Saturday, April 11, 2009

Growing Old Far From Home
Story from the Irish Times

The lonely death of an elderly Irish immigrant in New York illustrates the often sad fate of a generation of Irish who moved to the US in the 1950s and 1960s, and who now need support

‘He died alone” was the sad headline in the Irish Voice newspaper. Tony Gallagher, a 72-year-old Irish immigrant from Bellacorick, Co Mayo, was found dead in his apartment in Sunnyside, Queens in New York in late December. It is thought his body was lying there for a week before it was discovered by firefighters after they were alerted by the apartment superintendent who had not seen him for several days.

The New York Irish Center

Gallagher, a carpenter, arrived in the US in 1970. His wife, Josephine, now suffers from Alzheimer’s and has been living in a nursing home for the past three years in Kingston, New York. The couple had no children. Gallagher’s brother Eddie, lives in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and last saw him at Thanksgiving.

Ambrose Gurhy, the owner of an Irish bar in Queens, says Gallagher came in every so often. “You might see him two times a month and you might not see him again for four or five months. He wasn’t a bar person really. It was more for the company rather than a big session.”

The case of Gallagher’s lonely death has focused attention on the plight of elderly Irish immigrants in New York, and the problems of isolation that many of them face.

Ciarán Staunton, a well-known figure in the Irish community and vice-chairman of the Irish Lobby of Immigration Reform, says the death of Tony Gallagher underlines the need for a census of elderly Irish to identify those living in isolated conditions. The census could be done through a volunteer network run with the help of the Church, he says, noting that many elderly Irish in New York attend Mass daily.

According to Staunton, there are probably “a couple of thousand” Irish over the age of 65 living in the city, and many have little contact with each other.

“We need to know where are they? Who are they? We need to get the names, get their numbers and get co-ordinated.”

The New York Irish Center on Jackson Avenue in Queens has become a hugely important social centre for elderly Irish in the borough. The founder of the centre, 73-year-old Fr Colm Campbell, chaplain to the Irish community in the US, points out that the Irish in Queens are more dispersed than they are in the Bronx.

“The Irish who moved to the Bronx mainly tend to live all closely together in a tight little area in Woodlawn,” says Fr Campbell, originially from Belfast and who came to the US in 1992. “In Queens, there is no Irish neighbourhood any more. There was Woodside and Sunnyside, but they have gone.”

Because Fr Campbell lives alone and suffers from ill health, he wears a bracelet on his wrist which will sound an alarm should anything happen to him. At a Mass last weekend at the New York Irish Center in Queens he stressed to the elderly congregation the importance of looking out for each other.

Returning to Ireland is simply not an option for most seniors, says Fr Campbell, because “the Ireland they left is not the Ireland they would return to”. Indeed, one of the regulars at the centre, Pat Sheehy from Woodlawn, who left Glasnevin in Dublin in 1956, tried to relocate to Ireland three times. “It just never worked out,” she explains.

Fr Campbell says there is a great deal of loneliness. “One woman in Woodside, Queens, said to me, ‘My daughter rings me every day. But that’s just 20 minutes.’ The apartment block she lives in used to be entirely Irish but now it’s almost entirely Polish. She says they are lovely people – but she can’t understand a word that they are saying.

Fr Campbell says one of the problems with elderly Irish immigrants is their reluctance to ask for help. “There’s a thing in the Irish that just doesn’t want to admit to being in need.”

CIARÁN STAUNTON AGREES, saying that the generation that came to America in the 1940s and 1950s are “a proud people”. “No one is going to say, ‘I have spent 20 years sending back money and parcels when things were tight and now no one calls me.’”

Every Wednesday the New York Irish Center holds a lunch which is attended by 40 to 50 senior citizens. As they tuck in to their meals donated by a local Irish restaurant, Sidetracks, accordion music plays in the background. When people introduce themselves, they follow their name with the part of Ireland they came from. When I tell them I come from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, they ask if I know various Nenagh families, despite the fact that they had left Ireland in the 1950s. Many have less of an American accent than you would find in the average teenager in south Co Dublin.

Peggy Cooney, 78, originally from Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, and now living in Astoria in Queens, has been coming to the weekly lunch for four years. “I have made a lot of friends here,” she explains. “But it’s only one day a week.” Cooney came to the US in 1960, sponsored by a Jewish family in Riverdale, the Bronx to take care of their children. Later she worked for a nursing agency. She was “very happy living here” in the 1960s and 1970s. There was a lot of dancing in those days, she says and she was also active in Northern Ireland Aid. She retired at the age of 70. She never married and has a brother in Missouri.

“I’m not lacking for a social life,” she says. However, in her apartment block, no one talks to each other. “Everyone goes to work apart from me and an elderly couple. There’s no communication in the block.”

Most of the senior citizens say that the New York Irish Center is a very important part of their social life. There are other activities such as plays and Irish language classes, and the lunches on Wednesday are followed by a game of cards in the basement. One of the women advises that if I want to talk to the men, I should do so before the card game begins, “because there’ll be no talking to them after that”.

Seán Finn (73) from Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, says the centre, along with the Irish centre in Mineola on Long Island, forms the basis of his social life. He lives alone and says that on some days, when the weather is very cold, he doesn’t leave his apartment at all.

IN WOODLAWN IN THE Bronx, the main organisation caring for the elderly Irish is the Aisling Irish Community Center. Orla Kelleher, its executive director, agrees that the Tony Gallagher case, although an extreme example, does prove that in a city of more than eight million people, “loneliness and isolation do exist, particularly for seniors.

“We have a very active group of over 80 seniors at the centre. However, they are the lucky ones who are physically able to come to the centre for the weekly meetings and events. We have attempted to expand our senior outreach programme over the past three to four years by contacting churches, hospitals, nursing homes, and so on to ensure that the older Irish are being looked after. However, our efforts have been thwarted by a serious lack of financial and human resources.”

The Tony Gallagher case would be unlikely to happen in Woodlawn because it is such a close-knit community, says Martin O’Malley, a retired bus driver from Ballycastle, Co Mayo. He lives in Woodlawn and is active in the Aisling Center and was speaking at the centre on a Saturday as Irish dancing classes took place. “I had heard he was a bit of loner,” he adds.

Hugh McMorrow (72), from Dromahair, Co Leitrim, says “Woodlawn is an area where everyone knows everyone. The people in good shape look out for the people in bad shape.”

The Irish consulate in New York says that dealing with problems of an ageing Irish community in New York is a top priority. It is unable to say how many Irish over the age of 60 are in New York, which underlines the need for a census of Irish seniors, according to Ciarán Staunton.

The consulate agrees there is a need for more information but says the most practicable way to quantify and assess needs of elderly Irish immigrants is through the establishment of a well-resourced outreach programme for seniors and points out that a new service – to include a senior helpline – will be up and running in March and training for volunteers has already begun.

Immigrant voices: lives lived abroad


Tom was born in Brooklyn to Irish parents from Roscommon and Mayo, who returned to Ireland during the Great Depression. They came back to the US in the late 1940s. Tom’s wife Margaret is from Co Down. She says they have returned to Down regularly over the years, even during the Troubles. Tom worked in the circulation department in The New York Times. The Brooklyn neighbourhood they live in, Midwood, used to be mainly Irish and Italian; today it is largely Jewish and Pakistani.

The Begley’s have three sons: one who lives in Rockland County, New York, and two who live on Staten Island. They come to the New York Irish Center regularly. “You get to hear the news and the craic,” says Tom, with a strong Brooklyn accent.


“I wouldnt leave Woodlawn for the world,” says Martin O’Malley, speaking about the Bronx neighborhood. Originally from Ballycastle, Co Mayo, he left for the US on January 27th, 1957. He had previously worked in London. “It was tough being Irish back in those days in England. ‘There goes Pat,’ they used to say to you as you walked by.”

He fell in love with the US as soon as he came out here. There was dancing “seven times a week.” He met a Galway girl, they married and had six children. He drove a bus for a living and says he would never want one of his sons “doing that crap.” One of his children is a medical doctor, while two others have PhDs. An active member of the Aisling Center, he volunteers each week making sandwiches which are given to the homeless around Manhattan.

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