In a cozy bar in Yonkers, N.Y. the door opens. In walks a middle-aged gentleman. He perches his rear end up on a bar stool and orders a beer, but not before reaching over the counter to give the burly bartender a hug.
“Welcome home,” said the customer warmly.
“Thanks, thanks, it’s great to be back,” answers the barman.
The customer wasn’t in the bar at 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon for a drink. He was there to catch up with an old friend, a friend he hadn’t seen in 15 months.
Tom, whose second name will remain anonymous because he was once undocumented, has been back in New York for a week.
This barman is no stranger to New York or to the bar he was working in on Thursday when IrishCentral caught up with him.
Tom, 38, spent eight years tending to the thirsts of many Irish and Irish immigrants behind those taps before he moved back to Twomileborris, County Tipperary 15 months ago. But on Thursday Tom was on cloud nine as he popped the top off an Amstel and uncorked a bottle of wine.
This bar is where Tom belongs. His warm personality, his lively and witty humor and his genuine kind nature is what makes him one of the most popular and sought after bartenders in New York.
During his years behind the bar, Tom made countless friends. These friendships were solid, genuine and ever lasting, and it was these comraderies that Tom’s heart ached for when he got back to Ireland.
Early February last year Tom packed his life of 12 years into a small container and set sail for Ireland. He loved everything about New York, but he knew he had to go home.
Family was calling. His sister was getting married in March and his mother had taken quite ill. Off he went, sadly, but content at the time with his decision.
“It was so hard saying goodbye to everyone but I knew I had to go,” Tom told IrishCentral while serving a punter a pint.
Tom led the life of an immigrant for 22 years. He left Ireland at the young age of 15 and spent 10 years living it up in London in the late 80s and early 90s.
Feeling adventurous, Tom decided to give New York a try. Another 12 years flew by.
It was time to try Ireland. After all, the Celtic Tiger was clawing its way through Ireland. How bad could home be?
“Not at all bad at first,” the witty barman laughs.
Dipping into his hard earned savings, Tom, a sporting fanatic, went to every rugby, football and hurling match being played the first few weeks at home.
“It was sport that kept me going. In those first few months at home I was at every league game, I was there to see Tipperary win the National Hurling League, I saw Munster win the Heineken Cup. It was great,” he said.
After weeks of attending sporting games and making an explosive hole in his savings, Tom realized he better get a job if he was to sustain this fun-filled lifestyle.
His first job came six weeks after arriving home. A 42-hour-a week security job. Money was still tight, though, so a second job was required.
At weekends Tom was the manager of a function room bar in a local hotel. Although a little better, Tom was still finding the pinch.
Because he was working 60 hours a week, Tom had no time (or money) to carry on attending sporting events. That had to be put on the back burner until he got back on his feet.
This never happened. In fact things got worse.
Tom’s savings had depleted, and now the reality of living in a country where a cup of coffee was €2 and a packet of cigarettes nearly €9 was hitting home hard.
His rent was high, his car payments higher and life was becoming a constant struggle. A third job was needed.
In January this year, Tom took a job that involved reconstructing an old stonewall at a local castle. His 70-hour-a week jobs were paying him about €530 a week, and that was just about covering the bills.
“You have no idea. All I did was work. Sometimes I’d come from my construction job in the evening, sleep for a few hours, go to my security job at 10 p.m., work through the night and then go back to my day job at 8 a.m. It was becoming insane,” said Tom, dubbed the Irish Mayor of Woodlawn in the Bronx, as he walked down the other end of the bar to greet another familiar face.
He returned with a soda and said, “All I did was work to survive. Now what kind of quality of life is that for anyone?”
Depression was something Tom was all too familiar with. Day in and day out was gloomy: the weather, his financial situation and his social life.
“To be honest the money was bad, but it really was the friendships here I missed the most,” he said.
Because Tom left home when he was 15, it was difficult during his years away to keep up his friendships back in Tipperary. The Ireland he left when he was 15 was no more.
Tom, a social butterfly, thrives on having dozens of friendly faces in his company. In Woodlawn, there is no shortage of friends for Tom.
“If I went to the local bar for a pint at home I wouldn’t know anyone. I’d try to start up a conversation, but all I’d really get was a grunt here and there,” he adds.
Apart from having a close family, Tom felt very alone, making his decision to return to his homeland seem like a huge mistake.
Finally after a year and two months of misery, Tom made the decision to return to New York.
His mother is still very sick, making the decision the hardest he has ever had to make, but she gave him her blessing and told her son that all she wants for him is to be happy.
He knew his happiness was waiting for him in an enclave in the Bronx. With a job secured, he booked his ticket back to New York, and on Thursday, May 7, with a small suitcase of clothes and a few dollars in his back pocket, Tom was finally home -- and this time for good.
“It’s been unreal since I’ve been back. The welcome people have shown me is very touching and means a lot to me, confirming for me that I made the right decision to come back,” smiled the towering figure.
Now that Tom is back and plans to stay for good, he has rejoined the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR) in an effort to lobby the U.S. and Irish governments for legislation that would allow young men and women in his situation to travel back and forth to Ireland in the future.
“I realize now more than ever how important ILIR is. If I want to have a future here then I need to make sure I do something proactive about it,” said Tom.
Although he is very much aware that, for the time being, he will miss family events, some happy, some sad, he has resigned himself to the bittersweet fact that New York is where he belongs for the long term.
“I’m here and I’m here to stay,” he smiles.