My grandpa clung tightly to his Irish roots and instilled in his family their importance. He made us proud to be Irish, writes Kelly O'Connell.Kelly O'Connell

We called my grandpa Big Fish because his stories, true as they might have been, were always completely outrageous. He was a flight marshal on a plane that got hijacked to Cuba. He escaped a cop by climbing down a manhole and climbing back up a different one a few blocks away. He was just mischievous by nature.

The last years of his life were spent at St. Patrick’s retirement home in the Bronx where he hung out with a senile woman named Rose and, of course, terrorized the staff. His favorite thing to do was to sit at the bar with a bottle of Georgi and play “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “Streets of New York” on repeat. That is, until the shouting from Bingo began to interfere with his routine.

When all of the Bingo balls suddenly disappeared, he became the prime suspect. He swore up and down that he had nothing to do with it. ALS had left him wheelchair bound and hardly able to hold a pen, let alone able to climb into a storage closet. He never admitted to the theft, but after he passed away my uncle cleaning out my grandpa’s closet and out bounced dozens of Bingo balls. Rose turned out to be a perfect accomplice.

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My grandpa was a hard-working first-generation American. He had more jobs than I can count. He joined the Navy during World War II, owned and operated his own moving company, had a stint as a flight marshal (mentioned above), but he was most proud of his years served with the NYPD and FDNY.

My grandpa was a hard working first-generation American. Image: Kelly O'Connell.

My grandpa was a hard working first-generation American. Image: Kelly O'Connell.

My grandpa clung tightly to his Irish roots and instilled in his family their importance. He made us proud to be Irish. The fondest memories I have are of sitting with him on Sundays listening to Fordham’s Irish radio program, or simply hearing him talk about Ireland and its history—as if it were some type of paradise. Which, I would eventually find out, wasn’t far from the truth.

When I told my grandpa that I was planning to spend a semester in Ireland, he shocked me by telling me it was a bad idea. I couldn’t believe it. The same man who had cried at my Irish Step Dance recitals and taught me everything he knew about Ireland didn’t want me to see the place he held so dear. But he explained that he thought once I went to Ireland, I would never want to come back home.

I spent five months in Galway during my third year of college and it was life-changing. I met some of my best friends while studying at UCG. We spent our semester seeing as much of Ireland as possible. We did a bus tour of Connemara, took ferries out to the Aran Islands, hiked around the Ring of Kerry, and spent a couple weekends in Dublin. Five months was not nearly enough time to see all that Ireland has to offer. However, I gained an appreciation for what Ireland has to offer and knew it would not be my last visit.

I thought about my grandpa every day during those months. I lit a candle for him at every church I visited. Every trad session I heard brought me back to those Sundays at his house. It even got to the point where I did a double take at every man I saw walking by with a cane.

My grandpa died before I left for college. So I was never able to talk to him about my experience there, but I know he was with me in spirit. When it came time for me to fly back to New York, he was absolutely right. I didn’t want to leave.

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