Hosing down vomit, taking out the trash: J1 summers remembered

Since the J1 visa programme began, nearly 50 years ago, more than 150,000 Irish students have spent a summer in the US. As the US embassy hosts an event about the programme, some of its alumni look back on their long-ago summers


Music journalist and broadcaster
Massachusetts, 1974
On my first day in New York I ordered a “baggle”, meaning a bagle. I ordered a Coke and got ice in it, and having come from Ireland, where a can could have been sitting in a shop window for weeks with a bee buzzing around it, that seemed amazing. I felt like I was on a movie set, with steam coming up from underground and yellow cabs everywhere.

A group of us went together thinking we had jobs lined up, all of which fell through. So I went off to Massachusetts and moved into a house on the beach in Newburyport with five guys from Northern Ireland, and we had a ball. The house was 20 yards from the fairground where I worked, picking up litter and hosing vomit.

I’ll never forget the sound of that summer: Eric Clapton’s version of I Shot the Sheriff. The album I was really into was Court and Spark, by Joni Mitchell.

When I went back to New York at the end I felt more mature. While I was there Philippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers on the rope, now in that movie Man on Wire, but I never knew anything about it until I came home.

I did an illegal thing, something very clever I heard about from my brother. With magazines from Reader’s Digest to Playboy, you could join a record club. You’d pay $5 and get two albums as an introductory offer, and then you’d buy one for the next 12 months. So I joined 10 of them in my first week, and all these parcels started to trickle in. I came home with about 200 albums, all for around $25.

I knew my bags would be too heavy coming home, but someone on a J1 from Ireland was working in Kennedy airport, and she let me slip through.

One of the main reasons I went to third level, to study English and philosophy at UCD, was because of the four months you got off every year. The J1 is one of the most important things you do as a student.

Dublin footballer
New York, 2001
The J1 was a common thing to do when I was studying finance in Maynooth, but most people went to coastal resorts, such as San Diego or Atlantic City. Myself and a friend decided on New York. We stayed in Woodlawn, in the Bronx, a well-known Irish part of the city.

I worked in an apartment block on Park Avenue in Manhattan, manning the front door in a monkey suit and bringing bins down in the service elevator. The guy who employed me had a grandmother from “Doney-gall”. The Irish connection helped me get that job.

It was my first time travelling alone. I was only a year out of school and was still living at home, so going over there and having to fend for myself gave me a great sense of independence. For a 19-year-old I was making a decent few quid and was able to enjoy myself. There were a few Irish bars around Woodlawn that would let us have a drink.

A friend had played with the Sligo GAA club in New York the year before, and he hooked me up with them. The club became my network, and I’m still in touch with some of the guys. The standard of football wouldn’t have been as high as here, but it was still competitive. We only won one game, but we enjoyed ourselves.

A few months after I got home I was selected for the Dublin team, and I’m still playing for them 13 years later.

I arrived home about a week before the September 11th attacks. Watching what was happening on the television was surreal, thinking I had been there only days before.

Head of operations for the Irish Technology Leadership Group
New Jersey, 1987
I left for America just days after my final exam in maths and experimental physics in UCD. It was my first time outside Ireland, first time on a plane.

My friends chickened out at the last minute, so I was alone. I wrote to my distant cousins in New Jersey, who had been over to Ireland to trace their roots a few years previously, and asked to stay with them.

Landing in JFK, I instantly felt I was entering a different world. I travelled to Dublin Airport on the M1 dual carriageway and left JFK on a five-lane freeway. The traffic, noise, humidity, huge buildings and sheer volume of people was unbelievable.

I lived in the Irish-Scottish town of Kearny with my relatives. My cousin Celeste Byrne, now in her late 80s, had a beautiful wooden home, and I had the room on the top floor, with a view and an en suite.

I got a job as an apprentice handyman. It was great fun, working on a different building site every few days. It paid around $8 an hour, and I was trying to get the magic $10, so after a few weeks I moved on to work with a contract cleaning company in the Bank of New York on Washington Street in New York.

I exceeded the savings goal I had set for myself and came home with funds in my pocket and a brand new Rickenbacker guitar, which I still have.

The real value of the J1 is experiencing a different way of life. The difference between Dublin and New York in 1987 was phenomenal. They were a decade ahead of us in terms of technology.

Ever since I have worked with US-based companies. My first job after I got home was with Lotus, and within a year I was back in the States for work.

Both my kids have been in California twice, and France and the UK several times. They won’t experience that same culture shock as I did. But I would definitely encourage them to do the J1 when they are old enough, or to go even further afield, to China or Japan.

The American embassy hosts a day- long celebration of the J1 programme at the RDS in Dublin next Thursday, from 10.30am, with workshops, talks, networking opportunities, food and music. See dublin.usembassy.gov

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