By Kerry Kelly
Mary Tanguay’s pale blue eyes widen as she brushes back a lock of hair that still holds traces of vivid reddish-gold color. With animated gestures she begins to paint her picture of Nicholas Sparks, the namesake of Ottawa’s Sparks Street:
“Nicholas Sparks was an entrepreneur from Wexford. When he had saved 92 pounds, he bought the whole city of Ottawa, the whole centre of Ottawa for 92 pounds sterling, can you imagine? And he cried the day he bought it because it was a dreadful place full of swamp and trees, a savage country.”
On a cold January day, it warms the heart to hear the lyrical words of a true Irish storyteller recalling a tale. It’s a role this local author relishes in.
Her Irish accent has a definite, musical lilt, even in the easy laugh that ends this tale of Ottawa’s humble beginnings.
There won’t be much chance in the next few months for Tanguay to discuss the history of her second home. She is preparing to leave her apartment located, aptly, just off Nicholas Street, to return to her Irish home in Tralee, Co. Kerry.
This dynamic senior is a woman in demand. A former professor at the University of Ottawa, and author of several novels and plays, she is returning to Ireland for discussions with an Irish film company that may turn her latest novel about sea captain Grace O’Malley into a film.
She is also going to help stage an Irish production of her play Return to Grosse Isle. It is a play which has gained attention on both sides of the Atlantic and was written to mark the 150th anniversary of Irish emigration during the Potato Famine. The Tara Players, Ottawa’s local theatre group, is also considering performing the play.
Grosse Isle was the quarantine station in Quebec where shiploads of Irish immigrants caught their first glimpse of Canada.
The play is one of two works Tanguay has written that present both the Irish themes she favors, and the knowledge she has gained since coming to Ottawa for Ph.D studies 25 years ago.
“I write on Irish themes mostly because I’m not able to portray a Canadian character. I wouldn’t get their dialogue right you know? If you don’t get that right your character isn’t right.”
But Tanguay is a very big fan of Canada. When asked whether she feels comfortable here she leans forward and laughs again.
“Yes, I feel at home here,” she says. “It’s a beautiful country with warm people. Everyone should feel proud of the country they live in. I’m Canadian when I’m in Canada and Irish when I’m in Ireland.”
After having made this point clear, she relaxes back into her seat and tells the story of how she was inspired to write her second work of Canadiana, I’ll be at the Windmill, published in 1996.
The book is set before the Potato Famine, around 1823. Tanguay wrote it because she was touched by the plight of the Irishmen who built the Rideau Canal.
“I took a little trip on the canal here . . . the guide talked about how many died. He said about five or six thousand. I could imagine the winters and the Irishmen not equipped for that, not being adapted to the country.”
Tanguay explains that although the thought moved her, she did not write the novel until many years afterwards. In the meantime she wrote other books and spent time in Africa and Algeria as an English professor and taught at the University of Ottawa for 12 years before retiring this September to focus more on her writing.
“With teaching you give a lot of yourself. The only thing I miss about teaching is meeting the students.”
Leaving the university, though, ended a love affair with education that spanned four decades.
When she talks of her time at Trinity College in Dublin, it becomes clear why Tanguay loves students — she loved being one. She cherishes her memories of university.
Tanguay’s time at Trinity spanned almost a decade. In that time she completed bachelor degrees in arts and literature, and in 1956 obtained her master’s in English.
Her impressive academic career also took her to the Sorbonne in Paris, and to the University of Ottawa where she finished a Ph.D in 1974. But it was her time at Trinity College she remembers most fondly.
“When I go to Dublin, that’s one place where I just go in the front gate, and I sit down, perhaps on the steps of the examination hall, and I’m just back again there.”
Tanguay often visits the campus when she is in Dublin to walk along the flagstone paths and reminisce.
Among her fondest memories are her professors. Those men and woman who made the English and French literature she studied come alive for her.
“They were just great,” she says. “They were literary people, they loved what they were teaching, and understood it. And they didn’t push you,” she recalls.
It seems only fitting that a woman who was so touched by her educators would go on to teach. And her love of literature and learning inspires young people. Tanguay says she feels more at ease with students than some adults.
“Young people are honest and straight forward, they’re a great bunch.”
And they liked her. Prof. Joseph Griffin, who taught with Tanguay at the University of Ottawa, remembers she was a favorite among students.
“She was always warm. I’ve known some of her students who told me her reaction was always very warm.”
Griffin says Tanguay’s genuine interest in learning was obvious to her students, even in the theatres where she taught first-year classes.
“Her personality projected even in the larger classes,” he recalls.
With her inquisitive nature and great sense of fun, it’s easy to see why students would relate well to Tanguay.
Recently, Tanguay went to the Dunvegan Pub on Laurier Avenue for a poetry reading. A young man got up on stage and prepared to read his work.
Before he began, though, he stopped to thank a certain professor from the University of Ottawa for inspiring him to write.
Like a true Irish storyteller, Tanguay says she accepted the compliment graciously, and saved the memory for a new story to tell on a cold winter’s day.