Fiddle music, a rich culture of storytelling, iconic landscapes – and cod. These are some of the things that come to mind when I think of Fogo Island, Newfoundland.
I’ve had the good fortune to visit Fogo Island twice now, and I’m already planning a third trip this summer. This time, I’m going to bring my husband and son and show them why I love Newfoundland so much. There is a simplicity to it all, set with a backdrop that rivals our country’s most beautiful lands.
On my last trip there, I had the opportunity to join a Fogo Island walking tour with local islander, Al Dwyer. I love meeting and supporting locals! My friends and I met Al at his house in the Fogo Island community, Tilting, and set out for a 2-3 hour walk along the coast.
The first stop on Al’s Fogo Island walking touris the Dywer stage. Fishing stages built over the water is where fishermen loaded their cod, split and salted their catch. Today, they are relics of an important era, long gone now. For decades, cod was a key source for Fogo Island and all of Newfoundland’s economy. Eventually, this resource depleted, prompting the government to instill a moratorium limiting the amount of fish caught in these waters. The impact rippled across the province. Processing plants closed, livelihoods were lost, and entire communities were forced inland.
The Dwyer stage looks like a typical stage – this one has red walls and a simple path over the water leading to the shed. No longer used for its original purpose, the stage is now somewhat of a prop for telling stories, giving ‘come-from-aways’ (like me) a glimpse into the island’s challenging past.
Our walk takes us past an old Dwyer home that once belonged to Al’s uncle. It’s now a museum. We head down to Oliver’s Cove where an iceberg greets us from the sea. Next, we walk to High Hill with picture-perfect views of Tilting. We pass by a rock formation known as the Devil’s Rocking Chair. The story goes that this area is haunted having once been used as an old graveyard.
Spinning a Yarn: Newfoundland Story-telling
If there’s one thing to know about Newfoundlanders, it’s that they love to tell stories
Storytelling is an important part of Newfoundland’s history. “The storytelling here in Tilting, I think it’s even more of a feature because of our background. Before modern conveniences, such as TVs, it was a traditional thing to do, especially in the fall and winter – never in the summer because people were too busy then. People would gather in houses, usually after supper as twilight comes around. I remember this scene quite vividly as a child – the lights would be flickering in the stove and fireplace. It’s the kind of scene to trigger imaginations to tell stories of the sea, and being lost at sea, and of characters who lived in another time.”
We continue on the Fogo Island walking tour, and around one cove, we bump into Al’s brother, Roy Dwyer, out his on ATV to take photos of the icebergs. Roy is a local author – “a professional storyteller.” We later have the privilege of having Roy join us at our bed-and-breakfast in Tilting for a reading from his books. He is mesmerizing and fun to listen to.
Family Ties on Fogo Island
Al in front of his family heritage home on the Fogo walking tour
The Dwyer history runs deep on this island. Toward the end of our tour, Al shows us another old traditional house belonging to his family that was built in the early 1800s. The Dwyers’ have been in Fogo Island for five generations. Al’s great-great grandfather came to work on a fishery here in 1815.
“The English and French would come over in the Spring (from Europe), catch the cod, and then take it back to Europe. They would stop in ports along the west country of England and pick up workers to bring here. These workers, their lives were wretched in Ireland. Many of them tried to make a like for themselves; they chose to stay, and gradually, that’s how we came to be,” Al says. “They left a land that was rich in agriculture, pasture and food, but they were deprived of everything. Here, they found the three things I think are important to human psyche: freedom, the ability to practice their own religion freely, and claim to the land.”
Al has four children and grandchildren now – only his eldest son lives in Tilting (for six months of the yea he is at sea – a common lifestyle on the island). “I’m not sure what will happen to our home when we are gone. Possibly, it will become a summer home for the family.”
Having spent 2.5 hours with Al on his Fogo Island walking tour, we are fast friends. He invites us to his house for a song – not an uncommon thing in Fogo Island. Inside, he strums his guitar and shares the traditional music of Newfoundlanders and the Irish.
He explains that as a small boy growing up in this Fogo Island community, there was always a gathering for music to be found. “The Irish have the gift of the gab – and the music,” he says. “There was always someone who could sing something.” Days used to be long, and settlers worked hard. Electricity came to Fogo Island until the 60s or 70s. These musical nights, known as singing circles, kitchen parties, or shed parties are “the good times that counteracted the hard work they did.”
Singing Circle at Sexton’s Cafe
A few days after our tour, Al invites us to join his singing circle and the newly opened Sexton’s Café in Tilting. A dozen or so locals with accordions and guitars come together to share a few drinks, laughs, and lots of music. Everyone gets a chance to lead a song. There’s a fun mix of country, classic rock-n-roll, and of course, traditional folk music.
Al later tells me that as the summer went on, this singing circle became a big hit with tourists. Every Tuesday night, the café is jammed with people – so much that Al has to arrive early with his guitar to get a seat!
I’m already planning my return to the Sexton’s Café singing circle with Al, hoping to bring my young son. I’ve been getting him ready, reading him a child’s book with the lyrics to Saltwater Joys. He loves it, and my guess is he will sing and dance with the best of them in Fogo Island.
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