Damien Fox is a young American writer who lives in Chicago, Illinois. Today, Damien shares his story of finding home in America as a first-generation Irish American child of immigrant parents.
Finding Home On The Road Taken
My grandmother cried the day my mother’s crisp burgundy passport arrived in the mail. And she had reason to, for soon her daughter would leave Ireland forever.
In the southwest of Ireland, unbridled Atlantic waves crash upon a picturesque County Clare coastline. Surrounded by rolling hills and lush green meadows, the West Clare landscape delivers well in favor of Ireland’s renowned “forty shades of green”. A few kilometers from that Atlantic coast, lie two quaint homes tucked away in the quiet countryside from which came the two most important individuals in my life.
Nationwide recession blindsided Ireland in the late 1970s. The dawn of the 1980s triggered panic and discouragement within a generation of Irish people faced with high unemployment, inflation and public debt bringing many to an ill-fated crossroads: to stay or to go? This ultimatum swept the country as desperation quickly absorbed the island’s youth. When push came to shove, decade long fiscal stagnancy provoked the emigration of over 200,000 skilled and educated young people, victimized by an economy struggling to sustain itself.
Among those who left to settle in foreign ports of call around the world were my parents—two fresh-faced, naive twenty-something-year-olds exiled to a new life in “The Windy City,” with only one another and two modest suitcases in hand.
And there, I truly believe, is where my story begins. As far back as memory will bring me, I have always identified myself as being “Irish”.
When JFK visited Ireland in June of 1963, he was quoted as saying,
“[Ireland] is not the land of my birth, but it is the
land for which I have the greatest affection.”
My own unwavering affection for my ancestral homeland would come to define me throughout my life.
My love affair with my heritage began at just two years old. Congressman Bruce Morrison’s 1992 visa program granted 48,000 green cards to Irish expatriates in the U.S., ending my parents four year wait to return home to Ireland.
The time had come for my two-year-old self to meet my entire extended family for the first time. A tripod would no longer be necessary to take family pictures. The people in the photos that hung upon the walls of our home would finally come to life. And I would finaly meet the family in whose lives I had only ever existed through Kodak photographs and carefully crafted words in countless letters mailed across the Atlantic.
The arrivals hall of Shannon Airport was filled with love as our relations waited in anticipation for the Aer Lingus 747 carrying our family to touch down on Irish soil on January 31st 1992. Dressed in a grey suit and forest green tie, I clung to my mother’s hand as she gently led her little Yank to meet a family that already felt so much love for someone they had never even met.
Instantly, I felt at home.
My life revolved around Ireland from that day forward. With the births of my siblings, came the opportunity to pass along my love for Ireland and everything it stood for. As family trips home to Ireland were planned, calendars were created to count down to our departure months in advance. Bags were packed weeks prior for a journey that would result in late nights, sleepovers and generous relatives slyly slipping us a few “quid” behind our parents’ backs. Ireland was heaven on earth. There was simply no place I would rather be.
Tearful goodbyes scarred my childhood when our vacation time would end. Little did we know on occasion our “goodbyes” were quite final, for when we returned again, God would have called someone home. Saying goodbye before our return trip to America left me devastated; tears would fall as we drove through the winding roads en route to Shannon, leaving our family behind us. Onboard the plane, I would strain my neck during take-off, trying to take in every view of Ireland before the pristine landscape would be lost beneath the clouds below.
Growing up 4,000 miles away from Ireland was difficult for me as a boy. My parents built a wonderful home for us in Chicago, but most times I could only dwell on being away from Ireland. As our grandparents would pass away, we stayed behind while our parents made their lonely journey back to an Ireland that would never be the same, inevitably leaving them orphaned when they reached the other side.
As I grew into my teenage years, my love for Ireland never diminished, making it especially hard when recession reached American shores in 2006 and trips home came to a halt. With the housing market the first to go, my parents, like most Irish builders, were left invested entirely in a stagnant general contracting business and subsequently victimized economically for the second time in their lives. Left with high debts, mortgage payments, and school tuitions, trips to Ireland became a leisure that our family could no longer afford. At this time, my world was completely invested in a place across the Atlantic.
No one warned me of the trouble that could occur in investing everything I had in something that could be easily taken away. But here I was, seemingly left with nothing—no extended family and no real relationships with anyone besides my immediate family on which to build a new life. I was left behind—a shy, reserved young man—and I did not find it fair. My days were spent alone watching RTÉ online, immersing myself in Irish history and obsessively pricing flights home.
I could not continue on like this. Luckily, I arrived at a crossroads, facing my own ultimatum—an almost “fight-or-flight” response. And I was going to fight—fight to step outside my own comfort zones to find my notion of home in America and make my young years, the best years of my life.
And I did.
An examination of my own surroundings helped me to recognize a close-knit Chicago community that I could find a place in; a place not much different than the Ireland I had left behind where I could bring my background and experiences to a unique collective where people’s differences, as much as their similarities, made them friends. Looking back, I shudder to think how life would have been had I not come to find “home” in America.
I have not returned to Ireland now for over half a decade. Luckily, my relationships established in childhood have remained strong to this day despite the distance, while new relationships and experiences have shaped a successful, happy life in America. However, would I change anything if I had the chance? Never. These experiences have shaped my identity, making me the person that I am today. My parents’ journey has paved the way for my own.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
And it has. It truly has.
Go Raibh Maith Agat, Damien
(Thank You, Damien)
Irish American Mom