Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Boston’s Irish immigrants: a community response to an international tragedy

One thing that came to the fore in the aftermath of Monday’s attacks is the strong sense of community forged between immigrants and locals

Fri, Apr 19, 2013, 01:00


Ciara Kenny

The phone at the Irish Pastoral Center in the Dorchester area of Boston has been ringing off the hook all week, as the community struggles to come to terms with the Boston Marathon explosions, which left three people dead and 173 injured.

Although there have been no reports of Irish casualties in the aftermath of the Patriot’s Day blasts on Monday, many of the city’s Irish residents witnessed the tragedy as race competitors or spectators, while others knew victims or were simply stunned that such a thing could happen in their adoptive city.

“People were calling to check in, asking if there was any way they could help, or just to express their shock. Everyone is just horrified,” says the centre’s immigration and citizenship adviser Kieran O’Sullivan, who has been living in the city since emigrating from south Kerry in 1996.

“Everyone is going about their work but with a heavy heart. There is a disbelief, and a frustration. It is so close to home. There is a feeling of vulnerability, but also a determination to carry on, to pull together to come through this.”

When such a violent event happens while people are far from home, the sense of physical distance between them and their Irish family and friends becomes particularly apparent. In the hours following Monday’s explosions, contacting home was the number-one priority for the majority of emigrants in the city, but with the lockdown of the Boston city centre area, accessing phones or internet was a challenge for some.

Seamus Hanratty, a 28-year-old law graduate from Co Monaghan who has been living in the city since last year, was approaching the finishing line when the first blast went off. As the chaos erupted around him, Hanratty, standing in just a pair of running shorts and a T-shirt, with no phone or money, had no way to contact his brother, who was supposed to be waiting for him at the finish with his five-year-old daughter.

“I had to borrow a phone but didn’t know any American numbers off the top of my head so I was desperately trying to ring Irish numbers to let my family know I was okay and to find out if my brother and niece were okay,” he says.

It took three hours before he finally spoke to his mother in Ireland, who in turn got his brother to call the borrowed mobile – he had decided at the last minute not to take his daughter to the marathon and both of them were safe.

“After the bombing, I was walking around with just a light T-shirt and a foil marathon blanket when some Americans took me into a bar and bought me some food and drink,” Hanratty says. “I’ve been hearing countless similar stories over the past few days and it really is indicative of the Irish-American spirit that is at the heart of Boston.”

Michelle (24), who does not want to give her real name because of her undocumented status, was just one block away from the finish line when the first bomb exploded on Monday. “We saw the whole scene unfolding and it was very scary, but I wouldn’t let one event like that colour my view of the city or make me go home. What is going on at home is very scary, too,” she says.

The couple have been living illegally since their visas expired in January, but they have decided to stay because she has a well-paid nanny job and he has steady work in construction.

“The Irish community is a great support. My uncle and his wife are over here, he’s from Derry and she’s from Cork, and they have a big circle of Irish friends. Work is the main reason we have stayed – everything that comes after that is a bonus.”

Michelle would like to find work related to her business degree, “but it would be very difficult as an undocumented”. The couple see themselves staying in Boston for at least a few years, and the prospect of immigration reform “definitely offers hope” for them to gain legal status. “My boyfriend has recently paid his taxes for last year just in case. We are hopeful something will come through for us.”

A child’s viewpoint

Explaining Monday’s events to young children is particularly difficult, as Seán Rogers, who has lived in the city since 1987, and his American wife Ruth are experiencing. Although they weren’t at the marathon on Monday, they heard the booms from their home in Cambridge, just across the river from the finish line.

“This is a relatively small community and our first reaction was, who do we know attending?,” Rogers says. “Reports are coming in on the injured and dead, and we know now the eight-year-old boy who died is connected to our son Henry’s choir.”

The family of the boy who died, Martin Richard, live in the Dorchester area, which is known as a particularly Irish neighbourhood, and would have been well known in the community.

Rogers says his 11-year-old son Eoin is “very much aware” of what is going on. “Eoin said to me, ‘Dad, it’s a good job we live in Cambridge as nobody will attack a small city like Cambridge’, but we live just half a mile from the blast site,” he says.

“We haven’t told Henry yet but we’ll have to as he’s back to school next week. Coming so close to the Newtown shootings, I’m wondering how we’re going to break the news. The Newtown shootings were in a far-off place to them, another state called Connecticut. This is just across the river in a place they know well.”

The family received dozens of emails and phone calls from family and friends around the world within minutes of the blasts, which Rogers says was “very moving”.

“Social media connects you instantly with your loved ones no matter where they are. We heard from people we haven’t heard from in years, just checking in to make sure we were okay.”

Rogers still believes Boston is a safe place to raise children, with a caring community and a low crime rate, but says they will be more selective when taking the boys to crowded events in the future.

Ronnie Millar is executive director of the Irish International Immigration Center. Millar, who moved to the US 19 years ago, says the sense of vulnerability the city is experiencing in the aftermath of the attack will linger for a long time to come.

“We will never be the same after this in Boston. We will be very careful about trash cans or suspicious behaviour, and the security presence will be upped considerably. I know, from personal experience, that when you are close to an exposion or an attack it never leaves you.

“There is a silence in the city this week, and a deep sadness, but there is a sense that everything is going to be alright if we can all pull together.”

On the rise: Young, undocumented, over there

Draft proposals for immigration reform introduced to the Senate this week may provide hope for future migrants, but it is currently extremely difficult for Irish people to apply to work legally in the US.

Despite this, the Irish International Immigration Center (IIIC) has experienced a significant rise in activity over the last few years, as new arrivals from Ireland come in search of work.

“We are particularly noticing an increase in the number of people who got green cards in the 1980s or 1990s, \[and then\] returned to Ireland during the boom but are coming back to Boston again,” says the centre’s executive director Ronnie Millar. “This time, they are arriving with a husband or wife and a few kids.”

The IIIC has also seen a “dramatic increase” in university graduates arriving on year-long J1 programmes. The centre helps to arrange more than 200 work placements for them with Boston companies every year. “That visa offers them valuable experience, and the work is paid,” Millar says. “There aren’t many opportunities like that in Ireland for graduates at the moment.”

After the year is up, however, there are few options open to J1 holders to extend their visas, and an increasing number are opting to overstay illegally rather than return to Ireland, where work prospects are low. They are joining a rising number of undocumented young people, mostly working as labourers, nannies or service- industry staff, who have deliberately overstayed holiday visas in order to escape unemployment in Ireland.

“They start out planning to stay just for a year, which becomes two or three, and before they know it, they have formed friendships, relationships or career ties that keep them here for good,” says Kieran O’Sullivan, who deals with undocumented immigrants on a daily basis at the Irish Pastoral Center.

“Most choose Boston because they have family connections here, or know someone who can find them a job. I always remind them there’s a recession here too, and it’s not as easy to find work as they might think. But they say no matter how difficult it is in the US, it has to be better than Ireland. A lady called me recently who had moved with her family after her husband was laid off, and she said they came to save their house at home.”

A lot of the calls received by the Irish Pastoral Center in the Dorchester area of Boston since Monday’s explosions have been from undocumented Irish people concerned about their status.

The recent detention of two undocumented Irishmen, charged with forging stamps for drivers’ licences, has increased fear among the community, according to O’Sullivan.

“When there is increased security at a time like this, people get more nervous about what kind of travel documents they might need, so we are getting a lot of queries about that,” he says.

Mark Porter (45), a carpenter from Donegal who has lived in Boston since 1989, believes it is getting tougher for young Irish people to find jobs, but Irish workers are still sought after. “Employers know the young lads who are coming over now are here to work, unlike five years ago when they were coming to party,” he says.

“There are such stong Irish connections here – many Bostonians feel they owe us an allegiance because of their heritage. The Irish community all look out for each other, more so than any other city I’ve ever been to.”