This is a photo of my maternal grandmother Mary Clifford, or Nom as she was always known to me. She was born in the rural picturesque parish of Cartron, Kilmore, Co Roscommon in 1913. Kilmore is a tiny townland tucked away between Dromod and Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim. At the young age of 16, Mary left Ireland behind and set out for a new life in America.
As with all the Irish emigrants of her generation, Mary arrived in the U.S. with nothing but hope. Hope that must surely have dimmed when she found that she had left a poverty-stricken Ireland to arrive in America on October 28, one day before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. A lesser person might accept that they were doomed from the beginning. But not Mary, she had determination and strength of spirit. Her ability to defy adversity and draw on inner hope and faith inspires me and motivate me daily.
Mary worked hard and sent money home to Kilmore to help fund the passage of more family members. Later, she fell in love with Johann Azrnitz, a German immigrant, and married him. Together they settled in Forest Hills, Queens and raised five children: Joseph, John, Francis, Patricia and my mother, Eileen. In order to educate herself, Mary joined a Jewish women’s book club and attended it every week for decades. She always credited her Jewish friends for the expansion of her knowledge. She was too busy and practical to be nostalgic for the Ireland she had left behind, but this did not deter her from passing her love of the Irish culture and language on to her children and grandchildren.
When I was growing up, every Sunday after mass we piled into my dad’s car and went to visit Mary, “Nom,” in Queens. We sat around the kitchen table and shared the stories of the week, our joys and sorrows. This was the same kitchen table that I was sitting under when I overheard a conversation between Nom and my aunt about an upcoming trip to Ireland. Perhaps it was destiny, but for some inexplicable reason I decided I was going too. So at the tender age of five, too young to conceptualize what or where Ireland was, I embarked on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean with Mary and my Aunt Pat to visit the homestead in Kilmore.
This visit turned out to be a very formative experience. I fell in love with Ireland, its people and its culture. In that small thatched cottage and its stony surroundings, I was immersed in a sensory experience that has never left me. For many summers, I returned again to Granny Mary’s cottage. I heard Irish music and saw Irish dance; through stories around the peat fire, I learned the troubled history of Ireland’s past. How those few stony acres had been in my family since pre-famine times, and how my ancestors had sweated blood and tears to hold on to them.
On returning to the U.S. after that first visit, I assimilated back into life in Nassau County, Long Island. But I was a changed boy. With Mary’s motivation, I excelled at school and college, played college lacrosse and became a lawyer. I have been blessed in sharing in the American dream of career and family. Even in this, Mary has had a formative role. I see her in my children: Conor, Shannon and Alanna who play tin whistle and fiddle, and compete in Irish dancing, I hear her in their Irish music, I feel her in the warmth of their embrace. And although my life journey so far has kept me in the U.S., I did leave a piece of my heart back in Ireland and I go back frequently to try to recapture it.
When Nom passed away some years ago, I wanted to keep her memory alive to help fill the void of not having her tangible presence in my life. I created a foundation that enriches the lives of the children of Ireland by enhancing their opportunities and experience with the Irish language.
When there are dark moments in my life, I think of those unpredictable showers in the West of Ireland, where the sky clouds over and everything becomes grey, and then in an instant there appears a dazzling spectrum of colors when the sun breaks through. Mary’s gift to me – her optimism – is eternal. Her ray of sunshine now brings hope to others’ lives through the charitable foundation I founded and named in her honor, Mary’s Gift Irish Language Foundation, Inc.
– Michael Breen
Mary’s Gift Irish Language Foundation:
Mary’s Gift is a 100% voluntary organization. All donations are redirected to Irish language immersion schools in Ireland. Mary’s Gift is not affiliated with any religious or political group. It is a nonprofit corporation and registered 501(c) (3) public charity. For further information please see www.marysgift.org or contact Michael Breen, founder and executive director, at 201-745-3144 or email firstname.lastname@example.org