The conversation lulled. Gerald paused and shifted in his seat, as if he were anticipating another question about his life back home. The battery of his hearing aid had gone out again. I watched curiously as he plucked a tiny metal battery from a plastic packet and readjusted his hearing aid. I joked, asking if they were usually this unreliable, and he responded, “They’re very good for a week. Sunday to Sunday.”
At 84, Gerald is content with his life in Bayside and its many constants. Every weekend, he attends mass at the church across his house – either the early morning service on Sunday or the late service on Saturday. Once a week, he sees his family and often heads out to Douglaston to play golf. Twice a week, he goes to the gym to stay in shape. He and his wife are inseparable. I see them together, even when he goes out for a drive. The life of a retired man seems calm, undisturbed; perhaps there is peace in predictability.
Born in County Leitrum in Ireland, Gerald’s life was largely shaped by a commitment to family and their pastoral livelihood. This period is characterized best by its stability and predictability. His entire family helped out on the farm — tending to the livestock, cutting and shaking hay to cover over 10 acres of it. “We had no choice,” he chuckled. At 20, he completed his carpentry apprenticeship. He made the equivalent of $5 a week during his apprenticeship and $16 a week after– a typical salary for that trade in the 1950s. A year was spent working in Dublin as a carpenter.
But like many Irish emigrants, Gerald’s decision to move from Dublin to England in 1951 was prompted by waning employment. Confronted with the memory, he shook his head, noting that there was “very little work” at the time. Irish history has always been characterized by mass emigration during periods of crisis, most notably the Irish Potato Famine; the 1940s and 1950s were no exception. Characterized by austerity, a tenuous economy and meager employment, it is unsurprising that over 500,000 people – mostly young people – left Ireland between 1945 and 1960 for places like America, Britain, Scotland and Canada. Emigrants gravitated toward the job stability and higher wages in Britain. “There was loads of work in England [after WWII]. Most of London was bombed, and they [the British government] needed to rebuild it.” Having moved there right after the war, there was a surplus of construction jobs; the work available was conducive for carpenters like Gerald.
Although many of the emigrants were subject to anti-Irish prejudices, systematic discrimination and violence, especially in Britain, Gerald experienced none of this. Irish-English tensions were commonplace given their contentious history. England had subjugated Ireland for centuries, imposing forced land seizures and denying access to food supplies during the Irish Potato Famine. The religious rift between English Protestants and Irish Catholics further exacerbated the conflict. “There was a little resentment there with the Irish and English with the troubles in Ireland, but I never had any problem with the English people. I found them very, very nice. Some people would probably say they did [feel ethnic tensions], but I never had any problem.”
The burdens of the transition hinged more on an untimely illness that complicated Gerald’s financial situation rather than anti-Irish prejudice. He had been in England for about a month when he discovered he had food poisoning, which left him out of work for six weeks. Despite daily penicillin shots, the incident left him with 15 pounds of debt and 6 months of back-breaking work to pay off the weekly rent his friend covered. He generally worked six days, often working on Saturdays to make rent. “If I had enough money of my own without borrowing, I would’ve gone back to Ireland. I was so depressed. […] That was the toughest period in my life.” The living conditions weren’t much better. The houses lacked heating; people piled on blankets and coats every night to stay warm.
In addition to job stability, the presence of an Irish community eased the transition. The homesickness became easier to manage with time. Gerald’s friends emigrated for the same reasons he did. They provided a strong support system, alleviating the loneliness that often comes with emigration. Because they lived together, there was a shared sense of Irish identity and belonging absent with the rest of the community. Irish dances and concerts were a common pastime for the Irish diaspora. If not at a performance, Gerald would be found at the local Catholic Church, either attending mass or doing odd jobs to help the clergy.
The decision to move to New York came a decade later in 1964. After being separated from the majority of his family for roughly thirty years, it was primarily motivated by a desire to be with the family he had in the states. Every weekend, there was an Irish dance or concert that he attended with them. His favorites were performances by the Clancy Brothers, a prominent Irish folk group popular in the 1960s, who popped up in places like Brooklyn, Queens and Woodside with substantial Irish populations.
When Gerald first arrived in Brooklyn, the initial differences between England and New York became apparent. “I couldn’t believe […] how many cars were on the road […] and the hustle and bustle.” Although there were cars in Ireland and England, most people didn’t have them, he remarked, likely because they couldn’t afford them. Architecturally, there were more highways in New York; he saw only one or two superhighways during his time in London. The most significant difference was the food. In England, dinner was decided by his landlady; he had little autonomy over what he ate and when it was served. “Whatever food they put up for you, you had to be satisfied with.” At the time, ham and pork were the most common because they were the cheapest, but on rare occasions lamb would be served for dinner. This starkly contrasted the accessibility of diverse food in America. For the first time, he had spaghetti and meatballs and pizza. The ability to choose, on a broader level, greatly appealed to him.
Gerald found himself working in construction in Brooklyn from 1965 to 1988. His successful transfer from the Carpenter’s Union in Ireland to the New York City Carpenters’ Union played a pivotal role in providing health insurance and securing fair wages. The latter relies on a unit rate, an established minimum rate for a trade that employers must meet. Gerald was one of the many immigrants who work in manufacturing and construction, as most opt to work in unionized sectors. In 2003, 11% of immigrants displayed union affiliation; this number has risen steadily since then.
While union membership eased financial strain, Gerald and other workers were not impervious to inadequate safety regulations. The company did not provide hard hats or ear plugs. Because he was the only person licensed to shoot wood into half inch-thick steel beams, he was picked for every job. The effect of this exposure is evidenced by his hearing aids, whose batteries kept malfunctioning during the interview. “We had guns that shot the wood into steel. You shoot the nail through the wood into the steel. They didn’t give us any protection. Over the years, we had nothing and it destroyed my hearing.”
The stay at Bayridge, Brooklyn was short-lived; he moved to Bayside soon after to stay with his brother and his family in 1964. At the time, Bayside was predominantly Irish and Italian. In 1970, he purchased his own house for $20,000 with a mortgage of 138$ a month. A typical day consisted “going from work to work” both at the construction site and at home. The house needed a lot of work; it lacked insulation and had excess sheet rock, and he did most of the construction work himself. On his days off, he prioritized his family, especially his wife and his kids. Going to Ireland was not financially feasible at the time because he was burdened with other expenses that come with purchasing a house and raising a family. But the wait was worth it. “Before I came here, I had nothing. I owned nothing. I didn’t own a house. I didn’t own a co-op. […] Back in England, you couldn’t really choose.”
An ill-timed heart attack in 1988 forced Gerald to retire on disability when he was 54. To him, having private health insurance through his union in New York was vital to his survival. If he were in England, he would have been subject to the faults of its national health system. In 2018, government austerity has led to “black alerts”, a term indicative of too many patients and too few healthcare providers. “You just go in [with private insurance] and they take care of you right away. With the national health system, you’re on a waiting list,” he explained. His friend, who lives in England, was left on crutches because it took two years to get the hip surgery he desperately needed. Gerald is grateful he was in the United States when he got his heart attack. “I would’ve been dead if I wasn’t [in New York],” he said.
Many years ago, Gerald told his green card interviewer that he would gladly go back to England if his application wasn’t accepted. Decades later, he proudly calls Bayside both his home and his favorite place in New York for its familiarity, convenience and closeness to family. To Gerald, one of the best things about living in New York is the quality of life permitted by autonomy– the ability to make your own decisions and carve out your own life.
“Alan Murray-Rust / Leitrim, Moorings / CC BY-SA 2.0.” Alan Murray-Rust / Leitrim, Moorings / CC BY-SA 2.0, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leitrim,_moorings_-_geograph.org.uk_-_585686.jpg.
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