The New York expats: 'If there's an Ireland they'd go back to, it's not the Ireland of now'


For older Irish immigrants, the New York Irish Center has been providing a place to meet, chat and feel part of a community. Photographer Norma Manly visited the centre to document their stories

“Norma called and asked to do a study of our senior members,” says Paul Finnegan, executive director of the New York Irish Center, based in Long Island City, Queens. “I said, well, don’t just come in here and start snapping. They’re not exhibits in a zoo. All you’ve got to do is be with them for a while and they’ll open up to you. And they loved her by the time she had to go back.”

The stories of the “seniors”, as Finnegan calls this generation, fascinated Manly. “Almost all of them had left Ireland not because they wanted to, but because they had to,” she says. “I wanted to know about the lives they’d made for themselves in New York, and their connections to the lives they’d left behind. Most of them, though, would know more than I’d know about what was going on back in Ireland. They keep up with the news, they watch the matches. But they do consider New York home now, and if there’s an Ireland they’d like to go back to, it’s not the Ireland of now, it’s the Ireland they left when they were young.”

Young Ireland rarely shows its face in a place like the New York Irish Center; Manly, with her camera and her photography internship in Manhattan, would have been an unusual visitor. The Irish who immigrated to New York between the 1950s and 1970s tend to have little contact with the Irish who came to the city over the past two decades. Those younger generations showed no inclination to settle in the old communities – Woodside and Sunnyside in Queens, Woodlawn and Riverdale in the Bronx. What will be interesting is to see whether this will change again now that another generation of Irish immigrants is being drawn to the US not because of a lifestyle choice but because of a search for jobs.

The New York Irish Center was, says Paul Finnegan, primarily a response to the immigration wave of the 1980s. “Those immigrants weren’t able to connect to Irish-America through the three pillars of networking that had existed before,” he says. “Most of them didn’t have green cards, so they couldn’t go through the labour unions. They didn’t connect to the county associations, which had gotten weak in those years, and they didn’t have the focus of the older generations on the parish structure.”

Though the centre was intended for the then-new arrivals, it became a project for those who had preceded them. “The immigrants of the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, they were tradespeople, with skills, with time on their hands, and they were retired, with good pensions,” he says. “So they were able to do a tremendous amount of work getting the place up and running. They were its original backbone. And they’re still a huge component of who we are and what we do.”

Fr Colm Campbell

“Fr Campbell came out here from Belfast,” says Paul Finnegan. “He was based in Andersontown during probably the darkest times of the Troubles. Here in New York, he was kind of a priest-at-large for the 1980s Irish. And an Irish priest in a very modern context, in that he’s a highly qualified social worker. He was dealing with the stuff that we didn’t boast about when it came to the Irish of that time. Alcoholism. Drug abuse. Depression. Spousal abuse. Broken marriages. He was dealing with this, and he didn’t judge, so people began to really connect with him and he became a friend to people.

“Towards the end of the 1990s, he began talking about building a real community centre here. Not a performing arts centre, not an immigration services provider, but a place for people to come. And he’d built up such a network that he was able to turn to business people who could give him a building to get started with, and to others who wanted to give back in some way. And those 1980s immigrants who became successful, they understand that a lot of that success has to do with the fact that the Irish before them had created an infrastructure that they could tap into. They were the ones who had opened the doors.”

Margaret Clifford

Woodside, Queens

“My husband passed away suddenly on December 14th. He left the house to go to mass at five to nine and died just two blocks away. He was John Clifford from Killorglin, Co Kerry. He thought there was only one county and that was it. I had to keep reminding him there were 31 others.

“I’m from Clonkeen, Co Westmeath, and I came to New York on St Patrick’s Day 1957. It didn’t bother me – it was a way of life to come here. Nobody paid any attention. My aunt claimed me and then I rented a room by myself. I thought nothing of it, to tell you the honest truth. I was an operator in the Bell telephone company.

“And then we met at Gaelic Park and we married and had a daughter and four sons.

“I go to the Irish Center for a luncheon on a Wednesday and then for cards every Sunday and the last Friday of the month. It’s great for the older people. They come from all over. Some would take two trains and a bus and everything.”

Kathleen Rygor and her husband Stanley

Astoria, Queens

“I came out here from Co Offaly in 1950, and a couple of years later I sponsored my mother to come here too, and my stepfather. My dad had died when I was young. I guess it was unusual to sponsor parents, but my mother came on a visit when I was first married and she loved it. And it was really great having her nearby. My sister came out too.

“I worked as a bookkeeper for an insurance agency in Wall Street. My husband is a New Yorker and he worked with an advertising agency on Wall Street. He worked in the one job for 60 years, ended up as senior vice-president, and he had the Morgan Stanley account. They used to kid him because his name is Stanley.

“He took up the accordion and he goes into Dempsey’s to play in sessions. We have five children and nine grandchildren. I knit a lot of baby stuff for grandchildren, and for great-grandchildren who are not even born yet. I knit a lot of Aran sweaters. I’m just kind of sorry I didn’t get into it when I was younger, when my sister and my mom were here. We could have started a little business.”

New York Irish Center

Paul Finnegan is executive director of the centre: “This is a place where these older Irish people can feel of value. A place where they feel they have some ownership. They helped to build it, and now, for the most part, they can sit back and enjoy it. They have company and it’s a way for many of them not to drift off into isolation. They have families, but in many cases their families live elsewhere in the city or elsewhere in the country.

“I moved here 25 years ago, and I know from the other side what they’re going through; I know that it’s hard to keep up with your parents when you’re far away. So we’re able to do that, to keep tabs on those outliers who are likely to become isolated.

“We’re looking into things like providing transportation, because New York City is a very challenging place to get around in when you reach that stage. We have also had a listening service, but that’s under review at the moment, because we found that the people we were hoping to reach weren’t calling. There’s a tremendous pride. The Irish of that generation, their whole sense of worth is built on the fact that they got on well here. Now, it’s the first time in their lives where they feel they need to look after themselves, and it’s hard for them to reach out and ask for help.”

Kathleen Kelly

Woodside, Queens

“I’ll never forget passing the Statue of Liberty – all I did was cry. I was in America now and there was nobody around only myself. I didn’t even know my aunt that I’d come out to.

“I lived with her for five years and I worked as a waitress, and then a girlfriend and I got an apartment in Woodside. And we found our husbands in the dancehalls.

“I’m married to Seán Kelly from Carlow, and we have two kids and two grandkids.

“I’ve been back to Ireland almost every year, sometimes twice a year. Ireland today, I don’t know what has happened. I still don’t understand how nobody was watching the banks. And America, it’s a good place to grow old in, but only if you have your own few dollars and your pension.

“We used to go to all the county dances but we play cards now. We’re here to stay, Sean Kelly and myself. We have an old house in Woodside, and we have one dog now, and that’s it.”

Matt Talty

“I was brought up in Co Clare with 16 brothers and sisters. It’s beautiful to be in a big family. Someone asked me once, when I was running the bars, did I not mind having to be around people so much, and I said, I was around people since I was born.

“I came here with $20 in my pocket in 1957, and I started out as a union plasterer. I sent for my wife and three children soon after. By the time we were five years here, I had my own company, building houses, bars and restaurants. I stayed in that business for 25 years and then I opened up my own bars, upstate and in the Bronx.

“My wife, Mollie Willis, came from a respectable family in Sligo. After we were together a while she told me she was seven years older than me. Some people would walk out because of that. But we were married 60 years. And I was able to play my concertina at her graveside.

“I’m only 88 years of age. I keep busy. I restored a 1970 Checker Cab, and I’m making súgán chairs these days. And I go into Dempsey’s to play in traditional sessions. Every Sunday I buy the two Irish papers and I listen to the Irish programme and to the games. Kerry are still crying over their loss. Where are you from in Ireland? Ah you’re not much for the hurling, so.”

Jim Gill

Staten Island

“1957, I came out here. A cousin of mine who was also from Kerry told me to volunteer for the draft, to get it out of the way, and because it’ll be easier to get jobs. So I was two years in Germany with the US army. I was a porter afterwards, and then a bus driver, and then I worked in the police department for over 33 years. I ended up a lieutenant.

“I play the fiddle in Dempsey’s Tavern every Tuesday night and every Thursday we have a session here in the house in Staten Island. My wife Pat, she’s from Brooklyn, she took up the flute. We have three children. The grandchildren are American. It moves a bit every generation.

“Years ago you’d know an Irish person the minute you saw them, but not anymore. The new Irish people, they fit right in. You can’t tell with clothes or anything anymore. But I think wherever you go you have to fit in with the people. Otherwise you won’t be here or there. When we came out here first, we always said that it would only be for a short time. But that’s not what happens. And I know several people who tried to retire back to Ireland and were back here again after a couple of years.”