The Celtic Invasion: why the arrival of hundreds of Irish construction workers benefits Toronto’s building boom

The Celtic Invasion: why the arrival of hundreds of Irish construction workers benefits Toronto’s building boom

The Celtic Invasion Sean and James McQuillan left Ireland for Toronto in 2010

In the mid-1990s, companies such as Microsoft, Intel and Apple, attracted by Ireland’s well-educated workforce, tax incentives, minimal regulations and low wages, opened offices in Dublin with a speed that surprised even the gravest doubter. By the time the Celtic Tiger, as the exploding Irish economy was dubbed, had fully deployed its claws, the unemployment rate had dropped to just under five per cent, one of the lowest in the developed world. Ireland’s GDP grew to one of the highest in Europe, exports doubled in just five years, and the average income was climbing seven per cent a year, almost triple the
eurozone average.

Irish lenders, confident the good times could not fail, began loaning money to virtually anyone who asked for it. With this temptation, it’s not surprising the Irish began stockpiling property whether they could afford it or not; soon, dank little row houses in Dublin were selling for €1.5 million. Developers, spending money extracted from the Irish banking system, started building with a lunatic zeal.

At the same time, the Irish government made the spectacularly unwise decision to continue offering tax incentives to developers, further inflating the housing bubble. When Ireland’s inflation zoomed to twice that of its European neighbours, people covered their costs by borrowing even more money. The cost of houses just kept going up and up—until, of course, it began to do otherwise. By 2001, the banks had noticed a slight upswing in mortgage defaults, and by 2005, this trickle had turned into a river, with developers beginning to default on bank loans as well. By 2008 it was all over, the country mired in debt, the housing market in free fall, unemployment rates back up to almost 15 per cent, the pubs empty on a Friday night. Half-built Irish subdivisions were left to turn mouldy in the drizzly climate, and Ireland’s credit rating, which had soared to triple-A during the Tiger, was downgraded to just above
junk-bond status.

James and Sean McQuillan, two brothers in their mid-20s, worked as carpenters during Dublin’s raging construction boom. One day, the McQuillans’ boss gathered his workers and told them there would be no more work for the next little while, and that he could only keep a skeleton crew. James and Sean were among those who stayed, their boss apologizing every time he had to cut their paycheques. A pall had settled over all of Dublin, the papers reporting on nothing but the country’s latest economic woes. “You just don’t know how depressing it is,” James says, “to be on a work site, and it’s cold and raining, and you’re barely getting paid, and the only thing anyone can talk about is how bad things are.”

Their friends started leaving for Australia and Canada. While neither James nor Sean can remember a specific moment when they decided they’d had enough, James does recall a phone call he got from one friend who’d recently decamped to Australia. “He was so happy. In two weeks, he told me, he hadn’t heard the word recession once. That pretty much summed it all up for me.”

In the latter part of 2010, the McQuillan brothers applied for International Experience Canada visas, which allow foreigners from select countries to work here for a year. More than 4,000 Irish came to Canada on IEC visas that year. To be considered, each brother had to prove that he had the equivalent of $3,000 in the bank.

There were a few hurdles—Sean’s application was delayed for three months when his name was inadvertently misspelled on his police check—but on June 25 last year, the brothers finally flew to Toronto and checked into the Delta Chelsea at Yonge and Gerrard. There, they met a young man named Caolan Quinn from a small town in Northern Ireland, who, it turned out, had come over on the same day as the McQuillan brothers. Within a week, they all rented a three-bedroom apartment together near Keele and Dundas, for just $1,400 a month. They decorated it with used sofas—they placed three in the living room alone—and a long green Carlsberg pub banner. They pitched in on a flat-screen TV and put a beer fridge in the living room.

The Celtic Invasion Newly arrived Irish labourers often find work through word of mouth at Irish pubs like Etobicoke’s Galway Arms

Toronto has long been an Irish city. When the potato blight ravaged Irish farmland in the late 1840s, 38,000 Irish arrived in Toronto, which at the time had a population of only 20,000. While the majority of these immigrants either moved on or died from illnesses picked up on the unenviable journey over, about 2,000 stayed, making an Irish city all the more so. The Belfast of the North, as Toronto became known for many years, earned a reputation as a good place to settle, particularly when the Canadian economy was flourishing and the Irish economy was not. This happened again around the turn of the 20th century, and there was another wave of immigration in the 1950s, when Ireland became mired in a tenacious postwar recession. A large number came from Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s, and there was another surge when Ireland’s economy stalled in the 1980s.

For Irish arriving in Toronto today, there are two tried-and-true ways to find work. The first is by playing Gaelic football, a uniquely Irish game that, at least to the uninitiated, looks like soccer, North American football and rugby all rolled into one. Thanks to the most recent exodus of unemployed Irish, participation in Gaelic football has become a global phenomenon; there are now 10 Gaelic Athletic Association squads in the GTA alone (seven male and three female), and GAA teams have popped up in such unlikely locales as Dubai, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Beijing and Shanghai. “We exist as a welcome mat for new Irish arrivals,” says Mark O’Brien, an ex-president of the Toronto area GAA. “By playing football, they can meet people, make contacts and find work. The Irish, you know, are famous for helping each other out. It’s important to us, ’cause we were all helped by the older fellas when we came over.”

There’s one catch: to benefit from the GAA’s network of contacts, you have to be a decent player. Though Caolan Quinn plays with a Toronto GAA team called St. Vincent’s, the McQuillans do not: growing up, they preferred soccer. So the brothers resorted to the other ironclad method of procuring employment in Toronto: they went to the pubs.

Though there are probably 100 Irish-style pubs in Toronto, most of them are owned by corporations, frequented by non-Irish and operated by publicans without useful insight into the happenings back home. But there are a handful of real Irish pubs. There’s McVeigh’s at Church and Richmond, which, among the older Irish, is always referred to as the Windsor House, the name it had 25 years ago. There’s McCarthy’s, a hole in the wall on Upper Gerrard near Woodbine. And there’s the Galway Arms on the Queensway in Etobicoke; the Galway benefits from the Gaelic football crowd, who play their games at nearby
Centennial Park.

James and Sean visited all these pubs, nursing pints of Keith’s, talking to locals and bartenders and letting it be known that they were looking for carpentry work. (They also hung around a sports bar called Shoxs for the simple reason that it was just around the corner from their apartment. Here, they both started dating Canadian-born waitresses. James’s girlfriend is named Erin, Sean’s is Stacey; both are 23 years of age.) About two weeks after coming to Toronto, a bartender at the Galway Arms referred the brothers to an Irishman named Joe Wilson, who owns a company called Clonard Construction. Wilson met with the boys, and by the following Monday they were working at the new condo development at Yonge and Bloor.

“The first thing that struck me about them,” Wilson says today, “was how young they looked. But other than that, they were like all the Irish who come over: they were just desperate for work. It’s a real shock to the system, having to leave home just to find work.”

Over the next six months or so, Sean and James worked at various construction sites and joined Local 27 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. “I was amazed at the amount of work there is over here,” James says. “I kept running into people who were complaining about the Canadian recession. And I’d just scratch my head and say, ‘Recession? What recession? You should see how things are where I come from.’ ” Last February, the brothers signed on to help build the new York University subway line at the 407 and Jane, where they’re still working today. Mostly, they’re building moulds for poured concrete.

Every day, they get up at 5 to get to work by 6:30—both like to get there a half-hour before their 7 o’clock start time so they can relax and have a coffee with their co-workers. Right now, they’re making $37 an hour—$55 for overtime—and that’s not including the health benefits they derive as union members. Back home, when they were cashing the last of their denuded paycheques, they were making the equivalent of $18 an hour, the promise of overtime a fantasy. “And I’ll tell you,” James says, “Toronto is way, way cheaper than Dublin. The other night I took my girlfriend out for a dinner. Nice meal, a bottle of wine, and the bill was just over $100. You could never do that in Dublin.”

The brothers also find Toronto to be clean, friendly and cosmopolitan. “You’ll be on a work site, and there’ll be, like, Irishmen and Italians and Portuguese and people from El Salvador and they’ll all be getting on with each other,” James says. “You don’t get that mix of people back home.” In other words, they have no desire to return. Even if the economy improved back in Ireland, they wouldn’t trust it to stay that way; in Canada there’s a sense that they can make plans for the future and actually see them through.

Staying, however, can be tricky, even though the Department of Foreign Affairs has been progressively increasing the number of International Experience Canada visas allotted to Ireland—this year, 5,350 Irish will be given IEC visas. Once in Canada, IEC holders can apply for a second year; James and Sean qualified because they are gainfully employed. They wanted to apply for permanent residency under the Skilled Worker Program. However, this past July, the federal government stopped accepting applications while it deals with a backlog. If the boys’ IEC visas expire before they’re accepted as residents, they may have to return to Ireland and wait. “And there’s no way they’d keep my job open for six months,” James explains. “They’d fill it in a second, and then bam, I’d no longer have a job waiting for me in Canada, so there’d be no reason to take me.”

It’s the very definition of a Catch-22. Toronto is now building more condominiums than any other city in North America, and has nowhere near the labour resources to do so. Ireland, meanwhile, produced an inordinate number of tradespeople to accommodate its housing boom, and the vast majority of them are now out of work. Viewed this way, it’s little wonder the Irish are coming to Toronto: they have what we need.

In the meantime, the McQuillans’ days are filled with overtime, their nights with their girlfriends. In the early part of the year, they helped build a float for the St. Patrick’s Day parade depicting the famous clock fronting Clerys department store in Dublin. At their apartment with Caolan Quinn, I asked if they thought it was more difficult for them to leave than for previous generations.

“I’ll tell you who really has it hard,” answered Quinn. “The people a little bit older than us, the ones in their 30s who now find themselves with kids and trapped with mortgages on houses they can’t sell. And who knows? Maybe next week they’ll lose their jobs as well. We were too young for all that.”

For a second or two the brothers were quiet.

“I suppose that’s true,” James finally said, Sean nodding in agreement. “In a way, we were the lucky ones.”