The Irish in America: ‘I arrived unloved, unskilled and ready to take on the world’

Oral history project at Queens College New York is gathering stories from Irish immigrants

Jane Duffy, Brendan Fay, Hannah Whelan and Liam Doherty (and family) are some of the many Irish immigrants who have shared their stories with the Queens Irish Oral History Project over the past four years. Photographs: Kevin McGann

Jane Duffy, Brendan Fay, Hannah Whelan and Liam Doherty (and family) are some of the many Irish immigrants who have shared their stories with the Queens Irish Oral History Project over the past four years. Photographs: Kevin McGann

 

The Irish in America are a diverse group. They came across the Atlantic from all backgrounds, for love, employment, opportunity, education, escape, adventure. Statistics can give us the numbers and dates, and sometimes the social and economic factors that drive emigration trends, but only the individual can tell their own story. Only they can tell us how it feels to leave home.

For the past four years, the Irish Studies Programme at Queens College in New York has been interviewing Irish immigrants to hear and share their stories. The oldest interviewee is in his 90s, the youngest in her 20s.

Queens in New York is the most diverse borough in the US, and the Irish have long held a place there. According to Baruch College’s NYC population and geography data for 2016, it is still the most popular destination among Irish immigrants coming to the city. While traditional Irish neighbourhoods like Woodside and Sunnyside have maintained some of their Irish character, they have for the most part been absorbed into the greater multicultural landscape.



► CLICK TO LISTEN: Jane Duffy: 'I arrived unloved, unskilled and ready to take on the world'

Photograph: Kevin McGann
Jane Duffy arrived in the US by boat from Ireland in 1948. Photograph: Kevin McGann


“Queens College is embedded amid communities enriched by the lived experience of Irish immigrants,” says Sarah Covington, who initiated the project soon after her appointment as director of Irish Studies at the college in 2013.

“We began this project as a way of preserving the stories of the older and overlooked residents of these ethnic communities on the eve of their vanishing.”

Eileen Colleran Sprague was raised in Woodside to parents who immigrated from Ireland in the 1950s. Sprague had been concerned about the disappearing Irish of her old neighbourhood, so when she heard Covington speak at a public event, she knew she had to get involved, and was soon appointed project director.

Sprague still has many connections in her old neighbourhood, and for her, visiting the elderly residents is a labour of love. She considers it an honor and a privilege to collect their stories.

“Without exception, when I ask for an interview, they always respond, ‘Sure who would want to hear about me?’”

Many of us, it turns out, want to hear about them. We want to hear about the ancient farming rituals still practiced when they were growing up in Ireland, about cottages with no electricity or running water. We want to hear first-hand accounts of homes traumatised by the brutality of the Black and Tans. We want to hear our country’s history come alive through their personal stories.



► CLICK TO LISTEN: Mary Ann O'Sullivan: 'We all got off the train and Tommy played the accordion and John played the flute, and we danced the Caledonian Set on the platform at the Queensboro Plaza'



Fascinated, other Irish studies students began to get involved. They picked up the baton and carried it further afield, collecting stories not only from the older Irish in New York, but multiple generations all across America.

Those who arrived in later decades, from the mid-60s to the late-80s, speak of the struggles of being undocumented, of getting paid under the table, of jobs in construction and childcare, of always looking over their shoulder, and of not being able to go home for family events. Some speak of having to leave Northern Ireland, others of sexual oppression. Many tell of the life-saving networks of support they found in America, and of the unforgettable camaraderie and craic.



Brendan Fay: 'I arrived in the middle of the Aids crisis. I had no sense of a self' 

Writer, activist and filmmaker Brendan Fay in his Astoria, Queens neighbourhood. “I grew up in a world where until 1993, it was a criminal offence to express homosexuality. We receive all this messaging where we have to keep it to ourselves. I consider it a form of violence. We are only on the edge of turning that page in history. I often think about how many people went to their grave without knowing love, or the joy of being who they are, or being affirmed for who they are. I came to do graduate work at St John’s University in 1984. I arrived in the middle of the Aids crisis. I had no sense of a self. Very few people think about immigrants who arrive for sexual reasons. “I never thought I would find a man I would call spouse and husband. I started the Civil Marriage Trail Project to help other same-sex couples get married in Canada. “May 22nd, 2015, I was over in Ireland. Can you imagine what it was like to be back in Drogheda on that day? My sisters were going to the school to vote. We were crying all the way down, and all the way back. The people in the town I couldn’t wait to leave voted 64 per cent in favour of marriage equality!” Photograph: Kevin McGann
Writer, activist and filmmaker Brendan Fay in his Astoria, Queens neighbourhood. Photograph: Kevin McGann

“I grew up in a world where until 1993, it was a criminal offence to express homosexuality. We receive all this messaging where we have to keep it to ourselves. I consider it a form of violence. We are only on the edge of turning that page in history. I often think about how many people went to their grave without knowing love, or the joy of being who they are, or being affirmed for who they are.

"I came to do graduate work at St John’s University in 1984. I arrived in the middle of the Aids crisis. I had no sense of a self. Very few people think about immigrants who arrive for sexual reasons.

“I never thought I would find a man I would call spouse and husband. I started the Civil Marriage Trail Project to help other same-sex couples get married in Canada.

“May 22nd, 2015, I was over in Ireland. Can you imagine what it was like to be back in Drogheda on that day? My sisters were going to the school to vote. We were crying all the way down, and all the way back. The people in the town I couldn’t wait to leave voted 64 per cent in favour of marriage equality!”


Last April, when traveling back to Ireland for a family event, Covington asked me to interview the very talented blues musician Paddy Smith, who had returned to live in Ireland. The Queens Irish Oral History Project was crossing the ocean for the first time. She forwarded me a YouTube documentary about his life. Smith had gone from performing in the House of Blues in Chicago to living on the streets. I wanted to know that story.

In preparation, I listened to some recordings from the oral history archive, and was blown away. I did not expect to be so affected. I kept asking for more, devouring them like episodes of a favourite podcast.



► CLICK TO LISTEN: Paddy Smith: 'I was definitely running away'

Musician Paddy Smith followed a woman to Los Angeles.
Musician Paddy Smith followed a woman to Los Angeles.


Unlike reading, listening is a somatic experience. I was hearing pieces of my own fragmented story begin to articulate. I was hearing our collective emigration story come to consciousness. I felt a connection to every single speaker, whether they arrived in 1948 or 1988. We all made the same internal journey.

Interviews with fellow 1990s immigrants mirrored something to me. Many of us arrived with our two suitcases and our $500, or $800, or $1,000. All these years later, it has been a relief to learn I was not the only without a plan. I always thought I was lost, but I was never really alone.



► CLICK TO LISTEN: Liam Doherty: 'I did not return to Ireland for 12 years'

Liam Doherty at home with his family in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photograph: Kevin McGann
Liam Doherty at home with his family in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photograph: Kevin McGann


 

With each generation there are discernible shifts in attitude toward Ireland, toward America, toward citizenship. Many of the interviewees feel connected to other immigrant groups, and to immigrant history. They cannot help but see themselves and their ancestors in the faces of the undocumented crowds in recent times outside the detention center in McAllen, Texas, which has been dubbed the “new Ellis Island” in the New York Times.

My great-uncle George Toner Bradley left Glasgow in 1929 (my father’s side of the family had been forced to emigrate there during the Famine). He arrived in Ellis Island, and disappeared without a trace. What happened to him? Irish Catholics were considered anti-American back then. My grandmother spent her life worrying about what happened to her little brother.

The Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung said, “To live without knowledge of your ancestors, is to live with a wound.” Surely it is this woundedness, this collective disconnection from our ancestral pasts, that we are living out of in America today.

From earliest times, storytelling has been our connective tissue. Our stories connect us to ourselves and those around us, to those who came before and those yet to come. They connect us to the larger story of life of which we are all a part.



Hannah Whelan: 'Workwise, there’s no better place'

Hannah Whelan buying plants in her Brooklyn neighbourhood for her upcoming  textiles show. Photograph: Kevin McGann

HW: "I am originally from Dublin. Throughout my life I have been between Pennsylvania and Dublin. My dad set up the first bar he owned in Philadelphia. We moved back and forth. I did my Leaving Cert and college years back in Ireland. 

"After NCAD, I thought I would use the privilege of having a green card, so I organised an internship with a design company here. I went to studio manager in a year and a half, so that’s what brought me to New York, a job. I just completed a residency at The Textile Art Center."  

CMCM: "Tell me about the show you curated, TORN."

HW: "I realised I had so many strong [Irish] female artists and designers around me, and I knew their visas were ending. Like their visas and their time in New York, the show was very fleeting. It was only one night, and it was based on the idea of being torn."  

CMCM: "Do you think you will stay here?"

HW: "At the start, I thought I’m going to be here for a long time, but there are days I don’t want to be here anymore. Workwise, there’s no better place, but maybe other things . . . "


If you are interested in accessing the archive or participating in the Queens Irish Oral History Project, email woodsidehistory@gmail.com. The archive is located at the Queens College Benjamin Rosenthal Library.

A sample of the recordings can be found the Irish Studies website: qcirishstudies.org/oral-histories. Limerick native and Queens College artist-in-residence Niamh O’Brien will be adding new recordings througout the autumn. Inspired by the histories, her band, Hoodman Blind, created the original music that can be heard on some of the recordings. Paddy Smith uses his own music.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.