Dublin, Ireland - A lot of things had slipped my mind about how Canada fits in the world until our friends Bruce and Morag threw a street party here for about 125 neighbours and friends to honour Canada Day.
One joker brought a gift of homemade Canada postcards with pictures of moose, Mounties and snow-capped mountains he'd downloaded. A lot of people asked about medicare and blue box recycling, and wanted to know if Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine was telling the truth when it showed Torontonians who don't lock their doors.
Some people expressed concern that we might be heading north to Belfast in our rental car with Irish Republic licence plates. Belfast is getting ready for July 12 celebrations of the anniversary of William of Orange's Protestant victory over Catholic Ireland in 1690. Seven years of peace following 60,000 deaths from street shootings and executions over the centuries doesn't mean the Troubles are over.
The concern for our safety reminded me that Canada is only a stone's throw away from a time when Protestant-Catholic holy wars defined much about Canadian life, and Toronto was known as the Belfast of North America.
"Up the ladder and down the rope," the school-age rhyme went, "cheers for King Billy, to hell with the pope."
Liberals were the Catholic party, for French Canadians and the Irish, and Tories were for Protestants, a partial explanation of why today Conservatives are shaky in central Canada and Liberals are weak in the west.
Hospitals were run along the same religious lines. The best city jobs went to members of the Orange Lodge, while the heavy lifting of canal, railway and early subway building was done by Catholic Irish.
This was the Canadian norm until the 1960s, when the Quiet Revolution challenged Catholic Church dominance in Quebec, hundreds of thousands of Italians settled in Toronto, new immigration laws opened doors to people of colour, a new prime minister said the state didn't belong in the bedrooms of the nation, feminism came onto the scene and a new generation of English Canadian nationalists challenged American economic and cultural hegemony.
Since then, most Canadians have learned to unlock the doors of exclusive religious, ethnic and sexual affiliation and to embrace an inclusive and democratic concept of citizenship. Ireland, a society where stone walls and iron fences are everywhere, is also opening its gates.
The Irish embraced Europe and the European Union as a counterweight to England, and that opened the way for Ireland's first experience of prosperity in 400 years. High-tech companies and U.S. branch plants set up here, at the gateway to Europe.
The absence of coal or hydroelectric power no longer matters. The EU gave generous grants to Dublin as a cultural capital, and youth flocked here, where eastern Europeans are now the workforce majority. Half the population is under 30, a demographic that augurs well for the demise of ancient hatreds.
Ireland's sense of identity based on place, culture and circumstance is as dense as its soda bread, a "traditional" food that, like the "traditional" potato, was developed by the aboriginal peoples of the Americas.
Ireland has its Irish lilt, Irish eyes, Irish gift of the gab, Irish tweed, Irish linen, as well as the Irish music, Irish dance, Irish language and Irish Catholicism.
This cultural tightness produced a unique culture of solidarity and resistance, including such tools as the boycott, a product of the struggle to gain tenants' rights against English landowners during the late 1800s.
Irish food exemplifies how traditions based on place, climate and circumstance can engage with the world.
Soda bread was adapted from the aboriginal bannock because soft Irish wheat didn't rise well with yeast. Potatoes could be grown and cooked at home, with no need to deal with British millers and other intermediaries. The Irish are also fish eaters, easy enough on a small, lake-filled island. Stout, ale and whiskey were all regional drinks, usually safer than water, which hadn't been purified by fermentation.
The Irish see food as central to their political identity. Irish chefs are adapting easily to the offerings of prosperity and cosmopolitanism, thanks in large part to the relatively minor role of U.S. chain restaurants.
Such place-based loyalties offer a core identity to grow up with, so tastes and desires can't be so easily dictated to by global corporations.
As July 1, Canada Day, makes way for July 12, William of Orange's day, I wonder what Canada will learn from Ireland.