Friday, March 15, 2013

Irish in America

 Being Irish in Colorado
(The Colorado Springs Sun, March 17, 1985)

One of my favorite stories ever. Sean, a kind, wise man who meant a lot to me, played bodhran in our Irish ballad group, The Bogsiders; the women were also from the Irish music scene, of which I was proud to be a part.

   There's a limit to the history of the Irish in Colorado.
   Molly Brown was Irish, which some say explains why Denver society treated her with snubs as chilly as a North Atlantic iceberg. The Irish patriot Maude Gonne was once spirited off from her Denver lecture schedule by Irish miners and treated to a day and a half in Cripple Creek and Victor, a detour she described in her autobiography as "the happiest days of my whole American tour."
   And it's rumored that Irish president Eamon De Valera's Spanish-born father is buried somewhere in Colorado, in an unmarked sheepherder's grave.
   But the fact is, the Irish tended to congregate in urban centers, and despite a handful of hardy pioneers, the Irish one finds in Colorado tend to be fourth and fifth generation Irish-Americans, transplanted here from their families' homes in Boston, New York and Chicago and far removed from their ancestral roots.
   But there are the exceptions.

   Kate McGuire Browning is only six years removed from Andersonstown, the Catholic inner city neighborhood of Belfast where she spent most of her young life. Married to Steve Browning, an Army helicopter pilot she met in Germany, she is celebrating her third St. Patrick's Day in America.
   Though many who come from the Six Counties would style themselves economic or political refugees, Mrs. Browning is more philosophical about her move.
   "I had a good job, but I just wanted to get away, just wanted to go somewhere different, try something out. It was just always what I wanted to do."
   That good job in Belfast, however, wasn't easy to find.
   "When you fill out an application form, first of all, your name is what gives you away," she says. "If you don't have an Irish name,  then they know you're a Protestant. And Andersonstown is Catholic, so your address gives you away. One girl and I were talking together about how hard it had been to get a job. I'd been a year out of school before I got myself a full-time job, working in a telephone exchange. This other girl, she was Catholic, and we were talking about how hard it was, and then this other girl, she belonged to Ian Paisley's church, and she said, 'Oh no, there's no trouble getting jobs, there's all kinds of jobs.' There's supposed to be equal rights and all, but you still can't see it a bit.
   "A Catholic person can apply for a job at the shipyard. There isn't much chance he'll get the job, and if he did take the job, he'd be doing it at the risk of his own life. For years and years, it's always been a Protestant firm. It's always been Protestants worked there. Harlan and Wolf is all Protestants working, and a Catholic daren't go look for a job there. It's still not safe. You go to the unemployment office and they've got all kinds of jobs, but the areas they're in, it isn't safe," says Mrs. Browning.
   Growing up in a divided society began to be difficult in the late Sixties, when the nonviolent Catholic civil rights movement was thwarted and militant nationalists utilized the bitterness of that defeat to start up the ancient war for freedom once again.
   "Up until I was about nine or ten, I had a Protestant friend, and we couldn't be parted," says Mrs. Browning. "It was around '69 when it started to get real bad, and I got up one morning and all of a sudden my friend wasn't there anymore, her parents had moved out. It was a mixed area where we lived, Protestant and Catholic, and we all lived along just fine. I guess the parents felt it was safer for them to move. It just got to the point where people were split up: Catholics were burnt out of their homes, Protestants were burnt out of their homes."
   Mrs. Browning had lost more than a friend in those difficult days. Seeing the local police stand by and even encourage the violence of the vigilante mobs against Catholic homeowners has left her with firm opinions about the situation.
   "The police over there are the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They're British, and, as far as the law goes, we don't get too much protection from them."
   Though the corruption of local police was largely checked by their disarmament and the substitution of the Army to perform their duties after those initial, chaotic days, the damage was done and the Army was no more welcome than the police had been.
   "It's not that the Catholic wants the Protestant out," Mrs. Browning insists, "It's not like that. They're all willing to live together. They just say that it's Ireland, that it doesn't belong to Britain, and we're entitled to have our country back. Britain has let go of so many other countries that they have ruled, and why not Northern Ireland? It'll go on until Britain pulls out."
   In this country, Mrs. Browning keeps her Irish heritage alive as she did when she was growing up, through preserving her culture in Irish dancing with the local Irish club. "I started doing solo dancing when I was about five," she says. "That was the normal thing at home, when kids start school, they start Irish dancing classes. I quit doing that when I was about ten or eleven and started playing camogie. You've heard of hurley? Camogie is the ladies' game. Even with the girls playing, it's pretty rough."
   Hurley, Ireland's national game, has been described by wags as "lacrosse played with pick handles."
   Ms. Browning also preserves her heritage in the oldest way, through her children, Aoife Fiona, 4, and Sean Padraig, the baby. "Aoife was a name I liked, and I always wanted that name for my first daughter, but I didn't know my first daughter was going to be an American," she admits. "When people see her name, they've got no idea what it is, and I think, 'God, poor kid, going through life.'"

   Eilish Rogers Argenzio's eldest son Cormac is 20, old enough to explain his Irish name to the confused, as his mother often has to explain hers.
   "It's a very old Gaelic name," she says. "It's not a diminutive of anything and there's no English translation. Eileen is not a diminutive of it, though people argue about that."
   Like her friend Kate Browning. Mrs. Argenzio came to this country with a military husband, Arthur, since retired from the Air Force. As a Dubliner and as someone who came over before the current round of Troubles started, however, her politics are more muted.
   "If I was in the North of Ireland, living, and was in a bad zone, I know I'd be up there doing something I shouldn't be doing," she admits. "But I'm not there. I'm here. I have never lived that. 
   "Even down in Dublin, where I lived, the Troubles weren't really bad up in the North then at all. We used to go up there on shopping expeditions. So I've never really come across the bad parts of it. I've never been that closely involved in it. I left in '64." 
   Still, she's not untouched by the controversy. "I'll tell you what really fires me up, is to hear an Irish person who lives in the North of Ireland, and they say to them, 'You're Irish. why do you feel that way?' and they say, 'I'm not Irish. I'm British.' That just fires me up instantly. If they feel that way, they should be living in Britain. That's Ireland they're living in."
   Mrs. Argenzio is still an Irish citizen and still very Irish.
   She, too, keeps her heritage alive by dancing, and Irish mementos are scattered through every room of her home.
   Despite the failing economy in what has been described as the northernmost Third World nation, she would go back to Ireland.
   "If Art said. 'Let's go back to Ireland, I'd go. Without my washing machine, without my dishwasher, without all the stuff that I have here that I wouldn't be able to afford at home. Things are so much more expensive over there. I have sisters-in-law there, and they have washers and dryers, but my mother doesn't, still. She does her own washing by hand and hangs it out on the line."
   The economic situation still drives the Irish out of their country as it has for hundreds of years. Her brother is in the process of emigrating to the United States. It is a long process.
   "He's a jeweler by trade," she explains. "And he had his own business at home, and he said he was making a living, but he just couldn't get ahead, no matter how hard he worked and how long he worked. He was always just making enough to get by, because things just keep going up and up and up. He applied over two years ago for a visa, and he was given a number, which means he was accepted for immigration, but now he has to wait for it to come up. He wrote last year and said they were processing 1981, which he means he hopes to be out here sometime this year, because he applied in 1982. He thinks by summer this year, but I think if he gets here by Christmas, he'll be doing good."
   For Mrs. Argenzio. the hardest part about living in the United States is missing family. Even with a brother in New York and another on the way, she has a mother and aunts who are growing older in Ireland. Though she gets homesick for Ireland, she's found it more economical to invite her mother to visit than to try to save the money to take her own family over there.
    She returned to Ireland with her sons, Cormac and David, for a summer in 1977. It was a sentimental journey, to say the least. "I didn't really get homesick for Ireland until I went back, and when I came back here, I had a terrible time settling down. I wanted to be here and I wanted to be there. It was really hard to settle down again, and I'd never been like that until I went back. Everyone said that, 'Wait until you go home, see what it does when you go home.' And I said. 'Oh, that won't happen to me. I'm very happy here, I love it here."

   "This is home, right here." Sean Sheehan says, sitting in his Denver house. "People say, 'When you going to go home?' A lot of the Irish say that, 'When you going to go home?' But when you're back there, and you're there two or three weeks, then you're ready to go home. We've lived here twenty-seven years. This is home. We don't have a home in Ireland."
   Sheehan and his wife Peggy came to Denver in 1957 from the small village of Ardagh in County Limerick; she was originally from Ballyhigh in County Kerry. Married in 1948, they had moved into the Sheehan home with his mother and father.
   When his parents died, Sean sold the house and all its furnishings and came to Denver, with the original plan to go into business with Peggy's brother, a plasterer. Drywall killed that plan before they arrived, but they came out anyway.
   "We were coming to the country of riches, where you could pick it up off the streets," Mrs. Sheehan laughs. "We found out different."
   The Ireland they grew up in was more the Ireland of postcards and the sentimental songs than the modern world of Eilish Argenzio and Kate Browning, and the rural West of Ireland was and still is very different from the urban centers of Dublin and Belfast, despite the fact that the entire island is only the size of Indiana. It was an enormous island a half century ago for the son of a roof thatcher.
   "There was no television," Sheehan says. "We didn't know what the rest of the world was like when we were growing up. There were radios, but they were few, they were scarce as automobiles. When somebody had a radio. people would gather at the house. That was a big thing, to have radio. That was something like someone having a Rolls Royce now."
   Automobiles were scarce and were often chauffeur-driven hackneys (rental cars) available for weddings or errands.
   "There was one hackney car," Sheehan says. "That was about the only car. I think the doctor had a car. but he had to cover an area that was, from one end to the other, about thirty miles. I could count the cars on one hand that were in our area, up to about 1935 or '36. You had to be very rich to have a car in Ireland."
   "I thought about America, when I was growing up." he explains, "that everybody drove to work in a big car with a suit and a tie. I thought there was no poor people, because very few people went back to Ireland. But when they went back, they'd hire a car or take their own cars back on the boat. And they'd go back and drive around in their fancy cars, and you thought, 'This has to be the place!' They've got TV now; they know what the Americans are like. We didn't have an idea about how American people lived."
   Even when they emigrated twenty years later, those childhood impressions remained strong. They still thought America was the country of riches.
   "Paddy told us we'd have to work very hard," Mrs. Sheehan says of her American brother. "But we couldn't believe that. He was out here (in Denver) eight years, and he had five more kids here and the one he'd brought with him. He went back to Ireland and rented a big house, as well he would with six kids and a husband and wife to live there. He rented the house, and he rented a maid and he rented a car. Well, wouldn't all that give you the impression that America had gold about the streets? And I wouldn't believe otherwise. He told us how you'd have to work hard ..." 
   "When we were growing up," says Sheehan. "You'd be lucky if you could go into Limerick for a day, never mind going overseas for a vacation. My father lived in the County Limerick. He was born and lived all his life there, and he was 72 years when he died. He was only out of the county once in his life. Of the county! That was to go to Queenstown, Cobh they call it now, with the Confraternity, the church group, on an excursion on the train. Where we lived, to go to the borders of Cork County was 10 miles, to go to the borders of Kerry was 15. And he was only out of the county one time."
   The Sheehans met when his Local Defense Force was sent to Kerry for maneuvers during World War II. Otherwise, they say, they'd never have married someone from a town over fifty miles away.
   Now, Ireland has changed, Ireland has joined the twentieth century, and they regret some of those necessary, inevitable changes.    
   "They're losing their brogues," Mrs. Sheehan says. "I have more of a brogue. Now, they're going to school and they're meeting so many Europeans and Americans. And the television."
   "They love to meet people and make friends with them," she says. "Whereas you can't do that in America, you can't go down the street and say hello and stand up and talk to them. Well, you can do that in Ireland."
   "But that's going out in Ireland, too," Sheehan says. "I think by the year 2000, it will have changed so much you won't know it.
   "I'll tell you a little story, a joke: This American is driving down this country road, and his watch had stopped. And he saw these couple of men standing by the ditch at the crossroads, and he stopped and he said 'What time is it?' And you know the answer the Irishman made to him? 'Why?'
   "Time didn't mean nothing in Ireland at that time. It does now, because they've got these factories, and they've got time clocks and they've got bills and they've got pressure and they've got everything like any other country has."


Anonymous said...

Cannot believe that I googled Sean Sheehan and there he and Peggy were. We have an amazing story to tell to their girls. How lucky we were to meet them in Denver at the 1976 Johns-Manville 4th of July celebration. Sean was my husband's dad's cousin. They were lovely and became a special part of our life! Vicki Sheahan (Sean's was Sheahan before he became Sheehan

Mike said...

What fine people they were. Sean was like an uncle -- older and wiser, but funny and full of jokes and great stories. We had one standing job every week for several months where we'd get a meal as part of our pay, and I learned more about Ireland over those suppers from Sean's stories of Ardagh and Limerick back when he was young. And Peggy was such an anchor in the Irish community -- kind and patient and always ready to help. I don't know that there were two people more loved among the Irish-Americans of the Front Range.