Immigrants’ songs: Stories needed

We’re almost all immigrants. And we’ve all grown up hearing family stories that illustrate that fact. Grandparents fleeing pogroms. Refugees suffering racial hatred. Stories of heroism and quiet survival, of miracles and mistakes, maybe even tales that have made generations laugh.

Which is why I’m pleased to announce the launch of this column. And why I’m asking your help in creating it. I’d like to hear your story. Our story.

As different as they may be, our families’ stories of struggle, heartbreak and success can remind us of the common ground upon which we all stand.


Pinpoint historical accuracy is optional. I’m talking about family histories here — the bedrock legends on which all immigrants have built lives in America.

Here’s how I hope the “Immigrants’ songs” will work: I’ll ask you to send brief descriptions of your story to me at I’ll choose which stories I’d like to pursue. I’ll then contact you via gmail and we’ll schedule a time to discuss your story in more detail.

You’ll be able to call the shots; this will not be an investigative or challenging interview. You can speak anonymously if you prefer. I would hope, in interviewing you, to bring out through questioning some of what may be the larger, sometimes unsuspected aspects of your story.

As Bob Dylan once said, quoting the anonymous rovin’ gambler, “I’ve never engaged in this kind of thing before.” But I hope there are folks out there willing to share their stories to make this column a regular feature of HV1.

How else can I launch this inaugural effort except by offering one of my tales from my own family’s archives?

I never met my great-grandfather. He died long before I was born. But I doubt the living John Patrick Horrigan could have measured up to the stories that my family has bandied about him over the years.

He was born in Skiberrean, a small town in Ireland’s County Cork. Skiberrean has a rebellious if unsuccessful reputation spanning the centuries. In 1904, the town erected a statue called “The “Maid of Erin” which memorialized four uprisings against British rule in 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867. Every one of them failed.

My great-grandfather was a true son of Skiberrean. I grew up hearing family members say that he had arrived in America after being “kicked out of Ireland for fighting.”

I took this description to mean he was a barroom brawler, a belief fed by having seen the ridiculously romantic John Wayne movie “The Quiet Man” on TV.

But John Patrick Horrigan was no John Wayne, though he might well have been a brawler. The man hadn’t been kicked out of his homeland. He’d fled it, having displayed an untoward eagerness to drop crockery from on high onto the unsuspecting heads of the occupying British constabulary below.

He continued his struggle with authority after he found a new home among his fellow Irish refugees in the southern precincts of Buffalo. The story goes that the city’s health department once visited his home, claiming, to the old man’s astonishment, that the pigs snuffling and snorting in his back yard weren’t welcome in a residential neighborhood. He refused to believe it, and said as much. The officials insisted. John Patrick finally acquiesced, but not before he greased his pigs up and down and released them to the authorities who had so egregiously attacked his way of life.

What to make of such shenanigans? What’s the larger picture here? I have no idea, except to say the telling of it flavored many a first communion or Easter Sunday gathering of my clan. The story — and others like it — was always delivered with a smile and a wink and by the men and women who didn’t have to personally endure those shenanigans. 

If any of this report from the family front rings a bell for you, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. Let’s have a peek at where we’re all coming from and what our uncommon stories from everywhere can tell us how much we Americans have in common.

There is one comment

  1. Fran Platt

    Nice idea for a column, Jeremiah. I look forward to reading people’s family stories. And regular reminders that providing a place of refuge for immigrants fleeing oppression or privation is the reason America was founded are sadly needed in these xenophobic times.

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