Building a small but proud Irish community in Houston, Texas

Irish community has forged cohesive identity in the city hosting this weekend's Super Bowl

 

Houston is a city that rarely comes up in conversation back home unless the topic is Nasa or moon landings (and when was the last conversation you had about the moon?). It’s not even the first city you think of when you think of Texas. Growing up in Downpatrick in Co Down in the 1980s, when it came to Texas it was all about the “Big D”, Dallas, thanks to the Ewings of Southfork.

This weekend, however, my adopted hometown of Houston is in the spotlight, nationally and internationally, as hosts of Super Bowl 51. For one weekend, Houston will be beamed directly into the homes of most Americans and those overseas sports enthusiasts willing to forgo bed at a decent hour to witness the biggest event in the US sports calendar.

The last time Houston held the Super Bowl was 2004, a year before my relationship with it moved beyond casual flirtation and I went from living behind the Rev Ian Paisley’s church on the Ravenhill Road to the fourth-largest city in the US.

I’d been working for a small software company in Belfast for a few years and we had secured a couple of deals with large oil and gas companies run out of Houston, the oil and gas capital of the world.

One-off visits to Houston turned into recurring weeklong business trips, which in turn became extended stays while we worked to get those deals off the ground. At some point the idea of setting up an office was floated, and before I knew it I had a visa and a plan to live in Houston for 12 months to see what other opportunities the energy industry might offer.

Trips home

Twelve years later, 10 with that Belfast company and 18 months with a Derry-based company, I’m still here in Houston. For 11 of those 12 years I was a frequent visitor back to Northern Ireland. Working for Irish-based companies afforded me the luxury of almost quarterly trips back home – just enough time to get my fix of family, proper bacon and a good moan about how cold it is and how everything’s expensive – before heading back to the often oppressive heat and humidity of Houston.

For a long time I definitely had the best of both worlds; never enough time away from home to get homesick, and enough abuse when I was home to ensure I never developed any sort of Texas drawl. But my desire to replicate the feeling of home once back in Houston got me searching for other Irish in my area.

The Irish community in Houston is small and dispersed through the greater metropolitan area. We have no Irish district – no historical waves of Irish immigration that in turn bring the associated infrastructure like the Irish grocery store or local cultural centre. Many of us come here in dribs and drabs, riding the waves of the various oil and gas booms of the last 30 years.

Creating a cohesive identity in a metropolis of 6.7 million people (200,000 more than the island of Ireland), where the latest ring road is on plan to be 170 miles around and driving from one side of the city to the other can take a couple of hours, is difficult, to say the least. But we’ve had success, and I’m proud to have played a small part in the nurturing of a distinct Irish community in Houston.

In 2011 we formed the Houston Gaels GAC, closing a 25-year gap of Houston having an active GAA club. Five years on, we have two mens’ and a ladies’ team, competing against other Texas clubs in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. In 2014 we opened the Houston chapter of Irish Network at City Hall. This past November we welcomed Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness to town, and recognised the Rising centenary celebrations with the Houston premiere of the documentary Older Than Ireland.

We’ve also helped to promote the amazing work done by the Centre for Irish Studies at the University of St Thomas, the only Irish studies programme in the southwest United States.

As the trips back home become fewer and fewer, I’m thankful for these groups and the support they provide the Irish community in Houston. With the Irish consulate just “down the road” in Austin, the Irish are now well represented in the Lone Star state.

Immigration

Recent events have US policy dominating the front pages back home, with immigration right in the spotlight.

I’ve only ever known Houston as a friendly, welcoming city, where ability trumps all. Houston is now recognised as the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the US, with Anglos representing just 33 per cent of the population. Cheap land, affordable homes and business-friendly local government make it an immigrant magnet.

It ranks first as the city where pay cheques stretch the farthest and you can live in shorts and T-shirts for 10 months of the year. It’s a city with no pretence or air of self-importance. If you can do a job and do it well, you will be welcomed with open arms.

This is the city I’ve come to love. A hot, humid, sprawling concrete mass, almost the size of Northern Ireland, that continues to defy preconceptions and embraces you for who you are and not where you’re from.

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