By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
“There’s no sense of entitlement, no sense of placement, it’s all a sense of you’ve got to go out and work hard to get there. It doesn’t all break your way all the time, so you’ve got to just power through it. I think that’s deeply imbedded in the culture of the Irish.” – Brian Moynihan Chairman and CEO Bank of America. (Cover story Irish America in 2009).
I am remembering a day around this time of year in the early seventies. My mother is driving me across the county to say goodbye to a friend.
We are silent for long stretches as my mother navigates through the country roads of Tipperary passing from North Riding into South. She is never comfortable driving, always has both hands on the wheel as if propelling the car forward by sheer force of will. It’s beautiful farm country, lush green fields, and roads yet to be widened with EC money. There is little traffic. Ireland back then had a sleepy air to it; those who had jobs went about them quietly – those who didn’t, emigrated – there was no hint of the industry that was to come.
“There’s nothing for you here,” my mother said as if reading my thoughts and giving me a final push out of the nest. She had brought us up with the maxim that “travel broadens the mind,” and I was about to begin my journey.
And so it was on July 4, 1972 that my brother Henry and my cousin John picked me up at J.F.K airport. We drove through Harlem on the way to the Bronx and I remember watching children dancing in the spray of water from a fire hydrant. It was strange and magical.
That first night I spent in a basement apartment on Briggs Avenue. It was the home of Nora Barrett from Mayo, sister of my brother’s roommate, Tony, and it would become my home too. I would leave for Atlantic City for the summer, and then spend three months traveling around the country. Then it was November and back to the Bronx and sharing with Nora and later, her sister, Philomena.
The apartment was next door to The Ranch, the local bar that served as the center of our lives. It was here we stopped after our shifts as waitresses and bartenders, construction worker and sandhogs. It was where we got news of home and heard of work and received advice on how to navigate our way in the new world.
I had never traveled much outside the boundaries my own county, but in New York I met lads from Connemara and girls from Leitrim, and a girl whose brother was interned in Northern Ireland. You could say that in America I truly came to know Ireland.
By the end of that first year, I would also come to know something about Irish America.
As summer work in Atlantic City drew to a close, I paid $99 for a Greyhound bus ticket that allowed unlimited travel for three months.
You could get on and off wherever you liked in the United States and Canada, and we did just that. Three girls from Fermoy in County Cork, and myself. Our first stop was Toronto. Arriving on a Sunday morning we passed by a church as the parishioners were exiting. We were bold enough to talk to the priest, who, as it turned out was Irish. He introduced us to one of his flock, a woman named Mary, who took us home with her – we stayed for a week – and showed us around the city. It was a good start to what turned out to be an incredible journey.
We went to Medicine Bow, Wyoming because I had a crush on Trampas (Doug McClure) one of the stars of the TV series The Virginian. We danced the two-step with real cowboys in Montana and had our photo taken for the local newspaper in Walsenburg, Colorado – because we were “real Irish.”
We traveled south to New Orleans, north to Montreal, as far west as California, and along the way we met a lot of people who told us they were Irish, most of whom had never been to Ireland. They were descended from ancestors who had come over a long time ago, and they were happy to meet young people from what they had come to think of as a mythical place.
I knew little about the Irish in America before I left home. We had been told about the Famine in school and the “coffin ships” that ferried the starving Irish to the New World, but they didn’t tell us what happened when they got here. No one mentioned how many died on the journey or that thousands were buried in mass graves on Grosse Île and all along the St. Charles River in Canada. They didn’t tell us that in New Orleans the Irish died of yellow fever building the canals, or that there’s a statue there to “Margaret,” an Irish woman who built an orphanage and supported it with a bakery, though she could neither read or write. They didn’t tell us about the Irish who fought in the American Revolution, the Civil War, and all the wars since, earning more Medal of Honor citations than any other ethnic group; and they didn’t tell us that the Irish helped build the railroads, and skyscrapers, that they panned for gold, and worked in the copper mines in Butte, Montana, that they would go on to became the face of public service, and even become legends of stage and screen.
And no one to me that there were then 40 million Irish in America, so that I needn’t worry, I would always feel at home.
Everywhere we went there were signs that other Irish were there before me – The Irish Bayou in New Orleans, the towns of O’Neill in Nebraska, and Dublin, Ohio. Years later, in 1985, when I helped found Irish America magazine, it was the people that I met on that trip in 1972, people who carried Ireland in their hearts, who had treated us like family – they were the ones I had in mind as the readers, the ones I wanted to reach out to.
At the end of our travels, in November of that year, we arrived back in the Bronx and my friends departed for Ireland. I stayed on. I have never regretted that decision. Every July 4th I celebrate what I’ve come to call “my Independence Day.”
I love America. I am grateful too, that when the going gets rough I can find that place called “Irish America” and know the support and caring and the comfort of being amongst my own.
Those early Irish immigrants, as Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank America, whose own ancestors came over in those hungry years of the 1840s, reminded me when I interviewed him back in 2009, knew:
“It doesn’t all break your way all the time, so you’ve got to just power through it.”
His words ring through in these uncertain times. This is a great country and the Irish who helped build it were not quitters. We can take strength from that, and from those ancestors who would say to us that it’s a time to look to family and community and “power on through it” together.
An earlier version of this First Word ran in the Aug./Sept. 2009 issue of Irish America.