Like So Many Others, Leaving Ireland For A Better Life

On St. Patrick's Day weekend, NPR's Jacki Lyden reflects on her own family's journey from Ireland to America, and back again.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Amid all the parades and the green beer, there's this on St. Patrick's Day weekend. According to Ireland's Central Statistics Office, 20,000 Irish people moved from Ireland to the United States looking for work between 2010 and 2013 - more than double the figure for the previous three years. That means an old story come to life again in Queens, Chicago, Boston.

For over a century, the United States has been the historic destination for the Irish in hard times. The Celtic tiger turned into a kitten in 2008 with the economic crash that roiled the world. There was a previous wave of Irish immigrants in the 1980s. Immigration peaked, of course, in the mid-19th century with the famine. Niall O'Dowd, an Irish journalist and immigration reform campaigner in New York, says that 70 percent of those who come now are in their 20s - well educated - but the jobs they get here are usually working-class jobs. It's where the Irish network leads them, he says, and they're not able to break out of that.

My own grandfather was the son of a blacksmith from Clifton, Ireland, and I returned there in college. I brought my grandfather back in 1986. His grandfather, Thomas Lyden, left for the U.S. in 1864 because he wanted more work. And that's what he and a brother got, selling trinkets to both sides in the Civil War. They worked as stevedores on the Mississippi, then they got off that steamship in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which reminded them of the Cliffs of Moher. They opened another blacksmith shop, a business that lasted almost a century.

If we'd stayed in Ireland, my grandfather would tell people in Clifton, we would have been poor. He had a strange attitude toward money. He said he worked for St. Matthew, meaning he was a tax collector for the IRS. He encouraged people in Ireland to come to America. I have a big house and a big car, he'd tell them - he was 86. Once, he gave a man named Patrick Lyden a dollar bill. Here, he says, I just minted that. Oh, Mr. Lyden, said the long-lost cousin, I'll just tear that in half and spit on it for luck the way we do there.

My grandfather was so ashamed of the shabby clothes of his own forebears that he threw away their photographs. I do wonder what he'd say now. I got married to a fellow Irish-American in Clifton. My aunt Allie, a distant cousin of my grandfather's, was there, and all my husband's family, who'd come up from County Kerry. Two who emigrated came back over from America. What people leave for anywhere is the possibility of a better life. And if we're lucky, a day like St. Pat's, lets us pause to remember those who not only made this life possible but call us back to Ireland again and again and again.

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LYDEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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