Going Full Circle: Native Land’s (Ireland) New Prosperity Has Many Reversing Their Exodus

Going full circle

Native land's new prosperity has many reversing their exodus

By Kevin Cullen,
Boston Globe Staff
March 19, 2007

Second of two parts

DINGLE, Ireland — Once there was a neighborhood near the Brookline-Boston line known as Little Kerry because so many of the residents hailed from this lush, rustic county in the southwest of Ireland.

Today, here on Kerry's Dingle peninsula, there is a concentration of so many families who once lived in Massachusetts that the locals call it Little Boston.

A 19th-century famine made the Irish the world's most storied nomads, creating a diaspora numbering 70 million. But now Ireland's sudden prosperity is luring back those who would rather live and raise children in the land of their birth.

After a century and a half of wandering, the Irish are coming home. And the country they've come back to, like the places they've left behind, is changing indelibly as they move.

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

The Irish government estimates that, worldwide, about 150,000 Irish-born people have moved back to Ireland since 2001, up to 20,000 of them from the metropolitan areas of Boston and New York. US Census figures document the American exodus: There were 160,000 Irish-born living in the US in 2000; since then the total has dropped by 20 percent, to an estimated 128,000.

In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, Irish soldiers went to the European continent to fight other people's wars. They called this exodus the Flight of the Wild Geese. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the term was used to refer to the immigrants who left a colonized, impoverished Ireland to build other countries — America, in particular.

With Ireland now one of the richest countries in the world, with a standard of living and quality of life that top more than one financial index, the Wild Geese of this generation are returning, in droves. Boston, once referred to in the west of Ireland as “the next parish over,” is supplying many of those returnees.

The Irish government says several thousand who have lived in or around Boston have moved back since 2001; immigrant advocates suggest the figure is much higher. Among the biggest advertisers in the Irish Emigrant, a weekly newspaper distributed mostly through the city's Irish pubs, are freight services that ship containers back to Ireland. And one of the fastest growing cable TV outlets in Ireland is the North American Sports Network, which allows returning Irish expatriates to get their Red Sox or New England Patriots fix.

Some are going back because they're homesick. Others to avail of the opportunities in a newly prosperous country. Still others because of an increasing hostility toward immigrants in the United States, a hostility — or at least an unwelcoming wariness — that many Irish are stunned to encounter in Boston, long seen as America's most Irish-friendly town.

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Mary and Robbie Griffin had a great life in Boston. He worked in construction, she worked taking care of elderly people. They would meet other immigrants, many of them from Kerry, down at Peter-Dick's, a Dorchester pub where they easily mixed with other regulars — police officers, firefighters, teachers, and construction workers, many of them the children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants.

But they longed for home. They knew that the poor, repressed Ireland they left in the 1980s had been transformed, and decided to give it a go. Seven years ago, they bought a piece of land overlooking Dingle Harbor. At $80,000, it was a bargain by American standards, and even by Irish standards today. They spent $200,000 to put up a sprawling 10-bedroom house, running a bed and breakfast business to support their three daughters, aged 6 to 14, who were born in Boston.

Mary misses Boston a bit, but she likes the pace of Ireland better, and the support of an extended family. Like many Irish immigrants who lived in Boston and other parts of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, she and Robbie had become legal US residents, taking advantage of special visa programs steered through Congress by New England politicians of Irish ancestry. They moved back to Ireland not because they had to, but because they wanted to.

“We came home, because this is home,” she said.

There are only about 1,500 people living in and around Dingle. There are, by some accounts, more than a dozen families that have moved back here from the Boston area in the last five years, and nearly two dozen children who were born in Boston now going to Dingle area schools.

“If this is Little Boston,” Mary Griffin mused, “it's not so little anymore.”


Some who have moved back never intended to spend the rest of their lives as expatriates, no matter how comfortable they felt in Boston. Dennis Murphy is one of them.

Murphy, 42, moved to Boston in the Irish immigrant heyday of the mid-1980s, when the town was crawling with young, ambitious Irish folk. He got a job rehabbing kitchens. One day, in the early 1990s, he and some other Irishmen were taking apart an old bar in Kendall Square, in Cambridge. It was snowing, and Murphy had parked his pickup truck out front, illegally. When he came out with a section of the bar to put in the pickup, he saw a Cambridge police officer standing on the sidewalk.

“Jayzuz,” the officer said, shaking his head, betraying an Irish accent. “We'll miss this place.”

Then the officer looked at Murphy sternly.

“You know you're illegally parked here,” he said, as Murphy recalled the encounter.

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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.”

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.

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
[] 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

“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.

“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.

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 cullen@globe.com

Tomorrow: A new life, back home in Ireland