Learning about my grandfather’s heroic life taught me the power of storytelling

How a York documentarian helped me reconnect with the memory of my late grandfather

Nathan's connection to his grandfather's legacy was strengthened through film.
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I will never meet my grandfather. His death in 1978 makes that impossible. But I would be grossly mistaken—and I was—to think that means I’d never have a relationship with him.

When I was growing up my dad often read to me and my sister. I remember how the three of us fit snugly in his scratchy grey armchair in the corner of the bedroom. I remember how his raspy voice sounded as the authors’ words captured my imagination. Most of all, I remember how safe I felt.

For some peculiar reason, when I reflect on these memories, the story that most frequently comes to mind is Mister Pip. It’s about an 11-year-old girl named Matilda who lives on an island torn apart by civil war. Her teacher introduces the class to Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. Matilda becomes spellbound by its protagonist, an orphan named Pip. For her, it doesn’t matter that Pip is the author’s invention. She sees him as a living, breathing person.

Mister Pip speaks to the idea of how stories and the people in them take on a life of their own in our imaginations, and how crucial this process is for our wellbeing. Matilda identifies with Pip because his hardships mirror her own. Thanks to Pip’s story, she is inspired to recognize the beauty of life despite her suffering.

One of the unfortunate realities of my grandfather dying before I was born is that my relationship to him mirrors that between Matilda and Pip. My grandfather isn’t fictional, but for me, he exists only in stories.

As a child, I wasn’t concerned that we’d never meet. I was too busy being dazzled by my dad’s retellings of my grandpa’s heroic exploits. Through my dad’s stories, I learned that my grandpa lived a remarkable life. From a modest beginning in Ireland, to volunteering in the English Army in WWII, and finally to the legacy that defined his life: becoming a labour union leader and workers’ safety activist in Toronto.

In my adolescence, I treasured these stories. My grandpa took on a mythical status in my mind. I was entranced by the idea of him being from this faraway island called Ireland, which I sincerely believed was populated by leprechauns, giants, and magic. A boy with wild ideas like these had no time to be sad about not meeting his grandfather.

However, the older I grew, the more I became disenchanted with the world. I no longer believed in magic. The stories of my grandfather that once dazzled me left me feeling empty, as I realized I’d missed out on a powerful bond.

The stories of my grandfather that once dazzled me left me feeling empty, as I realized I’d missed out on a powerful bond.

While I still recognized the facts in my father’s stories and understood them as the deeds of my grandfather, Gerald Gallagher, I lost my sense of connection to him.  

Coming to Queen’s, this disillusionment worsened. Being away from home and family, I felt like some seismic shift had separated me from my old, happy life. I felt burdened by confusion, remorse, and increasing anxiety about the future.

But on September 28, 2018, a York University historian named Gilberto Fernandes helped me regain my footing. Fernandes is responsible for City Builders, a two-part documentary series and online exhibit exploring the history of immigrant workers in post-war Toronto.

The first episode, “My father worked here,” centers around my grandfather’s campaign to improve safety standards in the construction industry. 

As my parents, sister, and I piled into the screening hall to watch the episode, and found our seats labeled “Gallagher family,” I began to feel the pride and excitement I’d felt towards my grandpa in my youth. I felt a strong sense of unity with my family that I’d been missing at Queen’s.

About five minutes into the documentary, my grandfather’s face was projected onto the screen and his voice resounded through the room.

Before seeing City Builders, I had no idea how much of my grandfather’s career was in the public eye. Watching the documentary, I discovered he made headlines, was pictured in the media, and often featured in speeches and interviews with the press.

Seeing and hearing him speak was invaluable. It reinvigorated my spirit.

Seeing and hearing him speak was invaluable. It reinvigorated my spirit.

I no longer had to rely solely on my imagination to recreate my grandfather. He was speaking before me as a man I’d previously been unable to acknowledge as really existing.

The City Builders website offers an even more extensive dive into Gerry Gallagher’s life and achievements. It features more clips of him talking, including gems like him recounting his parents’ love story or talking about the time he organized his first picket after a “fanatic” teacher banned the old-time waltz at a school dance.

I’ve listened to these stories more than once. When I do, I pretend he’s talking directly to me. I’m reminded of that safe feeling I got when my dad read to me as a child.

After the documentary, I revisited a letter my grandpa wrote to his brothers and sisters after their mother’s funeral in 1950. He wrote, “I know whatever the difficulties that I must get to Ireland, I realized immediately that I was the only Son within call, it was impossible for any of the family in America to get there […] I decided that the only way to get there in time was to fly, I had sworn I would never go up in an Aeroplane but nothing like that mattered now.”

Reading this brought tears to my eyes. I imagined what he must have been feeling, grieving for his mother as the airplane took off. It’s hard to think that the same man from the heroic stories, the same confident fast-talker from the news footage, also experienced fear and suffering.

From learning more about my grandfather over the last few years, I’ve realized that the thread that connects us is love and empathy. Empathy was my grandpa’s mission. He strove to engender concern for the lives of workers that most people thought little of.

Empathy is why a little girl named Matilda in a story identified with a character named Pip, and it’s why I feel a kinship with my grandfather—a man I’ll never meet.

Empathy is what animates our stories. If we didn’t care about the people in them, they’d be meaningless. Storytelling is valuable because it binds us together and alleviates our suffering.

Empathy is what animates our stories. If we didn’t care about the people in them, they’d be meaningless. Storytelling is valuable because it binds us together and alleviates our suffering.

Hearing my grandpa speak about what he was passionate about helped restore meaning to my life. My hope is that his story has an impact on you too.  

“The thing I find most fascinating about Ontario is the people, the greatest asset of all,” he once said.

“My job takes me to remote places in the North. I spend my nights talking to bush pilots and Indians at the Hydro camps, drinking beer and listening to their tales. I also like sitting in the pubs in Cochrane and Kapuskasing, talking to the French Canadians. We talk about the weather, I buy them a drink and then we get into their stories.”

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