“Change The Sky” – A Memoir By Joseph T. O’Donnell

In 1967 an Irish immigrant decided to single-handedly build a house, to take his beloved family out of a cramped Philadelphia alley.   Joseph T. O’Donnell watched his father build, brick-by-brick, board-by-board, slate-by-slate.  What he witnessed was more than a house rising, but one man’s determination to live the American dream and change the sky for the family he loved.

Today we continue our Immigrant Tales, with an e-mail interview I completed with the author of this wonderful book.  A big thank you to Joseph O’Donnell for sharing his family story with us.


A Pencil Sketch Of The House That Changed The Sky


Q:  What is the central theme of this story?

A:  This story centers on my father who in 1967 came home one day and decided the time had come to build his own house and get his family out of a shrinking Philadelphia alley.  By way of background my father immigrated from Ireland in 1946 where he arrived from a village outside Glenties, Donegal Ireland called Mulnamin Hill. A small rock strewn and hilly part of northwest Ireland near the Gweebarra Bay.

Immigrating through Canada my father settled in Philadelphia where he became an American citizen. He opened a tavern in the 1950’s in North Philadelphia called the All Ireland bar. He lived on top of the bar in a small apartment with his bride Lily and then two children. After giving up the tavern business for more suitable employment and fresh air he began the carpenter’s trade. He moved from North Philadelphia to the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia from where he would plan his move from our shrinking alley and city block to a more green and spacious sky. When I say the alley was shrinking I just don’t mean the physical force of the alley becoming smaller. There were social, ethnic and unwritten rules and hierarchies at work. People on edge and angry at their plight associated with close quarter living. And as you will read in the book some tragic events, verbal and physical abuse from some neighbors and others.


The Home Built By Patrick Joseph O’Donnell In Flourtown, PA in 1967


Q:  What inspired your father to take on the enormous task of building his own house?

A:  In 1967, twenty years after arriving in America, my father had acquired the skill and know how to construct his house including the piece of ground to build upon in Flourtown, Pennsylvania. However money, and official accreditation to assure township managers of his qualifications to build a house of proper form and code, were required.  Amazingly, my father found a way.  With an additional four children bringing his total to six, he never shirked his responsibilities. There was parochial school tuition and limited wages for food and clothing that year of 1967.   Yet he was determined he was going to build a house.  There was no question about that, and issues like money, nor food, nor anything else would ever deter him.



Patrick Joseph O’Donnell Working In His Garden


Q:  Do you remember the building process?

A:  When the buds and leaves began to sprout in and around Philadelphia in 1967 my father started to dig a foundation for his new house. And at eight and nine years of age I watched my father build. Or more appropriately I watched my father rage , spit, scream, kick, ( his steel toe boots were a useful tool- and threat ) and swear and anything else it took to raise a house before the approaching winter arrived.

He was out there -alone for the most part. And what I witnessed those many months was nothing short of a miracle and so much more than just a house rising.

Patrick Joseph & Lily O’Donnell


Q: What was your motivation in writing this story?

A:  I believe there are so many great stories like this one out there but, for whatever reason they are not told. That is unfortunate. This is a story that should be shared and enjoyed and embraced as a small chapter of the Irish in America. I did not want this story to miss the boat. I wanted to tell a story of one modest man’s incredible deed and a salute to the America that made it possible. As for me it was a formative experience as I watched my father build his house despite the fact I inherited none of his mechanical skill. No regret.


The Donegal Home Of Patrick Joseph O’Donnell


Q: Tell me about your generosity and the causes you have chosen to support through the sale of your book?

A:  I wanted to donate money from this story to the wounded warrior project. Being a former marine this of course strikes a chord when I see our servicemen and women coming home wounded, both physically and mentally.

The other charity is Habitat for Humanity. I thought this appropriate as I can attest to the importance of a safe, sturdy and quiet home especially for children to nurture and grow.

And lastly to the victims of super storm Sandy I am pledging 1$ for every book sold, through the end of November.



Q:  Where can readers purchase this book?

A:  My father’s story is available on Amazon.com and is titled Change the Sky by Joseph O’Donnell.

It is in Kindle ebook format, but can be read on any device. If you don’t have a kindle you can down load a free kindle app to read it on iPhone, laptop or computer.

Further background is available in this article published by Montgomery Media.



Joseph T. O’Donnell is a retired marine who grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a Donegal immigrant, who built his own home against all the odds.  Although Joseph admits he inherited none of his father’s building skills, his inspirational words are testament to an even greater lesson learned from his father – the importance of dreams, determination and perseverance.  I wish him every success with this magnificent story.



Slán agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)


Irish American Mom


  1. What a lovely tribute to his father!

    • Chris – I could picture his father in my mind’s eye, raging and struggling against the enormity of this task, but driven by determination and love of his family to finish the project. Tales like this need to be told.
      All the best,

  2. It is hard to comment on this. Not because I cannot empathize but because I feel that such a story marked the end of a Homesteading ethos that this story marks it’s last hurrah. In fact it could be said to have ended with the development of the Oklahoma and the Delta region of Colorado 70 years earlier with the last nails being driven into it’s box with the dust bowl famines of the 1920/30s.
    I have read about initiatives in the UK where a tripartite partnerships between town councils, low return investment funds and the occupiers. Where the council hands over land the fund a small amount of cash and the occupiers self-build. And over time they repay the fund at a point over par and the council gets brownfield away from scrub and haunts for all sorts of dirt.

    • Vince – I never heard of these self-building initiatives in the UK before. Sounds like an interesting concept. I think building a home must be an amazing accomplishment. My husband’s father built many houses around Donegal in years gone by. I am so lucky that he passed on many of his skills to my husband. It saves a fortune when it comes to fixing things around our house.
      Take care,

  3. This is just the kind of story that needs to be told in the face of all the despair around us. Thank you Mairead and thank you Joseph.

    • Martine – This truly is a touching story about grit, determination, dreams and love of family. I would love to hear more stories like this from readers, and use this blog as a platform for sharing the untold stories of the Irish in America.
      All the best,

  4. Hi Mairead, my father did the same thing, cinder block foundation on a single story three room house. The mailman would stop by each day and help out a bit, they became best friends for life. Our cellar was half finished and half not with a large pile of excavated earth that never made it out. Never made it out till I was ten and the cellar window was just big enough to shove two dirt filled buckets through, that was a great summer. The years passed and a second story went on, a greenhouse was added, a commercial shop added to that. The process was simpler then, less Building inspectors demanding traffic studies or environmental reviews or some other bureaucratic nonsense to justify their cushy job, Thanks for this interview, it gives a good insight on the decency of hard working people following their dreams,

    • Brian – Love the story of your father’s friendship growing with the mailman as he lent a helping hand to build your house. I also love that it took years to remove all the dirt from your basement. Once the walls were up and the roof on, a basement full of dirt was only a small triviality. These stories of hard working people following their dreams underscore what America is all about.
      Best wishes,

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