Like thousands of immigrants before him, John O’Hara left his hometown of Tourlestrane, Co. Sligo to come to New York with the dream of a better life and steady work.
No one imagined the dream would end so soon or unexpectedly when John died suddenly of a suspected heart attack on August 14 of this year, leaving behind his beloved wife, Alice, and five young children.
O’Hara arrived in New York in 1993 with a lottery green card, several years before the upswing of the Celtic Tiger, and the economy in Ireland was at an all-time low.
Upon arrival he stayed with friends Michael and Brendan Cunney, also from Co. Sligo, settling into a new and exciting life in Pearl River where he began working in their sheet metal company, Celtic Sheet Metal, Inc.
He joined the Carpenter’s Union in 1997 and in 2000 started his own contracting company doing home repairs and additions on weekends and evenings.
O’Hara met his wife Alice, a second generation Irish American, in O’Malley’s Pub in Pearl River and they were married two years later on July 16, 1999 in Sligo.
“John was a wonderful man,” says longtime friend and colleague Gerry McGwynne. “He would give you the shirt off his back and whenever we needed anything done in the house or extra help at work, John was there.”
He was a “brilliant brother, son, husband, father…loved by all. A very giving man,” says his brother Francis.
“He was a fantastic family man,” adds Ailish Cunney, who went to school with John in Tourlestrane. Cunney later married John’s friend Mike Cunney in 1997.
“He was always talking about the kids. Everything John did was for them, working nights and weekends to help take care of his growing family.”
The O’Haras had five children in quick succession. Shane, the eldest, is nine. He was followed two years later with the birth of twins, Austin and Owen, followed by Ailish, age five, and J.P., now four.
Any spare time he had, O’Hara spent with his children playing Gaelic football or soccer. The children also inherited their father’s love for the New York Jets.
Perhaps O’Hara’s greatest joy was bringing the three oldest boys back to Ireland this summer, two months before his untimely death.
He showed them all the places he frequented as he was growing up – the family farm and all the animals, the bogland where he spent many days exploring as a child, and the old schoolhouse in Banada, where he loved learning about far away places like America, dreaming that he would one day be there himself. And teaching his boys how to fish, as his father before taught him.
“He wanted the children to know their heritage and to be as proud of being Irish as he was. He would tell them about the fairies and folklore stories before sending them off to bed and so they were over the moon at the thoughts of finally heading to Ireland,” Alice O’Hara said.
“They were never happier!” adds Alice. “John had always wanted to show his children the beauty and magic of the land he himself loved so deeply and pined after when he moved to the U.S. He loved America, but his heart was always back in Sligo.”
The people in Pearl River are a close-knit community. Members have gathered together to create a benefit in O’Hara’s name to help raise much-needed funds for the family to help them deal with an uncertain future.
Long-distance runner Tom McGrath will run a marathon-length distance over five hours (one hour for each of the children) in Central Avenue Park on December 8, with a fundraiser to follow in Emmett’s Castle, 285 Blue Hill Road, Pearl River.
The event from 2-10 p.m. will feature raffles, a live auction and a band. Donations are also being accepted at www.youcaring.com/johnohara.
Contact Fiona McKinney at Fiona0916@hotmail.com.
No Irish Need Apply? Not anymore