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The Irish show the way to Canadiana

Fourteen years ago, Canadian authors were producing 27 per cent of English-language books sold in Canada. Today we account for 13 per cent. That is not a misprint: Canadians who write books in English produce only 13 per cent of all books purchased in Canada. Don't take my word for it. Check out this story from the Globe and Mail, which compares extensive surveys from 2005 and 2018. Am I the only one who finds that drop alarming? More than 50 per cent! Globe writer Kate Taylor identifies causes and suggests that the federal government should get involved and I'm on board with that. But surely it's time for individuals who care about what's happening to get active. I'm thinking that writers, publishers, booksellers and serious readers should launch a campaign to follow the Irish model. OK, it's not just Irish. The Scots and the Aussies are also out front on this. But above we see an image of an independent bookseller in Kilkenny, Ireland.
To the right, we discover a wall of books near the front of the shop. Note one thing: these are all Irish books: Irish interest, Irish history, Irish biography, Irish literature and poetry, Irish travel. Why, it's whole separate section with a national focus. If in Canada our booksellers were encouraged to emulate that approach, we could support them in developing a section called, oh, I don't know: Canadiana? Yup. It's high time for us to go Back to the Future. 

Ken McGoogan
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The escape of the beauteous Alice Le Kyteler

In 1324, Alice Le Kyteler -- original owner of this Kilkenny inn -- was accused with various accomplices of witchcraft. Beauteous and clever, the daughter of a Norman banker, Alice had survived four husbands and amassed no small fortune. All this excited the jealousy of powerful contemporaries. Alice was tried, found guilty, and condemned to be whipped through the streets and then burnt alive at the stake. She escaped this fate through the intervention of "certain of the nobilitie" who conveyed her to England, where she disappeared. Her maid, Petronella, enjoyed no such happy flight. Condemned as one of the accomplices, she suffered the horrific fate intended originally for her mistress. Medieval times. That Alice's house had been a place of "merrymaking and good cheer" is the only charge that has stood the test of time. Kyteler's Inn has reverted to its old ways, as you can read on a sign within. It offers those of "the most jaded of appetites" music, home-made food, and a selection of quality wines and beers. True, those who work at the inn have frequently reported ghostly goings-on. Paranormal investigators have felt a presence, and not long ago, four women-friends from Wexford accidentally captured photos of a black shadow heading up the stairs behind them. Was it Alice? Petronella? In Kilkenny, that mystery awaits resolution.
Ken McGoogan
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It's not all that far to Tipperary

It's not that far to Tipperary -- not if you start in Kilkenny. That's what we did. The statue to the left commemorates John and Patrick Saul, two boys abandoned by their parents at the docks in Dublin. The butcher and his wife boarded a ship for Australia after first telling their sons, ages 15 and 13, they had a better chance of surviving if they turned back and made for home in Clonmel, County Tipperary. The year was 1842. The boys, increasingly hungry as they travelled, called in at the newly built workhouse in Kilkenny. Their story surfaced in 2005, when developers began turning the prison-like workhouse into the splendiferous MacDonough Junction Shopping Centre. The statue is one of the highlights of the Kilkenny Famine Experience -- a 50-minute audio-visual tour that takes visitors through the story of the Great Hunger as it unfolded in this location. The big surprise came when excavators came upon the forgotten graves of more than 970 people who died here -- among them 545 children -- mostly between 1845 and 1851. Rations were spartan but few died of starvation. Disease got them first, either typhus, typhoid, diptheria, smallpox, tuberculosis or cholera. Bullying, amputations, riots, death-dealing stampedes, this place had them all. As the potato famine wore on and workhouse conditions worsened, the Saul brothers set out for home. But Tipperary! Sheena and I drove half an hour west into that county, sometimes along one-lane roads with a ridge of grass down the middle. We went not to Clonmel but to the Famine Warhouse, site of an incident known as the Battle of Widow MacCormack's Cabbage Patch. By 1848, not
surprisingly, the never-ending famine -- the deaths, the coffin ships -- sparked a reaction.  Several of the leaders of the rebels, known collectively as Young Ireland, trapped a group of policemen in this house near Ballingarry. The police took the widow's children hostage and held on until reinforcements arrived.  Before long, most rebel leaders were rounded up, jailed, and transported to penal colonies in Australia. Anybody still with me?
Ken McGoogan
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This ship carried thousands across the Atlantic

Here we have the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross, County Wexford -- one of the finest memorials of the Great Hunger in all Ireland. I've posted about visiting the EPIC emigration museum, the exhibition at St. Stephen's Green, and the Jeannie Johnston. Since then the biggest surprise has been the Famine Exhibition in the agricultural museum at Johnstown Castle:  who could have guessed that it would be so detailed and, indeed, superb? Even against all that, this replica of the Dunbrody is an exceptional site. The original ship was built in Quebec in 1845, the first year of the Irish famine. It was one of eight vessels owned by W.S. Graves that plied between New Ross and both Quebec City and Manhattan. Relatively large -- 176 feet long and 28 feet wide -- the three-masted barque carried an average of 200 people per voyage across the Atlantic, and on one occasion, during 1847, a total of 313. The ship had two cabins for first-class passengers, but the vast majority were confined below decks for most of the six or seven week voyage. There they slept in 40 bunk beds roughly six feet square, with four to eight people per bunk. Brutal. The dozen crew who manned the ship enjoyed better food and conditions -- after all, they constituted the ship's engine. But they would not be paid until they arrived back in Ireland, because otherwise, whoosh, they might disappear on landing. An excellent tour guide named Mark laid all this out as we set sail in 1849. He introduced two women actors -- one sailing first-class,  the other travelling with us in steerage (see photo below) -- who told their own stories, incidentally
highlighting the class structure of the era. During the famine years (1845-1852), 1.5 million Irish emigrated on ships like the Dunbrody, while another 1.5 million died at home. During the following decade, another 2 million left Ireland. As a result, Canadians who claim Irish heritage today total just under 5 million . . . while in the U.S., the total is a staggering 35 million.
Ken McGoogan
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How the Irish Famine Changed the World

The terrible parallels hit you like a bucket of cold water in the face -- at least if you have been immersed for a while in Scotland's Highland Clearances. Check out the image to the right. Looks like it could be from a Scottish Clearance in Sutherland or Glengarry, or perhaps Lewis, Uist or Barra. In fact, it's from County Clare in Ireland -- Mathia Magrath's house "after destruction by the Battering Ram." I know this because today we checked out the Irish Famine Exhibition at St. Stephen's Green Shopping Centre in Dublin. The exhibition, which runs until Oct. 15, brought the famine experience front and centre for me. Between 1845 and 1851, approximately one million Irish people died of starvation or disease and a couple of million emigrated, many of them to Canada. Many of those were forcibly evicted by landlords spouting the free-market doctrine of laissez faire. The end result: an Irish diaspora that has produced a globe-scattering of something like 70 million people of Irish descent. The decades immediately after the famine brought mostly silence about that trauma. More recently, scholars and others have turned increasingly to the Great Hunger, as it is also called. Today in Dublin, you can see famine monuments in St. Stephen's Green and on the north bank of the Liffey. You can visit the marvellous EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum. And you can spend an hour poking around on the Jeannie Johnston, a replica famine ship. If you have time for only one stop, the exhibition at St. Stephen's Green includes a 15-minute film that summarizes the saga. Millions displaced, not hundreds of thousands. Terrible to contemplate. Preparing to leave Dublin, all I can think about is how the Irish famine changed the world.

Ken McGoogan
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A merciless takedown of Mackenzie King

I was taken with Roy MacLaren's new book about Mackenzie King and said as much in this review that turned up on May 13 in the Globe and Mail.
(Special to the Globe)

After talking privately with Adolf Hitler in Berlin, Wailliam Lyon Mackenzie King concluded that the German Fuhrer was a fellow mystic who spoke the truth when he insisted “that there would be no war as far as Germany was concerned.” Hitler’s face, the Canadian prime minister wrote in his diary, was “not that of a fiery, over-strained nature, but of a calm, passive man, deeply and thoughtfully in earnest.… As I talked with him I could not but think of Joan of Arc.”
That morning, as Mackenzie King had left his Berlin hotel, he had sensed “the presence of God in all this,” guiding his every step toward this meeting and “the day for which I was born.” June 29, 1937. Before he left Berlin, Mackenzie King wrote a note thanking Hitler for giving him a silver-framed photo of himself – “a gift of which I am very proud.” By this time, the Fuhrer had dispatched more than 4,000 innocents to concentration camps and created laws turning German Jews into secoindnd-class citizens.
With Mackenzie King in the Age of the Dictators, former diplomat and high commissioner Roy MacLaren eschews biography to focus on the Canadian prime minister’s foreign-policy performance. He delivers an exhaustively detailed, tightly controlled, yet merciless takedown of Mackenzie King’s responses to both Benito Mussolini and Hitler.
If with Hitler we were not confronting the most obscene tragedy of the 20th century – the industrialized slaughter of more than six million Jews in the Holocaust – this encounter could be staged as a farce in which a delusional bumpkin meets the worst tyrant of the age and mistakes him for a holy man.
In March, 1938, after the Nazi annexation of Austria, an unperturbed Mackenzie King wrote in his diary: “I am convinced he [Hitler] is a spiritualist – that he has a vision to which he is being true … that [his] Mother’s spirit is … his guide and no one who does not understand this relationship – the worship of a highest purity in a mother – can understand the power to be derived therefrom or the guidance … the world will yet come to see a very great man – a mystic, in Hitler.”
Here, Mackenzie King was projecting what Charlotte Gray has described as his “pathological obsession with his mother’s memory” onto Hitler and fusing it with his ludicrously inflated fantasies of his own significance. As he himself saw it, MacLaren writes, “he had played a central, even divinely ordained role in keeping peace in Europe.”
As MacLaren makes clear, many Canadians discerned the truth. Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, made no rush to judgment but, by 1934, according to one contemporary, he had become “solidly, fanatically, anti-Hitler; refers to him as Al Capone and to the Nazis as gangsters.” Around the time Mackenzie King was confiding to his diary, “I am being made the instrument of God,” journalist Matthew Halton of The Toronto Star described Hitler at a Berlin rally as a demonic orator who “turned his hearers into maddening, moaning fanatics.” Over the course of a month in Germany, Halton had “seen and studied the most fanatical, thorough-going and savage philosophy of war ever imposed on any nation.”
When Mackenzie King hailed the Munich Agreement, which ceded to Hitler much of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland), Winnipeg journalist J.W. Dafoe – who had repeatedly warned against the Fuhrer’s hate-filled rhetoric – wrote what MacLaren rightly describes as a “scathing editorial” in which he denounced the appeasers for validating “the doctrine that Germany can intervene for racial reasons for the ‘protection’ of Germans on such grounds as she thinks proper in any country in the world.”
Ian Kershaw, the British biographer of Hitler, summarized with the advantage of hindsight: “None but the most hopelessly naïve, incurably optimistic or irredeemably stupid could have imagined that the Sudetenland marked the limits of German ambitions to expand.” Enter Mackenzie King.
Early on, Canadian diplomat Vincent Massey deplored Mackenzie King’s “ostrich-like policy of not even wanting to know what is going on.” He concluded that Mackenzie King combined an anti-British bias with an extreme egotism, and after Kristallnacht, when Nazi thugs went on a racist rampage and incarcerated 30,000 Jews, Massey wrote to Mackenzie King that “the anti-Jewish orgy in Germany is not making [British prime minister Neville] Chamberlain’s policy of ‘appeasement’ any easier.” Mackenzie King agreed that “the post-Munich developments have made appeasement difficult and positive friendship [with Hitler] for the moment out of the question. That is no reason, however, why the effort should be abandoned.” Unbelievable.
This book assumes a familiarity with the history of Europe in the 1930s. It is a tour-de-force indictment of Mackenzie King and, by implication, the political system that made him the longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history. For those concerned about the contemporary rise of fascism and neo-Nazism around the world, Mackenzie King in the Age of the Dictators is ominous and terrifying.
In September, Ken McGoogan will publish Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada.

Ken McGoogan
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Fur-trade rascals are making for McMaster

So here is an early heads-up on a Hamilton event where I will be giving a talk on June 4. What happened is that the library at McMaster University acquired an extraordinary collection of papers from the estate of the late Dr. William Bensen. Dr. Bensen was a medical doctor with a passion for Canadian history, and especially for anything related to John Rae or the fur trade. I had the privilege of meeting him over dinner some years ago and we had great fun chatting. He showed me a box of china that had been on board Franklin's ship the Terror.
Anyway, I am quite excited to investigate this collection of papers, which comprises letters and documents pertaining to such figures as James McGill, Simon Fraser, Alexander Mackenzie, William McGillivray, and Simon McTavish, all of whom were associated with the fur-trading North West Company based in Montreal. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, not to put too fine a point on it, these ex-Highlanders -- renegades, rogues and rascals almost to a man -- used fur-trade profits to build the Golden Square Mile in Montreal and swanned about like kings. I was thrilled to discover that the men who figure in this archive turn up in five of my books (if we count Flight of the Highlanders, coming this September).
I'm calling my talk Rogues, Rascals and Kings: Fur-Trade Adventurers Spring from the Archives. It kicks off at 7 p.m. in Convocation Hall and is open to the public. BUT space is limited so you have to register by clicking here. If you're within hailing distance of McMaster, come on down!
(Pictured here: William McGillivray (above left) and Simon McTavish.)

Ken McGoogan
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Writers' retreat set to go at Tamarack in July

So that one-week writing-workshop-retreat in the Haliburton Highlands? I have been remiss in not reminding folks that it is happening from Sunday July 7 to Friday July 12. Yes, I will be serving as writer-in-residence at Tamarack Lodge Cottage Resort and Art Centre, which is two and a half hours north of Toronto. Situated on a motor-free lake, the lodge comprises four cottages and a “big house” with a separate meeting space. Last July, Anne-Marie Marais took these wonderful images.
This July, I’ll lead workshops for five mornings (Monday to Friday) from 9 to 12. You can spend your afternoons writing . . . or you can go swimming, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, or forest walking. Or you can mix and match. Evening activities will include a campfire reading, a presentation by the writer-in-residence, and an evening of student readings.You will stay in one of the four cottages. Tamarack will provide lunch and dinner and supplies for a continental breakfast.
The idea is to check in on Sunday July 7 between 3 and 5 p.m. Check out will be after lunch on Friday July 12. The cost will be $1150 per person, single-room accommodation, meals included. If anyone wants to share a room with bunkbeds or twin beds, the cost is $ 995, but you have to register with a roommate from the beginning.
We still have some spots available on a first-come first-serve basis. The person to contact is Barbara Kraus, co-owner of Tamarack Lodge. She can be reached at or 705-559-5972. 
In the workshop, Telling True Stories, we’ll focus on writing memoir, autobiography, travel articles – or whatever it is you happen to be writing. We’ll look at point of view, creating scenes, handling flashbacks. And we’ll do some in-class freewriting and sharing. You will need to bring a laptop to make this possible (no printer available).
Also, after you have registered with Barbara, I hope you will send me a 1,500-word work sample which I will distribute for workshopping among all participants. I will send out a call. Meanwhile, if you have any workshop-specific questions, you can drop me a line at
For the record, our writer-in-residence (that would be me) has earned a teaching-excellence award from University of Toronto (continuing education) and serves as a mentor in the low-residency MFA program in creative nonfiction at University of King’s College in Halifax. You can find out more than you need to know at: Come on down!

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.