Nothing But The Same Old Story: Boston's emigrant experience at one with London

Nothing But The Same Old Story: Boston's emigrant experience at one with London

THEY used to go from the Blarney Stone to the Emerald Isle for a late drink. There were thousands of Irish around Dorchester then, whole parishes removed from rocky Connemara and parachuted into South Boston.

They’d joke that you’d a better chance of hearing Irish spoken on Fields Corner than on Shop Street on Galway.

The community was tangible. You could reach out and touch it.

Today, on the door of the Blarney Stone, two posters stick to the glass.

‘Boxing: Ireland versus New England’ reads the text on the first. But only one Irish name - Michael McLaughlin - features on the billing.

Beside it: ‘Benefit night in Freeport Hall for Katie O’Halloran.’

Thousands of miles from Galway, Connemara exiles are drumming up thousands of dollars on behalf of a young disabled girl back home.

Irish bars the length of Dorchester Ave carry flyers promoting her fundraiser in the nearby Freeport Hall.

In an area of Boston where the demographic has changed significantly in recent years the flyers identify a community that remains alive, active, but less obvious.

Next door to the Blarney Stone the green of the sign is fading on the Emerald Isle; the doors and windows are boarded up.

Connemara man Martin Conroy moved to Boston in the 1980s. The Dorchester he walked into was a stroll of familiar faces where you couldn’t walk to the shops in Fields Corner without bumping into someone you knew from Ireland.

“It’s not like that now,” he says. “Bars have changed, people have changed, a lot of the old places are gone.”

Eddie White is second generation Irish. He talks with a strong Boston accent about where he grew up - Savin Hill - just off Dorchester Ave.

Savin Hill is a sweep of two and three story detached wooden houses. It’s where the new Boston mayor Marty Walsh is from - the working class kid who cut his teeth in the unions and made it all the way to City Hall.

Both Mayor Walsh’s parents hail from Connemara.

“It’s changed a lot around here,” says White. “Used to be all Irish one time. But now it’s a big Vietnamese area. You can see by all the stores.”

It’s 6am and traffic heading into Downtown Boston is light. The truck makes a quick coffee stop in Dunkin Donuts and Eddie White waves a salute at an ‘Irish guy’ who crosses in front of his vehicle. The journey continues inbound down the avenue past the Vietnamese stores and a couple of Irish bars bedecked with green trim: JJs and The Banshee.

The story of change in traditional Irish emigrant heartlands is a familiar one in hubs like Boston, and London.

The regeneration of migrants is no new social phenomenon but the timeline and the nature of change between embedded communities is uniquely similar from Dorchester to Cricklewood.

In both, an Irish demographic remains living alongside newer arrivals from Asia, and beyond.

Many will spend the rest of their days in their new country communicating in the native tongue of their home country.

Pockets of Irish in Boston are no exception.

In the city centre a heavy iron door opens into the basement of a construction site where some of the longer serving labourers greet each other and fall into conversation in Irish.

Others, who have only recently arrived in the country, get to work on a job of work underpinning the building.

Stories from London about requiring a National Insurance number in order to get a start on a building site are met with genuine surprise by some of the older workers in the group.

Here there’s flex in the system which means it’s still possible to get paid in cash.

Sinead NíFheallaigh from Donegal is a journalist with The Irish Emigrant. The newspaper is a weekly publication purchased by the city's Irish bars and placed behind their front doors.

The Irish are still coming to Boston but not enough to swell the demographic in Dorchester and its surrounds to 1980s’ levels.

Yet for many who arrive, high rent becomes an expensive fact of life, while Fowley says that just trying to eat healthy is an expensive lifestyle choice in a retail landscape that can sometimes feel like an overflowing food isle.

There is an emigrant merry-go-round many and like Martin Conroy spent time in London, before emigrating to Boston.

It’s a sunny saturday afternoon and arm out the window, Conroy toots the horn of his truck. A group of  men are stood smoking outside an Irish bar on Adam Street.

They cheer a retort.

He parks the truck to the rear of an Irish cafe.

Inside he falls into conversation - as Gaeilge - with a young Irish girl recently arrived.

Kieran O’Sullivan from the Irish Pastoral Centre says the vast majority of the centre’s support services are spent dealing with Irish illegals aged between 18-35.

The age demographic of those who utilise the services - funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs - is yet another contrast with comparable services in London which are directed an aging Irish community.

Congressman Joe Kennedy III estimates that there may be more than 12 million undocumented emigrants in the US and the Irish form a subset of this figure.

O’Sullivan has been dealing with undocumented Irish in Boston since he arrived in 1980s. New cases continue to present but the levels are nothing close to previous peaks.

And for every undocumented Irish who have arrived and made good on their move, there’s an emotive story of forced separation from family and friends.

“You have to have respect for them because these are people who were not happy to sit at home on the dole,” says O’Sullivan.

Dan Kelly is from Galway. His wife is from Cabra in Dublin and they have been living and working in the city since the late 1970s.

Kelly runs the Dorchester Boxing Club and his son Jason is a professional boxer scheduled to have his first fight in the coming weeks.

In another life, Kelly, 23 starred alongside Sean Penn in the Clint Eastwood directed Mystic River.

He considers himself Irish. Like many of his friends he grew up to Irish parents in an Irish neighbourhood in arguably America’s most Irish city.

The kind of place where the new Mayor takes time out to attend a benefit night for a disabled Irish girl on the eve of a 2014 Boston Marathon steeped in symbolism following last year’s bombing attack.

“I am Irish,” replies Jason with mild offense. “The way we talk, the expressions we use. How we’ve grown up. I’ve been back to visit where my parents are from a couple of times and there is a sense of yeah, this is where they are from and I’m from.”

Dorchester of course is also synonymous with notorious Irish crime gangs and names like Whitey Bolger, Kevin Weeks, Stevie Flemmi and Red Shea still echo.

Yet like the sign on the Emerald Isle, they have faded into films which pay homage to South Boston’s darker side.

The Irish have grown out of former ghettos into the mainstream of city life. The rise of the second generation is in some cases striking in terms of transition speed - Mayor Walsh a notable example. Equally so, the endeavour and stoic nature of many of the more recent arrivals who are building lives and attempting to maintain responsibilities at home - on the back off cash jobs in bars, cafes and building sites.

Comparisons with London are different and at the same, strangely the same.

“I knew four or five days after I arrived that I wanted to stay,” says Siobhan from Donegal. “That’s two years ago now. There’s loads of Donegal here now. You want to see it in the summer in bars like JJs when the GAA is on - all the jerseys.

“I haven’t been back since I came out two years. My family will come out. I guess I’ll go home someday.”