Green day

Our trusty scribe-about-town goes in search of the last Irishman in Cabbagetown


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I’m riding on the back of a horse-drawn carriage with my wife, watching as a pregnant woman holds her baby and a family takes snapshots of the intersection of Sumach and Carlton, ground zero of Cabbagetown, a neighbourhood very much in the throes of change.

It’s the area’s Winter Festival, and I’m scouring the laneways and gourmet coffee shops in search of some Irish authenticity, biding my time before I can start drinking dark beer. We head north in the freezing cold carriage up to Sackville Street, everyone admiring the neighbourhood’s famously cupcake-looking Victorian houses. Cabbagetown is Toronto’s original Irish stomping grounds, earning its nickname when the hard-done-by immigrants had to grow their own food on their front lawns. But today, the woman holding her baby wears Fendi sunglasses, and Carlton Street is the setting of gourmet restaurants like Omi and Daniel et Daniel, dishing out fancy fare. Can you even get cabbage at a place that’s name is written in French?

“This could definitely lead to something,” says the carriage driver when we disembark at Riverdale Park, and she passes out her company’s flyers to the families now rosy cheeked from the cold.

At the festival, both the hot dogs and the Starbucks coffee are free, and the area does seem delightful, if a little Pleasantville for my tastes. There’s a snow obstacle course for the children, and the parents compete to see who can get the most distance on a winter boot tossed in the air. I need to find someone Irish — and fast.

Parliament Street is the neighbourhood’s main throughway and features all of the area’s most popular destinations, places such as Ben Wicks, House on Parliament and Jet Fuel, one of the city’s most famous coffee shops. I head into Jet Fuel and order an Irish coffee, just for laughs.

“You need to ask the boss for that,” says the man behind the counter, who wears a big puffy sweatshirt and tight skinny jeans.

“I’m just playing,” I tell him. “I know you’re not licensed, but I am looking for Irish people in Cabbagetown. Do you have any in here?”

“I’m sorry, man,” says the kid. “You need to ask the boss.”

I order a $3 hot lemonade and pull out my book, Cabbagetown by Hugh Garner, a tale of the Depression era that must rank as one of the best Toronto-set books. I feel comfortable in this neighbourhood. My wife and I used to live on Spruce Street, opposite the nofrills, and it was our first place in Toronto outside of her parents’ home. Cabbagetown literally saved my life.

I’m just not finding the soul of the place, though, let alone a proud Irishman to join me for a beer. Is Cabbagetown still a good place to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? And where is the soul?

To find out, I head north up Parliament Street and duck into the St. James’ Cemetery and Crematorium, which first opened in 1844 and is the oldest cemetery in Toronto: tree lined, expansive and, as you move further away from Parliament, surprisingly serene and quiet.

"I know you're not licensed, but I am looking for Irish people in Cabbagetown. Do you have any?"

“He was born at Armack in the kingdom of Ireland and died at Upper Canada College, October, 1849,” reads the grave site of Samuel Alderidge, a former porter at UCC.

There’s a dignity to the cemetery, a respect for the past. “Erected to the memory of Hannah Stanley, who departed this life June 21, 1880, aged 67 years and six days,” reads a tombstone with an angel on top of its grey monument.

I’m just about to get all misty eyed when my telephone rings.

“Hope you don’t mind cigar smoke,” barks George H. Rust-D’Eye, author of Cabbagetown Remembers and an Irish lawyer who has lived in the neighbourhood for 38 years. Rust-D’Eye, who’d been notified by the local BIA that I was looking for him, asks if I’d like to escape the area’s ghosts and start to look at where it’s going to go next. When I meet the author at Carlton and Parliament, he has a black Nikon camera hanging around his neck. “We’re doing something a little bit nasty,” says Rust-D’Eye, who has a last name that wouldn’t be out of place in the next Pirates of the Caribbean film. Apparently, when Rust-D’Eye isn’t fighting cases, he’s photographing his neighbours houses, determining which housing renovations disrespect the original buildings.

 

“We’re taking photographs of what works and what doesn’t,” he says, “and that stupid-looking dormer doesn’t work.”

Rust-D’Eye, 67 and smoking, shows me all the Georgian and Victorian architecture of Cabbagetown and even points out the former home of a neo- Nazi that was firebombed in 1995.

“The sooner he was obliterated from the earth, the happier I’d be,” says Rust- D’Eye, and points out a former wayward girls’ home from the 1870s that’s now a parking lot for the Beer Store. “This whole neighbourhood was once a residential area, and I think it must be preserved. It’s simply a matter of taste.”

My spirits are bolstered after meeting the world’s coolest lawyer, and finally I decide it’s time for my beer. Stout Irish Bar opened last month, and when I walk in, there’s a fireplace keeping the restaurant warm. There are 20 beers on tap and most of the wait staff and the restaurant’s owners are Irish.

“Irish pubs in Canada have become a concept, but in Ireland, they’re comfortable second homes,” says Erin Gamelin, who owns the bar with her husband, Craig Abbot. For St. Patrick’s Day, Stout will hold a massive party that includes Irish music and dancing and hoisting a tent over their back patio. Don’t expect green beer or leprechauns, says Gamelin, but one thing you can expect is a return to Cabbagetown history. I order a shepherd’s pie, a Murphy’s Irish stout and exhale. Cabbagetown’s legacy is saved.

Ben Kaplan is a features writer for the National Post

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