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Peter Keleghan: Once an Immigrant

Peter Keleghan, actor,
Peter Keleghan at the 2015 Canadian Screen Awards. Photo © 2015 by Ralph Lucas.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2016, but as it centres on actor Peter Keleghan’s search for “the Irish history in Canada,” we thought it appropriate to post it again today, St-Patrick’s Day 2021. The broadcast dates in the story are no longer accurate.

(December 15, 2016 – Toronto, ON) It’s a story shared by virtually all non-native North Americans, a story that can be summed up with the words “we’re all from somewhere else.” It’s an idea explored by award-winning documentary filmmaker Michael McNamara who has turned his attention and camera on award-winning actor and writer Peter Keleghan. Keleghan is the son of immigrants from Ireland and Poland, and now in mid-life he is seeking to understand his parents’ complex and contradictory feelings about their adopted home, Canada.

Peter Keleghan’s mom Rita is turning 90 and to celebrate, he and his big sister Tecky take her on a trip “back home” to Navan, her hometown (and also Pierce Brosnan’s) in County Meath, Ireland. Navan-born national radio celebrity Hector Ó hEochagáin takes the trio on a personal tour. Rita lights up as the memories come flooding back but is equally dismayed to see that progress means a McDonald’s restaurant has taken up residence in the historic post office and a new highway cuts through the quiet countryside of her youth. The tears well up when Rita enters her old stone schoolhouse after 80 years and has an unexpected reunion with 93 year-old childhood friend Sally Hart. Somewhat typically, out of ten siblings in Rita’s family, only three stayed in Ireland, and she catches up over high tea with two sisters, Marie and Joan and with baby brother Frank and his wife Lil at their B&B in Kilkenny.

Along the way Keleghan traces the Irish history in Canada as one facet of the Canadian immigrant experience, citing the Great Famine of 1845 – 1852 as Ireland’s Holocaust, when one million perished and one million left Ireland creating the great Irish diaspora. In Dublin, Peter visits a memorial dedicated by Prime Minister Jean Chretien to the Irish immigrants who fled to Canada during the Great Famine. More recently the crash of the Celtic Tiger’s economic boom in 2007 has created a new wave of Irish immigrants to Canada seeking a better future, the same circumstances that pushed Rita to leave Ireland as a young woman in the 1950’s. In Navan, Peadar Tóibín, Sinn Féin MP relays that in 2016 fully a third of Irish young people age 20– 30years have left to make a life somewhere else.

Back in Canada, Keleghan visits with the “ongoing mystery that is my Dad” who still lives in the isolated house where he and his sister were raised, in St Bruno, Québec. A farmer’s son in Kalisz, Poland, Stanislaw Krakus was interned as a ten year-old boy to hard labour camps by the Nazis who separated the family after seizing their farm. After the war, Stan joined other young cadets in the UK at 17 years and finally reconnected with his family, but was told not to come home at risk of being shot by Stalin’s army. Now amicably separated from Rita whom he met in the UK, and married 6 months later, the couple immigrated to Montreal Canada in search of a better life in 1957.

Stan’s negative experiences as an immigrant in the U.K. led him to encourage Peter to change his last name to something less “foreign sounding” if he was going to pursue an acting career – so Peter took his mother’s surname. As an insecure “foreigner” with a strange name and strong accent Stan thought this would help make Peter more accepted.

Known for Workin’ Moms, Saving Hope, Made in Canada, Murdoch Mysteries, and so many more films and TV shows, as Keleghan embarks on his journey of discovery – brandishing his playful sense of humour and irony to find answers in his parents’ immigrant experience, he also turns to his circle of friends from the film, television, comedy and theatre community – Ted Dykstra, Elvira Kurt, Maria Vacratsis, Grace Lynn Kung and Raoul Bhaneja – who also happen to be children of immigrants from Greece, The Netherlands, Ireland, India, Hungary, China and Taiwan.

Director Michael McNamara and Markham Street Films announced today that Once an Immigrant will have its World Broadcast Premiere on CBC Television’s Firsthand series on Thursday, January 12 at 9PM (9:30PM NT).