.

However, after the Great Famine, the Marian cult takes hold, and St Mary’s popularity grows immensely in Ireland.  Think of those iconic statues of St Mary in churches and grottos around Ireland.  Mary was a new icon befitting the new social imperatives after the Famine. The brutal lesson of the Famine was that the unity of the farm was a matter of life and death.  No more the subdivision among sons, no more the reliance on a single crop. Survival meant having a sustainable farm.  Passing on the farm intact to one son was the highest desideratum. This imperative redefined marriage not as a relationship but as a critical mechanism for inheritance. 

The Catholic Church, already active to secure for itself control of Irish education since the Act of Union of 1800 which abolished the Irish parliament, found a new and vital role for itself in policing sexuality morality and protecting the lineage of property and the integrity of the farm. This meant policing women’s bodies.

The iron relationship between property and marriage, and the influence this in turn provided for the Catholic Church, triggered a grim period for Irish women.  It meant the repression of sexuality. Sex outside marriage was a threat to this new order. Pregnancy outside of marriage was a disaster.  The very allure of women, the pull to form loving relationships was now a threat to the existential need to preserve the farm and to conform to the social dictates of the Catholic Church.

Thus begins a long and difficult period for Irish women. Eligible men are rare and older because they must wait for their fathers to retire to get the farm and marry.  If a son is not to inherit the farm, he can join the British Army, the civil service, become a priest, or a barman.  If not, he will most likely have to emigrate.  For women, the options were far fewer.  By the end of the 19th century, in the tidal wave of Irish emigration to America, more Irish women than men were emigrating. 

In the 1911 census, my great grandmother, Mary Kirrane from Roscommon, is recorded as having had twelve children and she would go on to have another one.  She was forty-five years of age and her husband Michael was sixty-eight.  This was a very typical pattern of the time, late but fertile marriages.

For women who found themselves pregnant outside of marriage, their fate was grim, as was that of their children.  Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Babies Homes, orphanages, adoptions overseas and industrial schools.  The fathers concerned became the great invisible men of Ireland.

The partition of Ireland in 1921 meant a homogenous and triumphant Catholic Ireland after independence in 1922. It also created a new role for the Church and religious orders in the provision of health services. It was a hard and often cruel society for those girls, women and children outside of marriage.

Even in the liberal 1960s, the stigma and shame of relationships outside of marriage were powerful forces.  Young women had to emigrate to find some form of freedom.  Edna O’Brien became the voice and symbol of young Irish women.  Irish women like Bernadette Devlin, Mary Robinson, Nell McCafferty, Nuala O’Faolain and countless others in the suffering rank and file of women led the fight for change.  The Ireland in which I grew up is now no longer. Ireland is a better place across virtually all social and economic metrics. The weight of history has been removed but its impact and costs have yet to be assessed.  

I am delighted to see Monica McWilliams on your roster of speakers, whom I know from Stormont’s Castle Complex during the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement.  The Women’s Coalition, like the women before them in the Peace Movement, played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process.  They were a vital ingredient in the successful negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement because they made sure everyone’s voice was heard, made sure the Agreement represented everyone’s hopes and aspirations.

Enough of me, I do not want to interpose myself as a white male in your programme and discussions. I am delighted and honoured to welcome you and to reiterate my thanks to all those involved in making this happen. Check out the festival’s programme for this week here

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Kill (Cill, a church but also Coill, a wood)

Kill (also Kil, Kyle or even Cal) is second only to Baile as a common root word.  Care is needed because Kill can also derive from the Irish word for a church, Cill, or a wood, Coill.  Joyce reckons about one-fifth of 3,400 Irish place names with Kill refer to a wood. Telling the difference can come down to pronunciation in Irish or a church ruin. #Irishplacenames

Kill is directly taken from the Latin Cella (a room in a building) and marks therefore the arrival of Christianity in Ireland in the fifth century.  Other names in Irish for church all come from Latin: Eaglis, teampall, and domhnach.

Another indicator that Kill in a place name refers to a church is association with a saint’s name: St Canice (Kilkenny), St Columba or Colman (Kilcoman).  St Brigid gives us Cill-Bhrighde or Kilbride and Kilbreedy   Kilmurray might come from a surname but could be Cill-Mhuire, the church of Mary.

As Flanagan points out, if Kill is associated with a parish, the chances are it refers to a church.  Kill as a church is often joined with a local feature; Kildare (Cill-daro, Church of the oak tree), Kilroot (Cill Ruaidh, Church of the red [soil]).

The mellifluous Killashandra, Co. Cavan, is Cill na Seanrátha, the Church of the old fort. Shankill is simply Seanchill, old church and may mean that its original name, likely associated with a saint, is lost.

Tulach is a hill which gives us the parish of Kiltullagh in Co Roscommon.  As Joyce records, it could be the hill of the wood but the ruin of a church on the hill provides the solution. My grandmother Winifred Kirrane was born in Cloonfad East in the parish of Kiltullagh. Recall Cluain fáda, long meadow or pasture, often near a river or a marsh: that indeed is the topography of Cloonfad. 

Christianity in Ireland arrived in three ways. There were small colonies of Christians in the east of Ireland, thanks to the Irish influence in southwest Wales and the traffic across the Irish sea, including the slave trade. Palladius was sent from Auxerre (Burgundy) by Pope Celestine to Ireland in 431 as bishop of the Christians in Ireland. Palladius focused on the south, possibly with Cashel as his base. After his famous six-year stint as a slave, St Patrick returned from Roman Britain around 432. His activities were concentrated in the northeast, central and western areas (see Kathless Huges, The Church in Early Irish Society). His base is traditionally associated with Armagh. Where Palladius was learned and steeped in continental christianity, Patrick declared himself unlearned, speaking a rough Latin without a wide or sophisticated vocabulary. He never refers to Palladius or to any Christians in Ireland before his mission to convert the Irish. Accompanied by young Gaelic nobles and bearing gifts, he was a remarkably successful missionary.

The arrival of Christianity in Ireland was a profound event in Ireland’s history. It brought with not just a new religion but writing. This began a process or recording Gaelic society’s language, laws, literature, history and genealogies. Up to that point, the vast corpus of knowledge and culture was memorized. It is an incredible thought that a whole society lived essentially in a mind-palace. Christianity itself adapted its form to Gaelic society, its power-structures, laws and landholding. Irish monks left their churches and monasteries in the C7th and C8th centuries to establish monasteries and centres of learning in France, Germany and Italy, playing a critical role in saving Western civilization.

In the ruins of churches and monasteries, and in their associated place names, monks prayed, meditated and wrote (and illustrated) the books that changed the course of Irish history and saved western civilization.



30 January 2021


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Bally – Baile (place, home, town, townland)

Bally is one of the most common components of Irish place names, numbering some 6,400.  However, precisely what it means is complicated.  It takes Flanagan some six pages to explain.  Originally it appears to have meant simply a place.  It might even have meant a fort.  Joyce records that that may be why the lighthouse at Howth is called the Bailey because it was built on a promontory fort know as baile. In Cormac’s tenth century Glossary, Flanagan notes, baile is glossed as ráth or fort.

From ‘place’ baile evolved to mean homestead or settlement, referring most likely to the cluster of settlements rather than the unit of land around them.  The arrival of the Normans and the phonetic similarity to villa may have helped ensure its survival as the Normans settled in and adapted to Gaelic society.

Perhaps more directly, the new monastic orders that arrived in Ireland in the mid-12th century, prior to the Normans in 1169-70, had used baile to record grants and endowments of land, content that the term meant a specific unit of land. These are the first records of the use of the term for that purpose.

By the middle of the 11th century, then, when these records began to be kept of who had title to what land, Bally came to describe geographic units.  Again the size was not standard, reflecting the fact that baile was being used to describe the land around settlements of any size.  This evolved so that townlands, the smallest geographic unit, were often called Bally-this or that. Very often baile or bally was associated with a family name, presumably the chief who had possession of the land.  As villages and towns were established, it came to mean one.  The town in question could be of any size, echoing its loose definition of scope and its original meaning of place. 

In the east, as Joyce notes, Bally can be shortened to Bal, as in Balgriffin, Baldoyle, and Balbriggan.

In modern Irish usage, baile means home as in ‘tar abhaile’, come home, or ‘mo sheoladh baile’, my home address. 

So identified with Irish towns and villages that writers often resort to it when dreaming up fictional towns.  Tom Murphy’s 1985 play, Bailegangaire (Baile-gan-gaire, town without laugher) earned its name from the plot.  The BBC’s series (1996-2001) was set in the fictional Ballykissangel which somehow derived from its Irish fictional place name Bally Coisc Aingeal, the town of the fallen angel.  Go figure.  I never watched it so I can’t help there.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, W.B. Yeats used it when creating the name of the Norman tower he purchased and restored near Gort, Co Galway: Thoorballylee, Túr (tower) baile Ó Laoigh (surname).

The biggest Baile needs a separate blog: Baile Áth Cliath, Dublin.


23 January



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Lis (Lios) – Fort

Along with rath and dun, lis means a fort, more specifically the place around a dwelling.  As Joyce notes, where rath may have begun as referring to the rampart and lis to the internal space, that distinction faded over time. Lis is common to 1,400 place names (Joyce) but the distribution is mysterious.  It displaces rath in the north yet is rare in the east, and along the west coast, notably absent from Donegal.  There are heavy clusters in counties Cavan, Monaghan and Roscommon.

Lis has less status that dun (or the rare Daingean, fortress, as in Dingle) or rath and it does not appear in the epic tales, or feature much in the great books of law passed down.  It is often combined with a colour – bán, dubh, buí, ruadh, white black, yellow, red – or size, mór or beag, as in Lismore and Lisbeg. Lis can appear at the end of the place name in its genitive form, as in Moyliss (moy, a plain), Knocknaliss (cnoc, a hill),  and Gortalasse (gort, a field).

The diminutive Leasán or Lisheen appears in twenty townlands, says Joyce; Lissen Hall near Swords is a good example. Lissadell, famed influenced on W.B. Yeats, means Lios-an-doill, the fort of the blind man (Joyce). The definite article appears too as in Lisnamuck in Derry, the Fort of the Pigs (Lios na Muc).           

As Flanagan points out, Lis is often combined with uisce, water; possibly because the ditch outside the rampart was filled with water as an extra defence. Of the twenty-five or so instances of the, most appear only in the west; Lissaniskey for example, Lios an Uisce in counties Cork, Tipperary and Roscommon. If it was a strong fort it might earn the prefix dur, giving us durlas as appears in the anglicized Thurles, Co Tipperary, translated by Flanagan as stronghold.

Lis is at times associated with a name, like Liscolman, or Listowel, Lios-Tuathail, Co Kerry. The Norman Lisrobert, occurs in Co Mayo.  Indeed, it appears that in some instances the Norman conquerors took over an existing lis and built their own fortification on top, such the motte-and-baily at Lismahon, Co Down, and the castle at Liscarroll, Co Cork.



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Rath (ráth), Ring Fort


Rath (Ráth) is a really interesting place name component because it is very common (appearing in about 700 townlands), is transliterated directly into English, and reaches back into our ancient past and its mysteries.

Built during the Iron Age (700/600 BC to 100 AD), a rath is a fort, a circular rampart often enclosing a dwelling comprising several buildings (residence, kitchen, housing for calves, sheep and pigs, and a kiln for drying corn). In place names, rath applies to the whole settlement. 

Less commonly found but also a ring-fort is lios, which tends to appear in the north and is rare in the southeast (Flanagan).  Joyce suggests that originally rath applied to the rampart and lios to the enclosed area, a distinction lost over time (Social History, vol. II, p. 59).

As enclosed spaces raths functioned as residences for the nobles (all landowners) and non-noble freemen with property (though not land), known as bó-aire, meaning a cow chief.

Dún solely refers to the residence of the king (rí) or chieftain but raths served as royal residences too, for that purpose called ríráth generically.

Raths without evidence of buildings may have been used as enclosures for cattle to keep them safe at night.  In Gaelic Ireland, wealth was measured in cattle which in turn determined status in society.  Client relationships were forged through the exchange of cattle. Ireland had wolves so predation was a risk but the real danger to cattle came from kings raiding each other to seize cattle. Ireland’s epic the Táin Bó Cúailnge, concerns the tale of the cattle raid of Cooley and rivalry of the royalty of Connaught and Ulster concerning the possession of the greatest bull in Ireland. Rathcroghan (Cruachain) in Co Roscommon features a lot in it, as the royal residence of the chief protagonist, Queen Maebh.

Raths are often situated on low hills. Rathdrum, the fort of the ridge. Since Ráth is pronounced ‘raw’ in Irish (Joyce), you find it as Ra in English.  Raheny, up the road from Clontarf, for example. Joyce gives it as Eanna’s rath, but Flanagan gives it as Ráth Eanaigh, the fort of the march as does Not to be confused with Raheen, Ráithíní, little forts.

Ranelagh, Raghnallach, Ragnal’s place.  Ramelton, Ráth Maeltain, Mealtan’s place. Raphoe, Ráth Bíoth, fort of the hut.

Rathgar is Ráth Garbh or rough fort: Rathgar is rough no longer and is one of Dublin’s premier suburbs.

Rathfarnham, where I live, had been a village outside Dublin up to the start of the twentieth century but is now absorbed as a suburb.  It is interesting because while Joyce translates it as Farannan’s Rath, Flanagan gives us Ráth Fearnáin, Rath of the alder.

Joyce and Flanaghan agree that Multyfarnham refers to Farannán’s home but Joyce says it is Farannán’s mills (muilte) while Flanagan says it the summit of Farannán’s house (mullach, a summit, tighe a house).  Checking the database, Joyce is correct about Multyfarnham and Flanaghan correct about Rathfarnham.

Rath can also feature at the end of the place name.  Ardara, Co Donegal, in Irish is Ard-a’-raith, meaning the height of the rath. Drumragh, Co Tyrone, the ridge of the fort. Corray, Co Sligo, is Cor-raith, the round/pointed hill of the fort or rath.


Main Sources:

Irish Place Names, Deirde Flanagan and Laurence Flanagan (Gill &Mcmillan, 1994, 2002)

The Origins and History of Irish Names of Places, P.W. Joyce (The Educational Co of Ireland, 1869-1920)

A Social History of Ancient Ireland, P.W. Joyce, (M.H.Gill & Son, 1920).

In Search of the Irish Dreamtime, J.P. Mallory, (Thames and Hudson, 2016)


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Finding Ireland’s dreamtime and history in Irish Place Names

The components of Irish place names are recurrent; for example Kill, Clon, Rath, Glen, Clock, Mullach, Carrick, and Lough (respectively church, meadow, fort, valley, stone, summit, rock, and lake.  ‘Ard’ means high, ‘bally’ means a homestead, place or town, ‘knock’ means a hill, and ‘doon’ or more commonly ‘dun’ means a fort.

Irish place names are most often portmanteaux of these descriptive parts. The combinations produce myriad variations. Necessarily so because there are more than 64,000 townlands in Ireland (the smallest geographic unit ranging from a few acres to a few hundred) and millions of place names.

Many place names originated in what has been called the Irish dreamtime, before recorded history, and are associated with myths, legends, and leading figures. Many others derive from the time of recorded Irish history, notably the arrival of writing and Christianity in the fifth century and then a major influence on place names with the arrival of the Normans, English, and Scottish settlers from the twelfth to the eighteenth century.

Irish places names are then lodestones for our language, history and folklore.  

For the next while I’ll be tweeting how to decode Irish place names and telling their stories. I’ll choose places that have the most common components, along those that are prominent or have interesting backgrounds.  Some will feature simply because I know them. I’d be happy to look up suggestions.

A word on the sources. P.W. Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Place Names proved to be very popular when it was published in 1869. Joyce followed this up with a second volume a few years later and a third volume in 1920. It was pioneering work, done within the limitations of research at the time. Joyce travelled about the country collecting oral histories and stories and checking pronunciation (to confirm orthography).  The stories helped ensure the proper interpretation and the correct etymology.  He relied on and acknowledged the research of great linguists and scholars of old Irish, notably figures like John O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry, and particularly for his work on place names, the Rev. William Reeves.

These experts and sources, along with the census, the collections in the Royal Irish Academy, and the Ordnance Survey of Ireland (maps of course being so essential), were his tools.  

There is however a caveat.  The late Deirdre Flanagan (née Morton), editor of the Bulletin of the Ulster Place-name Society, lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast and an expert on Irish place names reckoned that up to one third of Joyce’s translations are in error.  To be fair to Joyce, he makes it clear time and again that the process of decoding place names is fraught, prone to error, and requiring informed guesswork. To double check Joyce therefore, I am using Irish Place Names (Gill and Macmillan, 1994, 2002) by Deirdre and [also late] Laurence Flanagan (Keeper of Antiquities at the Ulster Museum).   However, that does not mean that Flanagan is accurate in all things.

Where there is a dispute between the two, there is the fantastic, the place names database created by Dublin City University.

A good example is Multyfarnham, Co. Westmeath. Joyce and Flanaghan agree that Multyfarnham refers to Farannán’s home but Jocye says it Farannán’s mills (muilte) while Flanagan it as the summit of Farannán’s house (Mullach, a summit, tighe a house). Flanagan’s doesn’t sound right. Logainm gives it as Farannáin’s Mill. Joyce translates it as Farannan’s Rath, Flanagan gives us Ráth Fearnáin, Rath of the alder. Logainm translates fearnáin as alder. Score one all!


Eamonn McKee

Ottawa, January 2020


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Ireland’s Economic Resilience, Canada’s Market Opportunity

Having been tested by the global financial crisis over a decade ago and the now by the Covid-19 crisis, Ireland’s economy has shown tremendous economic resilience.  It came back strong from the former and signs are that we will bounce back robustly from the current difficulties. 

That makes Ireland a great bet for Canadian businesses looking to diversity their markets and build their global portfolio.  We’ve a very business friendly approach to all business, whether large corporations or SMEs. Ireland and Canada have a lot in common and CETA is already spurring our bilateral economic relations. Come Brexit in January, Ireland will be an ideal platform for entry to the massive EU market and all the global markets embraced by the EU’s 70 preferential trade deals.  And if there is one lesson for business from Covid-19, it is the need to diversity markets and supply chains.

Here are the facts, a quick take on Ireland’s fiscal and economic health and a look ahead to 2021.  Unfortunately, I have to mention the dreaded Brexit, the Grinch that stole more than one Christmas! 


As of August, the Exchequer recorded a deficit of over €9 billion, a deterioration of €8.8 billion on the same period last year.  The deficit to date is driven primarily by increased public expenditure, particularly in the areas of health and social protection, as a direct result of the pandemic. Total net voted expenditure of €43.2 billion at end-August was 21.0% or €7.5 billion ahead of profile.

Tax revenue has, on aggregate, performed above expectations due to resilient Income Tax and Corporation Tax receipts, but nonetheless shows a year-on-year decline, with particularly steep falls seen in VAT and Excise duties, reflecting the fall in personal consumption.

The Government has intervened on an unprecedented scale to support the economy, including a stimulus package of €5.2 billion in July, targeted at the most affected sectors with the objective of getting as many people back to work as quickly as possible.

This public deficit impact

The budget deficit impact is in line with most other European countries. However, Ireland is committed to remaining in the ‘middle of the pack’ and restoring the public finances to a credible and sustainable footing so not to risk becoming a fiscal outlier over the longer term. 

This we believe is the wisest course, avoiding any dramatic retrenchment that hinders recovery while retaining our bond market credibility. The result is shown in the market: our costs of borrowing are at historic lows.  We retain at least an ‘A’ grade status with all major sovereign debt rating agencies, with all forecasting a stable outlook. It signals too confidence that Ireland has the capacity to recover from the effects of the pandemic just as robustly as we did from the financial crisis.


The Irish economy entered the Covid-19 induced crisis from a position of strength, with GDP growth of 5.6 per cent recorded in 2019.  In the Stability Programme Update in April, the Department of Finance forecast a decline in GDP of 10.5% for 2020 (15% of modified domestic demand), with GDP growth of 6%.

The contraction in the second quarter of 2020 was less severe than anticipated, due to the earlier than expected reopening of the economy and robust export performance.  This reflected Ireland’s sectoral strengths in pharma, Medtech, digital services and financial services generally.  However, the hit was still huge, with a fall of 6.1 per cent far surpassing the 4.7 per cent decline recorded in the fourth quarter of 2008 when the GFC impacted us.  So a huge hit but not as severe as in the UK, Eurozone and the US where GDP declined by respectively 20, 12 and 9%.

In terms of unemployment, the situation is a tad complicated and the CSO has provided a helpful note on it here.  In essence, simply receiving Covid-related income support does not meet the EU definition of unemployment.  Using the standard definition (actively looking for work), indicates an employment rate in November of 7%.  Including Covid-related payments means that we went from full employment at the beginning of the year to an unemployment rate of 29% by April, pegged back to 15% by now. So we can probably expect that once Covid restrictions are lifted in 2021, employment levels in Ireland will show resilience, particularly as domestic demands returns with a vengeance.

In terms of trade, we see also signs of resilience.  The CSO reports that exports increased by almost €1.5 billion in September bringing value of goods exported to €14bn, an increase of 12% when compared with September 2019. The value of goods exports for the period January to September 2020 was €122bn, an increase of 8% when compared with the first nine months of 2019.  Much of this resilience is due to exports of Medical and pharmaceutical products, up 17% and accounting for 40% of the total value of goods exports.  Our food sector also showed resilience, up 5%. We took a hit with exports of electrical machinery, apparatus and appliances down by 8%. Overall, goods imports dropped by 7% in the first three quarters of this year so our overall trade balance is looking healthy.

On services, we simply cannot see the picture for 2020 yet because of the lag in statistics.  It is a much more problematic exercise gathering services data.  However, services comprise half of our exports and we have very strong digital services.  According to the DHL Global Connectedness Index, Over the twelve months to mid-2020, cross border internet traffic increased by almost 50%, double the previous average.  (If you want a confidence boost about the future of globalisation, read Gillian Tett’s take on the Index in the FT here.)  I’d hazard that when we do see the figures, Ireland will see resilience there too simply because Covid has acted as an accelerant for digital services that were already powering ahead.  

News just in this morning from the Central Statistics Office; the economy bounced back sharply in the third quarter with growth of 11% and all sectors experienced resurgence, particularly those with a domestic focus; consumption, construction, distribution, and hospitality.  Exports also saw a hop of 5.7%.


There is no  gainsaying it, Brexit is going to be a hit on our economy.  However, because we rely on Britain for only 14% of our trade (down by magnitudes historically) and because we are so globally integrated, we will weather the disruption come January in good shape in macro-economic terms. 

Because the hurt will be felt most by our indigenous sector and SMEs, the Government have €340 million set aside for support and mitigation.  New logistical arrangements are in place to get our goods directly to the EU rather than via Britain.  The Government has also established a €3.4 billion Recovery Fund to stimulate increased domestic demand and employment in response to COVID-19 and Brexit. The Recovery Fund will allow the Government to react swiftly and flexibly to provide support for infrastructure development; reskilling and retraining; and investment and jobs.

We might see a few bumpy quarters ahead but the prospects for the Irish economy are to my mind great.  Why the confidence? 

The sectors we are strongest in are the sectors of the future; life sciences, Medtech, pharma, ICT, financial services and services generally, digital services, and high quality/high value ethical food. We are investing in our infrastructure through Project Ireland 2040.  We are investing in our overseas footprint and market presence in Global Ireland.  We are investing in the talents and training of our people through Future Jobs.

We are committed members of the EU, the Single European Market and the Eurozone, the strongest most integrated region in the world today, stronger than most of the world’s largest countries. We share the EU vision for a future that is green, economically sustainable, digital, financially robust, innovative, and welcoming of talent.

In the immediate future, Ireland will be part of the EU’s massive stimulus package, a total of €1.8 trillion – yes, that is CA$2.8 trillion – to help rebuild a post-COVID-19 Europe that will be greener, more digitised. and more resilient than ever.

Above all, I am confident because the Irish people are looking to the future, not to the past.  We understand the lessons of history.  That cooperation and making friends are better than going it alone, without partners. 

That change and adaptation are good and that the best innovation comes from sharing not competition (think Covid vaccines). 

That talent is to be welcomed – today some 17% of people in Ireland are foreign born and one in eight don’t speak English at home.

We value free trade, globalisation, the rule of law, and the universal applicability of human rights.  We put a high value on well-being and equality.

In short, we’re pretty much like Canada.




4 December 2020

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Impressions of Ireland-Canada: Building on Progress

Thanks to invitations from the Irish Chambers of Commerce and from other Irish organizations, media outlets, and Embassy contacts, I’ve had the chance to introduce myself. And from those exchanges get to know a bit about my new surroundings.  Here are a couple of reflections from my various engagements.

One of the themes of those discussions has been the enhancement of Irish Canadian relations over the years. 

We can see this with the opening of the Consulate General in Vancouver under the leadership of CG Frank Flood, assisted by Jennifer Bourke and the team there. Their presence has catalyzed our presence out west, building strong relations with the community there. It was great to meet leaders of the Irish organizations there virtually recently.

Note too the step up with twenty-three high-level visits to Canada since 2017! Thanks to the efforts of my predecessor Jim Kelly and the continuing leadership of the Deputy Head of Mission John Boylan and the relentless creative energy of Laura Findlay.

Covid may have interrupted the physical manifestation of our bilateral relationship in terms of visits but development continues apace.  Check out the very healthy social media traffic for example.  And of course join in! 

There is tremendous vitality in the Irish community here, from coast to coast. Many people and organizations have deep roots and a rich heritage here but all have welcomed and supported a new generation of Irish.  Such a response is not always a given but it certainly is the spirit here in Canada.

The Irish communities and their leadership appreciate the support from the Irish Government, operationally the support from the teams here at Ottawa and Vancouver and the funding made available from the Emigrant Support Programme.  Additional ESP funding this year signals the Government’s ongoing commitment.  Building on the great work of former Minister for the Diaspora, Ciarán Cannon, the new Minister, Colm Brophy, has been outreaching to organizations here, to learn of their experiences, perspectives, issues. and ambitions. 

We should have a refreshed Diaspora Strategy soon to put a new framework on this relationship for the coming years.  I should add that, based on my experience overseas, Ireland has one of the most developed and engaged relationships with its Diaspora.  And like all my postings, it is the first resource to which we wandering diplomats turn.

Canadians of Irish heritage are enormously passionate about their roots.  They love to talk about it and they love to have an opportunity to help.  An amazing response that opens doors and generates opportunities from government to business to culture and more. 

This pride in Ireland and in being Irish, it has been remarked to me, has really blossomed from a time when British, French, and Scottish identity was predominant in Canadian public discourse.

This got me to reflect on the impact of the Northern Irish Peace Process.  One of the outcomes of that has been the historic reconciliation between Ireland and Britain.  Though the word is often invoked with less than convincing justification, historic is an apt description in this instance.   The visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011 and then the reciprocal visit of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins in 2014 to the UK were hugely symbolic – in intent and design – of the healing of historic wounds and the restoration of normal relationships.  The Good Friday Agreement made that possible.

Did this epic moment in turn cast its benign significance elsewhere, including on these shores?  I imagine that it did.   Canada’s ancestry as a nation state has its roots in Britain’s empire (a shared heritage with France). Its jurisdictional relationship with the crown is enduring. Its membership of the Commonwealth happy and robust. Hitherto, Ireland’s relationship with Britain sand in particular the Crown remained disturbed and unfinished by partition. 

The Good Friday Agreement, its endorsement by both parts of Ireland in an act of national self-determination in May 1998, paved the way for Anglo-Irish normalization in foundational ways.  It removed niggling uncertainty about how to approach Canada.  The stitching up of those old wounds and normalized relations with the Crown took something complicated if ineffable, out of the equation.

I have been forcibly struck too by the fact that Ireland and Canada share so many values in terms of rule of law, human rights, the international order, democracy, multilateralism and UN Peacekeeping, rules-based free trade, and so on.  Strong too is the sense of the value of the Transatlantic relationship, the notion that if Canada was on the other side of the ocean it would be a member of the EU, as someone once quipped.

This too is in part due to Canada’s Irish heritage.  Think of Thomas D’Arcy McGee and his commitment to diversity as part of Canada’s identity and polity. Think too of the commitment to democracy and the love of the law that Irish emigrants brought with them everywhere (our love of consensus and of the law is deep in our cultural ancestry, going back thousands of years to Gaelic society and the Brehon Laws). 

And coming from a small nation, we instinctively value the international rule of law in the face of Great Power rivalry and self-interest. Canada may be one of the largest countries on earth but it is loved because it bears itself with the courtesy and dignity of a small nation.

Exploring Indigenous Canada has been fascinating both in terms of its experiences and how Canada has wrestled with it, reaching for fairness.  Though I am only at its very fringes, I can see resonances with Ireland’s experiences, even if the fate of Gaelic Ireland was decided centuries ago, arguably a process that began this year 850 years ago when the Normans invaded. Vault forward to today and you have the wonderful story of the Irish national Lacrosse team ceding their place to allow the Iroquois Nationals participate in the International World Games.

Fascinating too is that period when Canada was explored and mapped, an enterprise that was only possible with the forging of the expertise and technical knowledge of both the indigenous people and Europeans.

And the beaver, the beaver! Where would Canada have been without the magnificent beaver?

Finally, there is the blossoming bilateral economic relationships and the question of how to generate more collaboration on this front in the context of challenges like Covid and Brexit.  That’s a big chunky theme to which I will return in a later blog.

For now, let me just say that it’s been a real pleasure engaging with organisations and their members, albeit on digital platforms.  I look forward to the time that I can travel and meet people. 

In the meantime, stay in touch and I hope you enjoy my occasional blogs to let you know what’s happening here at the Embassy, the Consulate in Vancouver, and at home.

Best wishes,


Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

13 November 2020

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To Canada!

I am honoured and delighted to serve as Ireland’s Ambassador to Canada.  Representing Ireland here in this great country is both an honour and a privilege.

Canada rightly takes pride in its commitment to rights and fundamental freedoms and to the values of international order and the rule of international law.

Ireland and Canada share long, complex and intense relationships with Britain, relationships that have evolved and changed over the years to the point now of genuine partnership. 

Both Ireland and Canada enjoy close and productive relations with the United States today, against an historical background where Irish emigrants in both countries played key and often decisive roles in politics, society, business and culture.

The depth of Irish heritage in Canada, the contribution of the Irish to the development of Canada as a society and as state, the deep ties and vibrant relations today between Ireland and Canada provide a rich and enriching agenda for all of the team here at the Embassy in Ottawa and at the Consulate in Vancouver. 

Building on their great work, and that of my predecessors, I hope to enhance and expand our relations, culturally, socially, intellectually, and economically.

People-to-people contacts have increased enormously between Ireland and Canada in recent years, boosted by renewed emigration, the opportunities afforded to Ireland by EU membership and CETA, and the increased number of political visits in each direction.

I know all of us in Team Ireland, including our colleagues in Enterprise Ireland and the IDA based in Toronto, will continue to build and expand on this renewed relationship in the years to come.

In that effort, we have the enormous support of our seven Honorary Consuls and the tremendously vibrant Irish community across Canada.

Economic relations between Ireland and Canada have also blossomed.  CETA promises even greater advances as that Agreement beds in and its opportunities are seized.  This will be vitally important work for both Canada and Ireland as we wrestle to bring about economic recovery in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I am looking forward to travelling across Canada when opportunity allows and to meeting all of our friends, partners, and communities. With almost one in seven Canadians boasting Irish heritage, I know this will be no mean feat, but I look forward to meeting and communicating with as many of you as possible.

In the meantime, in this brave new world of Zoom calls and digital outreach, I hope to find ways to virtually engage with your communities, and look forward to doing so.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you well in these difficult times and to hope that you and your families stay safe and well. 

With best wishes,


Eamonn McKee

Note: Dr. Eamonn McKee became Ambassador of Ireland to Canada in October 2019. He virtually presented his credentials to the Governor General, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, on the 13th of October 2020.


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Nassau Street, Walking Dublin’s Thingmote

The Danish Vikings who founded and settled Dublin built an artificial hill.  The Thingmote was a considerable feature, some forty foot high, situated outside the city walls.  Today its location is marked by the Ulster Bank at the junction of Suffolk Street and St Andrew Street.  A ‘thing’ is an assembly of Viking freemen and their leaders.  The Danish parliament today is called the Folketing.  The Althing is Iceland’s national parliament, the oldest continuous assembly in the world founded originally around 930 AD. A mote or motte is a raised area of land, (the motte and bailey was a fortified hill and field used by Normans), hence Thingmote.

The Thingmote was the centre of Viking political, judicial, and ceremonial life in Dublin.  The king of the Vikings sat on top and in ranks below him his sons and nobles.  This assembly decided matters political and judicial.  Prisoners of war were ceremonially killed here, sacrifices to Viking gods like Odin and Thor, their god of war.  Games and archery contests were held on the flat land beneath it, as Peter Somerville-Large notes in his wonderfully vivid history, Dublin.

When Henry II came to Ireland in 1171 to seek the submission of his own Norman lords who had just seized Leinster and its three Viking cities of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin, he set up a temporary royal palace beside the Thingmote.  There he lavishly entertained the Gaelic Kings over Christmas as he sought their submission too, successfully it turned out. While Henry had brought a large army with him, it was mainly for show and he didn’t attempt a complete invasion of the country.  While he left Leinster to Strongbow, Henry took control of the cities as royal domains.  He granted a royal charter to the Dublin to encourage immigrants from Bristol, which had played a key role in the Norman invasion and had had a long trading history with Dublin. The city would remain the key to the survival of the colony, Dublin Castle never taken.

Meanwhile, as the Normans settled in, the Vikings, or as they were known the Ostmen (men from the east), moved out of the city to Oxmantown.  Oxmantown was their suburb on the north bank of the Liffey.  They left their Thingmote behind and gradually faded from the history of the city they had founded.

The Thingmote endured as a very visible feature between the city and the developing campus that would become Trinity College.  It remained undisturbed as Dublin developed as a Medieval City.  However, the Dublin we know today really only began to take shape during the Restoration period when James Butler, the fabulous Duke of Ormonde, returned to Dublin in 1662.  As Charles II’s new viceroy, Ormonde saw to the development of the city as trade and migration generated an unprecedented era prosperity.  Ireland’s interests were sponsored and defended by Ireland’s parliament which itself became a key to Dublin’s development as one of the leading cities of Europe.  Dublin never really recovered from the abolition of this native, albeit Protestant, parliament that had traced its roots  back to 1297.

Sir William Davies came to own the land around College Green and in the 1680s began the levelling of the Thingmote, carting its bulk to raise what is now Nassau Street as that area had been prone to flooding.  Somerville-Large: “Now it was raised by eight or ten feet, a plateau still to be seen if the height of Nassau Street is compared to College Park.”

So when you walk along Nassau Street you tread on the remains of the Viking Thingmote, literally and figuratively Dublin’s very foundations.

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