Boom Times, Crackdown Slow Emerald Wave

Boom times, crackdown slow emerald wave

By Kevin Cullen,
Boston Globe Staff |
March 18, 2007

First of two parts

A couple of months ago, David Knox and his girlfriend, Elaine, threw in the towel. After seven years in the Boston area, they were tired of looking over their shoulders, tired of being told there was no way they could become legal residents, and so they decided to move back to Ireland.

About 100 of their friends gathered at Bad Abbots, a Quincy pub, to bid the couple farewell. A band, Tara Hill, serenaded them with the appropriately titled “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Knox hugged his teammates on the pub's soccer team. Elaine's eyes watered.

The bittersweet celebration, full of laughs, heartfelt toasts and not a few tears, was reminiscent of the “wakes” the Irish held for those sailing off to America a century ago, never to return. But these days, the wakes are held in pubs in Dorchester and Brighton, or in apartments in Quincy and South Boston, for those heading home.

Ireland's booming economy and the crackdown on illegal immigration that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have combined to produce a reversal of migration patterns for those who have long made up the biggest, and most influential, ethnic group in Boston.
Irish in Boston

[] PART 1: Wave of Irish immigration to Boston begins to slow
Pop-up GRAPHIC: Boston's population through the years
[] PART 2: Ireland's prosperity has many reversing their exodus
Pop-up GRAPHIC: Migration to and from Ireland
Message Board YOUR VIEW: Is Boston less Irish than it was 10 years ago?
Message Board YOUR VIEW: Have you immigrated to Boston from Ireland?
Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Notable Irish immigrants with Boston ties

Put simply, more people are returning to Ireland, and fewer are replacing them, reversing a pattern of immigration that was established in the late 1840s, when Ireland's potato blight killed 1 million people and sent 2 million others scurrying for the ships.

In one generation, Boston was transformed from an overwhelmingly Protestant city in which most of the inhabitants traced their ancestry to England, to a largely Roman Catholic city in which thousands had roots in Ireland. The Irish came to dominate Boston and the metropolitan area — first its politics, then its commerce — like no other ethnic group, putting their stamp on a place that is universally regarded as the most Irish city in America.

But today it is a paler shade of green; the city is fast losing its distinctive Irishness. Some will mourn the change, and some will not.

There are many immigrant stories in the new Boston. The Irish experience is one of them.

The successive waves that made Boston a famous outpost of Irish culture, from traditional music to Gaelic games, have suddenly ebbed. According to FAS, Ireland's training and employment authority, only 1,700 Irish went to the United States last year looking for work, many of them headed for Boston. That compares to 23,000 in 1990.

Trades once dominated by the Irish worker — often undocumented, but who was checking? — are increasingly the domain of other ethnic groups. The painters, roofers, house cleaners, and elder care workers who so often were Irish are now more likely to be Brazilian. And the number of Irish brogues that once greeted people at restaurants in the Boston area, and especially on Cape Cod during the summer, have dwindled, as the number of Irish college students taking summer jobs here has been halved since 9/11.

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The cachet and freedom, both economic and social, that drew young Irish immigrants even as Ireland's economy boomed has been diminished. In its place are the unsettling realities of life for immigrants of any nationality who outstay their visas.

No longer do Irish newcomers get the break they often did, even in Boston, where first- and second-generation Irish-Americans dominated law enforcement. Deportations, once almost unheard-of except for those arrested for serious crime, are increasingly common. In 1993 only six Irish people were deported from the United States; in 2003 it was 75, and the number has continued to rise at about that rate.

The numbers aren't large, and no one is saying the old double-standard was ever fair. But for the Irish, the message is loud — and startling.

“The deportations were a slap across the face, a wake up call,” says Brian O'Donovan, the host of WGBH radio's weekly “Celtic Sojourn” program.

Culturally, O'Donovan said, the result is an immigrant community that is less confident, more wary, less outgoing, more confined to the margins — the opposite of the Irish experience in Boston.
Irish in Boston

Boston's myriad Irish pubs — where immigrants have historically lined up jobs, formed sports teams, and staved off homesickness by listening to music or watching sports that remind them of Ireland — are less busy and have assumed a new, telling role: hosting legal clinics to advise immigrants how to navigate living in a place that is less hospitable to them than it was to members of their parents' and grandparents' generations.

Christopher Lavery, an immigration lawyer, is constantly telling his clients that the days when the Irish could expect a break in Boston are long gone.

“It's a new world since 9/11,” Lavery says.

Another telling barometer of change in the Irish community is in its beloved diversions. Several teams that play the Gaelic games of hurling and football have folded or consolidated for want of players. And the once ubiquitous traditional music sessions in the city's pubs are fewer in number and now more common in the suburbs, where Americans increasingly make up the circle of musicians.

Larry Reynolds, the Galway-born fiddler who is chairman of the local branch of the traditional music society Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, says Irish-Americans have filled the void left by so many Irish-born musicians returning home. But he worries for the future. He believes Boston's Irishness has depended as much on the constant wave of immigrants as it did on those with Irish parents or grandparents who have settled, assimilated, and moved to the suburbs. Immigrants provided an authentic tie to the old country.

“We're losing that, and that's very worrisome for the future,” he says.

Even as Irish influence in cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco waned with the influx of other ethnic groups, Boston remained the last of the big American cities thought of as Irish. But the Irish ancestral makeup of the city shrank 27 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the US Census, and will continue to shrink, given current immigration trends.

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According to the 2000 US Census, there are nearly 35 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry, almost nine times the number of people in Ireland. Nearly 25 percent of Massachusetts residents make that claim, the highest of any state and double the national average.

Assessing the number living here illegally is harder. The Irish government estimates there are about 25,000, most of them in the New York and Boston areas, while immigration advocates say the figure is twice that.

In the 1980s and 1990s, some 70,000 Irish immigrants benefited from visa programs aimed specificially at them. Named for Brian Donnelly, the former congressman from Dorchester, and Bruce Morrisson, the former congressman from Connecticut, those programs eased the crunch on thousands of Irish people living mostly in the New York and Boston areas. But there has been no ready path to legal status since then, and now Irish immigration activists are joining with other immigrant groups supporting a bipartisan bill sponsored by US senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and John McCain of Arizona that would open the possibility of legalization.

Raymond L. Flynn, who was mayor of Boston during the mid-1980s, says the community's history of assimilation, and the role of Irish immigrants to US military service, should count for something in that debate. He considers the Irish, who encountered discrimination and animosity when they arrived in Boston in the 19th century, not only a success story, but also a cautionary tale for anyone who would dismiss any new immigrant group as being unable to assimilate.

“There's much more hardship in the Irish immigrant community than there was when I was mayor,” Flynn says. “There's also less of a sense that this is an Irish town. And that's because that sense of the Irish community renewing itself, over and over again, is declining.”
Irish in Boston

In scores of interviews with Irish Bostonians, that sense of decline comes through clearly. Especially those caught in the legalization vise are a disillusioned, frustrated lot, whose perceptions of America in general, and Boston in particular, have changed, even as their desire to live here has not.

Like many an Irishman before, Paul Ladd decided that his future lay in America.

And like many a romantic before, he wasn't leaving until the love of his life agreed to go with him.

Jenny Ladd told the idealistic young man who would later become her husband to get lost.

She had a delivery job in their native County Cork that she wanted to keep. Paul impulsively bought her a Shannon-to-Boston airline ticket, anyway. Again, she said no. Months passed, and he bought a second ticket. That, too, expired, unused.

But then Jenny unexpectedly lost her job. She didn't want to go on the dole. Paul bought another Aer Lingus ticket, and the third time was the charm.

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Paul and Jenny landed at Logan Airport in 1995, with $250 in cash between them and paperwork indicating they could stay for 90 days.

“We had only one thing on our mind: Get work fast,” Paul says.

Following the advice of others, they hit the pubs in Brighton, asking where they could find jobs.

“I had work the following morning, roofing,” Paul says. His first job was putting a roof on Shoppers World in Framingham.

Within a week Jenny had a painting job. Within a year she had her own business, cleaning houses. She got a second job, in the afternoon, serving as a nanny for a family in Brookline, which also secured them a place to stay, rent-free.
Irish in Boston

Jenny called home and told her mother they were living just a few blocks from where John F. Kennedy was born.

Within three years, Paul had opened his own roofing business. He got a general contractor's license and a tax number, following the unwritten code that Irish immigrants who overstay their visitor visas lived by: If you pay your taxes, and keep your nose clean, the government leaves you alone.

By 2001 Jenny had given up her cleaning business so that she could run the roofing company books. Paul had 16 employees, mostly a mix of Irish and Brazilians.

But 9/11 changed everything. A change in the law after the terrorist attacks made it impossible for illegal immigrants to get, or as with the Ladds, to renew driver's licenses. Last August Paul and Jenny got pulled over in New Hampshire in his roofing truck, a routine commercial vehicle check. His driver's license had expired last March. They were arrested and now face deportation.

A few days before Christmas, they stood before a federal judge in a building named for their hero, John F. Kennedy. Their case was continued to next month. The Ladds love America and don't want to leave it.

“Our American dream,” Jenny says, “became our American nightmare.”


That the Ladds even got a chance to fight their deportation in court is unusual. Like those from 26 other countries, the Irish forfeit their right to challenge allegations that they have overstayed their three-month visas. It is a trade-off that Ireland and other friendly nations have with the United States: easy access to the country, but summary deportations for most people who stay on longer than allowed.

What happened to Niall Breslin is far more typical.

About a year ago Breslin and another Irishman, Brian McGovern, drove north from Boston to New Hampshire. A man in Boston who had a vacation home had heard that Breslin and McGovern were house painters and offered them a side job.

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Up near Littleton, N.H., Breslin turned onto a country road and slowed to take a turn at a red light. A police officer pulled him over, saying he hadn't come to a complete stop before taking the turn. As he explained why he didn't have a valid driver's license, he briefly hoped that the police officer, with her Irish surname, might cut him some slack.

But his lifelong belief that New England was something of a New Ireland was dashed when he and McGovern soon found themselves in chains. Because they were arrested within 100 miles of the Canadian border, Breslin and his friend were treated as high-risk prisoners and placed in a high-security prison in Vermont.

“We had cash in our pockets,” Breslin says. “We said we'd pay for our flights home.”

But he had entered, unaware, a changed world, one without the wink and nod for certain visitors.

Breslin, 28, had grown up in Northern Ireland during a virtual civil war, but said he had never got in trouble with the law and stayed clear of the paramilitary groups.
Irish in Boston

“During the Troubles I got stopped by the police and the [British] army but never got lifted,” he said, during an interview in Ballymena, in Northern Ireland's heartland. “Never did I think I would go to America and end up in jail.”

After a month in detention, Breslin and his friend were deported, their belongings left behind in an apartment in Dorchester. Breslin admitted he had stayed in the US five years longer than allowed, but he said he worked, paid taxes, and would have done anything or paid anything to be legalized.

He considers his treatment degrading.

“I grew up hearing people say there are more Irish in Boston than in Ballymena,” he says. “I don't think that's true anymore.”


They sat at one of the red formica tables in the Eire Pub, the bar in Adams Village where Ronald Reagan won over the blue-collar Irish Americans who always voted Democrat, a demographic Bill Clinton took back with a similar populist putsch a decade later.

“I worry about him all the time,” Teresa Ferry said, glancing at her 25-year-old son, Dennis, who sat next to his mother. “He's looking over his shoulder all the time. It's no way to live.”

Donal and Teresa Ferry were in from Donegal, visiting their son, who moved to Boston three years ago. As they sat, trading gossip about home, there was an unspoken tension. The Ferrys were worried desperately about their son, about his unsettled, illegal status in Boston, but they didn't want to come right out and tell him to come home.

“He's a big lad,” his father said, when Dennis was briefly out of earshot. “He can decide things for himself.”

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Teresa Ferry's eyes told another story. She wanted him home. And for two weeks, while they visited Dennis's new world, shopping at Filene's Basement, strolling along Wollaston Beach, her eyes pleaded with him to come back.

But Dennis mostly avoided her gaze.

Like a lot of young Irish men, Dennis came here on a lark, just to play Gaelic football. But he got some work. He was an Aer Lingus carpenter — that is, he decided to be a carpenter on the flight from Shannon. Some young men have given up playing Gaelic, which is as rough as American football but played without helmets or pads. They can't afford getting hurt and not being able to work.

“I could never give up football,” Dennis said wistfully. “It makes me feel alive.”

Dennis says he knows it is risky playing such a physical sport without health insurance, or a green card.
Irish in Boston

“A fellow I know fell on a job and broke his back,” he said. “We had a time for him. I broke my hand playing football last year. I lost three months of work.”

His mother bolted up.

“You never told me you broke your hand,” she said, accusingly.

Dennis shrugged.

He is one of seven siblings, ranging in age from 12 to 30. Two of his brothers are working in Dublin. But Dennis, like a lot of rural Irish, doesn't like Dublin, seeing it as too expensive and not as enticing as America.

“You can live better in the States,” he said. “I like the freedom, the mix of cultures, the strong Irish community, the football.”

Across Adams Street, in Greenhills Bakery, they were baking brown bread as good as any back home. All the Irish newspapers are for sale at Gerard's, next to the bakery. In the Eire, Johnny O'Connor, who left Sligo 30 years ago but whose accent is thicker than his bushy mustache, is behind the bar, pouring Donal Ferry a pint of Smithwick's, a beer brewed in Ireland.

“Now,” O'Connor sang, taking a $5 bill, handing back $1.75 in change so that a pint of Smithwick's, like just about everything else, is about 50 percent cheaper in Dorchester than it is in Dublin. “You're welcome, you are.”

Dennis says he will stay and take his chances, hoping both that Congress passes immigration reform and that his football team has enough members to field a team this spring.


There was no happier patch in Boston on the afternoon of Sept. 17 than Peter Nash's unpretentious, eponymous pub in Dorchester.

Nash is a native of County Kerry, in the west of Ireland, as were nearly all of the 50 people who sat around the dark wood bar, toasting Kerry's thrashing of Mayo in the All-Ireland Gaelic football final.

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But even amid the “Up Kerry!” shouts, Nash put aside his cider and his euphoria, turning wistful.

“You know,” he said, folding his arms, glancing around a pub that wasn't even half full, “five or six years ago, we would have had two or three hundred people here on a day like this. But they're all gone.”

It is hard to accurately measure how many Irish have left Boston. But the anecdotal evidence can be found in places like Nash's pub, and in Bad Abbots, the Quincy pub that in the 1990s was one of the Irish hot spots in the Greater Boston area.

When Peter Kerr opened Bad Abbots 10 years ago, 95 percent of his customers were Irish. Now he estimates that the Irish make up less than 20 percent of his clientele. Today, half the members of what was the pub's all-Irish soccer team hail from Trinidad. Last year, Kerr started sponsoring a Quincy Fire Department softball team.

“At least most of the firefighters have Irish names,” Kerr sighed.
Irish in Boston

Last year, Kerr hosted about 10 “wakes” for returning immigrants, like the one two months ago for David Knox and his girlfriend.

It's the only part of his business that is growing.

Last summer, some 200 people gathered at St. Columbkille's Church in Brighton for a memorial Mass for a 35-year-old housepainter who had killed himself shortly after moving back to Donegal. Sniffles rose from the congregation as Rev. John McCarthy, a Limerick priest from the Irish Pastoral Center, gave the homily.

“We should not judge a life on the way it ends,” Father McCarthy said.

A young woman with flaming red hair and an angelic voice stood and sang an A Cappella version of “If Tomorrow Never Comes.”

As soon as they were outside the church, some of the young people stood in a knot and lit cigarettes. No one could say for sure why their friend had killed himself. He left a young son behind in Brighton. Was it the prospect of not being able to see the boy again? Was it because he was a stranger in the place he left for Boston more than a decade before?

“We'll never know,” said Donal, a friend and former roommate.

The inability of the Irish to make themselves legal residents has created, for them as for other immigrants, a lot of heartache and some hard choices. Young people talk of not daring to return to Ireland to visit sick or dying relatives, to attend weddings and funerals, to meet newborn babies. Most often, their families tell them to stay put, rather than risk getting snared at immigration.

In December, Harry Moore had to make a decision. He had a wife and two children in Brighton, but he had a family in Ireland aching, because his brother had just died. Moore flew home, but when he he tried to clear US Immigration at Shannon Airport, US officials detained him.

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Lavery, the immigration lawyer, said the only record US officials had to identify Moore as having been in the United States as an undocumented immigrant were his W-7 tax identification forms. The government that barred him from getting a driver's license had freely issued a taxpayer ID.

“He only got caught because he paid his taxes,” Lavery said.


On a frigid Tuesday night, Chris Lavery sat in a horseshoe-shaped booth at the Half Door, a Quincy pub. Pop music filled the bar, and young people sat around, writing down answers to trivia questions read out by quizmasters, a popular pastime with the young Irish. With a cup of tea at his elbow and manila folders spread in front of him, Lavery looked a businessman catching up on some work.

Irish in Boston
[] PART 1: Wave of Irish immigration to Boston begins to slow
Pop-up GRAPHIC: Boston's population through the years
[] PART 2: Ireland's prosperity has many reversing their exodus
Pop-up GRAPHIC: Migration to and from Ireland
Message Board YOUR VIEW: Is Boston less Irish than it was 10 years ago?
Message Board YOUR VIEW: Have you immigrated to Boston from Ireland?
Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Notable Irish immigrants with Boston ties

But as Kieran O'Sullivan, a soft-spoken immigration counselor from the Irish Pastoral Center, led supplicants to him, amid the din of the quiz, Lavery dispensed free legal advice in his genial Belfast accent.

“We used to do this at community centers, but people were reluctant to show up,” O'Sullivan explained.

The bustle of the pub offers a kind of anonymity, and a comfort level for people deeply worried about their future. Tim Coffey and his wife, Siobhan, brought their 4-month-old daughter, Leah, along to the legal clinic. Siobhan is a US citizen, and their recent marriage offers Tim an avenue to a green card. But until that paperwork is processed, which could take years, Tim risks being scooped up and deported. A construction worker, he minimizes his risk by not driving.

In the last few months, he's heard, several Irish people married to US citizens have been deported, their eligibility for green cards not saving them. As her parents assessed their options, Leah rested in her car seat, her bright blue eyes darting between neon signs on the wall.

“We've got to get this sorted,” Tim said, looking at his daughter. “I can't leave them.”

Standing in the bleachers at the bucolic grounds at the Irish Cultural Centre in Canton last October, Connie Kelly watched intently as two teams of women — one from Brighton, the other from Dorchester — battled each other in a game of Gaelic football. The players' thighs and cheeks were a rosy red in the fall air.

Kelly came here from Tralee, in County Kerry, 40 years ago. He worked as a bartender, but his real passion is Gaelic games. An iconic figure around the GAA pitches, with his thick glasses and snow-white hair and beard, Kelly has done as much as anyone in the Boston area to promote and build the games of hurling and Gaelic football.

He spoke of Boston's deep connection to the games, an umbilical chord between Ireland and its emigrant diaspora.

“Kerry and Galway played Gaelic football on Boston Common in 1886,” he said. “It was the first football match outside of Ireland.”

By the 1950s, Boston fielded four or five clubs, and by the 1960s that number had doubled. Thousands flocked to Dilboy Field in Somerville in the 1980s to watch the matches. And by 1995, the four new fields in Canton, with eight spacious dressing rooms, made the local GAA the envy of the organization outside Ireland.

But the economic boom in Ireland and the post-9/11 crackdown on illegal immigration has hit the GAA here hard.

“We're in decline now,” Connie Kelly said. “Clubs are struggling to get players, players are going home, and a lot fewer are coming over.”

Over the years, Kelly and his wife let hundreds of young hurlers and footballers sleep in their Belmont home until they got settled. But now the GAA is adamant about players staying only the 90 days allowed by law.

“We don't want any kid to sacrifice their chance of coming back to America,” Kelly explained.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Kelly said, there were about 1,000 hurlers and footballers in Boston. Now there are fewer than half that.

As Americans have helped save traditional music and dance here, Kelly said, the GAA hopes to get more Americans playing their games. It's an ambitious plan. But Kelly believes that without immigration reform, the GAA, like other markers of Irish life here, is fighting an uphill battle at best.

“America has always been good to the Irish, and the Irish have been good to America,” Kelly said, shaking his head. “I don't understand why it has to come to this.”

Kevin Cullen can be reached at

Tomorrow: A new life, back home in Ireland[]