A few things won’t stop running through my mind.
First and foremost is the terrible grief that Ciarán’s family and friends on Inis Meáin, as well as his family and friends in Boston (his sister lives there too), must be experiencing. News reports reveal that this is the second awful loss for the Ó Conghaile family. Another son, Micheál Dara, was swept into the Atlantic by a freak wave that overwhelmed Inis Meáin pier in 2000 and it was a full year and a half before his remains were discovered. Now, the family has lost a son who left the island for a new life. As a Bostonian, my heart goes out to all of his friends and family. I feel a profound sense of shame that Ciarán fell victim to the violent subculture with its animalistic disrespect for human life that undeniably exists in the city I love so much.
Second is defensiveness about Boston, and Dorchester in particular, where my own Irish emigrant family first settled and where my father was born and raised. Ciarán met with a devastating end early on Monday morning on what had been a glorious day in the neighborhood by all accounts. Gifted with summertime temperatures, the annual Adams Corner Irish Festival attracted more than 10,000 revelers and gave Dorchester residents a chance to show off all that is great about the place they call home. Unfortunately, Ciarán’s death will provide certain outsiders with fodder to denigrate the neighborhood and the people who live there. Dorchester’s reputation as an unsafe place has spread to Ireland, and it takes a good deal of persuasion to convince some Irish visitors to Massachusetts that Dorchester is just as deserving of a visit as South Boston, despite the widespread curiosity movies and real life events have engendered among Irish people in recent years about “Southie.”
Contrary to what has emerged in popular culture in recent years, Dorchester was historically “more Irish” than South Boston, both by percentage and number. Boston’s largest neighborhood, Dorchester has seen a steady influx of new immigrants from around the world seeking a better life in the United States in recent decades. Many Dorchester Irish, like my father, have moved a short distance outside the city, but celebrate their Dorchester roots with pride, sport “OFD” (Originally From Dorchester) t-shirts and bumper stickers and attend Mass in their former parish churches. I myself was baptized in St. Gregory’s Church in the Lower Mills section and always spend time in Dorchester when I’m at home.
Some Dorchester Irish remained – a lot in the Adams Corner area – and have been joined by more recent Irish emigrants who are attracted by the neighborhood proximity to downtown Boston and its vibrant Irish community and many pubs and restaurants that make home feel not so far away. The neighborhood is represented on the city council by Maureen Feeney, who has strong west of Ireland roots, and in the state legislature by Martin Walsh, whose parents hail from Connemara. What’s more, Dorchester has always had very strong links with the Aran Islands. These links make a great conversation starter for Bostonians with ties to the neighborhood on visits to the remote, sparsely populated, Irish-speaking islands off the coast of Galway.
The steady flow of emigration from the islands to Boston, and especially Dorchester, meant that it may have actually been easier for Ciarán to settle there and find work than it would have been in Dublin, where his island background in some quarters would have been an impediment, not a novelty. The story of his twelve years in Boston is just one of thousands of stories of undocumented Irish who live in the shadows of America.
And this, the plight of the undocumented Irish in the United States, is the third thing that continues to run through my mind. Ciarán died on the same weekend that a very successful and engaged group of individuals gathered in Dublin Castle to hear from Bill Clinton, Bono and others about how Ireland, in part by harnessing its Diaspora, can embark on a path to renewed prosperity. The gathering was the second Global Irish Forum. This initiative, shaped as it is by people with a wealth of experience and a demonstrated commitment to Ireland, is eminently worthwhile and will, in time, bear fruit. Yet it is an ocean away from the lives of Ciarán Ó Conghaile and thousands of others like him.
They work in the construction trade, as nannies and babysitters, in Irish pubs, as waitresses and on golf courses. They, like Ciarán, are caught in an impossible situation with no way out. They can’t go home – Ciarán hadn’t been home since his brother’s death in 2000, unable to travel because of post-9/11 security restrictions – for fear that they would be trapped back in an Ireland that has changed beyond all recognition since they left it.
None of this is new. Reading about Ciarán Ó Conghaile’s life in Dorchester, however, reminded me of the plight of the undocumented Irish and of the duty that those of us who proudly identify ourselves as Irish-Americans have to them. Current political realities notwithstanding, efforts to improve their situation must continue, especially given that large numbers of young Irish people are now so desperate that they are opting for a life in the shadows in the United States over a life on the dole in Ireland.
In the end, while I didn’t know Ciarán Ó Conghaile – if he ate and drank in the Éire Pub or Sonny’s in Adams Corner, I might have known him to see – his senseless death will stay with me for some time. I hope that whoever is responsible is apprehended and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And I will pray for his family and friends in Boston and on Inis Meáin and can only hope that time will heal the gaping wound that Ciarán’s death has undoubtedly inflicted upon them.