Priest: Gaelic, Arabic share century of roots in Cape Breton

Father Albert Maroun, a Maronite Catholic priest in traditional Arabic outfit commonly worn in Lebanon, is a longstanding member of the St. Joseph Lebanese and Syrian Benevolent Society in Sydney, which turns 105 years old next month. (TOM AYERS / Cape Breton Bureau)
SYDNEY — The Lebanese community has had a heavy influence on Cape Breton, ever since waves of immigrants came to work in the coal mines and the steel plant a century ago.

Middle Eastern food is commonly available and the Cedars Club in Sydney, run by the St. Joseph Lebanese and Syrian Benevolent Society, is used by the wider community as a local watering hole and for meetings, dances and weddings.

But many people don’t realize there’s a more subtle connection between the Gaelic-Celtic inhabitants and the Lebanese, says Father Albert Maroun, a Maronite Catholic priest whose parents came to Sydney from what was then the country of Syria in 1918.

If you close your eyes and listen, Maroun said, Gaelic language and Celtic music sound a lot like Arabic. The sounds share similar origins in the back of the throat, and it’s no wonder.

“I took a Gaelic history course at Cape Breton University and learned that Middle Eastern people a long time ago immigrated through Europe and on to the British Isles,” the 83-year-old said.

Maroun, who sings in a Gaelic choir, is one of the driving forces behind the society, which celebrates its 105th anniversary in Sydney next month.

The society’s strength has ebbed over the years as people moved away or got distracted by busy lives, said Maroun, but it is hoped a dinner and dance on Sunday night at the Cedars Club can spur a renewal.

The evening starts at 7 p.m. with mass, followed by traditional Lebanese dinner at 8, and entertainment by a Lebanese dance troupe of young people from Halifax.

The event is open to the public and Maroun said there is no charge, although a small donation for the meal will be accepted.

“We’re trying to make the society strong,” he said. “We’re trying to build it up and get more people interested in their culture. That’s why we’re having this big weekend.

“We’re trying to give a spark to our young people so they can see people of their culture having fun.”

Lebanon was carved out of Syria in 1941, essentially split along religious lines with the Muslims in Syria and Christians in Lebanon.

Both countries are still plagued by sectarian violence, but Maroun said none of that travelled to Cape Breton.

The local society includes some Syrian Muslims, and Maroun is scheduled to take part in the Cape Breton University Students’ Union’s Arabic Night Thursday, along with Muslim international students. And those students have been invited to attend Sunday’s celebration.

“It’s open to everybody, to see our culture,” Maroun said.