Sunday, 5 February 2017

My Parents Were Illegal Irish Immigrants in the United States by Donal Mahoney

Joseph Francis O'Mahony, first row, third from left, circa 1920, age 16, all dressed up and looking older than 16 as a prisoner of the English on Spike Island a few years before he emigrated to the United States. There he became a citizen and the judge told him to change his name to Mahoney, a decision he would bemoan like a banshee for years. Permission to use this photo has been obtained from the Waterford County Museum in Ireland.


In 1920, my father, 16, was a guest of the British government. He was a prisoner of their forces occupying Ireland at the time, a group called the Black and Tans.

One day he and seven other prisoners were brought out of their makeshift cells to dig their own graves in a small walled compound. As tradition would have it, they would be shot into their graves and other prisoners would be brought out to bury them.

By prearranged signal, the eight men dropped their shovels and broke for the wall. Bullets stopped five of them but the other three climbed over the wall and made it through the rural Irish countryside to freedom. One of the escapees eventually went to Australia, another to Canada. My father made it to America.

The story doesn’t end there, of course, and he only told it once. But even if you were only in eighth grade, as I was at the time, it’s not a story you forget.

Ironically, his first job in America was digging graves in New Jersey. Then he boxed professionally in New York and sang in Irish nightclubs. He never drank. He was an odd fellow in that respect and perhaps in some others as well.

After another boxer broke his nose he stopped fighting and emigrated from New York, this time to Chicago, where without skills or experience he was hired by the Commonwealth Edison Company. He spent 35 years there as an electrical lineman who specialized as a troubleshooter called out during big storms whenever they occurred anywhere in the State of Illinois. He had to retire earlier than he would have liked after absorbing 12,000 volts of electricity trying to save a rookie he was training from touching the hot wire that got him.

At some point Joseph Francis O’Mahony, a native of Ballyheigue, County Kerry, met and married my mother, Mary Therese Roche, an illegal immigrant from Togher, Cork. She arrived in 1926 or so, got off the boat and found herself, for reasons she could never recall, in the middle of Harlem among the first black people she had ever seen. They helped her locate her cousin elsewhere in New York. In time she used her cousin's paperwork to find jobs cleaning the houses of others who could afford to hire her.

My father, apparently illegal as well, didn’t stop for documentation, perhaps because the Black and Tans might have delayed his trip had they found him.

My mother was reared in rural Ireland with eight siblings in a thatched-roof cottage in the middle of a cabbage field. An English landlord owned the field.

My mother didn’t know she needed papers to come to America. She had just grown weary of harvesting cabbage and thought she might try her luck in America. Apparently she had no problem getting on the boat.

These two illegal immigrants had a good if not perfect life in Chicago compared with the life they might have had if they had remained in Ireland.

My father earned good money as an electrician and saved a lot of it to make it possible for his son to earn two degrees. He and my mother died, however, before seeing their first grandson, Sean Owen Mahoney, win a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University.

It’s just as well because my father would have been very unhappy to have a grandson studying in England.

Almost as unhappy as he was to learn many years earlier that he had spent all his hard-earned money to send his own son, the author of this piece, to a university and have him come home with two degrees in English, of all things.

Once again my father had proof that life isn’t fair.

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