The First Word: Finding Strength in Our Ancestors
“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, whose ancestors left Ireland in 1850.
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 that had still to be widened with EC money. There is little traffic. Ireland back then had a sleepy quality; 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, giving me the final push out of the nest. She had brought us up with the saying, “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 an arc of water from a fire hydrant. It was strange and magical.
That first night I spent in a basement apartment on Briggs Avenue, the home of Nora Barrett from Mayo, sister of my brother’s roommate, Tony. After a summer working in Atlantic City and a trip around the country, I would live here for two year, sharing with Nora and later, her sister Philomena.
It was next door to The Ranch, the local bar that was 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.
I had never traveled much outside of my own county of Tipperary, but here I met lads from Connemara and girls from Leitrim, and a girl whose brother was interned in Northern Ireland. You could say that in New York I truly came to know Ireland.
By the end of that first year, I would also come to know something about Irish America.
As that first summer drew to a close, four of us, three Cork girls, Mary Mac, mary Murphy, Katherine Nelligan, and myself each bought a Greyhound bus ticket for $99 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. We went to Medicine Bow, Wyoming because I had a crush on Trampas (Doug McClure) from 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 Walzenburg, 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 who had never been to Ireland. Their people had come over a long time ago, but the still had a soft spot in their hearts for the place.
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 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; or that they helped build the railroads, skyscrapers, panned for gold, and worked in the copper mines in Butte, Montana, and went on to build great institutions, and became the face of public service, and legends of stage and screen.
And no one said that there were 40 million Irish in America, so that I needn’t worry, I would always feel at home.
I didn’t learn all of the history of Irish America on that trip around the country in 1972, and I wasn’t really looking for it, but it was the beginning of an understanding. 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, And years later, in 1985, when I helped found Irish America magazine, the people I met – who carried Ireland in their hearts and treated us like family – were the ones I had in mind 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 ancestors knew, as Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank America, whose one ancestor came over in those hungry years, reminded me when I interviewed him back in 2009: “It doesn’t all break your way all the time, so you’ve got to just power through it.” It’s good advice for 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.
On an end note, I would like to say that the support the magazine received and continues to receive from sponsors and advertisers over the years, even in times when the economy was at a low point, brought a sense of being part of a wider family, and reminded me of all of those across the country, Irish and otherwise, who opened their hearts and their homes to a immigrant Irish girl and her friends all those years ago.