‘I would not be the man I am today if it hadn’t been for him and I wanted to honour his life’

Mike Donoghue on persuading his late father Mal to turn his memories of life in Ireland and the US into a book

He was born in Knockcroghery, Co Roscommon. He was forced to grow up too soon. And he learned plenty about the world by working the gold fields of Alaska and raising a family in the Irish-American stronghold of Rockland County, New York.

That's my dad – Malachy Donoghue. Six months after he died, his story, which is the story of so many Irish, those who sought their fortunes in America, has been captured in a book that is beginning to make some waves. The Way It Was, my father's autobiography, was published in February, in the wake of his death in September last year.

Born on September 9th, 1927, Mal was a mischievous young fellow. When he and his best friend, Malachy Murray, wanted to have some fun and make some money, they would take empty beer bottles from behind the local pubs. The owner would tell them to put them out back and they would walk out the door, but never put the bottles down. The two Malachys would hide them for a few days and bring the same bottles back, get their money and pretend to leave them out back. How did they use the proceeds? To buy candy, of course.

But along with the fun, Malachy at a young age was also forced to navigate tragedy. At age 11, he endured the deaths of three of the closest people in his life. His brother died in 1937. His father, and Malachy, his best friend, both died suddenly in 1939.


My father was forced to become the man of the family and take over the farm, with no experience, at the age of just 12. He had to rely on himself. He learned very quickly that life was not always fair and it certainly was not easy.

Near-death experience

When he was around 20, he moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, to work in the goldfields. His strength and determination was tested many times throughout his life, but Alaska brought Malachy a near-death experience. While working for the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Co, he was given the task of driving the chief executive on a mission to look for an abandoned gold field in unchartered territory, during minus 40-degree weather. The bulldozer they were travelling in sank. After a few harrowing days, they made it back to camp, frost-bitten and emaciated.

About 10 years ago, I sat my father down and explained to him that he had a fascinating life and he should write his autobiography. He laughed at me. He thought I was crazy to suggest such an idea. He didn’t think his life was anything people would want to read about.

But dad began writing and the memories came flooding back. The story basically wrote itself. When he finished, we made a few copies for family members, and everyone who read it was fascinated. He could not believe the feedback.

Extraordinary life

In between the covers of this book, Malachy delivers a blow-by-blow account of his extraordinary life, from taking over the family farm in Knockcroghery, when he was 11, following the death of his father; to moving to New York City, and hopping a plane at age 20, to Fairbanks, Alaska; and, finally, settling in Rockland and staking a claim to his slice of the American dream.

Hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrated to America before Malachy, and hundreds of thousands followed. And each one of those stories is special. But not everyone put pen to paper or, in Malachy’s case, asked his wife to type out pages for him, growing closer to the love of his life in the process.

When Mal died, I thought to myself, what a life he lived. I would not be the man I am today if it hadn’t been for him and I wanted to honour his life.

This book captures a story of hardships, obstacles, love, adventure and success. And it captures the philosophy that drove Malachy Donoghue’s life – the fact that, in order to be successful, you don’t have to be the best at something, but you have to have the desire and determination, and you have to work hard for it. That lesson has stuck with me.


I am Malachy’s youngest child. I teach English in Manhattan, and I live in Rockland County, about a 10-minute drive from the community of Pearl River, which is home to the third-largest St Patrick’s Day parade in the US. I have been married for 15 years to my wife, Robyn. We have a 12-year-old daughter, Ella, and our dachshund is named Daisy.

Publishing The Way It Was has been a therapeutic process. The book has helped me and my family grieve Malachy's death. We miss him terribly and our lives will never be the same without him. But the book has brought us together and we couldn't be more proud of the legacy that he has left for future generations.

For more about The Way It Was, see facebook.com/malachydonoghue. The book is available to buy on Amazon and Kindle, amazon.com/Way-Was-immigrants-adventures-journey/dp/1514610213.