Mike Pence’s 1980s visit to his grandfather’s home

‘I’m American because of him.’ The US vice president visited after his grandfather died

Mike Pence, the future vice president of the US, on his first trip to his family’s native Ireland in 1981.

Mike Pence, the future vice president of the US, on his first trip to his family’s native Ireland in 1981.


The SS Andania, plain and sturdy, pulled into New York Harbour on April 11th, 1923, after a slow journey from Liverpool. In a third-class cabin was a grey-eyed Irishman named Richard Michael Cawley, fleeing poverty and war.

The son of a tailor from a rural village, Cawley, then 20, had come of age during a guerrilla conflict. Now, with Irish fighting Irish, he had made his way to the United States to join his older brother and uncle.

He would settle in Chicago, a city bursting with Irish Roman Catholic life; marry a teacher; find work as a streetcar driver; and sing ballads by the piano on Saturday nights. He would become a US citizen, march in St Patrick’s Day parades and visit Ireland, looking, one cousin marvelled, like “a real Yank”.

It is a familiar American tale, except for this: Cawley’s grandson and namesake, Michael Richard Pence, is the vice president of the United States, which is in the thick of a roiling immigration debate.

Spray of shamrock

On Thursday, Pence, wearing a spray of shamrock in his lapel, welcomed Taoiseach Enda Kenny for breakfast at the vice president’s residence as part of the White House’s St Patrick’s Day festivities. For Pence – who calls his grandfather “the proudest man I ever knew, and the best man I ever knew” – and his family, it is a deeply personal celebration.

“He’d be busting his buttons, that’s what he’d say,” Pence’s mother, Nancy Pence Fritsch, 84, said of her father, who died in 1980.

The story of Cawley, pieced together from interviews with historians and relatives in the US and Ireland, as well as archival documents, is one of family ties and a man whose experience had an impact on Pence. Some facts have been lost to time; memories do not align perfectly with the written record.

When Pence was a toddler, overshadowed by talkative older brothers, his grandfather taught him to recite Humpty Dumpty in Irish. As a boy, he shared the older man’s admiration for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, though both Pence and Cawley eventually left the Democratic Party. He inherited Cawley’s sense of humour and easy manner, Pence’s oldest brother, Gregory Pence, said – qualities that helped him thrive in politics.

Pence declined to be interviewed. A spokesman, Marc Lotter, when asked about Cawley’s immigration status, said he “entered this country through Ellis Island”. Barry Moreno, the librarian and historian at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, reviewed the ship’s manifest and other records and said Cawley’s paperwork, including a 1936 document stating that he had been “lawfully admitted”, appeared to be in order.

Prism of current events

Cawley’s journey does not offer a precise parallel to those of today’s refugees escaping war-torn nations such as Syria. Lotter said President Donald Trump’s efforts to restrict immigrant travel would not have applied to Cawley because “Ireland is not compromised by terrorism”. But with Pence defending the president, and the Irish divided over Trump, it is difficult not to view Cawley’s experience through the prism of current events.

In a recent speech to Latino small-business leaders, Pence pledged that he and Trump would “show great heart every step of the way” regarding immigration, before recounting his great-grandmother’s farewell to her son.

“She told him she was going to get him a one-way ticket to America,” Pence said, “because, she said, ‘There’s a future there for you’. ”

Born on February 7th, 1903, Cawley was the third of six children, Irish census records show. The family lived in Doocastle, Co Mayo, in a small cottage on a hill outside a village called Tubbercurry, in Co Sligo. Older villagers still remember his father as “Dick the tailor.”

The Sinn Féin nationalist party declared Ireland’s independence from Britain in 1919, setting off a guerrilla war between Irish and crown forces. That included the notorious British “Black and Tans” paramilitary group, which waged a night of terror in Tubbercurry in October 1920, burning buildings, including church parish halls, according to Michael Farry, an Irish historian who has documented the war in Sligo.

Manchester coal miner

In December 1921, Britain and Ireland signed a peace treaty, only to have civil war break out six months later among the Irish. Then, according to a handwritten ledger from Irish military archives, Cawley enlisted in the Irish Free State’s army. He felt “pushed into” serving, Nancy Pence Fritsch said, and was reluctant to fight his countrymen.

With little prospect of work, he fled to England, she said, to earn his way to America. The ship’s manifest lists him as a coal miner, with an address near Manchester, and says his brother paid for his passage.

In the US, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment was flaring. A Republican-controlled Congress had passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, a restrictive immigration law strongly opposed by many Irish-American Democratic politicians. Monthly quotas allowed more British immigrants than Irish, who were welcomed as English speakers but faced some suspicion of being radicals. (On the day Cawley’s ship arrived, The New York Times carried news of Irish rebels.)

Many Irish immigrated through Canada. And it might have been easier to gain entry to the US with a British address, said Richard White, a Stanford historian who has chronicled his own grandfather’s illegal immigration from Ireland to Chicago in 1924.

‘Neither sick nor an anarchist’

Passing through Ellis Island, Cawley would have answered an immigration officer’s routine questions, noted on the ship manifest. He was neither sick nor an anarchist, the manifest said. He had the equivalent of $23.

And though records show he did not become a citizen until 1941, a decade after he married, historians say that was typical; many Irish came to America not quite sure they would stay.

While his brother James made his life in New York, Cawley settled in Chicago. It was a “fully developed Catholic world” of churches, schools and a heavily Irish Democratic political machine, the historian Ellen Skerrett said.

In 1927, he was hired as a motorman for the Chicago Surface Lines, a streetcar service later absorbed by the Chicago Transit Authority, which still has Cawley’s insurance card on file. He held that job, eventually driving a bus, for more than 40 years.

By 1931, records show, he had married Mary Elizabeth Maloney, a teacher and first-generation American whose family hailed from Doonbeg, Co Clare. (In 2014, Trump bought a golf course there.) With Cawley’s widowed mother, they moved into a tidy brick “two-flat” – tenants, often relatives, rented the second floor – on the South Side.

When Pence Fritsch, born in 1932, was a baby, her father went home to see his dying mother. “He was gone so long,” she said, “my mother worried he wouldn’t come back.”

Holding on to an identity

There was not much Irish life in Columbus, Indiana, where Pence grew up as one of six children. (His father died in 1988, and his mother remarried.) Cawley was 56 when Pence was born.

“I think he was partial to Michael,” Pence Fritsch said of her father, “because he was named after him.”

Holidays meant trips to Chicago. In high school in the 1970s, Pence would regale friends with an imitation of his grandfather’s soft brogue. By this time, his grandparents were retired and travelled frequently to Ireland.

In 1981, not long after his grandfather died, Pence made his own pilgrimage. The trip was deeply emotional, said Trish Tamler, a cousin of Pence’s who accompanied him to Tubbercurry. “It was just something that we all treasured,” she said. “We were just all so fascinated with the history.”

By this time, Pence had left his Catholic faith to embrace evangelical Christianity, a decision that would redefine him as one of the nation’s most religious and culturally conservative legislators. Grappling with immigration policy, he often invoked his grandfather, including in 2006, when he tried unsuccessfully to unite Republicans around a compromise that conservatives attacked as amnesty.

“He got off that boat an Irish lad, he died an American, and I am an American because of him,” Pence said then. He also warned conservatives to demonstrate “that we believe in the ideas enshrined on the Statue of Liberty”.

700 miles of fencing

Yet he also took tough stances, pleasing the right. A decade before Trump proposed a border wall with Mexico, Pence backed a bill that led to the construction of about 700 miles of fencing. As governor, he barred Syrian refugees from Indiana, citing fear of terrorism.

In 2013, Pence took his wife, Karen, and their three children on vacation to Ireland, stopping in Doonbeg, where Hugh McNally, a distant cousin, runs a bar. “They want to hold on to an identity,” McNally said.

Now, amid the tensions over Trump’s immigration policies, Pence says his grandfather taught him a powerful lesson: “If you work hard, play by the rules,” he told the Latino leaders, “anybody can be anybody in America.”

Sinead O’Shea contributed reporting from Doocastle, Tubbercurry and Doonbeg in Ireland, and Mitch Smith from Chicago. Kitty Bennett and Susan Beachy contributed research.

© New York Times News Service

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
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


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.
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.