Darren, who’s 6, and 4-year-old Ciara have written letters to Santa in the hope that he’s as familiar with the Irish Midlands as he is with the Bronx. “They’re thrilled,” she said. “They can’t wait.”
The family usually travels to Ireland earlier in the year. “I switched jobs, though, and it didn’t suit to go in the summer,” said McGivney, who works as a secretary.
Like many Irish couples, the McGivneys like to return home when the weather is finer, the days are longer and the adult social life is less hectic. And with three-week stays the norm, there’s less likelihood of children missing time at school.
“Families get better value in the summer,” said Barry Twomey, the owner of O’Connor’s Fairways Travel.
The changing patterns of Irish immigration have done away with the frantic Christmas scramble. Holiday charter flights are a thing of the past, Twomey said, and up to 50 percent of seats on full scheduled flights are taken by Irish-based vacationers, as compared with 20 percent before.
Some immigrants have formed long-term relationships and are more likely to go home for weddings, christenings and parents’ birthdays. Others have moved back permanently and their places have not been taken by newer immigrants.
“The Christmas flights have always tended to be a traffic of single people,” Twomey said. “Christmas in Ireland is like Thanksgiving in America. Young people want to be home.”
And some can’t go. With substantially increased Immigration and Naturalization Service vigilance at airports, few of the undocumented will risk a holiday trip this year. “Realistically, the thinking is, you’d be crazy to try it,” Twomey said.
Liam, a computer science graduate from County Mayo, will spend Christmas in the Bronx with his five housemates. “I’d give anything to be able to go home; all of my family will be there on Christmas Day,” he said.
Mary, a Belfast native who works as a bartender in Manhattan, will have a dinner for 15 friends in Queens. “We’re all in the same boat,” she said. “I think it’ll be a few years before I get a chance to go home.”
Anne Marie, a babysitter and bartender living in the Bronx, has a different attitude. “I haven’t been in Ireland for Christmas for three years. And if I hadn’t spent a lot of time at home this year, I’d have taken a chance,” she said. “But I intend to settle back there eventually. If you’ve got a good thing going here and you want to stay, you’re better off not risking it.”
For the post-war generation of immigrants getting in and out of America wasn’t the problem. The prohibitive cost of trans-Atlantic travel was. Chris Keegan was married with seven children and living in Woodside in Queens when he made a journey back to County Roscommon to act as his brother’s best man. That was in 1970. “I’d been gone 21 years,” he said. “There’d been a few changes. There was no parking space to be had in Roscommon Town. I couldn’t believe it.”
After that, family trips to the West of Ireland became more frequent. One of the children spent several long vacations on his grandparents’ farm. “My wife and I still go back every couple of years,” he said.
But Keegan, who was born on Christmas Day 1927, last spent his birthday at home in 1948.
Throughout his childhood, Christmas preparation began with a search in the woods for the holly bush. “You couldn’t come back without it. It went up over each window,” he recalled. “And there was a candle in every window too.
“Christmas morning was a big thing, although you didn’t get too many gifts. Maybe a cap gun and everyone got a stocking.”
His mother raised turkeys, but they all went to the market. A goose was cooked for the traditional Irish Christmas dinner. “For entertainment, we’d go out to the field and chase a football,” he said. “We didn’t have much.”
His parents saw seven of their nine children leave the family farm for New York and England.
It wasn’t until he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War that he began to associate material abundance with the Christmas season. His future parents-in-law, both Kerry-born immigrants, sent parcels from New York to Japan, where he was based.
“After we got married, we went to Peggy’s parents for Thanksgiving,” he said. “Then they came to our house for Christmas. I was never homesick. Not really. I had my brothers and sisters here too.”
Immigrants often had a ready-made family of uncles, aunts or cousins who’d sponsored their travel to the U.S. Social, sporting and local parish organizations also helped create a home away from home.
Chris Keegan, a former Gaelic football player, has been active in the County Roscommon Society of New York for half a century. But family has always been at the center of these networks. Twenty Keegans will gather this year in Woodside on Christmas.
Cecily Rohan, who lives in Woodhaven in Queens, emigrated from County Galway early in 1963 and returned that December. “I decided to go home because I was so upset over John F. Kennedy’s death,” she said. “My sister and myself booked tickets for Dec. 19.”
The next and last Christmas spent in Ireland was two decades later. On that occasion she was accompanied by her husband and five children.
“But I think Christmas is fantastic here. There’s a big hype to it,” she said. “And there’s the snow. Between 1963 and 1980 we always had snow before Christmas. The weather’s changed.” However, she’s retained one important aspect of the Irish Christmas. “I get two geese. My children love them,” she said.
“Like the young immigrants, we go back all the time now. But Christmas is for family and our children are here,” Rohan said. “And now we have a 2-1/2-year-old grandson.”
Five years away
The 1980s and ’90s immigrants are gradually following in the footsteps of the previous generation. Carmel Wogan of Yonkers, a native of Mountbellew in County Galway, regularly traveled home for the holiday when she was single. “I came here in 1993 and was home for four Christmases in a row from 1994,” she said. “I couldn’t be away for Christmas. I had to be home. I felt I’d be missing something.”
Then she met her future husband, Jack. “One Christmas we went to Rory Dolan’s. Another time we went to Florida. And another year we cooked in,” she recalled. “You get used to being here.”
The couple are frequent flyers to Ireland nonetheless. They made two trips earlier in 2002, one of them for Jack Wogan’s father’s 60th birthday. They’ll spend Christmas in Mountbellew, the first in five years, and then travel to his sister’s wedding a few days later in Dublin.
For most people, a Christmas return that has been postponed for several years will be special. Jessica Finnan, who works as a waitress in Manhattan, will reunite in Limerick City with sisters who are traveling from India and Germany. “I was on my own in New York last year and it was horrible,” she said.
The trip will also be an opportunity for Finnan, who’s one of 11 children, to reconnect with her childhood. “When I was a kid, however early we were up, we didn’t get our presents until our father came down from bed at 10:30,” she said. “Then he opened each of them individually for us.” Now with a 4-year-old grandson in the household, she’s heard that her father has revived the tradition. “So there’ll be no presents until 10:30,” she said.
“It’ll be all very stressful until the stores close in Limerick on Christmas Eve,” Finnan said. “There’ll be nothing more you can do at that point. We’ll just let our hair down. It’ll be magic.”
Maggie and Shay McGarry are confident that Christmas in her home town of Westport in County Mayo will have a magical aspect to it. “We’re pretty excited about it.” she said. “It’s all the sweeter for us.” This is their first trip since they immigrated together in the 1990s. While Maggie McGarry has made annual summer trips home, this is the first year that her husband could be sure of getting back into the U.S.
In his time in New York, Dublin native Sean McGarry has had to make some emotionally wrenching decisions. On one occasion, he opted to stay here when his sister became critically ill back home.
When his mother died in Dublin three years ago, his wife immediately made arrangements for him to go the funeral. “I booked and cancelled the ticket several times,” she said. “Finally his eldest sister persuaded him not to go, not to jeopardize his case. She told him his mother wouldn’t want that.”
The McGarrys are spending the early part of their trip in Dublin. “It will be a lot for him to handle,” Maggie McGarry said. “But then we’ll go to Westport for Christmas and that will be very relaxing.”
Anne Marie McGivney’s family gathering in Granard, Co. Longford, will include her mother and 11 of her 12 siblings. “I was always the one who was away,” she said. “Now my twin brother [we came fourth in the family] who’s married and has a child in Singapore will be the only one not there.”
In January, there’ll be the long journey back to their life and commitments in America. “When we come back to Pelham Bay in the summer, we’re lonesome for about a month,” McGivney said. For now though, they’re enjoying the prospect of bringing a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old home to a large extended family for Christmas. “It’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said.