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 Irelandin 1850.
I am remembering a day around this time of year in the early seventies. My mother is driving me across the county to retrieve a suitcase I had loaned 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 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.
Home became a basement apartment in the Bronx that I shared with Nora and Philomena, two sisters from Mayo.
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 my own county, but here I met lads from Connemara and girls from Cork 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 year, I would also come to know Irish America.
As that first summer drew to a close, I 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 three friends and I 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 Montanaand had our
photos taken for the local newspaper in Walzenburg, Colorado – because we were “real Irish.”
We traveled south to New Orleans, north to Canada, and as far west as California, and along the way we met a lot of
people who told us they were Irish, though they had never been to Ireland.
I didn’t know the story of the Irish in America when I started out on my journey,
We had been told about the Famine in school and the “coffin ships,” but they didn’t tell us what happened after that. 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 Civil War, built the railroads, panned for gold and built great education systems.
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, but it was the beginning of an understanding. 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 we had in mind to reach.
At the end of our travels 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 reminds us, “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 we received from sponsors and advertisers for this issue, given so freely despite the economy, brought a sense of being part of a wider family, and reminded me of all of you across the country who opened your hearts and your homes to four young immigrant Irish girls all those years ago.