Both my parents have a remarkable heritage — hard work, strong families and, in my mother’s case, a bedrock love of Irish dance. My mother — a dance champion in her own right — was lucky enough to learn from her own mother, my grandmother.
My father was born and raised in an old thatched house on a small farm in Sligo, west Ireland. His mother was what they call “black Irish.” She was a beautiful woman with blue-black hair, tumbles of it — she must’ve had a spot of Spanish blood in her.
Dad learned to work hard in Ireland. From the time he was small, he left the house at 5 o’clock each morning to work and never got home again until after dark. His family lived on credit from the local grocery, which let them run credit for three or four months until they could sell their cattle and pay up. There was barely enough food and no cash, and Dad never even made it to Dublin more than three times — the last, in 1946, to get his visa for America.
My parents came over from Ireland in 1947. They met in Detroit, where a friendly priest from County Kerry married them.
Life in Detroit was wicked. After a boom during the war years, the city was struggling with a growing depression as industry after industry closed its doors. For working people like my parents, just surviving day to day was a struggle. To say they were poor was an understatement — they never knew where their next meal was coming from. They shared a one-room apartment with my mother’s parents — and times got harder when my older sister and I were born.
Then my mother got sick, and they knew it was time for a change. When I was 2 months old, the family moved to the southwest side of Chicago.
Dad wanted to get ahead and he was willing to work all the hours to do so. He worked as a bricklayer, but that was only seasonal work. Next, he tried plastering. Finally, he found his way into a plumbing business, figuring that he’d never want for work. After all, plumbing goes wrong around the clock, all year long, including Christmas Day.
To this day, even though I was mostly raised in America, I speak with my dad’s Sligo brogue, just because I was around him so much as a kid. I wouldn’t change my accent if I could — it was part of him and now it’s part of me.
Despite long hours, Dad’s progress was slow. He built his bank account dollar by dollar, wringing money out of long weeks made up of endless, backbreaking days.
Our neighborhood in those days was an ethnic rainbow — Irish, Greek, Mexican, German, Italian, Puerto Rican and African-American. Sometimes we got along; sometimes we were split along ethnic lines. The great equalizer, of course, was that everybody was poor.
What made all the difference to me were my brothers and sisters: Annie, Patrick, Liza and Thomasina. Although I know it wasn’t easy for my folks, raising and caring for us all, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have such a wonderful, loving family. You can’t really understand me without understanding them.
We were a lively bunch of kids. And we had a great heritage.