I was eighteen years old, when I went down to Dublin, with a fistful of money and a cartload of dreams.'
I wasn't 18 as the famous song goes, but only two days shy of my 21st birthday when I last stepped foot out of my family home in Cashel, County Tipperary. Little did I realise, it would be the last time I'd ever embrace my Mother. The year was 1984 and I was heading for New York to follow a dream. Rural Ireland was a bleak place in those days, unless you had land to your name then your options were beyond limited. I left school when I was sixteen to work as a farm labourer a few miles out the road, but that work quickly became scarce and unreliable. I was living in a two bed terraced house with my Mother and two sisters. Tough enough at the best of times! My Dad had died of pneumonia in 1981, and even though I desperately wanted to support the family, I just couldn't get a break. That was Ireland of the 80's, the light at the end of the tunnel was only ever to be found overseas.
My Mother, God rest her soul, knew I was struggling. She knew I was suffocating in plain sight, and without hesitation used what little savings she had to send me to America. She was the quintessential Irish Mother, and would give her last breath for the family. Reluctantly, I accepted her charity and packed my duffel bag with the little belongings I had. The plan was simple, I knew a few lads from the town who had made the trip a few years previous. They'd set me up with a bed for a few weeks and lead me in the direction of some work. With any luck, I'd land on my feet and it'd all be okay. That was the extent of my planning, I kid you not. I jumped on the bus headed for Dublin with a few notes in my pocket and a hearty supply of ham sandwiches in my bag. Not for a second, did I think it would be the last time I'd see the castle or the hurling field. My emotions were indescribable, going to Dublin was a huge deal, let alone going across the Atlantic. It was exciting, but also absolutely terrifying.
As I climbed the steps of the Aer Lingus jet, I must have been in a state of shock, I couldn't believe what was happening. How in the name of God was this giant hunk of metal going to get off the ground. I just couldn't imagine it. I took my seat in row 12, seat F, and blessed myself maybe 12 or 15 times. I promised the Lord that if he let me survive the flight then I'd never again touch a drop of whiskey or stout. Of course, I did survive it but I'd be lying if I said I've kept my promise to the Almighty. I hope he hasn't held it against me. Descending through the clouds and seeing the New York skyline for the first time is an experience I'll never forget. I was along way from Cashel, like magic, I was in a totally different world.
I knew the customs men would quiz me to with in an inch of my life. There was no fear I'd any scrap of a visa. I was going for a 'holiday' and nothing they said could shake me from that story. Despite their best efforts, I was granted entry into the US and my journey was truly happening. I made my way out of JFK without the faintest idea of where I was going. After some hours of travelling I finally manged to make my way to the Woodlawn area of the Bronx. It would become my home for the best part of the next 20 years. I met my pal Tommy Kelly(since deceased) in a pub named Tony's. True to his word, he put me up for about six months and even managed to land me a job on a building site in South Jamaica, Queens. Now that was an experience, how I survived? I'm still not quite sure. I worked hard, I played harder and some of the best times of my life were spent working on sites all across the city. The people I've met from all over the world, some of the best and most hardworking people you‘re ever likely to meet. It's those people who are the true backbone of New York. The easy targets for the likes of Donald Trump to scapegoat, even though he used them to build every structure he's ever put up. We all had one thing in common, no papers. It bound us together like brothers. You just knew. Everything was into the hand, and off the books. Work was your lifeline, there was no other way for people like us.
I worked hard to carve out a decent life for myself this last thirty years. I've got my own flat, a great group of friends and I've even had a wife or two but best leave that part out, long story! I can never leave the States, I'd never get back in and that's a frightening thought. How could I go home and try to pick up the threads of an old life? My life is here and no set of papers could ever change that. Even more terrifying is Covid-19, it‘s slowly taking away everything I've ever worked for. There is no work now, sites are empty and my business has gone to zero overnight. Who can I turn to? I can't exactly say to the Donald Trump regime that I need a few quid to tide me over. I'm pretty sure my front door would be getting kicked in rather quickly. New York has been home to me, and a good home at that since 1984. I just hope that I can make it through this crisis. It's the thousands like me that will suffer, far from the spotlight. In my hallway hangs my favourite quote, If you're lucky enough to be Irish, then you‘re lucky enough. I hope some of that luck will rub off soon. I really need it.