My Thursday jammed with a surveillance assignment (a blessing), I gave a fair amount of time to St. Patrick’s Day yesterday. I didn’t have time to write but did have some time to think (while keeping my eyes peeled, of course). Here is the ransom note which arose from those mental wanderings:
My mom, along with many siblings and cousins, emigrated from County Leitrim Ireland to the US during the 1950s, with fifty thousand others (not all at once), in a ritual which continues this day: A dozen young immigrants aged 16–20 jamming themselves into a few apartments near Fordham Road in the Bronx to begin their great American Journey.
For young people who’d grown up in modest farmhouses with dirt floors, but without running water, perhaps the streets of Inwood and Manhattan did appear to be paved with gold. (No leprechaun pun intended). “The subways just amazed me,” an uncle expressed to me on more than one occasion, “…and of course the toilets!”
At that time in our history, it was easier for Irish immigrants to assimilate into our society. They “looked like” Americans* and spoke English with the Irish brogue which so many found to be charming and amusing at the time; the same brogue, heritage, and Catholic religion which was ridiculed earlier in the same century.
These days, many of us appreciate foreign accents for what they usually are — new Americans at the beginning (or elsewhere) in their journey — almost always doing their best to learn to speak English and actively participate in this democratic experiment of ours.
Arriving so young, my mom and her sisters easily delayed marriage and were able to assimilate into society as young teachers, office clerks at Manhattan companies, or nannies in households that treated them well, almost never the case fifty years earlier. ‘Blank slates’ in many ways, many young Irish women learned office or business skills “on the job” during an era in which they were not expected to grow a career. There were exceptions, with others not as fortunate or who came over without existing connections from “home” sometimes ended up performing manual labor in poor working conditions, unmarried Irish immigrants sometimes found themselves living in boarding houses.
Among the men, some immediately landed mid-level jobs in postwar Corporate America or entered the NYPD, FDNY, Construction, etc. Some served in the military, even before becoming U.S. citizens. The G.I. Bill enabled many of them to return and attend college at night while assimilating into blue (or white)collar jobs. They earned just enough to buy a house in the suburbs, put away money for a rainy day, and not have to fearfully live week-to-week in debt.
So here I am up on Bainbridge Avenue
Still in one piece but glad I’m alive
Drinkin’ dirty big glasses of porter
Playin’ me jigs and me reels and me slides
Think of you, Bridie, whenever I’m sober
Which isn’t too often, I have to confess
Take good care of the Morris Minor
Bad luck to your Da and give the baby a great big kiss — from his Daddy in the Bronx.
— “Funky Ceili (Bridie’s Song)” by Black 47 (1992)
To be clear, those who came over from Ireland in the last several decades were not all saints. Just as with the born and bred, red, white, and blue teenagers graduating from high schools across the USA at the time, and the immigrants who have arrived at various ports of entry since good people can sometimes find themselves in precarious situations. A large factor for those who were successful depended on their levels of determination and hard work. Unfortunately working hard and ethically, or attending college currently does not ensures such success in the first few decades of the 21st century.
Each generation of immigrants was “hazed” or worse, often by immigrants who had also struggled early on; violent “rites of passage” as unnecessary as those at modern-day fraternities whose members take a pledge, must conform to defined social and gender roles, and keep secrets, in order to reach their respective paths of gold.
But that’s a story for another day.
I’m disappointed with so-called Irish-American Conservatives who speak with vile anger about the current crop of those who immigrate into the United States, with stories almost exactly the same as their parents, dirt floors and all. It baffles my mind, but that will also have to wait for another day.
’Til then, may the road rise to meet you. Stay safe and well.