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Column: Thank you to Uncle Sam for letting us in

Tom Collins
Tom Collins

THE CLIFFS OF MOHER, Ireland — Most of my traveling companions were gushing over the limestone cliffs and the sapphire sea, but my mind was elsewhere.

From my perch of the Irish coast, my thoughts turned to a few local youths who’d set sail near here 100 years ago. They were my grandparents, three of whom had lived here in County Clare and scratched out a meager living from the rocky soil.

The stony landscape was the first thing I had noted as we bused from Limerick into Clare. I am no farmer, but even to my untrained eye this end of Ireland’s fields looked wanting. It had to be a backbreaking job squeezing a living out of this land.

That I was even here to survey the land was a surprise development. St. Bede had last year announced a coach tour of the Republic of Ireland and initially I passed, perhaps in no mood to taste the poverty that drove my clan to the shores of America. Then I abruptly changed my mind — this, coincidentally, on the heels of St. Patrick’s Day — after feeling the proverbial nudge from above.

It’s a strange feeling visiting your ancestral homeland for the first time. It feels like a kind of homecoming even though I’d never set foot on Irish soil. From the moment we bused into Clare I was transfixed, studying the landscape for signs of familiarity and curiously finding a few. The survey jibed with what Grandma had described at the dinner table.

Gazing out at the Atlantic, I could easily picture of my long-gone forebears standing in my very spot, wondering if a better life lay somewhere over the horizon.

By the grace of God they all decided to go for it.

I remain unsure who docked at Ellis Island first but I know who was youngest. That was P.J. Flynn, my mom’s father from County Leitrim, still one of Ireland’s poorest regions.

P.J. had lost his father at age 12 and set off for America at 16. A day after he landed at Ellis Island he was stocking grocery shelves at a supermarket. His future wife Anne, my Nana, set off in the mid-1920s, about the same time Grandma and Grandpa Collins bolted Clare for New York City.

And, oh, how they loved America. They renounced hurling for baseball, James Joyce for Jimmy Breslin and John F. Kennedy for Eamon de Valera.

“What in the hell would I want to go back for?” P.J. had once scoffed. “America is the greatest country in the world.”

‘Tis indeed, Grandpa. The same thought crossed my mind this past Fourth of July.

Though I left a piece of my heart in Ireland and boarded the plane home a bit reluctantly, I never quite enjoyed an Independence Day as thoroughly as I did this past Fourth of July. The experience had reminded me how real the American Dream became for my forebears after they set sail.

And for all America’s problems today we remain a destination of hope in a better future. While I was making a heritage tour of the old country, my oldest niece took a school trip to Peru and scaled Macchu Picchu. What would P.J., who only had an eighth-grade education, thought of Megan visiting South America with her classmates? God bless America.

Make America great again? Bah. America was always great.

Happy birthday, Uncle Sam. And thank you.

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