As a young Irish American lawyer, Judge John Collins of New York helped lead the fight to overturn the 1965 immigration act which essentially ended legal Irish immigration to America. In this chapter of his memoir he describes efforts to get Senator Robert Kennedy and other leading figures on their side.
At one of our Immigration Committee meetings, a member proposed that our officers - in particular Fr. O'Callaghan, John O'Donnell and myself - go separately to speak to the various Irish organizations. The member stated that while he could provide the organization which he represented with general information on our work, it was not the same as the organization hearing from those organizing the committee. Also if an organization was donating money, they had a right to hear how it would be used. Additionally, those organizations, which had as of yet ,failed to donate might be persuaded by the personal touch.
I had the time and didn't mind the additional speaking chore but hated the idea of begging. Nevertheless, I realized that somehow we had to pay for expenses.
Most of the thirty-two county Irish organizations held monthly meetings, as did about twenty-five AOH divisions and county boards in the metropolitan area, not to mention the GAA teams and other assorted groups. Besides these, there were installation of officer ceremonies, anniversary dinners and communion breakfasts and dinners. Then there were the holiday breakfasts and dinners, celebrating St. Patrick's Day and the anniversary of the 1916 Dublin Rising at Easter.
By the time seven years had passed, I never wished to sit on a dais again. I never wished to eat in public on a platform again and I never desired to eat a mid-morning breakfast of chicken, potatoes and peas.
Each set of remarks delivered had to be separately crafted to fit the audience and to satisfy time limits. I worked for my livelihood in a public office, so I was always conscious that what I might say in public could later be misrepresented. Accordingly, no matter how well, I knew the topic or audience, or how small the group, I prepared my remarks in writing.
Although I didn't realize it at the time, these speaking engagements were excellent training for me as a lawyer. They provided experiences which build confidence. There were no monetary honorariums for these speeches. Sometimes the organization might send a contribution to the committee, but not always. Of course, we often came away from the gathering with a list of individuals who had relatives and friends who needed our help in imigrating.
These occasions, obviously, allowed the immigration committee to get its message across and sometimes to a very large assembled group. Often there was a report of the meeting or dinner in the Irish papers, which provided added publicity for the cause.
A few of the early engagements stand out in memory. At the installation of a new president of the UICA, I was one of the many speakers at the Henry Hudson Hotel Ballroom on West 57th Street. I took at least fifteen minutes to speak my piece, well over the allotted amount of time. Afterwards, I mentioned to Judge Comerford that I had spoken too long. He said, "Not at all. If you have something important to say, don't worry how much time you are taking. Never mind that you exceed the time limit that those in charge have imposed." It was good advice that I never forgot.
Often the dinners and lunches did not start on time. Sometimes we operated under Irish country time. I can recall once being introduced as the next speaker at a County Corkmen's dinner. The time was midnight. On another occasion, I attended a dinner and spoke at a Mason Tenders Union Dinner. It was held in a catering hall on Burnside Avenue in the Bronx. The sound system was not operating. The members and guests were seated in two rooms in an L shaped fashion. It was well after midnight when the speeches began and it took all of one's vocal strength to be heard without microphone in the two rooms. I was heard!
The largest dinner was the NY GAA, 2500 seated in the Grand Ballroom of the Statler Hilton Hotel. The diners, sometimes well plied with spirits, were also sometimes lacking in total attention. If the toastmaster began without obtaining attention and silence, all was usually downhill and the noise accelerated as the speeches progressed. There were two exceptions. One was the former Governor of New York, Malcolm Wilson, who often addressed the dinner. He never began until he obtained silence and he always got it for the duration of his speech. I learned a lot by watching his operation. I was the other fortunate speaker exempted from the noise. In my case it wasn't due so much to technique as the content of the message. The audience was interested. The subject deeply affected them.
Fr. O'Callaghan, in his structured messages (which were always extemporaneous) told his hearers that if the 1965 law was not changed, the GAA organization (composed of many new immigrants) would be the first to go, followed by the UICA and then lastly the AOH. His prediction was right on target.
Of course not all organizations were equally hospitable to our message in the beginning. The Irish Institute had a scheduled dinner in the spring of 1967. It was to be held in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Commodore (now the Hyatt Regency) and the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the late President was the scheduled guest of honor.
We sought permission to have four or five of our immigration committee information cards placed on each table at the dinner. Usually organizations had been offering us free space for an immigration message in their souvenir journals. The Irish Institute had not on this occasion but they had previously favored us with free office and meeting space, so we couldn't complain. Nevertheless, we wanted our cards on the dinner table. The decision to make the request originated at one of our general meetings. Fr. O'Callaghan and I approached Martin Killeen, the Institute President and requested his permission. He replied in the affirmative. As he did so, Mrs. Nora Doherty wife of the Institute Building custodian overheard our request. Mrs. Doherty, a fiery lady from County Limerick (who operated air charters to Ireland in her spare time) and her husband, Bill (a man of contrasting quiet demeanor) lived in an apartment at the Institute. She, the custodian, told the president in no uncertain terms that the cards would not be on the table. They would appear she said, "over her dead body and if they appear, I will set fire to them." She seemed to mean it. Mr. Killeen stood mouth open, in shock. Fr. O'Callaghan and I were embarrassed for Martin Killeen's sake and retreated.
No doubt Mrs. Doherty was simply seeking to prevent any embarrassment to Se. Kennedy and the Institute. The policy behind the 1965 Immigration Law was the original suggestion of his brother, the late President. In fairness however, the law as adopted was not as his administration originally suggested. Nevertheless the Irish were being hurt as a result of a Kennedy administration proposal. Mrs. Doherty, no doubt reasoned- and she was far from being alone in this regard- that we were being critical of the Kennedys-we were blaming them.
This suggestion was to arise again over the years. We tried to make it clear that we were not attacking the Kennedys but we were calling the shots as we saw them.
Word of Mrs. Doherty's action got around. It reached the ears of Jack McCarthy, a native Corkman, a business manager of the Carpenter's Union, a member of the Irish Institute and one who already had paid for one or more tables at the forthcoming dinner. Jack was a man who didn't mince words. A bit rough and ready but with a heart of gold. He had offered many an immigrant a job in construction and a suggestion that the immigrant do something about furthering his education and get out of construction work.
While we were prepared to leave the card issue drop, Jack was not. He told us and the Irish Institute, in no uncertain terms that the cards would be on the tables or if they were not, he planned to ring the hotel, on the night of the dinner, with carpenter's union picket line.
In short order, we received an answer from the Institute that the cards would be more than welcome on the tables and that it was important that I attend the dinner. I was to be give a complimentary ticket for one of the tables. It was correctly assumed that if I was in the dining room a the dinner, there would be no picket line. I attended and during the pre-dinner festivities someone fetched me from the common folk, took me to an ante-room and asked me to pose in a small group photo with Senator Kennedy.
At that stage of our work, I was not yet brash enough to question the Senator about immigration on such an occasion. I was never to see him again as he soon after was assassinated.
The whole experience provided a lesson, one of many that we would receive.