UMass professor’s ‘Griffintown’ incites consideration of social roots

  • “Griffintown”

  • WEISBLAT Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

For the Recorder
Wednesday, June 06, 2018

I had never heard of Griffintown before I sat down to read Matthew Barlow’s new history of this neighborhood in Montreal that has long been identified as Irish Catholic. Indeed, I had no idea that Montreal housed Irish Catholics; I erroneously assumed that most of its population was French.

Of Irish-Canadian descent himself, Barlow has spent the past year living in Charlemont and teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He approaches Griffintown in a scholarly way, placing his own study of the area not just in the context of other histories of “the Griff” but also in dialogue with historians of other places.

Although he sometimes uses scholarly jargon that may fall oddly on the lay reader’s ears, he has a lot to say to anyone who has pondered the complicated meaning of the word “home.”

In his introduction, he writes, “This is the biography of an inner-city neighbourhood in Montreal and the stories that have been created, recreated, reinforced and projected about it over the past century.”

His book thus doesn’t just discuss actual physical and social events in the neighborhood he examines, which dwindled significantly over the course of the 20th century (although it is now the site of new condominium and arts development).

Barlow spends much of his book looking at the ways in which people who lived in Griffintown in the 20th century thought of their home. Many residents and former residents recall the area as a relatively safe, solidly Irish-Catholic community in which neighbors looked out for each other.

Barlow suggests that not all of these recollections are entirely accurate. Nevertheless, he is fascinated by the ways in which what he terms the “memory work” of Griffintown’s defenders creatively constructs an idealized community.

His book has made me think differently about a couple of historical/cultural experiences of my own. One of these is the efforts over the past century of my town’s historical society, the Sons and Daughters of Hawley, to document the town’s past as a prosperous, caring community.

Another is my participation in an annual Saint Patrick’s Day concert in Virginia. Saint Patrick’s Day was central to the Irish experience in Griffintown, and it has become a highlight of the community in which my family lives in Virginia, where “everyone becomes Irish for one day of the year.”

The concert, like much of Irish-American (and, I gather, Irish-Canadian) culture, is an odd mishmash of American music celebrating the “old country” and stereotypes about Irish identity: humor, alcohol and sentimentality.

All in all, Matthew Barlow’s “Griffintown” makes the reader examine not just a Canadian neighborhood, but also the social roots of everyone’s notions of ethnicity, culture and home.

“Griffintown” has just been awarded a Clio prize by the Canadian Historical Association. It is available at Amherst Books and on Amazon.

Tinky Weisblat is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.