Category: Archive

Irish immigration at the millennium: Immigrants no longer gone forever

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Patrick Markey

and Harry Keaney

They came, they saw, and most of them conquered. But even if some of them never really settled, they stayed.

Most had no choice.

Until the late 1950s and the age of jet travel between Ireland and the U.S., that was the essence of the Irish immigrant experience in America.

"One of the things that makes today different from my time is the American wake," said Mayo-born Frank Durkan, now in his 52nd year in the U.S.

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"I had an American wake when I left," he said, recalling his departure as a 17-year-old in 1947 from his native Bohola.

Durkan, a lawyer in the Manhattan firm O’Dwyer & Bernstien, traveled to the U.S. on the ship Mauratania.

"As far as the people at home were concerned, you were gone," Durkan said. "They wished you ‘luck in America.’ Whereas the desire might be there to go back, the reality was that you got a job, got married, settled down and raised an American family. There were, of course, exceptions to that, but, by and large, that was the case."

Durkan said that it was so unusual for people to return home that even a visit back to Ireland on vacation was a special event.

Not so today.

Dublin architect Susan Leahy, 30, came to the U.S. six years ago — and recently returned to Ireland — to settle.

"I had finished university, I had been on a J1 visa and I got a green card," she said. "I decided to come for a year and I stayed on for six.

"I love it here, but I always knew I wanted to go back. And, it’s good for me now back in Dublin workwise."

It was also after having been in the U.S. for six years that Frank Durkan first returned to Ireland — on vacation.

"I remember telling people I was going to Ireland and they said I must be doing great. Most of them couldn’t afford to go home," he said. "When a friend of ours was going back to Ireland for a trip, we would all go out to Idlewild Airport to send them off. It was a great event and not everybody could do it."

Durkan added that when immigrants like him arrived in the U.S., they joined their county association. "Today, they don’t need it," he said.

He added that the older generation in the county associations would always greet young immigrants with, "Where are you going to school?"

"They would encourage education," Durkan said. "There was even a Kerryman named Frank O’Connor, from Rockaway, who gave a six-week course in Manhattan for immigrants seeking the equivalent of a high school diploma."

In addition, he said, in his day, the church had a much tighter hold on immigrants, and people would identify themselves by what parish they were living in. "If you ask people today where they live, they will say Woodside, Yonkers, Maspeth, Bay Ridge. . . . That’s the answer you’ll hear."

While Irish immigrants today have news from Ireland at their fingertips by logging onto the internet, Durkan recalled that, when he arrived in the U.S., Gaelic Park in the Bronx was the place to go. "Gaelic Park was a Mecca, it was where you met people from home," he said.

Despite the fact that, in the past, most Irish immigrants did not return to Ireland to settle, Durkan said there "is always the yearning for home."

"It was in the back of my mind that I might go home," he said, "but as the years passed, that desire weakened, and began to dissipate and disappear. You are gradually drawn into the American scene, sometimes without even realizing it."

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