October 25, 2007
1 hour, 54 minutes, 18 seconds
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Sean Minihane was born in Bantry, West Cork, Ireland. His father worked as a press photographer for the Cork Examiner for most of his childhood and his mother was a homemaker. Minihane was the middle of five children; he had an older brother and sister, and two younger sisters. He grew up in Skibbereen and attended Catholic school. After hearing a civil engineer come speak at his high school, he decided to pursue a career in the same field. He attended the University of County Cork, graduating with a degree in civil engineering in 1985. At the time of his graduation, Ireland’s economy was devastated. Minihane felt his only option was to look abroad for a job and took a civil engineering exam offered by New York City in Dublin. He was one of fourteen engineers chosen to receive a visa to work in New York City. He worked odd jobs in Ireland before coming to the U.S. in the spring of 1986.
Minihane settled into the very Irish-American neighborhood of Woodside in Queens. He began working as a civil engineer at the Bureau of Public Health Engineering. His job took him all over the city and he found it very interesting. At first, Minihane hung out mostly with his fellow engineers he had emigrated with, but eventually his social circle expanded. He began to hang out with his childhood friend Pat Hurley and other Irish illegals he met at bars and through acquaintances. He became increasingly aware of the problems facing many of his fellow countrymen. The young, educated Irish illegals had few options in terms of work and were frequently taken advantage of. Many of them were forced to remain in the U.S because if they returned to Ireland, they could never come back. Deportation was a constant threat. Minihane began to frequent the Cork Association meetings where he met up with other people who were just as passionate about the illegal immigration cause as he was. In the spring of 1986, after one particularly eventful Cork Association meeting, the Irish Immigration Reform Movement was formally started.
Minihane and the other members of the IIRM raised support by motivating the public and gaining the support of politicians and media. Branches of the IIRM sprang up all over the country, although the branches in New York City and Boston were the most influential. They concentrated their efforts on raising money because they realized that was how you got attention in Washington. Their strategy worked and soon they had the support of many politicians, including Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. Joe Moakley (D-MA). The IIRM’s first sign of success came in 1987 when Rep. Brian Donnelly (D-MA) created the Donnelly Visa Program, which resulted in thousands of visas for previously undocumented Irish immigrants as well as prospective immigrants in Ireland. The IIRM continued to lobby congress with the help of lobbyist Harris Miller and had another success with the Immigration Act of 1990 HR-4300. This allowed for thousands of Irish immigrants to obtain visas. Minihane’s mission had been to change legislature from the beginning, and although he ultimately succeeded, he expresses regret that more visas could not be obtained.
As the IIRM’s goals came to fruition, Minihane also experienced personal success. He married his wife Susan in 1990, and was offered a job in Ireland. Although he had achieved success as a Design Engineer with the firm Malcolm Pirnie, Inc. his experiences in politics made him want to try something different. The decision was difficult, but ultimately he decided to take the management position in Dublin. He expressed interest in continuing politics but ultimately remained in civil engineering. Today he founding director of ABM Europe, a general building contractor based out of Ireland. He oversees ABM’s Design and Build Division and also holds responsibility for a number of management functions within the company including personnel, technical direction and finance. He currently lives in Dublin with his wife and children.
Excerpt No. 1
The Decision to Leave IrelandDisc 1, 11:26–13:52
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
JR: So did you, when you decided you were going to leave right, um –
SM: I thought I’d tell you how it happened Joe, and if I’m interrupting you please tell me to back off, but um it wasn’t again, you know, I suppose nothing in my life has been planned, it all happens by chance. I think, you know, it’s –
LA: I think that’s the way for most people.
SM: The way of the world, but you know, just what you said there – I decided I was gonna leave – I didn’t.
SM: I couldn’t get a job, I didn’t know what I was going to do, and towards the end of our graduate year, the – this was a problem for Ireland Inc. as well, because all these young people were being educated, the economy was dead, and the state was paying – or subsidizing their education. And in fairness to somebody in the bureaucracy of the state, uh, the Irish state training agency which at the time was known as ANCO – A-N-C-O – which is now FOSS, which is a derivative of (unintelligible) or a move on, decided there was a problem with these engineers going off to work in the economies of the world and that they’d be lost to Ireland forever, so they did some clever things I’m sure, I wasn’t involved, and they got the city of New York which I understand had some kind of a shortage of engineers to bring their civil service entrance exam to Dublin. So I sat that along with a lot of other people from the various engineering colleges in Ireland, in Dublin, did the exam purely by chance, gave it our best shot, and fourteen of us were accepted into the city of New York public system. So that’s what happened with me. There was a delay then with visas, again I was purely a number I wasn’t a participant of this, we – we, that was – we did the exam in say the spring of 1984, and the visas didn’t come through until probably April 85, so I came to New York in May of 85.
LA: So a whole year.
SM: Just about. So I was – they arranged in fairness to them, for us to work in a number of county councils local authorities around the country for very, very low wages, just to take over for a few months.
LA: So the interim after graduation.
SM: In the interim after graduation. So that’s how – it wasn’t really by design. It was almost the only option I had open to me if I wanted to purse a career – an abroad career in engineering. And so I did. And that’s how I ended up over here.
Excerpt No. 2
Tensions Between the New Irish and the Established Irish-AmericansDisc 1, 47:51–50:53
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
LA: I just have a question for you though. Just to sort of backtrack a little, What was the relationship like between the new Irish – the new immigrants – and the established community, I mean my sense was that there was tension there, just sort of underlying…
SM: Yes. I’d say there was. Yeah, I’d say there was. Um, I suppose in context again, there were some fantastic stories of people in the established community who did absolutely phenomenal things at no personal gain to give people jobs, to get them apartments, to help them out, because I think they realized, “I was that guy” –
LA: Oh yeah.
SM: “thirty years ago.” Fantastic stuff. There was an element of tension, I suppose, you had these, you had quite suddenly I suppose large numbers influxing into places like Woodside and Queens, um, you know, young, footloose, fancy-free, living the life, you know, out late out late in the bars, having a good time, who were to a large extent, again, formal education, I don’t mean in any sense to be putting an overemphasis on it here, but who were you know well educated people who were willing to take on the world, really, and not to settle for what was handed to them and I suppose perhaps the people who came before them in the 50’s were of a different generation of Irish people and –
LA: Well, it was a different Ireland.
SM: It was a very different Ireland. A very, very different Ireland. They were great people, when push came to shove, they were willing to help and they were fantastic, but there probably was a tension between the communities. There was a different vibrancy, I suppose, from the two communities. One was very settled and established and…quiet and living the American dream. The others were you know, “We’re going to take it on,” you know, and I suppose that permeated through to the IIRM and I gave an example of a meeting with the Immigration Committee, who were nice people, and gave us their view, but we weren’t accepting that. We weren’t willing to sit on our hands. We were going to do something about it. This was, I don’t know…in our genetic makeup. We just weren’t going to take it. And that created tension in itself. When we got active, I think, a lot of people thought we were – for their own reasons – and for their own possibly justified reasons… Not justified, but their own correct reasons in their own mind – that we were going to upset the appli-card, we were going to make life very difficult for the illegals, and for their relatives and friends and cousins who were coming in. Whereas we felt, this generation of Irish people – you know, they’re ambitious and hungry, really there is a glass ceiling in place here, we’ve got to break through the ceiling, we have to do something about it. So there was a tension Linda, but I think as well, perhaps, in certain quarters it might be overly emphasized. I don’t think, I wouldn’t say, it wasn’t massively significant. When there were problems, when we needed to raise money, when we needed for example an office, the United Irish Counties gave us the use of their office in Manhattan, no problem.
LA: Yeah, and I mean in the end, you had to work together to create whatever you created.
SM: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Excerpt No. 3
“Every Waking Moment from then on was the IIRM”Disc 1, 55:55–59:12
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
JR: So, just kind of, what were your specific responsibilities? What sort of things occupied most of your time within the organization?
LA: Oh and by the way, you had a job!
SM: I was working for a living. Well, I’ll tell you, again, anecdotes probably give context to something. We had one of the first public meetings we had, I can’t give you a date, but the record – the archive – will show. We had a meeting in the Cork Association of the IIRM reported on by a good guy, a journalist for the Irish Echo, who was also in the Cork Association, a guy called Mike Devlin, who is no longer alive, unfortunately, sadly. Um, did an article, he did a weekly column, I think, in the Echo, about this organization and the meeting and the intensity –
LA: I remember.
SM: …of feeling and so on. And at the end of the article, um – we didn’t have anything, we had no office, we had no structure, we had no people, we had nothing – so at the end of the article, he put down a phone number for my office in the Bureau of Public Health Engineering –
LA: Oh God!
SM: …and my name and Michael Ahearn’s name, because we shared an in office there. And we had three, there were two or three secretaries, I can’t remember… Carmen was one, there were two Puerto Rican girls in there, and there was another girl as well, I can’t remember, who were kind of general admin secretaries in the office, and the phone calls started. And the phones rang off the hook the day that article was published. Absolutely inundated. Like nonstop. There were only three or four lines in the office and we had them engaged all day. We went out to lunch, we came back in and the girls – people were beginning to look strangely at us because here are these guys, fresh off the boat from Ireland, you know, you knew it was – the backdrop of the whole Northern Ireland issue was in the media…
LA: Oh yeah, yeah, right.
SM: They were getting these furtive phone calls from Irish accented people who when the girl said, “Can I take a number?” “No, I’ll call back.” Nobody would leave a number – because they were all illegal!
LA: “These guys are running guns.”
SM: These guys are in the IRA, they’re running guns, what’s going on here? The whole office, you know. I don’t know if the boss was onto it so much, in fairness. So we had a week or two weeks of floods – when I say floods, I don’t know, Michael Ahearn can probably remember better than me because my memory is not the best – hundreds! I mean, thousands would be an exaggeration I’m sure, but hundreds of phone calls from all kinds of people –
LA: So what did the secretaries –
SM: Guys who were stuck in immigration. Guys who read the article and wanted to do it, people who were in San Francisco and didn’t realize this was going on, Irish-Americans saying, “This is outrageous, what’s happening?” It kind of blew the cover to an extent on what the society had been “Let’s just keep it quiet.”
LA: It’s not an issue, no one is worried about it, yeah.
SM: “Get a job, nobodies worried, keep it cool” and all of a sudden this was real politics and from there, I mean, that’s when I say, from that moment, I was literally swept off my feet. You know going back –
LA: You couldn’t go back, yeah.
SM: …wasn’t an option at this stage. Because every waking moment from then on was IIRM, literally. We did some work for the City of New York (laughs) and afterwards for Malcolm Purney but outside of that every waking moment was IIRM. And a lot of the organization of the branches came from that first flood of phone calls. We got guys from San Francisco, San Antonio, Philadelphia, from Boston….
Excerpt No. 4
Mobilizing the People and the MediaDisc 1, 90:58–94:46
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
JR: OK, let’s see. A lot of the stuff you’ve kind of touched, a lot of these questions very broadly –
LA: I know.
JR: …however, um, one of the things you mentioned this sort of a broad, organic grassroots idea, right? How were – what were the main modes of interaction I would say, with the people that you’re mobilizing? With your supporters, potential supporters…?
LA: And can I piggy back on that too, just so we get it in, is the use of the media?
SM: OK. Well I’ll try the supporters and the potential supporters first. In the early days, a lot of the work was very grassroots, eh, the community were affected by the situation, the illegal undocumented community, so we saw them as our first port of call in terms of raising money, so we did a hell of a lot of fundraising and a lot of the members of that community ran quizzes and nights out in bars… The bar owners, the Irish guys who necessarily weren’t illegal but they were fantastic and given their privacies, bands gave their time, we had various concerts, we had the Wolftones in the town hall, we had [unintelligible band name] in the ballroom. They raised reasonable amounts of money at the time, which was hugely important for us.
We had information meetings Joe, oh… monthly or more often, probably twice a month I would say, and these were attended – they were in New York, and in Boston, they were in various places in New York. The biggest ones were held in Queens in the Tower View. We had four, five, six, seven hundred people attend these things. People who were in dire need of a job, or a bank account, or whatever, whatever, just got off the plane, people for various reasons came to these meetings so we – you know, one of the group – the New Irish Action Group was challenged and there were a few volunteers running that to assist these people, to set up, to produce leaflets on how you go about getting a drivers license, how you go about getting a job, how you go get an apartment, what to be careful of, what to do, what not to do for people that got off the plane, so there was a contact there through that particular action group with the local community.
As well as that, I mean, the established community, we knew we needed. We needed voters. We need to mobilize voters, and interest the voters. So we did the rounds of the county organizations – of which there are many – and the various Irish fairs and [unintelligible] that run in the greater New York area – and in Boston – and so on, the various centers, on an annual basis. So we’d get a guest speaker in, we’d go and talk at the dinners, I mean I spent a many many nights going around the city here to various dinners, talking to people, asking for their support, asking them to write to their congressman, or again, we were trying to focus it, so Brooklyn – we needed Chuck Schumer. He was on the judiciary committee. Had to get support from Schumer.
So we had a very very active chapter in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn run by a fantastic woman from Limerick called Mary Dolan. And she was very well “got” in the local community so she was able to draw on the Irish activists from above and below. We had a legislative breakfast in Schumer’s constituency with all of his voters saying “Mr. Congressman, come and tell us what you’re going to do for the Irish.” And Chuck Schumer was very much on board. Now, the Irish vote in Brooklyn would be what I’d say a swing vote – not an overwhelming vote but a very important swing vote for Chuck Schumer. So he was delighted to have the opportunity of a clean issue, a clean issue for Ireland to stand up and say, “I’m going to help you out with this.” And he did. He rolled up his sleeves and he helped us out.
We did that, we replicated that – all over the place – but we tried to focus it not just on getting support from city council members, state members, you know, went to the mayor’s office here and Boston, various cities, but we tried to focus it on the key players on the relevant committee in congress… because we knew that’s how we were going to get things changed.
- Linda Almeida (LA)
- Joseph Ready (JR)
* To listen to this interview, you will need to have RealAudio, a free audio player, installed. Click here to download the software.