The Freedom in American Songs, by Kathleen Winter

The Freedom in American Songs
Kathleen Winter


This genealogical study of the lives of John and Bridget Callaghan, Irish immigrants to Montreal and the author’s forebears, is understated yet moving in its detail. The book traces the journey of the Callaghan family from the arrival of young John and Bridget in 1845, at the start of the Great Potato Famine, to the more prosperous epoch when their grown children have established careers and families.

As in contemporary immigrant tales, there are periods of struggle and catastrophe. There are also numerous small triumphs: the Callaghans buy property, send their children to school, see their daughter married. One son joins the Church, to be followed by other sons. The arc of steady improvement in the family’s lot is a reflection of their adopted city’s development: as the Callaghans acquire money and stability, Montreal adds gas lighting, hospitals and railways.

The meticulous research in Paths of Opportunity is a crucial element of its charm. When a notary’s document reveals that, after much labour, “John was intending to increase the height of one his two wooden houses,” the reader is cheered. Anyone with immigrant roots, or an interest in how people leave everything behind to build anew, will find this book of interest. More significantly, stories like this are a reminder that the immigrant ‘other’ is us – give or take a century. mRb