Home, Here and There

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Mary Higgins Clark (@Deb Rothenberg)
How it’s NY: Glucksman Ireland House NYU is nestled in a mews just north of the Washington Square Arch.
How it’s Irish: America’s leading Irish Studies Program brought together a diverse array of scholars and experts for a day-long program exploring economics in the Irish and Irish-American family.
Who Do We Think We Are? Economics Family-Style was held at Glucksman Ireland House on Saturday, April 21st. 

Author Honor Molloy looks back and forward at Irish making their homes in America, at Glucksman Ireland House’s symposium, “Who Do We Think We Are?”

I’m glad I coffee-ed up for this, because I spent the day spent enmeshed in a lively and thoughtful discourse on a variety of topics. The joys of the American Parcel, writing tips from Queen of Suspense Mary Higgins Clark, and the latest trends in Irish immigration from Bruce Morrisonthe man responsible for the Morrison Visa which sponsored forty-eight thousand Irish immigrants in the early 1990s—were only a few of the subjects broached.

The first session provided a vivid opportunity to listen to excerpts from The Glucksman Ireland House Oral History Project. The charming Bridget Cagney regaled us with her memory of the parcels that would arrive from America,

“and the excitement when you’d get packages. The aroma. And there was just a sweet something. . . A mixture of fruit and . . . dried fruit. And the smell would mix in with the clothes.”

These packages reminded family members in Ireland that they had not been forgotten by those who had left for America.

Another memorable excerpt captured Mike Farragher’s unforgettable story about his mother putting aside envelopes of cash under the glass on a sideboard in the dining room.

“There was the trip to Ireland club, the Christmas Club, the telephone club . . .” 

Farragher’s parents wanted so badly to keep in contact with family members that they set aside money to help pay for telephone poles to be installed in the boreens of rural Ireland.

In an introduction presaging the day’s keynote speaker, the oldest woman living in New York State—111 years old and counting—was recently asked how she keeps alert. “By reading,” she said, pointing out that her favorite writer was: “…Mary Higgins Clark.” 

The always-stylish Clark read from an essay of hers that brought to life the Bronx of her childhood. (The essay can be found in Michael Coffey’s The Irish in America.) There were always “people at the table,” Clark read, “the kettle whistling and a teapot waiting”—and stories and secrets to be told. Turning from her essay, Clark went off-the-cuff, assuring us that:

“I never-ever have a sex scene in a book. I never-ever use profane language. That strong moral code is always there.” 

Her latest book The Lost Years was recently published by Simon &Schuster, her longtime literary home.

After lunch, we reconvened for session number three: Wealth, Poverty and Emigration. Breandan Mac Suibhne presented The End of Outrage; or, The Historian and the Informer; The Great Famine and Popular Politics in County Donegal. Breandan’s thorough examination of the factors that led to famine in his hometown of Beagh was profound and moving. He drew upon a remarkable archive of period sources that captured the feel and the language of those who were “steeped to the lips in poverty” and led his listeners to a solid understanding of the famine’s legacy in the little place where he was born.

Next up was Professor Maureen Murphy of Hofstra University. Her talk was “a three-hand reel” as her main subject was the Watson House, located at 7 State Street in Manhattan’s financial district. From the late 1800s to the early 1950s, this Home for Irish Immigrant Girls helped hundreds of thousands of young female newcomers find a foothold in America. The Watson House’s archive contains over 60,000 records that document the pain of emigration. Once again parcels and letters formed a link between those who had left and those who had stayed behind. Sometimes the letters were appreciated more for the financial assistance they provided than for emotional reasons. One father wrote upon receiving a picture of his daughter:

“I know what you look like. I want to see Alexander Hamilton [i.e. a 10-dollar bill].” 

Watson House (@Jim Henderson)

Murphy concluded with an invitation to make the journey down to 7 State Street, saying,

“I charge you to make eye contact with just one of these girls” 

who are captured in the photographs on the walls. Such a passionate invitation cannot be ignored. I shall do just that.

The last session of the day was the province of Bruce Morrison, former congressman from Connecticut and the man behind the Morrison Act, which made such an impact on Irish Emigration in the 1990s. Morrison spoke with passion and authority on the subject of Emigration Today. He reminded us of the size of Irish America; it’s a huge, variegated community of over 40 million people, which makes it a force of great potential in the cultural and political life of the nation. Morrison noted that a bridge between Ireland and America continues to exist, but it’s much harder now to legally work and live in the United States. Given the perilous state of the Irish economy, more and more Irish citizens would like to come to America, but it’s more difficult to do so in a post-September 11th world. A solution is needed, Morrison is pressing for an E-3 Visa Bill that will, as Niall O’Dowd recently posited last year in Irish Central,

“allow up to 10,000 Irish a year to come and work legally in the United States, though not receive green cards.”

Noel Kilkenny, Consul General of Ireland, New York, brought the day to a close. The eloquent and urbane Kilkenny didn’t remember American parcels in his house in Ireland, but fondly recalled

Noel Kilkenny (@Gwen Orel)

“letters. Letters from America. It was always this: ‘And will you be coming home soon?’

 The question of home, of here and there, Ireland and America, haunted the day, and the future of Irish America in all its permutations was Kilkenny’s main concern. The tie between the two countries must remain vital and authentic or “the connection with Ireland will be a tourist event” only. It is invaluable to look back, but all of were reminded of how very important it is to look forward. It was a rousing ending to the symposium, five fascinating sessions that spanned the past, the present, and onwards.

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