How I Got Here

 Like many Americans, I paid very little attention to my heritage until it was almost too late. I knew I was Irish of course – as anyone who looked at me could easily tell – but that was about it when I was a child. I became familiar with bits and pieces of Irish history in high school, and more so in college, so I was familiar with the English conquest and the great potato famines of the mid-nineteenth century; but it never occurred to me to ask my father how we got here until he was in his seventies.


I’m glad I finally got around to asking him for specifics, because there was more to the story than I thought. My grandmother’s people - the McGoverns - came from Sligo, an industrial city in Connaught in northwest Ireland, while my father’s family – the Brennans - originated in Cork, in the south of Ireland in Munster. My father summarized the economic situation in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century (and most of the previous two centuries) in four words: “No jobs, no money.”

​With economic necessity as their motivation, two of my grandmother’s maiden aunts, Brigid and Fionna, emigrated to America at the turn of the century. Surprisingly (at least to me at the time), they didn’t debark at Ellis Island; they entered through Halifax, Nova Scotia and made their way to Rhode Island, where they supported themselves and financed the subsequent immigration of the bulk of their family by cleaning houses. At the time (“Irish Need Not Apply”) housecleaning was the only job available for Irish women.

My grandmother came to America when she was three, which technically made my father a first-generation American. She raised six boys and a girl (my father was the second oldest son) in Central Falls, Rhode Island, which at one time was the most densely populated town in the U.S. My father’s description was slightly more colorful: “It was like Calcutta – people everywhere."

"And people from everywhere – Portuguese (pronounced “Pordagees”), Jews, Italians (pronounced “Eye-talians”), Syrians -- it was like the U.N. There wasn’t ten cents in the whole place, and we had less than most.”

Four of the boys volunteered to serve in World War II (U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard), and a fifth volunteered with the Marines in the Korean War. All of them went on to overcome the poverty of their childhood and raise families in the general prosperity of post-war America. In short, they lived the American Dream that their maiden great-aunts had imagined fifty years before in Ireland, motivated by the most basic human drive - to provide for their family. It’s the same motivation that drives immigrants to America from all over the world today.

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