Contributed by Eoin O’ Donovan
My parents Sean and Annette (McEvoy) O’Donovan were married in October 1952, in Dublin, Ireland. Not long afterwards, they had two sons: Neil (b. 15 December 1953) and Eoin (b. 30 April 1955).
In mid-1955, Sean joined the Wartburg Cars assembly plant as general manager, unaware of its precarious financial position. He was out of work a few months later. Annette was a homemaker — in 1950s Ireland, women were required to give up their jobs when they married.
Sean had a degree in engineering. The agencies in Ireland had some jobs, but the pay did not meet his expectations. As Canada had a shortage of engineers, Sean accepted a job as salesman of heavy duty engines with Crothers Caterpillar in Toronto, Ontario. The family left Ireland in December 1955. Annette said years later they had travelled so near to Christmas because they were keen to make a new start. Their plane landed in Montreal during a snowstorm. The onward flight was cancelled and they spent their first night in Canada in the luxury Hilton Montreal, at the airline’s expense. The first of several apartments awaited them in Toronto.
Sean called to Crothers Caterpillar and was told he could not start his job until George Crothers returned from holidays. He was delighted to accept temporary work as a fitter. He said later that, lying on his back under a huge engine and in a clean pair of overalls, he felt he was the happiest man in Canada. A colleague in the workshop invited Sean, Annette and the boys to spend Christmas with his family. They were never to forget the kindness of these people, who had been strangers only days beforehand.
Toronto was an exciting, cosmopolitan city. Freezing winters kept snow on the ground for tobogganing and skiing; and ice on lakes and rivers for skating. Unlike in Ireland, there were shopping malls, supermarkets and huge department stores, as well as central heating and television at home. During hot summers, the Iceman delivered blocks for the ‘ice box’. The family moved to Centre Island for the summer (a short ferry ride away, there was no bridge) and enjoyed the beaches there.
Sean was impressed by the Canadian work culture. He was pleased to hear the cleaner address the boss by his first name. When he sold so many engines to a mine operator that his commission on the transaction exceeded a year’s salary in Ireland, he expected some begrudgery. On the contrary he said, everyone in the company patted him on the back. He soaked up the motivational hints: ‘you perform better when you feel better; buy a new car; if you can’t afford a car, buy a new suit; have your hair cut every two weeks, so you always look the same...’
Sean and Annette explored places they could drive to. As soon as the snow began to thaw, they visited Niagara Falls. (They tried to cross the border, but a burly policeman told them condescendingly ‘it’s not that easy to get into the United States!’). They vacationed in a cabin on Lake Temiskamny, stopping on the way home to spend a night in a wigwam. They went on a longer trip to the U.S., visiting New York, Washington DC (where Sean’s sister Nell Gatens was working in the Irish Embassy). In Virginia, they stayed with Annette’s distant cousins, the Blakemores. Their third son Ronan (b. May 1957) arrived next year.
The family might have stayed indefinitely in Canada. They made lifelong friends, they had a good income, they were enjoying life there and they had bought a house. However, Sean’s father wrote, enclosing a newspaper cutting of a job advertisement. It was for an attractive position as manager of Ireland’s Caterpillar agents. They were conflicted, but ultimately decided they wanted their sons to be educated in Ireland. Many times over the succeeding years, they considered returning to Canada.