A conversation with Steve and Peggy Corcoran, retired Irish Americans living in Connecticut. The Corcorans were asked to talk about their personal histories and their experiences of discrimination and acceptance. |
I was born in Ireland in on May 24, 1911. I had four brothers and three sisters. I grew up on a farm where we raised cabbages and potatoes. We grew food for the family. My father worked off the farm in coal mines and construction.
I was born on October 29, 1911. I had three brothers and four sisters and grew up on a farm. We had a small plot of land and raised grain, oats and barley. I always had enough to eat. My home had a grate for heat and a black pot hug over it for cooking. It was a three or four room house. I often had holes in the shoes I wore to school.
My family didn't get involved in politics. Other families had people in the IRA and they were always on the run. My father told us not to get involved. He boarded up the windows when the Black and Tan were in the area. I still don't get involved in politics.
I came to America when I was 18 years old. Later two of my younger brothers and a sister also came. It was a very difficult time to come. The stock market crashed and there was no work. I was to stay with an aunt and uncle in New Jersey. There was no room and already there were too many mouths to feed. Instead, I went to Connecticut with a friend. I had a variety of jobs. I started with menial labor, 60 hours for $10. My room and board cost $8. One year later I went to work for Dupont in Bridgeport. I worked 70 hours for $20. There was dust all around the factory. In the summer I worked outside at Brooklawn (Country Club in Fairfield, CT).
One time I heard there was work in Shelton so a friend and I applied. One of us asked how much they were paying. The person doing the hiring asked, "What do you care about, the work or the pay?". We didn't get hired. Then I went to work at the Shelton Sanitorium. You got your eats there.
I lived day to day. I thought about going back. Think of it, an eighteen year old kid, all alone. I never did. Passage cost $75 to $90.
I went to work in the Bridgeport steel mill (Stanley Works) in 1937. I was recommended from there to Bridgeport Public Works, as a maintenance supervisor. It was a secure job, with a good pension. I worked there for twenty years. For two years, I served in World War II and the Normandy invasion.
I cam to America to get work. There was no work in Ireland. I lived with my sisters in Fairfield. No other brothers or sisters came after I did. I lived in as a housekeeper for $55 a month. I worked upstairs and served meals. Meals, room and board were provided. Sundays and another half day were time off. I was able to save. I felt like a prisoner.
I met my husband at my sister's house. I knew him for several years, dated him for about one. You had to look out for yourself when you were dating. My parents gave me lots of warnings before I left Ireland. Our wedding reception was at my sister's house and our honeymoon was in Washington DC, to be educational, to learn something about the country.
We have one daughter; she went to public grammar school and Catholic high school. She's a nurse now.
Religion is no different here than it was in Ireland. Mass on Sundays, weekly confession. Just like at home.
The year I came to America, there were few allowed in. When I told people I was applying, they never expectd that I'd be accepted. Others who applied with me weren't. I had to apply to the American Consul in Ireland. You could wait a few weeks, a few months. They gave me a complete physical. My teeth and everything. You could be refused for a bad tooth, for nits in your hair. I felt like an animal.
When you got to America, they gave you a piece of newspaper to read, to prove you knew English. Then you had to give the name and phone number of the person who was your sponsor. You had to have a sponsor to prove you could get work. The official dialed your sponsor's number. If a person didn't vouch for you, you were sent to Ellis Island until somebody claimed you.
Now the people who are coming are looking for the welfare office as their first stop. We had to attend citizenship classes, had to know the name of the governor. We had to give up our Irish citizenship. That wasn't a problem because America was where we wanted to live and work.
The immigrants from Ireland now don't have to do these things. They're more savvy, better educated. They don't get pushed around now.
On experiences of discrimination and acceptance:
Many Irish who came to America drifted off and were lost. That's why I didn't want to work or live in New York, though I did work there for one year. Hundreds of Irish got lost on the Bowery. One time a nurse who worked with me at the Sanitorium asked me to help her find her brother who had gone to New York. He was from Cork and lived before in Hartford. I contacted the President of the Corkmen's Association who could trace for somebody from Cork all over the world. They never found him. I think he may have been lost on the Bowery.
Our first house was in Bridgeport; it was very safe then. There were policemen on every corner, many of them were Irish. If you were standing on a corner, the policemen would ask what you were doing there. If you said that you were waiting for a trolley, he'd wait with you. There weren't many African Americans in Bridgeport then.
I played with the Irish hurling team and rooted for the Red Sox in baseball. When the team traveled to Boston, I stayed with a friend in Chelsea. My brother, Jim, started The GAC (Gaelic American Club) in Fairfield. I've been active in the club ever since.
Every group kept to themselves. All of them had clubs for socializing and to get help. You worked with different kinds but went home to your own at night. Polish, Italians, they all had their own clubs. You were taught to stick to your own kind and we did. I felt like I belonged here when we bought our first house in 1956.
Discrimination happened to others who came earlier and in other places like Boston where the Irish were in such large numbers. The group around Fairfield was smaller and they were quiet in public.
There's no need to repeat the terrible details (referring to author Frank McCourt). They already hated us. He just gave them a reason to think badly of us. The Irish are proud. My mother told me to keep my glad side out.
- The interview with the Corcorans took place at their home on 6/15/2000. Permission to record and reproduce material from this conversation was graciously given by Steve and Peg Corcoran.