My Irish-born parents, Margaret and Jerry, emigrated from London, England, in 1959, with me, age 3, and my sister, Dolores, age 17 months. They were sponsored by my mother’s sister, Mary, and her World War II GI husband, Bud. whom Mary had met in war-torn London. My aunt and uncle were living outside Pittsburgh, PA, in a very rural area, and had four children of their own. So adding our family of four to the lot was not easy, but they were very hospitable. My Dad, Jerry, was a blacksmith in London, which meant he worked on welding iron gates, fences, etc. These were not transferable skills in rural Pennsylvania at this time, and he missed the hustle and bustle of London. So, he went to New York City to join his brothers, Bill and Andy, who were working in that city. He got a job at UPS during the day and went to bar-tending school at night (the stereotypical job for an Irishman!). Once he had a full-time job at a restaurant/bar on 50th and Sixth Avenue (Davy Jones), he sent for us.
So, we came by bus to New York City. He found a rooming house initially in Brooklyn, near Prospect Park, just a one room, with a bath down the hall that was shared by the other lodgers. My parents loved New York City, and it was here that they raised us. With the Irish diaspora’s help, my parents soon had a building super’s job in Highbridge, the Bronx, with an apartment that was rent-free and with donated furniture. (They left almost everything behind them in London.) My mother ran the building, and my father worked nights as a bartender. The bar was across the street from Radio City Music Hall, so he always knew folks that worked there. As children, we remember being able to tour behind the scenes of Radio City and see the camels during the Christmas show.
A couple of years later, we moved to another super’s job, a bigger building, near Fordham Road in the Bronx. It was there that I remember my parents studying to become American citizens. They would study for the civics test, and I remember my Mom being afraid she wouldn’t pass the test, but my father would! Until she died at 87, she remembered the one question that stumped her: how many justices on the Supreme Court! But she passed. And, I remember going with them to the local police precinct, and all of us getting finger-printed.
My parents were so very proud when they became U.S. citizens in 1965. (My sister and I, because we were under 18 when our parents applied, became “derived” citizens, which meant that our parents applied for us. Both my sister and I had to take the oath of allegiance before we turned 18, or we would have had to do the whole applications ourselves.) Three years later after my parents became citizens, in 1968, I remember my father taking me to a Fordham Road rally to hear Senator Bobby Kennedy speak to a crowd. Kennedy was running for president. My father, now an American citizen, was anxious to vote for an Irish American for President! Senator Kennedy was assassinated shortly after we heard him speak. And my father died suddenly a month later at the age of 39. By that time, almost 10 years from when he arrived in America, he had bought his own business, he had become an American citizen, and was eager to vote in his first Presidential election. He was achieving the American dream. But it was not to be.
My Mom continued to raise us in the Bronx, surrounded by immigrants of all ethniciities and religions. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be raised. Growing up in an immigrant family in New York, watching both the struggles and opportunities presented us, seeing how important it was for us all to be American, has prepared me to work at Carnegie Corporation and on issues such as immigration, naturalization, and voting–all parts of the immigrant integration experience.