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President Clinton receives his 1996 Irish American of the Year award from Niall O’Dowd (right), as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith and Senator Edward Kennedy look on

Niall O'Dowd: 30 years in America, for better or worse

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President Clinton receives his 1996 Irish American of the Year award from Niall O’Dowd (right), as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith and Senator Edward Kennedy look on

I am 30 years in America next week. The callow youth who stepped off a plane in Chicago on June 9, 1979 has certainly come a long way, for better or worse.

 

I had no clear intention of emigrating. I had come out the summer before and played Gaelic football in Chicago and enjoyed the experience tremendously -- so much so that I gave long and hard thought to giving up my teaching job back home. It was still going to be a difficult decision, though.

But that long hot summer there was something about America that grabbed me and tipped the scales. The sheer size and exuberance of the place contrasted greatly with the small and narrow-minded island I had left behind. I loved my family and friends and native land, but “Go West Young Man” was uppermost in my mind.

I saw what so many other emigrants see -- a chance to make a life on my own, free of any shackles or restraints from the old country.

America is best explained as an idea rather than a country. That idea is that you can pull yourself up as high as you can go from the bootstraps no matter who you are or where you come from. Exhibit A is President Barack Obama.

After a summer and fall in Chicago I set out for San Francisco for no good reason other than I wanted to go to California, and the Greyhound Bus to Los Angeles was all booked up.

I knew no one in the new city, but it hardly seemed to matter. I had about $500 in my wallet and a pocketful of dreams. America makes a believer of you like that.

Two hours after I left Chicago a telegram arrived that my father had suffered a heart attack. If I had stayed those extra two hours I would have returned home and stayed forever.

By the time the news reached me 10 days later in San Francisco he had made a great recovery and I stayed. On such a small matter as two hours do life’s great decisions hinge.

I tell anyone who is planning their life down to the last detail to forget it. As John Lennon said, life is what happens while you are making plans, and I’m living proof of that.

Some of the best years of my life were in San Francisco. I was young, footloose and free in a city made for young people with dreams and ambitions.

I made great friends through the GAA, which provides a welcome haven in every major American city for an emigrant from Ireland.

As it does in Ireland, the GAA provides a social network and outreach group that is impossible to duplicate.

I started a small painting company with a partner I met through the GAA. We called ourselves Sundance Painting, and somehow a wonderful Asian guy called William Lu hired us to paint all his houses.

He ended up being our landlord of our house in the Richmond District, close by the Pacific Ocean, and I’ve never had better. The kindness of strangers.

In that house I started my first newspaper at age 26 with $912. After the first issue we were broke. Four Irishmen stepped in and wrote us a check to keep it going -- and we all made money eventually, thanks again to the kindness of strangers. 

By 1985 I had tired of the West Coast and moved to New York with the idea of starting Irish America magazine. This time we had $40,000 so there was no stopping me now.

The years since have been great to me, starting with Irish Voice, which I founded in 1987. The highlight of all was a March night in 1996 when President Bill Clinton came as our special guest to our Top 100 Irish Americans event at the Plaza Hotel.

Backstage with the President waiting to walk out on stage was an incredible moment, and one I will never forget. My mother was present which made it even more special for me.

The wall of sound that hit us when he walked out made me realize just for a split second what it must be like to be the most powerful man on earth.

There have been wonderful moments since too. The involvement in helping bring about the American role in Northern Ireland and the IRA ceasefire in 1994 are particular highlights.

It would never have been possible without the staff, readers and advertisers and supporters of my publications and now our Web site IrishCentral.com for helping make it all happen.

It seems like three years, not 30, since I first set foot here. I still wake every morning and thank my lucky stars I did.

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