I am an Irishman. I am an Immigrant. I am an American.
One cool March morning this year Pandora, the music streaming app, suggested I might like the music station “Americana.” For those unfamiliar with Americana, it’s a musical style that is based in folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, rock and roll, and bluegrass. Quintessentially American sounds that draw their deep roots from African heritage, and northern European, including Irish, musicianship. It was an appropriate day for Pandora to suggest such a station because that was the day I took the Pledge of Allegiance in downtown Chicago and became a citizen of the United States of America. I have now lived in this country for almost 24 years — which means I have spent more of my life here than in Ireland, the country of my birth. So, now I’m an American. Does that mean I’m not Irish? What does it mean? How did I get here?
I was born In Ennis, near Ireland’s west coast, and raised in a bucolic, demanding, Catholic, and loving home. Loving in that Irish way of tough love mixed with laughter, politics, sports, song, and dance — and in our family, fly fishing. I am the youngest of five and my siblings constantly set the bar high with outstanding scholastic accomplishments, national championships in sports and dance, and relentless competitiveness. My parents set a standard of character and integrity that we all aspire to match. Or, as we each took our teenage turn, to push against and find our own feet. A streak of independence appears to be part of our DNA.
My hometown can trace at least 800 years of history — centuries before Columbus stumbled upon the West Indies and set the New World ablaze in tragedy and opportunity. We Irish are steeped in history from a young age, indoctrinated in the mythical tales of CuChulainn, the Fianna, and St. Patrick. Even more so in the fantastical legends of Wolfe Tone, O’Connell, Parnell, Mc Bride, Michael Collins, and other bygone heroes of our nation. We are drenched in the wrongs, inequities, sorrows, and devastations brought upon us by outsiders. As a nation we have been often beaten, but never broken; often knocked down, but not out. Defiantly, we revel in the glory, the power, and the sanctity of our incarnation as the Land of Saints and Scholars. We have a sense that we saved the Old World long before we populated the New World. It is not an exaggeration to say that we Irish have punched above our weight on the international stage for hundreds, nay, thousands of years.
I carried that legacy to Chicago, not because of any particular desire or motivation or interest, but by birthright. A national birthright borne of tragic desperation, immigration, and hope — often in that order. We emigrated in droves, especially from the 1840’s to the 1890’s, fleeing cultural and political oppression and with a hunger that was both literal and figurative. Many came to Chicago and the Irish community has been hugely influential here — both recent immigrants and those of generations past. We have built, boozed, policed, and politicized this city as we have much of America.
Growing up, the USA was a concept far removed from any sense of reality. “Dallas” and others were big TV shows at some point. I loved the music of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits — and still do. The first album I ever owned was “The Heart and Soul of Rock and Roll” — a collection of 1950’s American rock n’ roll. Movies and TV shows promoted a “land of opportunity,” however, news coverage in Ireland often reflected an American government that promoted heavy-handed regime changers more than inspired idealism and promise. Nonetheless, everyone in Ireland knew someone who had a brother, aunt, cousin or some such connection in Boston, New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Many were illegal immigrants then, having left Ireland to forge a new future because the Irish one did not look so bright. I never gave much thought to that being my destiny.
In fact, I’m not sure I had a whole lot of thought about what my destiny might be. By the time I was 19 I was failing terribly at college and I didn’t know what I wanted and didn’t know what I didn’t want. Strike that, I did know one thing — I wanted to be authentic, but I didn’t have a clue what that meant or how to achieve it. I don’t think that I ever felt like I did not belong in Ireland, but it’s probably fair to say that I did often sense a tenuous connection to being “of” Ireland. I deeply love the poetry of William Butler Yeats, the panorama of the Burren feels like a part of my soul, and the unapologetic lyricism of ancient Irish storytelling is clearly in my blood, yet, the language holds no desire for me, the blind nationalism is unromantic, and the conservative religiousity that existed as I grew up was, and is, incompatible with my understanding of what constitutes moral rightness. Perhaps the sense of not belonging is just being a thoughtful humanist, but that disconnection didn’t suddenly disappear when I arrived on this side of the pond. If anything, it was amplified.
In October of 1994, a few months after my 20th birthday, I arrived in Chicago to stay with my amazingly generous distant cousins who had met me once. Yes, once. Ever. And then they allowed me to move in for 10 months… Who does that? Well, as it turns out that kind of generosity and spirit of giving is endemic to all sorts of immigrant families, not just the Irish. The people I moved in with were born here, but my grandmother had helped their grandmother about 50 years prior, or something like that — I always get stuck in the branches of family trees! It’s the “pay-it-forward” model on steroids and I will be forever grateful to Marianne and John who gave me the opportunity to move to Chicago.
Marianne had arranged that I could find work in a manufacturing company on Chicago’s Southside and off I went to join the workforce. Early mornings and late nights — I worked every shift. I can remember one particularly cold, foggy, foggy morning, driving on the empty I-55 expressway at 5am, the overhead lights, one by one, illuminating my drive to work. Wearily winding along, alone in the subdued darkness, a million miles from home…
I moved from the Western suburbs to the Southside and found I knew a handful of Irish folks who had also immigrated around the same time. I tried my hand at studying engineering again (the first time had been in Ireland) but failed, again. This time was a little different though, as I failed because I prioritized work over school rather than just abjectly not showing up as had previously been the case. I found that working in manufacturing, specifically metal fabrication, surrounded by Polish and Mexican immigrants, proved to be a place where I could grow and contribute. I was finding a path within manufacturing where I was good at what I did and that opportunity to stand on my own merits and contribute to the benefit of the team held meaning for me. While I had many, many lonely times with no connection to this still new world, I was finding in my working life that I held value and could be productive. I quickly found that I enjoyed passing along what I was learning to others and that opportunity to contribute to others still touches something in my soul. For me, America was becoming a land of redemption.
I’ve now spent half my life in factories, surrounded by workers originally from Poland, Mexico, Vietnam, Italy, Guatemala, South Africa, Korea, Russia — by my estimate more than 50% of my colleagues in the past 24 years were born outside the US. The manufacturing community is vibrant, diverse, energetic, passionate — filled with character and characters! I’ve worked in operations, engineering, sales, and, most recently, in a leadership role as President of a company of 60-odd people. I have traveled to more than 20 states for work and most of my customers are also manufacturers. I’ve witnessed the making of mining trucks that are the size of buildings, radiology equipment that saves lives, tractors, wind turbines, locomotives, office furniture, compressors, oil and gas drilling equipment. I have seen what this country builds, and it is astonishing and complex and it’s awesome to be part of it! Consumer demand may be the driver of the modern American economy, but manufacturing is the engine. This career in manufacturing has afforded me extraordinary opportunities and I believe I have a responsibility to find ways to pay it forward.
The thing is, even in this “land of opportunity,” opportunity itself is not guaranteed and opportunity is not distributed evenly. The colour of my skin has afforded me advantages over others, and so has my gender and the fact that English is my first language. I am not knowledgeable enough to clearly understand which of these privileges yields the greatest benefits, but I know they each exist. I believe these privileges neither diminish nor discount the long hours I have worked to find opportunity and build upon it, and vice versa — the long hours worked do not eradicate the reality that such privileges exist. Yet even when opportunity does arise, the outcome, the result, the potential achievement of success comes with no guarantee for anyone. Hard work alone doesn’t guarantee anyone anything other than, perhaps, the satisfaction of making the effort. And sometimes, that singular satisfaction has to be enough. Sometimes that’s all that matters. In fact, I believe that the single greatest predictor of success in any arena that matters is the effort put forth towards that success. No relationship of substance lasts without effort. No sustained professional success comes without sweat. Luck can help, and I have undoubtedly been lucky, yet luck is unreliable and doesn’t last. I believe that, in part, the greatness of this country lies in people having the opportunity to create luck for themselves. This perceived opportunity is also a tragedy of this country — the marketing of this idea that the possibility of creating one’s own luck can be universally applied regardless of creed or colour or gender, when, in reality, it is not universal. I do believe it is possible to buy into in the metaphor that I, and many others, have somehow pulled myself up by my “bootstraps” and at the same time acknowledge and agree with Dr. King’s words that “it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Not everyone has the same opportunity. Not even close. I believe I have a responsibility to contribute to changing that when I can — and indeed we all can in our own ways. I remain, in many ways, baffled by whatever success I have been fortunate to have. It is not alone is hard work. It is not just luck either. Others work just as hard, and harder, than I. Others have been given more or less opportunity. Yet, here I am, by typically considered measures of success I have done okay.
So, if not alone opportunity, what is it that defines this country? Diversity? Depends on one’s experience I suppose. Besides the diversity in manufacturing I mentioned earlier, I have had two roommates: a Canadian and an Indian. Both have since returned to the countries of their births — I am blameless for those choices! I played soccer for a while and my teammates hailed from Zimbabwe, Ghana, Botswana, Russia, Argentina, Mexico, and there was an Englishman who later stood up in my wedding. There were even some Americans on the team! However, is this an immigrant’s lived experience and, as such, is very different from an “average” American’s lived experience? Is this a Chicagoan’s experience versus elsewhere? Perhaps, but I think there’s an important point there — the lived experiences of someone in Seattle, or a small town in Iowa, or Green Bay, or Tulsa, or Chicago are tremendously different. Even in Chicago, for example, the life expectancy for a man in the downtown area is about 86 years. In Oak Park, about 10 miles west it is the same. In Austin, smack dab in-between the two that number drops by 20 years! The first two are on a par with Sweden, while Austin is comparable to Bangladesh! These lived experiences within this small geographic area are simply not the same, let alone that of the Texas panhandle, southern Oregon, or SoCal… Cultures and belief systems are different. Social expectations are different. Opportunities are different. America is incredibly diverse, and that diversity creates an extraordinarily rich tapestry of life. It also allows for extraordinary opportunity for division, pain, outrage, and suffering.
I think America, or at least the concept of America, is greater than the sum of its parts. “Land of the free, home of the brave” is essentially marketing, right? There’s a phrase that gets bandied about with some regularity that “America is the greatest country in the world.” The narrative I typically hear is based on “we’re so much better than country ‘X’ because of freedom and opportunities,” etc. but the problem is that this comparison is often with oppressive states like Iran or North Korea. That comparative “freedom and opportunity” is in less stark relief when the other country is Germany, or France, or Australia — or even Ireland… The oppressive regimes and monarchies that existed at the time of the writing of the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are largely gone. The founding of this democracy can unequivocally be understood as having enormous global historical significance and has inspired tremendously positive social, political, and economic change around the world in the past 250 years. And in 2018 it’s not enough for any US citizen to simply lay claim to that heritage without living up to it. Is it? Isn’t that heritage a vision of opportunity and freedom; a siren’s song of what could be in a “more perfect union;” a dream of possible fulfillment more than it is a statement of accomplishment?
My 24-year experience has been that, for the large majority, Americans are interested in leaving the world better than they found it. That’s actually an extraordinary thing. There is a broad-based belief that one has some ability to impact the future. It’s not clichéd and it’s not innocent — it’s powerful confidence on display.
Yet, there is a lot of pain right now in America. And there is still a lot of hope and determination to find commonality, to find connection, to find opportunities for a yearned-for national greatness. I asked respected friends to share with me their thoughts on citizenship in 2018. “A daunting task” according to one self-proclaimed “entitled, educated white girl” who described a sense shame for being born into such privilege, but also hope because she and her daughters are “breaking the cycle.” Another, a highly educated African American woman, is overwhelmed by the idea of “bringing up brown boys in this country.” “It’s simply great luck that I was born here, and it’s not a moral good of mine that I’m American” said another. And, “I do, fundamentally, think it’s something about encouragement instead of discouragement. I think it’s something about elevating voices and ideas that you believe make things better, instead of shouting down voices you disagree with. Because when you simply tear down and tear down and tear down, it’s easy to forget how to build.”
The people whose thoughts I asked for cross many boundaries of race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, and education. Yet, there was an almost universal commentary about contributing to others and a sense of duty and service. For example:
“1st and foremost — a good citizen cares about his fellow man. Not only about his fellow countryman, but about all mankind.” “It is easy to love those who we genuinely “like” and think like us, but much harder with those who have different life experiences and whom we don’t understand.”
“It means we stand up for what we believe is truly right in some way, shape or form. Through our words, our actions, our contributions, our votes and our prayers — they all tell the story about what we believe is right and what we believe is not.”
“Citizenship is an honor, it’s a privilege, but importantly, it is a duty. We cherish our individuality, but our duty to one another is crucial — our love and respect for our fellow citizens.”
“A living democracy provides rights but also insists on responsibility.”
“Another quality of a citizen is stewardship — leaving something better than you found it, whether it’s a community, a company, a network of others, the environment, a city, etc. during the inevitable hard times as well as easy times. I think this is a quality that has declined dramatically in recent years with enormous consequences for our society.”
“I believe it is my duty as a citizen of the USA to honor our privilege and freedom by constantly fighting for social justice, especially for the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in our society.”
“…for me citizenship is much more about being in service to my fellow citizens and fighting for equity than about being in allegiance to our flag or the many flawed values I associate with “Americans” including over consumption/ capitalism, white supremacy (ala MAGA)/ denial of slavery, and an over-zealous attachment to weapons/ 2nd amendment. Don’t get me wrong, having lived in other countries (and travelled to many more), I am grateful for the freedom to question authority, have basic human rights, access to an education and entrepreneurship that being an American allows. However, with these privileges, I am not blind to the ever-present work to question authority and stand (or kneel!) with those experiencing oppression.”
“I do believe that it is each of our responsibilities to make this country great — I hate the recent exclusionary discussions that I see often.”
“Start a business, hire and employ people, give $$ to charities that are helping others, become involved in local happenings in your town, volunteer for a position on the town board or the fire department or the school.”
“Give more than you expect to get in return. Teach the next generation the lessons you learned. Leave this place in better hands than when you came into it.”
It’s challenging to write about this in 2018 with the polarized nature of political discourse. Yet, I do not have a dystopian view on this country today. Ray Dalio, an incredibly successful investor and philosopher of sorts, asked a question that is relevant in these times: “Are the principles that unite us as Americans stronger than the things that divide us?” I still say “Yes.” Not just because I generally choose to have an optimistic outlook on life, but because, in reflecting on these questions in the past twelve months, that belief is what I have seen in talking to Americans. My fellow Americans…
The promise of America. The potential of America. America has always been better in vision and possibility than in reality. The reality is deeply flawed and always has been — but show me a world-leading country whose history is devoid of flaws of character? Show me any country whose history is devoid of flaws of character? I won’t hold my breath. There is an abundance of similarities between Irish history and American history — and, frankly, many other nations. Oppression. Struggle. Emancipation. War of Independence. Civil War. Inequality. Peaceful protest… Gentrification…
The idea of America, the concept of what could be, is something to aspire to and pursue. Yes, the founders were flawed. As is everyone. Senator John McCain said: “We live in a land made by ideals, not blood and soil.” Ideals matter. John McCain was no saint, but he did occasionally have a knack for making a good point. And, yes, unlike some others, he did actually serve and sacrifice for this country. His blood was actually spilled in service of ideals. Ideals matter greatly. The United States of America exists because ideals matter greatly.
The ideals that matter, at least for the sake of me writing this composition, are American ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Federalist Papers. These are all worthy of study, but the last is particularly interesting as the Papers reveal so much substance behind the other documents. Ideals matter and understanding the intentions of those who first espoused such ideals is instructive and compelling. While some believe strongly in being a global citizen, I would say it is both qualitatively and quantitatively different to be Irish than it is to be American. And citizenship matters — or does it? I’ve been living here for 24 years and not being a citizen has had minimal impact on my life. Sure, I haven’t voted. How would my singular vote have changed any election in the past 20 years? It wouldn’t. But, that’s not really the point, it is? I mean, it’s not that the one single vote counts, it’s the idea that one should participate in the democracy that one lives in, right? It’s about showing up and making one’s voice heard. It’s about contributing to the conversation and dialogue and discussion that is happening all around all of us. Because the alternative is not okay. The alternative is not participating, not connecting with others, not bringing one’s own voice to the conversations, i.e. being left out…
Why become a citizen now? It is my responsibility to steward this opportunity. Now, more than at any time in the past 24 years, now is the time to participate; to push back against those who seek to sow division; to measure up to the potential that the founding fathers envisioned; to champion the promise of America for all those who live here, and those who seek refuge here; to be an example to my daughters that participation matters, not just showing up; ideas and ideals matter… Policies matter, politics matters, and the communications of both policies and politics matter. Character matters, as ideals matter.
And why write 4,000+ words on the subject? Well, I didn’t mean to… I asked a question of some friends, as noted earlier, and I felt I owed them a response. This is that response and it has become a little longer in form than I initially expected. If you have made it this far — thank you for your kind patience!
Where do I belong? To whom do I owe allegiance?
My love. The woman I met on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May 2004 that I have been breathlessly in love with ever since. She who has chosen to spend her life with me. She has chosen, and I have chosen. It’s not at all complicated, and it’s infinitely complicated. She is the best part of every day.
Our children. We are blessed with two lovely, spirited, opinionated, sensitive girls. I owe them a future, or at least the possibility of finding beauty in their future. I will not pretend that I can prescribe happiness for them, but I will work hard to ensure their eyes and souls are open to beauty, possibility, and reality.
Life is change. If I had not moved to Chicago I would not have had this career, would not have met the woman I love, and would not have had these kids. Life would be different. If I had not been in that one Lincoln Avenue bar, on that one sunny Sunday afternoon, and she had not walked in… Life would be different. But, I traveled 4,000 miles from where I started, to an extraordinary new world, and found redemption, salvation, opportunity, and love. This country remains a mystery to me in many ways. There is so much complexity, variety, ignorance, charm, curiosity, kindness, hatred, innocence, violence, and love. It is easy for us all to live in our bubbles, in our self-inflicted-confirmation-bias-filled-naval-gazing bubbles, where we know what’s right and true and real and yet, yet, the greatness of this country has always been the bursting of bubbles. The exposure to the Other — that Other culture, or subculture; that Other race; that Other creed; that Other way of being — and the acceptance and celebration of those differences under a common belief in opportunity and self-determination and freedom of self-expression. There have historically been, and remain today, terrible failures in the actualization of these ideals of acceptance and celebration. This is what I mean when I say that the promise of America, the potential of America, in a universal way, is unrealized and yet still powerful. Because, when we open our eyes and look, we can find the beauty.
In June 2015 Dylann Roof killed nine African American people as they prayed in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. His racism, his violence, his disdain for humanity, his hatred, his despicable choices do not represent what this country is about — even though it’s tragically easy to think they do. Jermaine Watkins, who is an African-American and a teaching pastor at Charleston’s Journey Church said in a meeting after the killings: “To hatred, we say no way — not today. To racism, we say no way — not today. To division, we say no way — not today. To loss of hope, we say no way — not today. To a racial war, we say no way — not today. To racial fear, we say no way — not today. Charleston, together, we say no way — not today. To reconciliation, we say yes.” This, to me, is closer to the truth of America. It’s not perfect. It’s not ideal. It’s not without flaws. Even with its flaws and imperfections, it is filled with beauty, kindness, and hope. Hope matters. Ideals matter. Potential and promise matter — and I believe it is our collective responsibility to show up, vote, be present in the conversation, be knowledgeable about what’s going on, be open to all sides of the conversation, be aware of our privileges and biases, promote love, and honour our duties as citizens. I commit to you that I will do my part and will honour my citizenship.