The Man, The Mystique, The Moustache
Its 6 PM on a windy Thursday afternoon on Edmonton’s infamous Whyte Ave. George Ireland, Tormaigh and I strolled into Wunderbar, the site of Ireland’s first show with his band the Boxcars. We opt for the patio as the bar is humid and sweaty. We grab some brews and choose one of the graffiti scrawled picnic tables and get to know our drinks.
Today, George Ireland is a musician, a working man, and basically a guy with his shit together. It wasn’t always this way. Ireland has gone through many metamorphic transitions in his day.
This year alone George Ireland played to many a soggy North Country Fair goer with his band the Boxcar Social, stormed his way through the Edmonton music scene (either with the Boxcars or standing in with other acts), and has been featured on the CKUA airwaves. This October, George Ireland and the Boxcar Social will play the underground’s Halloween bash in Peace River.
If you know George, you know that there is a sharp divide in his personality. There is George the complex and serious intellectual, then there is George the showman and jokester—but, hey, he’s got a big enough personality to house these two opposing facets.
Before George Ireland became the man who sat before me, he was a punk kid among few who rebelled against the constraints of his stereotype, he voyaged through the British Columbian landscape trying to find himself, and he found his heart, his calling in music.
As a chill hit the air Ireland waxed poetically about his past.
This is the dark journey of George Ireland.
The Misfit years
When George received his high school diploma, he and his friends spat on it and lit it on fire in front of the Peace River High School. This ceremony took place shortly before Ireland got chased out of his hometown by the police.
Ireland was a misfit in a small town. “I was a bit of a punk rocker in Peace River. A lot of people didn’t like the way I looked. It’s easy nowadays for people to look a certain way in any small town, but I remember being the only person with dyed hair, dreads, spiked collars and wearing make-up,” said Ireland.
George was an honour student. The accomplishment here, in Ireland’s eyes, was not that he successfully completed high school, it was more so proving to everyone that you can be a punk rocker, an iconoclast, and still excel academically. George liked to straddle the line between academic and badass; it gave him a chance to stand up for the underdogs.
Ireland and his friends were accused of dealing drugs at school, an allegation that Ireland calls “outrageous.” Ireland burned his diploma in protest to such allegations. “It was very liberating to me.”
When Ireland was recognized for achievements in school he would not accept the accolades. “I would not go up for [awards]. It felt like an illusion. These things aren’t real.”
Ireland’s antics eventually led to the punk rocker getting kicked out of Peace River.
As the story goes, an unfortunate incident with a police officer led to George fleeing his homeland.
On a frigid minus-thirty morning, Ireland and a friend were messing around on the highway just leaving Peace River. A police officer caught wind of the hijinks and stepped in to investigate. Ireland’s friend managed to escape the inquisition leaving Ireland to take the heat. Ireland had a beer in his pocket and feared getting an open liquor ticket. As the female officer tried to apprehend Ireland for mischief, he wiggled out of her grasp and fled to Grimshaw. “When you’re at such a young age an open liquor or a beer in your pocket seems like a major thing,” explained Ireland.
He was taken into custody the next day. After being held for 12 hours and accused for assault on a police officer, Ireland recalls being threatened by a male officer as he was leaving the station. Ireland felt intimidated enough that he left town the following day. He would not return for almost a decade.
The Wanderlust Years
Before George got scared out of town, he lived in a cave outside of Kamloops with nothing but a sleeping bag and a backpack. After George left the Peace Country, he bounced between BC Communities, finding solace mainly in the Kootenays and the Okanagan. Picking fruit and bumming around looking for adventure. “I found the hippie lifestyle very peaceful. But like everything, there is always politics—even with hippies,” said Ireland.
“When I feel like I’m as twisted as myself, music is the only thing that can straighten me.”
After almost two months of cave-dwelling and picking fruit, Ireland moved to swankier digs in a hostel. This is where Ireland met Wally, an older gentleman who kept him in good spirits and taught him how to jump trains. They would travel together, keep each other company and learn from one another.
Through the extreme ups and downs, Ireland felt religious emptiness. While catching a hot meal one Sunday at the Kamloops Mustard Seed, a street church and food bank that serves up hot meals to the financially challenged, the resident priest asked the diners if they would like to pray with him. “No one was there for the sermon; we were there for the supper,” noted Ireland.
Ireland and the priest began conversing. Ireland had reminded the priest of a son that he’d lost. The priest knelt before Ireland and cried into his hands. “A man of the cloth crying into my hands like a child,” recalls Ireland. It was at that moment, Ireland realized that we’re all the same. “Every God is only a perception of what we can perceive as God.”
George’s adventures eventually led him to the rugged streets of Vancouver. “I was experimenting with religion and then I found drugs,” said Ireland. “I wanted to see the streets in their ugliness.”
Just as a method actor would immerse his or herself in a role to truly understand the motivations of their character, Ireland immersed himself in this skid/junkie lifestyle. While dabbling, Ireland discovered a whole new world.
He discovered the depths of depravity, and hordes of others who were also following this road to nowhere. “I’ve seen squats that were parkades deep that you’d never imagine—how there were different ecosystems, different social structures and levels of people,” says Ireland. “The deeper you got the more weird the drugs were—huge, huge compounds of so many kids. It made me realize that there are a lot of kids just as screwed up as me.”
As Ireland reflects, he doesn’t seem embarrassed or ashamed of this dark spot in his past. He has learned from it. It is a part of who he is. “There’s no better way to jade and grow up quicker than hitting the streets alone.”
Unlike so many who have fallen into this trap, Ireland was able to break free. He’d deal with his demons another way. He fell in love. “I remember looking up at the stars and the moon in the sky and praying that if I won her heart, I would quit doing drugs, which I did.”
After living amongst the scum and the filth, Ireland followed his heart. A true romantic, Ireland devoted his efforts to his new conquest, “I slept in a park near her place in Coquitlam [a city in the greater Vancouver area] and I’d wake up every morning and bring her bouquets of autumn leaves and sing songs out her window while her family was at work. It was Strange, sleeping outside for days to being in some rich suburbs.”
His romantic efforts were eventually successful and he’d leave Vancouver and move to the Queen Charlotte Islands with his ladylove. “So, I spent a couple of months in the Queen Charlottes just listening to the songs of nature, having beautiful full moons and sleeping in the cabin. I would plant a garden and dig through the compost for worms to go sit on a log by the creek that fed into the ocean to catch fish and the otters would come up and eat my fish. It was the most beautiful thing. It was the way people were meant to live.”
As George recounts the memories of these days there is a sparkle in his eyes.
As fate would have it, while in the Queen Charlottes, George had misgivings about his arrangement,” I realized that I don’t know if I could ever be really happy completely loving one person or just being stuck in one place.”
George would periodically come back to the Peace Country for a few days at a time. During one of these brief visits, he fell in love again, but he couldn’t remain in the area. “I’d always have this weight on my shoulders of the police or the system trying to get me. I’d even dream about it—the police getting me. With all my freedom, I never felt free.”
George followed his second love to Victoria. “I followed adventure and my heart all over again.” He would remain in Victoria for almost 9 years.
After pursing a long term relationship in Victoria, George realized that the “normal life” was not for him. “I had a full time job; I was trying the normal living thing. The more I did fit in, the more taxes I paid, the more I felt that I didn’t fit in. I realized this is not my life.”
Ireland had a decision to make. He had the life—what one is supposed to aspire to, but it didn’t fulfill him. “I was with the girl of my dreams and I love her more than anything I’ve ever loved in my life, and I was completely out of my realm. There was something else in me. “
After much soul-searching, George made the brutally difficult decision of ended the long-term relationship. Once again, George would undergo a metamorphosis. His life would change.
The Rising Star Years
While in his relationship, George had recorded copious amounts of music. When his relationship ended, he would devote his life to making music. “I feel like I’ve traded the life, the wife, the kids, and everything for this—my heart and soul. This is my dream. This is all I have left.”
His many years in the Victoria music scene would pay off. He would stand in with various acts including the Secretaries from Edmonton and Victoria’s Hank and Lily.
When George opened for Hank and Lily in January of this year something weird happened—he unintentionally formed a band. “I accidentally had a mandolin player, then accidentally a bass player, then a Cajon player,” speaking about his Boxcar band mates Dustin Lambert, Jarrett Armstrong and Brahm Ollivierre. “Now, I accidentally have a fiddle player and I’m expanding with musicians and they are all great musicians—I feel very honoured.”
Although it wasn’t necessarily planned, it would seem that George will stay in Alberta, “I only came home to work to gain some money to go back. I had a band waiting for me in Victoria, or many musicians waiting to play to start a band. So, me coming for one month has developed into me not necessarily thinking about leaving outside of a visit, it almost seems unheard of,” said Ireland.
Ireland has recorded 5 complete unreleased albums, and has aspirations for a new album with the Boxcars.
For Ireland, music is a cathartic experience. It’s his time to let it all out, to tell his story. To see him perform is to understand his passion. This is truly where his heart is. “When I feel like I’m as twisted as myself, music is the only thing that can straighten me. I’m obviously a very difficult person, very complex, but when I go onstage that’s the last thing I want to be.”
As we trace the major events in Ireland’s life to lead to the person sitting across the picnic table from me, it’s hard to say what events had the greatest impact. His journey had been tumultuous and riddled with hardships but yet Ireland perseveres. He is a fighter, a legend, infamous. His roots and his experiences provide the ammunition for his intense lyrics.
As we get up to leave we grab our empty glasses and stretch our legs, “Do you have anything else to add, George?”
“One plus One equals infinity,” he replies.