“There’s a lot of pride in our Irish background. We did Irish dancing, we did Irish music, had parties in my home where my grandfather and I danced together. Everybody had to have a party piece. I typically danced. I had one song, the ‘Gypsy Rover’ and I’m still asked to sing that song,” she says, laughing.
Her mother, Kathleen Theresa O’Carroll, was her role model. She is still hale and hearty at 80. “My mother was very smart. She graduated high school at 16 having skipped two classes, and she graduated with honors. She was the only student in the whole town accepted to university – University of Cork. And she didn’t go because it seemed so unattractive; she said you go to Cork and live with some old biddy, and she wanted no part of that. She broke my grandfather’s heart in that sense. He forced her to do a typing course, because he said ‘you’re equipped with nothing,’ and that, in fact, is how she made her living at her first employment in New York.”
Her mother came to New York and ended up marrying the next-door neighbor, John Sullivan, by all accounts a remarkable man.
Jane Sullivan Roberts takes her deep commitment to Catholicism from him. “It’s probably more from my father,” she says about her faith. “He was very devout, but not in a pious sort of way. He had done theological studies in Iona College, so it was a mature faith as well. I probably have a bit of an analytical nature, and that appeals to me as well. He was a very clear thinker, he could cut through a whole lot of nonsense, and see things clearly, whether it’s political or social distinction, or religion. So I probably get that from him.”
As for the recent scandals involving pedophilia and the church in Ireland, she is still grappling with what it all means. “I’m still trying to reconcile all of that. I haven’t read the reports. I don’t know what to make of it. The question is, was it just confined to the orphanages? And the unwed mothers? That’s a terrible thing.”
Her parents had no easy time raising their family in the hungry fifties. “My dad started out in advertising and then he had a job on Wall Street; this was 1954/’55 and there was a recession and Catholics were the first ones laid off on Wall Street. He had me at the time, and my other sister was coming along, so he got a job in construction where, oddly, there was work.
“Then he was a fireman in a New York City public school, and then he settled into being a mechanic for electric ice machines for a post office.”
Jane’s parents both insisted their children get the best education, especially the girls. They had seen many women left bereft when the man of the house lost his job or was killed in workplace accidents, which were very common then. Little wonder then that Straight A student Sullivan found herself among the first class of girls ever to enter Holy Cross College in Massachusetts and later went to Georgetown Law School.
Holy Cross was an experience that defined her.
“The first week I had a date every day, one day there were two dates and I called my mother and said this is too much. To go from an all-girls school, it was too much. But things settled down, the girls were very talented and serious and everybody got down to studies. The college could not have been more welcoming. We constantly had meetings in the dorms, to see how progress was. And the professors were very welcoming, at a substantive, academic, intellectual level.”
She worked her way through high school and college. “I always had jobs. When I was 15 I worked in Ocean City, New Jersey, as a waitress and hostess one summer, and later I got a job in a restaurant in a Jewish neighborhood, working 5-8 every night. It was perfect because I could go to school, work and then go out on a date afterwards. But I made enough money to cover my books and uniforms.”
Even in college as through her entire life, Ireland was never far from her thoughts. “The first trip that I remember was in second grade, in 1962, and we stayed in the house that my mother grew up in in Charleville, County Cork. The family had six children, relatives roughly our age, so we had lots and lots of fun. I just remember the freedom, because we could just run out the back of my grandma’s house. She lived in town, but right behind her house was farmland. The town was basically just one street. We jumped the hedges, and played in the fields.
“Here I was, a Bronx kid, and in the summer in Ireland we could milk cows. It was just terrific. We went hiking together with my cousins, up the hills, and I remember banana and mayonnaise sandwiches. I still love that. Then, there were always the parties, and everyone had their party piece. We visited the sights, the castles.”
Her love of Ireland is not lost on her husband.
John Roberts is of Welsh, Czech and Irish stock. His Celtic genes emerge at the Willie Clancy Summer School in Ireland where he has danced on his frequent trips to the Emerald Isle. He also regularly attends ceilis and can dance the “Walls of Limerick” with the best of them, according to Jane.