At 70 years old, Billy Willbond is a man of many roles: a poet, decorated peacekeeping veteran, and social activist, providing humanitarian aid to the developing world through his NGO, ICross Canada.
Willbond’s heritage is just as rich and multifaceted as his career. Billy’s father came alone from Ireland to Quebec at the age of 13, in 1930. There he was taken in by the family of Billy’s mother, Quebecois farmers who were descendants of “coffin-ship” Irish.
Billy grew up with the sounds of French, English and Irish, a dialect he calls “patois Hinglish.” He’s used this intriguing mix of sounds to create rich poetry and rhyme.
Willbond spoke with TheWildGeese.com’s Daniel Marrin about his family’s story, and how it has influenced him on his journey.
TheWildGeese.com: I was reading in your bio that your father came to Canada at the age of 13.
Billy Willbond: Yes, he was in an orphanage at the time in Lismore, County Waterford. My grandmother had put him there in a convent with the nuns after my grandfather died. Then she went off to become an actress on the London stage.
Dad never liked the nuns. He said they were awful mean to him. If he wet the bed, they used to give him the strap and all that. He couldn’t get out of there soon enough.
[When he came to the States] my father worked for different farmers, and he went to a shanty [in Quebec] in the winter, where he met my grandfather and my mother. My grandfather, James McCaffrey, was third-generation ‘coffin ship’ Irish. The McCaffreys were from Martindale, Quebec. My mother was from a family of 16.
Grandpa was quite a man. He had all sisters, and his father had died young. So he had to support them all from the time he was around 10 or something; he took a team of horses to the shanty and [worked] all winter. And when he became a teenager, he went south [to the States] [where] you had a good gang of Irish workers cutting railroad ties.
My favorite story of his -- he used to tell me that the greatest man who ever lived was John L. Sullivan, (right, Wikipedia Commons) the boxer, because he was an Irishman and nobody could beat him -- one day he went to go see one of Sullivan’s fights, and on his trip back, he was on a train, down in the States somewhere.
Jesse James (left, Wikipedia Commons) decided to rob the train. And because Grandpa, being a construction worker, was wearing an old pair of coveralls and a hat and a workshirt, and a pair of workboots, they never bothered him. They were robbin’ all the dudes who had gold watches and feathery hats and stuff like that, took all their wallets. Grandpa didn’t have a wallet, but he did have his whole year’s pay tied to his handkerchief in his pocket at that time. They didn’t bother him though because he looked like a laborer. … That was his story to me about how looks can be deceiving.
My grandfather was an old man when I was a small kid. I’m 70 now. So that was some 70 years ago. I remember he used to bounce me on his knee and sing songs that are sort of out of whack today: “Oh Ireland was Ireland when England was a pup/ And Ireland will be Ireland when England’s all blew up”… Things like that. He had an interesting life. He even worked as an Indian agent [in Canada].
WG: So you grew up with a mix of Quebecois French, English and Irish. [Check out a fun example of the mix of languages in Billy’s poetry here.]
Willbond: Gaelic, yes. Those words all were part of the language I heard when I was a kid. … When I was a little kid, I used to speak it with [Grandpa’s friends] Johnny Dunlop and Paddy Dane and my grandpa, all Irish bushwhackers and log drivers. They drove logs down the Gatineau River and down to Pontiac. Then when I went to Ottawa as a little kid, when I came down from the Gatineau mountains, I went to English schools.
WG: Do you think your family’s experience would have been very different if they’d lived in America rather than in Canada?
Willbond: Oh, I think so. We had the influence of the French. And, of course, the French are all Catholic, as the Irish are Catholic. So we never had that problem [of anti-Catholic discrimination]. We all went to the same church.
Much of my father’s family is still there in Lismore in County Waterford, the Irish Free State. We went to visit my aunt, who’s 98 now. We visited her once and she asked us -- me and my brother Joey were sitting there -- and my aunt who’s 98 years old or something asked, “When are you lads coming home?”
I said, “It was my dad that left, not us! We’re Canadians!”
DAN MARRIN is a Queen's, N.Y. -based journalist and videographer