Four Irish lives, individually thrust overseas, eventually united by chance, by marriage, by friendship. Margaret and Patrick, Betty and Paul. They share geographic origins — broadly — and endpoints, yet their journeys from Ireland to the Bronx are shaped by marked differences in their upbringings and their intentions. Each story, replete with unexpected pivots and major decisions, culminated in a purchase of a ticket to America. Four immigrants — drawn to America by hopes for a better life, plans to achieve fame, the desire to escape poverty and problems with the law — ultimately unified by a profound mutual understanding.
Patrick entered the world on a crude wooden kitchen table in his home in County Tyrone, welcomed by his parents and four older siblings. The next day, basically, he was sent out to tend to the cattle and chickens on their small plot of land.
As hard as he worked on the farm, Patrick knew from a young age he would not inherit anything; because of the system of primogeniture, all would go to his older brother. This meant, from early on, his imagination was unbound from the farm; his visions for his future could leave the little property, eventually breaking out of his small town in Tyrone, and then opening up to the unthinkable: international travel far beyond the fields and horizons of his experience and limited education.
Visions were visions, and he’d have to work hard if he wanted to see his hopes take form. He continued arduous work on the farm and picked up a job at a local market, slowly accumulating his “new beginning” fund.
At age 17 he got in touch with a distant aunt in New York, who often opened her doors to other immigrants, offering boarding and loans. In their letters, they arranged to have Patrick sheltered, for a fee, for his first few months in America. Beyond that he was plan-less, uncertain as an unseasoned explorer thrown into a vegetation-dense jungle, navigating through the endless labyrinth to the soundtrack of unfamiliar croaks and rustling leaves. His uncertainties certain, Patrick took a leap of faith and bought a ticket to take the USS America to New York, leaving his tight-knit family — perhaps for good.
Margaret was the second of eight children, born to an uncompromising matriarch and a doting father, from whom she inherited her sleek wit. She enjoyed school and was sad to leave, when, at age 12, her mother put her to work full-time on the farm. As she worked, she sang and was soon recognized around town for her enchanting melody.
At around age 15, Margaret became a regular singer at a restaurant in town, where she also served to make some extra cash. As she wrapped up her last song one night, an American couple dining at the restaurant called her to their table. She was incredible, they said. They needed to speak to her parents. She took them home. The couple told her mother that she would make it big in America. They were certain of it. If she was not sent immediately, her talent would go to waste and she would miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime. They were assertive, confident and powerful with their words.
Margaret had no desire to leave home, happy with her job and her life on the farm. She loved Ireland, its gentle hills, its soft rain, its charming simplicity. If she left, she may never be able to return. But after the conversation with the American couple, her mother had made up her mind. Margaret was going to New York.
Betty, from County Claire, grew up thinking little about school and a lot about food. She once described a memory, lining up behind her many siblings at the age of 7 or 8, awaiting her turn to be breastfed by her mother. Money was scarce and stomachs rarely filled. She left school before 8th grade to escape her “handsy” teacher and to begin work.
Betty was sent to a boarding school, where she worked as the cook and cleaner from age 14 to 17 years old. She knew, at this point, that she wanted to go to America. She would not thrive in Ireland; she was not the firstborn, nor a son, so she would not gain much from her circumstances. Her sister went to America — why shouldn’t she? Over her three years at the boarding school, she saved up enough to buy herself a ticket to Boston.
Paul was the child of a tender mother and a violent, alcoholic blacksmith. They lived by an ocean but he never learned to swim; still, he spent considerable time by the water, gazing into the deep blue from above, unafraid, in search of the scaly torso of a sizable fish to puncture and sell. He loved the ocean and he reveled in the sweet, crisp green of Kerry, but he ached for more, for variance, for adventure.
At age 17, Paul left for England, where he began work framing high-rise buildings. He walked across beams 20 stories up as one walks along a sidewalk, casually, swiftly and without any hesitation. His fearlessness landed him the nickname “Spiderman” and set him at a high price many companies were begging to pay. With his new earnings, Paul saved up to buy himself a grand Vincent motorcycle.
One summer he decided to go back to Kerry for an extended visit. Unsure of what to do with his motorcycle, he sold it along with his insurance to a friend while at a pub. When he returned from Ireland, a friendly face at the police station called him in to tell him he was in a lot of trouble and that he might want to look into boat schedules abroad. His friend had accidentally killed a woman on the motorcycle, which was still registered and insured under Paul’s name. Paul could flee the country or face up to 10 years in prison. The next day, he hopped on a boat to America.
Once in America, Margaret began work as a server at a hotel. The American couple never followed up, their promise of success left at words and their support withheld. Nonetheless, she sang. She sang for the reasons she’d always sung. For joy, for sorrow, for love. She met Patrick one evening at a dance for Irish Catholic immigrants in the Bronx, where the two hit it off quickly. From that day forward, Patrick would wait for Margaret in an alleyway outside the hotel, and at the end of the night, she would bring him a plate of leftover food. The two fell in love and married.
In his path for citizenship, Patrick was drafted into the army during the Korean War and was stationed in Germany for a year or two. When he returned, he climbed up the hierarchy of an A&P grocery store, working hard to sustain his growing family. Ultimately, he and Margaret would raise 12 children together — the ninth, my father.
Betty eventually left her job as a nanny in Boston and moved to the Bronx, where she picked up a job at a supermarket. There she became friends with her manager — Patrick from County Tyrone.
Paul, too, got straight to work as an NYC bus driver upon arriving in the Bronx. He had been engaged to marry a woman in England but called off the engagement after meeting Betty on the street and thinking she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The two married and had three children, the youngest of whom would marry the ninth child of Patrick and Margaret. My mother.
So often immigrants are branded as burdensome, dangerous and undesirable. Ignoring the intense hypocrisy behind such language — considering Native Americans are the only ones who can truthfully say they are not here because of immigration — these labels are ravaging and baseless. Most often, immigrants are the flame of societal growth, the writers of history, the portrayal of beauty in differences. My whiteness shields me from the hateful acts of bigotry faced by many immigrants and their descendants in the United States. This innate protection of mine underscores the pure racism in anti-immigrant sentiment — if calling a person undesirable due to their country of origin was not enough to make that clear.
Stories of immigrants, like those of my grandparents, are some of the most inspiring: They involve letting go of everything familiar, taking big risks in pursuit of significant goals and starting all over again in places hundreds of miles outside of their comfort zone. Immigrants are symbols of hope, of diligence, of strength.