Becoming a Yank
Sean Rogers envied his ‘American’ cousins growing up. They now live in Ireland, while he’s in Boston
It must have been 1984, just after university, that I realised the difference between my cousins born in the States and brought back to Ireland as children, and local kids like me. “Can’t they all go back to America and get jobs?” My mum wasn’t joking, but she said it without an ounce of malice. These were the facts as they stood. They were all Yanks, Yanks with Irish accents. My first cousins and schoolmates, dragged home to Ireland from America as young children – but Yanks all the same. We named them the settled Yanks. They wore Yank hand-me-downs and sat on Yank furniture, sofas that circled a complete room with ornate wooden frames, never seen in these parts.
I sort of felt sorry for them – sort of like the Protestants who could never enter heaven. What were they to do but deal with their predicament as best they could? “Mum, they have as much right to work here as I do,” was always my response to her Yank statements. My response always fell on deaf ears. “They have plenty of jobs in America,” she would say, looking at me disapprovingly as she moved off to make the tea.
Well, to be honest I had already noticed a difference, and well before my college years had started, but only a slight difference. We’d view our cousins’ photo albums during family visits, so different from our own family photos taken at the playground, or on Park Street as the circus elephants marched by in the parade. Maybe it was just the American cars parked or driving by – you know, the ones you’d see in an episode of Kojak or Dallas. But now, thinking back, what struck me most was the way everyone looked so happy, and the way the sun was always shining. I think that’s what stood out most for me – the sunshine which made everyone and everything look so bright and cheerful, and the locals looking so dull and miserable.
Then there were the clothes they wore, all imported from America and multicoloured and bright. Truth be told, I was a bit envious, but never mentioned this at home. Oh, the Yank clothing was a favorite discussion around the dinner table with my mum. “They wear rags, see-through rags. Cheap clothing not suitable for this country,” was always the remark. “Could they not just go out and buy some decent Irish clothes?”
Each year in the summer months, the annual ritual began. The relatives would arrive, distant cousins, once or twice removed, loud and bright, looking for gravesites and drinking parties. They all looked healthy and big, in stature and decibels. I was dragged around every graveyard in the parish looking at gravestones, back to the 1920s. These visitors were all doing well in New York, New Orleans or California – or so we thought. One year my dad’s cousin came home, with a very large book in hand, to study for some exam or other. Well that was the talk of the parish. He must have been in his 30s. “What the hell was he thinking of?” Everyone knew it was way too late for him.
And of course we had the checkpoint Charlie incident nobody talks about, when Erin got out of the car at the Newry border crossing, and proceeded to put her hands in the air and shouting: “I have nothing to hide!” The image of a 12-year-old with long flaming red hair from New York City was enough to frighten any young British soldier, or Irish for that matter.
And so the time came for all the settled Yanks to leave again, secondary school past and university about to be completed – teachers, nurses and electricians, to San Francisco, New York and boot camp. “Yes they’re all Yanks – they can do what they want,” was my mum’s immediate reaction to the vanishing. “They have the clothes and can get a head start upon arrival.” We’d talk forever about my dad’s distant cousins. One was doing well in insurance, the other designing stealth bombers. So the books worked out after all, was my immediate thought, and off we’d go to make the tea.
The day would come, and faster than expected, when I would join the settled Yanks, in New York or Boston or wherever. Ah just for a few months of fun and craic until things settle down. No need for goodbyes – I’ll see you soon. Through the glass departure door and on we’d go. No need to buy anything like TVs, cars or houses – what would we need them for? What a pain to get rid of in a hurry. They’d never fit into a suitcase for a quick return. A few light bulbs, a Walkman and a decent computer would do the trick, and maybe a few pieces of secondhand furniture to bide our time.
Walking around New York City on that first day was an experience I could only compare to a child in a sweet shop. “Help Wanted” signs were everywhere – how could that be? Just yesterday no jobs existed, even in the McDonald’s on Grafton Street. The sun was out and everyone looked great in their Yank clothing. My mum had prepared me well, to appreciate the casual look.
I made my way to the closest Irish pub and presented my case. “Can you mix a drink or serve food?” was the question. “Of course I can“– though having no experience at all, except for my casual observations in the student union bar. “Well let’s see how you do on the door tonight and we can go from there,“ was his reply. No application, no references and no experience. What a great place I had landed. I suddenly wondered why “my settled Yanks” ever returned to Ireland to grow up. Then of course it wasn’t their decision at the time. How lucky they were to be from this land of jobs.
I learned many years later that my dad had a premonition he’d never see me again. I remembered him looking very solemn at the departure gate. It’s an image that sticks to the mind forever, like a mental snapshot or movie just waiting to topple out at some unexpected moment. I quizzed him on the journey to the airport. “Would you like to travel to America, Dad? Wouldn’t that be exciting?“ But his answer was a definite no. He’d visited America and done that. I sort of pitied him for not being excited about such a trip, or staying in America to live. Then I would be a settled Yank too and what would my mum have to say about that? What a boring life he must lead, was my thinking at the time.
And so the years disappeared, and I remember back to those first impressions of my distant Yank relatives – those distant cousins of my parents, once removed. Those never-returnees, living in Queens or South Boston. How could they have lived in America for 20 years – a lifetime in most people’s minds. They returned home maybe just once or twice in that space of time. On that first visit it seemed just impossible for me to comprehend a lifetime abroad. “Get rid of that Irish passport, you’ll have no need for it here,” my dad’s cousin would often say with a loud chuckle. I was determined a lifetime abroad would never happen to me and so I’d travel home once, maybe twice, even three times a year. Sure mum and dad saw me more than their son living in Dublin. That was a comforting feeling, when I thought about it.
More than a decade after leaving Ireland for the first time, I met a lady in the departure lounge in JFK airport. She was in tears sitting on one of those old seats with TVs attached. I always thought they were depressing looking, along with the whole Aer Lingus terminal, tucked away at the very end of the international block.
I heard the lady trying to muffle her crying and hide her tears. She wasn’t old and yet not that young, I’d say ten years older than I was then – maybe early 40s. We got talking and I learned her father had just died and she was on her way to Ireland for the funeral. She looked at me and declared she should never have emigrated. I was a bit taken aback, as I didn’t know her – she was a stranger to me. Yet here she was declaring that a life-changing decision was the wrong decision. Off she went to the departure gate and I was left pondering my fate in the sweet shop. Obviously she was upset and not in a good state of mind when we’d conversed. Surely she would feel differently in the coming weeks and months.
As the years moved on, the settled Yanks begin to slowly return to their mother ship called Ireland – first in dribs and drabs and then in torrents, putting down roots again and entering schools. It was the early 2000s and the jobs were back, and the living was good as I diligently continued my frequent visits – drinking with old school friends and discussing houses and schools. All is well and mum is talking about those Yankee clothes again – as if no time had passed. “You know they can easily go and buy decent Irish clothes,” was still her refrain. She didn’t take kindly either to the neighbours’ children enquiring into what country I was from. “Right here in this house,” always her reply as she goes off to make the tea.
The newly returned settled Yanks are now on Facebook, and Skyping from Ireland, providing me with a window into their Gaelic games, talking the Irish and celebrating their children’s university graduations. “When are you coming home?” is my dad’s usual question. “Sure we’ll take you around the graveyards if the weather permits.” “Oh that would be nice Dad, and maybe a pint and song in the Railway Bar.”
Sean Rogers lives in Boston with his wife and two sons. He has written previously for Generation Emigration about arriving back to Ireland as a visitor, and how an email from home sparked contrasting emotions.