"After the Roof Caved In," the new book by Northwell Health President and CEO Michael Dowling, tracks the extraordinary journey of a penniless Irish immigrant and his rise to success in America.
Editor's note: Join Timothy P. Egan, New York Times' op-ed columnist and author of the best-seller "The Immortal Irishman," as he interviews Northwell Health President and CEO Michael Dowling about his new memoir, "After the Roof Caved in: An Immigrant's Journey from Ireland to America.” Tune in on Monday, December 21 at 2 pm EST right here on IrishCentral.
Angela's Ashes, written by Frank McCourt, became the signature book of an entire generation of Irish Americans who identified strongly with the trials and travails of a penniless Irish family who only turned around their lives when they came to America.
It is a tale often told and has gone down through the generations of how, when the ship sailed into whatever U.S. port, a new life began for millions of Irish.
Now comes Michael Dowling’s account of the same odyssey, the journey from the hard road to the high road. Dowling’s new memoir, “After the Roof Caved In,” mirrors closely thousands of similar works, most notably Angela’s Ashes which track the ascent of a broke Irish immigrant and his or her rise to success in America.
But Dowling’s book, if anything, tells an even more remarkable story than the McCourt family of Angela’s Ashes.
He writes movingly of his rise from abject poverty in rural Limerick, living in a dirt floor hut with an almost deaf mother and a father whose illness kept him out of work for long stretches. It is 1950s Ireland, and people born into such poverty had very modest aims in life – enough clothes to wear, enough food to eat, and a basic education.
It was a time of horrific loss in Ireland, as the protectionist economy tanked and hundreds of thousands took to ships and planes to escape.
Dowling’s greatest achievement should have been to get a high school education, get a job locally, and scratch out a living as a small farmer like so many others around him.
However, he soared way beyond those modest expectations. His tale of emigration resembles the splitting of an atom where a penniless Irish immigrant lands in America and 40 years later runs one of the largest private healthcare systems in America, becoming one of the closest confidantes of the governor of New York State, and an absolutely key figure in the fight against the pandemic.
How Dowling achieved that spectacular rise is the story of his book, the first part of which is remarkably honest and insightful about his own family’s shortcomings, his difficult relationship with his father who resented his son’s bid for a better education, and his love and devotion for his mother who endured a tough marriage in order to sustain a family where her kids often were hungry and cold.
When Michael first reached New York, the mantra he brought with him could be summarized in two words: hard work. As befits many a small farmer’s son, he was uniquely fitted for whatever task came his way and whatever responsibilities were put upon him.
Amazingly, when he arrived in America he came equipped with a college degree against all odds. He was one of the best hurlers of his era in his native County Limerick and had understood instinctively that the Irish stage would never be for him. It was too small, too narrow, too class conscious, a place where he would never go far above his origins.
The struggles with his father and his desperate attempts to please him are among the most vivid and emotional parts of Dowling’s book. It was only with the passing of his father that Michael began to recognize his own potential and that he was destined for greater things than being hired out to local farmers at harvest time.
His progression in America, from near penniless farm boy to one of the nation’s top medical executives, would usually take two to three generations to accomplish. But Dowling got there in one.
Thirsty for knowledge, he enrolled at Fordham University to further his education. He soon became one of the brightest students and was offered an academic position after graduation.
His area of influence was obvious – to tend to the lives of the less well-off, to try and make a more level playing field for people of all classes and backgrounds, and to show the way forward with innovative and creative solutions to problems.
Dowling’s talents did not go unnoticed, as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, himself the son of immigrants, loved the back story of the young Fordham academic who had begun to advise him on social welfare issues. He especially loved that Dowling had lived the poverty issue himself, not learned it from textbooks.
Before he knew it, Dowling was “one of the people in the room” when Cuomo made critical decisions. He became a friend and confidante of the Cuomo family, a relationship that lasts to this day. He is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s top advisor on health issues and was recently put in charge of planning for the vaccine for Covid-19 distribution.
Indeed, through his waning years, Mario Cuomo never seemed more comfortable than when Dowling was talking to him about his immigrant past and the extraordinary lives of ordinary people who arrived on these shores from Ireland and Italy.
After his time in the Cuomo administration, Dowling entered the health care field. He was soon at the top of the apex.
Today, he is the president and CEO of Northwell Health, New York’s largest private employer and health care provider with over 73,000 employees. He has transformed Northwell from a network of different hospitals into a regional powerhouse that is acknowledged nationwide as a gold standard provider of cutting edge health care.
Dowling is never more in control than in the midst of a crisis. He thrives on keeping calm and cool and motivating others to bring out the best in themselves.
Through his determined efforts, Northwell has become a beacon in the health care system, where excellence and accomplishment go hand in hand.
Like his fellow Limerick man Frank McCourt, Michael Dowling has prospered in America. But he has also retained a deep and fundamental attachment to where he came from.
He has become an icon to a generation of Irish used to seeing immigrants succeed, but rarely to the extent that Dowling has.
His book charts his amazing journey from the stony fields of rural Limerick to the pinnacle of success in America. It is an extraordinary read that deserves the widest possible recognition, and a story of overcoming great adversity.
What Dowling overcame should give us all confidence in knowing that the impossible can happen and that America remains a shining star of new hope for immigrants from all across the world.
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