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A group of Irish volunteers out in the Rockaways.

The Irish Homecoming - Proud of New Yorkers for stepping up and tough out Sandy devastation

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A group of Irish volunteers out in the Rockaways.

April Drew has been keeping up with the Irish American reaction to Hurricane Sandy and is proud that so many of her old friends are stepping up to the plate.  And it’s the simple things in life that will make us all happy at the end of the day, she says.

Hello, New York. You have been battered and bruised since we last spoke. Little did we know what was about to take place.

Like you always do New York, you rose to the occasion, you saved thousands of lives by having excellent evacuation procedures in place and now during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy you are proving how wonderful your people are.

I’m hearing and reading that there are hundreds if not thousands of volunteers, young and old, digging through rubble and dust to help homeowners find their last remaining possessions. I hear your people are out early in the morning until dark removing debris from disaster sites.

Some volunteers have opened up their homes to strangers who have nowhere else to go. Your citizens are providing those misfortunes with necessary food and shelter (the basic needs in life), and above all you are showing them that behind all the material things we say we need to make us happy, you are a kind-hearted city that knows the importance of giving back in times of need.  

Although I’m 3,000 miles away in rainy Ireland words can’t describe how proud I am of the Irish in New York who are volunteering their time to help the misfortunate.  A friend in Woodlawn casually uttered these words to me last week after spending a few days collecting clothing and food to send out to the hardest hit areas of the city.  

“New York looked after us when we needed it, it gave us a job and hope and a future, so helping our neighbors (who aren’t Irish) is the least we can do,” this person said.

Every night before bed I check in with the Irish immigration centers in New York on Facebook to see their updates on what amazing work they did that day.

Between the Aisling Center in Yonkers, the New York Irish Center and Emerald Isle in Queens and the other immigration centers throughout New York, an army of good-hearted people have been deployed to the worst hit areas of the city, especially along the coast.

Every day without fail the Irish in Woodlawn, Queens and further afield take time off work, organize babysitters or give up a few hours (and in some cases a few days) to do something for others. You are all truly great.

If we all did our bit on a daily basis during normal times we would have a much more harmonious world. That would be nice.

It wasn’t just the immigration centers that took the initiative to get people helping out. Dozens of wonderful Irish bars in the tri-state area have either organized volunteers for the clean-up, hosted, or plan to host, a fundraiser and welcomed those who needed hot food into their establishments. The Irish restaurants, businesses, construction companies and county associations are also doing their bit to help out.

There isn’t an Irish person or organization that has sat idly by with their arms folded in this horrific time.  There was even an Irish guy vacationing in New York last week that took a day out of his sightseeing to lend a hand.  Now that’s what I call team spirit.  

All these good deeds got me thinking about a conversation I had during the week about the looming recession in Ireland.  The discussion started with how people became dependent on material happiness and forgot about the day to day simple things that used to make us happy.

A guy I know from Limerick was very candid in a recent chat we had.

“I’m not going to lie, I got caught up with all that rubbish too,” he said referring to his five-bedroom house that is now worth $120,000 less than what he purchased it for in 2008.

“I only have one kid and that’s probably it, so what was I thinking buying a five-bedroom house?”

He is lucky to still have a stable job with a decent income, but he admitted during the height of the Celtic Tiger he was spending more than he was earning.

“There wasn’t a month that went by that I wasn’t overdrawn by ****1,000 euro. I was living a lifestyle that wasn’t for me, and if I’m being honest the more I spent the more I was miserable.”

This guy’s story is one that resonates with a lot of people.

Irene Power, a Sligo woman I know living in Dublin, bought her husband a brand new car for their 10-year wedding anniversary. That was five years ago and she still has another year left in repayments.

“I remember his face when I gave him the keys in a fancy box the morning of our anniversary. It wasn’t the reaction I expected,” shared Power.

Her husband asked how much she paid for it and how she was going to afford the repayments. Although he agreed to keep it after she put up a bit of a fight, he wanted to know how much they would be down every month as a family.  

The answer was ****575. This is a big chunk of change.

During the boom this was half of Power’s weekly wage; she worked at a prestigious accountancy firm. Power kept her job but her husband, who worked in an IT company, was made redundant two years ago and has yet to find a suitable replacement job.  They now live on her income solely, and it’s all they fight about.

“Every time we have an argument he throws the car in my face. I know I was stupid buying him a car but I thought at the time we could afford it and he was big into cars,” she said.

“In hindsight if I had known the financial strain and the upset it has caused in our relationship I would have bought him an electric razor.”

There was a wonderful article in the Sunday Independent a few weeks back. It was all about the ingredients to happiness. A survey revealed that money and material things were bottom of the list. Some of the typical answers were as follows:

“I’m at my happiest when I’m playing with my children.”

“There is nothing that makes me happier than a cup of tea in front of a roaring fire watching Coronation Street with my dog.”

“Going for a walk on the beach in the rain.”

“Playing golf, spending a Sunday afternoon at my parents’ house with all the family and a long bath.”

Travel didn’t even come into it. People found happiness in the simple pleasures in life, pleasures we had forgotten about during the Celtic Tiger when money attempted to dominate our social status and the value we put on oneself. It’s nice that we can be happy without it being dependent on our take home pay.

“Losing my job was the best thing that happened to me,” Patrick Pollard told me during a chance meeting through mutual friends in Limerick last week.

“I was only interested in girls who shopped in Brown Thomas (Ireland’s answer to Saks), would only go to the most expensive restaurants for dinner and to keep up with my friends I took three to four holidays a year,” explained Pollard.

“I was exhausted and wasn’t saving a penny.”

During a routine check-up Pollard’s doctor discovered a lump under his arm which “scared the life out of me.”  He spent four weeks in the depths of depression while he waited for the results of a biopsy on the lump.

It turned out it was a non-cancerous cyst, but the ordeal put the fright of God in him.

“It suddenly put everything in perspective. You can just imagine what was going through my mind those few weeks while I waited to see if I was going to have the big C,” he shared.

Pollard swallowed a bottle of cop on as they say in Ireland, and took stock of himself quickly.

“I realized that I didn’t enjoy traveling so much, I’m a home bird, and I hated duck (which he ordered to be posh in those expensive restaurants.)”

Since finding happiness in his “normal day to day life” Pollard admits “life has never been better.”

“Do you know what I love doing now?” he asked rhetorically.

“I go home to my house at night, cook dinner for my girlfriend – who has never been inside the door of Brown Thomas -- light a fire and about 9 p.m. we sit down together, talk about what we did that day – sometimes over a glass of wine -- and catch up on our television programs. That’s the ingredients of our happy lives,” he said.

And I’m with Pollard. Being a mom, the best part of my day is the drive up to the daycare after work to pick up our babies, Colum and Sadie.

And after a few hours of dinners, clean up and fun with the kids I get excited to sit down with a cup of tea and a caramel slice with my husband (who sometimes makes me share the cookie) and watch the latest episode of The X-Factor or Homeland. It’s the simple things isn’t it!

We will continue to pray for you New York, and I will say an extra special one for all of you wonderful Irish people over there doing your bit to help people realize that it’s the small things that will eventually make them happy again. Stay safe.  

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