Home from New York: ‘As an immigrant your biggest fear is getting ‘that’ phone call’

Four women reflect on their time in New York and why they came back to Ireland

Elaine Devenney (43), Donegal

I moved to New York in 2006 and fell in love with the place. I was a nanny for a wonderful family, then, at weekends, I worked as a (terrible) waitress. For eight years, it felt like a holiday. The craic was just non-stop.

I was a country girl, from the Gaeltacht (Annagry), but I wanted to stay in New York forever. As an immigrant though, your biggest fear is getting “that phone call”. I was unfortunate enough to get two, three really. One right after the other.

By 2013, I'd been away for seven years. My sister Charlotte was 33, and had just had her third child. Six days after the birth, she had a stroke and a brain aneurysm. She was rushed to Dublin's Beaumont Hospital and placed in an induced coma.

I was a country girl, from the Gaeltacht (Annagry), but I wanted to stay in New York forever

I wanted to fly home, but my parents advised me not to.

Six weeks into Charlotte’s coma, my brother called. My dad had taken ill. “We need you home,” he said.

I’m not religious, and it sounds crazy, but I feel Dad told God, you know, just let us have Charlotte back. There was a special bond between Dad and Charlotte.

I was flying home, thinking; Daddy, don’t be going anywhere, but when I landed, I was told that he’d passed during the night. I hadn’t seen him in six years. The next day, Charlotte woke from her coma.

She’s my hero. She had a stroke and a brain aneurysm, right after giving birth, then was comatose for two months, only to awaken to hear that Daddy had died and was buried. All this, with three little kids.

Meanwhile, I had been having back pains. I went to see a doctor in New York, and was referred to an oncologist, who, in my wisdom, I assumed to be a back specialist. I never felt as if I had cancer though, and when I got home, I heard from New York that there was none. Weeks later though, tests showed otherwise.

Dad had died, Charlotte had her trauma, both my grandmothers passed, then I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Stage 4. I soon found out that there was no Stage 5.

The first few months back home, it was horrible. I hated it. Everything was so awful, so many bad things had happened. I just wanted to go back to New York and escape it all.

I had six chemotherapies. I lost my hair, and now I have continual check-ups with the doctors, just to monitor everything.

Things improved though, so much. Not just my health, but all round. I love being back now. I’ve my own home here in Belfast, which my time in New York helped buy, and I go home to Donegal every month.

I teach A-Level Irish. I’m a native speaker, and the students are brilliant. Irish is a big part of their identity here. I’m very lucky. I love life and I travel as much as I can, I go abroad at least three times a year. Since being sick, I just say yes to every new thing. My motto is: “Just do it!”

I look back fondly on my time in the US. I even dream about New York sometimes. I’d probably still be there had things been different, who knows?

Sandy Kilcoyne (33), Mayo

I was hit by a car on my fourth day in New York in the summer of 2012. We were in the Bronx, crossing the street. I heard a scream and felt a push to my back. Next thing I knew, I was on the ground, with a crowd around me. My friend was screaming hysterically; “Is she dead?”

The driver who hit me started screaming too, but she wasn’t as worried about me. She yelled at me for breaking her wing mirror, then drove off.

She was caught, but she had no insurance, so financially, with that, and hospital and legal bills, it was a mess.

I broke my tibia and fibula, and needed an operation. I was housebound for two months, before eventually getting clearance to fly home. So that was my New York experience, all done, or so I thought.

Back home, my grandmother asked me why I wasn’t out seeing the world. She persuaded me to try again. So, I made arrangements to fly back and give it another shot.

I miss the city occasionally. The changing seasons especially, the hot summers, the leaves changing colour, the snow in the winter time and so on

A friend had asked me to bring over some Calvita cheese, as they couldn’t get it in the US. So, going through immigration, they asked if I’d any food, and I ended up going on and on about Calvita, and describing the little girl on the packaging, I think the officials thought there was something wrong with me.

I had a lot of fun in New York, a great job and met lots of lovely people, but eventually, I started to become lonely. I remember calling my mum, telling her how unhappy I was. She asked what was making me feel that way, and I told her I just felt like a nobody, and she said: “There’s your answer.” So home I went. Again.

I applied for the Garda Síochána, and that whole process flew by. I did the fitness tests in Templemore, Tipperary, and did way better than I thought I would.

My grandmother passed away shortly after, so I made the right move, as I’d had that valued time with her.

I ended up breaking my back then in 2018. I was on my way to Templemore for a training course with the Garda, and another car slammed into me.

I felt okay, so I rang my dad, and asked him to pick me up and bring me on to the course. He was shocked to see my car’s damage, and insisted we go to hospital. As we were talking, I sneezed, and my back just seized. I’d two broken vertebrae.

I’ve had so many wonderful experiences as a garda. I’ve had afternoon tea with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, I’ve been training in Oslo with the Norwegian police. Every single day is different. Not one call is the same. I’m so happy with my career.

One year in New York, I was working at the Pig and Whistle on St Patrick’s Day, and got talking to some visiting gardaí, I was just so impressed with the camaraderie they had, something I still see every day at work.

I learned a lot about people in New York. On the subway, you’d see a situation develop, from a peaceful one to someone screaming and shouting, or even when I worked in the bars and dealing with troublesome individuals, that’s all helped in my current career.

I miss the city occasionally. The changing seasons especially, the hot summers, the leaves changing colour, the snow in the winter time and so on. The public transport is great there too. Here before I go out, I’m already worrying about how I’ll get home.

Shirleyann McIntyre (49), Wexford

I was a home bird, I was never leaving Wexford. When the factory I worked in closed though, my dad saw that I’d gotten quite down, so he suggested I try New York, where his friend’s daughter needed a nanny.

I moved over in 1994. I knew nobody, and I was terrified. Everything was so overwhelming. I’ll never forget the supermarkets especially.

My younger brother David came over and worked one winter. Every week, I’d take some of his wages and put it aside for him, so when he moved back, he was loaded. In September 2002 he came over again for a holiday. That was the last time I saw him.

We had a lot of hard times, but so many good ones too

I called home to talk to my dad about something. David answered, but I told him I was at work and didn’t have time to chat. I’ve often thought if I’d only made time to talk, would it have made a difference?

A few days later, on the phone to Daddy again, I knew something was up. He told me they couldn’t find David. They didn’t want to tell me at first, as I was the worrier in the family.

For three weeks, there was no news. I promised I wouldn’t fly home, as there was nothing I could do. It was a horrible choice that so many of us had to make: stay and do nothing, or go and risk everything we’d worked for.

My husband, Greg, and I worked in the same office, for a moving company in the Bronx. One morning, my sister Frances phoned. A colleague walked straight to Greg, avoiding eye contact with me, and started whispering. My heart was going crazy. I just knew.

I blocked my ears, put my head down and started crying. I thought that somehow, if I couldn’t hear it, then it wasn’t true. Greg came over, and told me that David had been found on Rosslare Beach, 15 miles from where he’d last been seen in Wexford town.

Daddy insisted the gardaí arrange counselling for the group of kids who found him.

I arrived home on December 12th, 2002, and David was buried the next day.

Our daughter Holly was born in New York, a year later, so we called her Holly Davida. As a newborn, Holly spent time in intensive care, as she’d had a stroke in the womb. Thank God she ended up with no lasting symptoms. She’s very book smart, but whenever she doesn’t get a joke or something, she’ll blame the stroke.

In 2015 then, Daddy got very sick, he’d had Parkinson’s and emphysema, and his condition deteriorated. We flew back to visit quite often. The last time was the day before he had to move into a nursing home.

Three weeks later, Frances called Greg again. We were on the Darkness Into Light walk for Pieta House, raising funds for those affected by suicide. Greg came back to me in tears. So, that was another trip, back for Daddy’s funeral. We moved back for good two months later, in the summer of 2015.

I work at a medical centre now in Derry. I love it. I work with a brilliant group of girls. I thought there was no way I’d be able to learn all the coding and medical terms but now I can’t imagine not doing it.

I miss New York sometimes, the friends we left, the free refills of coffee, and, of course, if you’ve not been to New York, then you don’t know what a bagel tastes like. Every time I see Central Park on TV, I remind Holly of our walks there. We had a lot of hard times, but so many good ones too.

Tara Griffin (39), Cork

I had thought of moving to Los Angeles, but felt I wasn’t skinny or good-looking enough. I imagined myself cycling out to Beverly Hills on my bike for the craic, I was just so green.

Moving to New York from Cork in 2008, I settled quickly, and worked at an Irish bar in Manhattan. The hours were long, but I made friends, was earning good money and loving life.

I remember going to work one night, and completely unplanned, ending up at the U2 concert at Madison Square Garden. These things just happened there.

Every week my boyfriend and I would go for dinner in a different neighbourhood, to explore, and people-watch. It was a wonderful experience.

I promised myself every morning that, because I was so exhausted after work, I would go home and rest, but that never happened. I always ended up going out. I never knew when to go home. That’s how it was though, there was just this party atmosphere for so many of us.

After a few years, things soured a little. My relationship broke down, and I just couldn’t keep up any more. I felt I had to get away from New York and that lifestyle.

On the train some days, I would be trying so hard not to burst into tears.

For a complete change, I volunteered to work at an orphanage in South America. After a lengthy flight, I’d a 30-hour bus trip. All I knew was to look out for a man in a blue baseball cap. It was crazy. I had no Spanish, and they had no English. I spent six months there.

I had been living a party life for so long, and I remember hearing people talk about drink issues and so on, and actually being offended

I would see children with certain ailments, and I wanted to help more than I could, so I started thinking of nursing. When I was a kid it’s what I wanted to do, but it just never happened.

I moved back to Ireland around 2012, and bought a gorgeous cottage, where my grandfather had once lived.

In New York, I thought that going to South America, then coming home, that things would settle, but it didn’t work like that.

I had been living a party life for so long, and I remember hearing people talk about drink issues and so on, and actually being offended. I thought, no, that’s not me, it couldn’t be.

I joined AA 12 years ago. It wasn’t easy, but I haven’t drank or smoked since. I don’t even drink coffee any more.

Things started improving. I was working in a cafe, doing up my home and, of course, my daughter was born and I was raising her. I started cycling, running half marathons, and entered triathlons. I had a brilliant support network too, with my family, friends and AA.

I applied for a nursing course in Cork, and was accepted, but the entire time I was studying, I had imposter syndrome. I felt I didn’t deserve it, looking at myself thinking what are you at? I graduated though, and I’m a geriatric nurse now.

I love it. I feel so satisfied at the end of the day. I’ve never had that feeling before. Nursing is difficult, but if you can find an area that is suited to you, as I think I may have done, it’s so rewarding.

I’m happy, healthy and, most importantly, I’m keeping my daughter healthy. I go out for dinner with my partner, we go to the beach, we’re enjoying life. New York was challenging at times, but I had some fantastic experiences.

I’ve no regrets about it. I’d like to visit, but I’d never live there again. I’m here and this is the lifestyle that is suited to me. I’m no longer that anonymous girl in the big city.

* Tara chose not to be photographed for this article. Michael Fitzpatrick is a New York-based Irish journalist and playwright. mikefitznyc@gmail.com

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