18 November 2005
1 hour, 38 minutes, 27 seconds
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Mae O’Driscoll (b. Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, 1939), retired Assistant Vice President of JPMorgan Chase and co-founder of the Irish Immigration Reform Movement, was raised on a dairy farm with five brothers and one sister. After finishing secondary school at the Convent of Mercy in Skibbereen, O’Driscoll emigrated to the United States on in 1958 with the intention of furthering her education. In New York, O’Driscoll joined three of her brothers in Holy Cross parish in Flatbush, an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Within a month of arriving, she accepted a clerical position with Citibank where she remained until 1964.
Following various accounting jobs, O’Driscoll began working for JP Morgan & Co. in 1974. That same year she returned to Brooklyn College to finish her degree, graduating in 1981 with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting. As a woman and an immigrant on Wall Street, O’Driscoll felt discriminated against, particularly on those occasions when she was by-passed for promotion by colleagues at the same level. In 2002, just two years after JPMorgan’s merger with Chase, she retired as an Assistant Vice President of the Facilities Management Department, which she had been working in since 1979.
Along with beginning her professional career, O’Driscoll was involved in the New York Irish community immediately after her arrival. With her brother Bill, she began raising money for various Irish causes in the early 1960s. She worked with the National Association for Irish Justice in 1969, particularly for Bernadette Devlin’s visit to New York City,(1) and became a member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1971. She joined the County Cork Association in 1983 and six years later, in 1989, she was elected its first woman president.
Through her work with the Cork Association, she became a founding organizer of the Irish Immigration Reform Movement (IIRM) in 1987. The IIRM was created in response to the plight of 40,000 plus undocumented Irish immigrants who arrived in the United States in the mid-1980s. The organization was proactive in alerting the media, the American people, and legislators about the situation of the Irish, their illegal status and the obstacles they were facing in America. It lobbied Congress to enact legislation that would benefit immigrants from thirty-five other countries who had been disadvantaged by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. In 1990, with the support received from multiple congressmen and the devotion of IIRM members, an immigration law (HR-4300) was passed that provided specific visa relief for the Irish and others. The legislation was an enormous victory for the IIRM.
In addition to the IIRM, Mae O’Driscoll was active in the establishment of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center (EIIC) in Woodside, Queens. The EIIC provides counseling services for housing, employment, and citizenship as well as other social services for immigrants from all over the world.
At the time of this interview, O’Driscoll resided in Brooklyn, New York and was still an active member of the Cork Association as well as a trustee and secretary of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center’s Executive Committee.
Excerpt No. 1
On her first job in AmericaDisc 1, 13:00–14:00
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
MO: I took whatever test it was, it was math, and probably vocabulary, I don’t remember exactly, I know there was math. So she said to me, “For a young girl from Ireland, you certainly did very well on the exam.” I was too shy to comment, and I wouldn’t – I still probably wouldn’t have commented. I would today. But she said she wouldn’t hire me as a telephone operator because of my brogue, but there would definitely be a clerical position for me. Fine. I didn’t say anything, I just listened. So I told my brother [and] he was furious! He said, “Did you tell her we have schools in Ireland!?” But that was the perception, that the Irish were uneducated.
LA: But why do you think they were so interested in hiring you?
MO: I think it was our work ethic.
LA: Oh, okay.
MO: So then I went to Citibank, and he told me, he said, “We like to hire Irish girls because they have a good work ethic, and if you have any friends, please send them in.”
LA: So this was the guy at HR [Human Resources]?
MO: HR. HR. Again, a friend – you know, a friend said –
LA: Was he Irish American himself?
MO: The man who hired me wasn’t, [he] definitely wasn’t Irish American. Perhaps he could have been half Irish –
Excerpt No. 2
On women and management at JP MorganDisc 1, 21:31–23:15
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
BH: So what was it like to be woman on Wall Street?
MO: Well you know I never thought about it because, ah, I wasn’t thinking of moving up the corporate ladder in the seventies. It wasn’t until – it was very family oriented, it was like Mother Morgan, they referred to it [that way]. They took care of you. I took everything for granted. I thought that if you worked hard, you would get promoted, which I learned later was a big mistake, to think like that.
LA: Were there many other women employees?
MO: Oh yeah. In my department there were no women officers. Now, the woman that had retired should have been an officer. And she always – she had told me that – she said, “It never happened for me.” But there was only one vice-president, that was – a couple of men were – your first officer – first would be an assistant secretary, an assistant treasurer, there would be AVP (assistant vice-president) and then Vice-President. You had fifteen people in the office. The men definitely were the dominant – they had the higher positions. There was no woman that was in management at that time in my department. And very few in the ones I dealt with. In other areas, but never in my department, there would have been women. But it was after that, in the late seventies, when we – there was definitely a move towards – they had to, you know?
Excerpt No. 3
The formation of the Irish Immigration Reform Movement (IIRM)Disc 1, 44:19–46:50
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
MO: He [Dennis Ford, President of the County Cork Association] appointed a committee and it went around the room to different people. “No, no, they couldn’t do it. Another time.” So it fell on me to be the first chairman of it [IIRM] at the organization. I said, “I don’t know anything about immigration.” None of us did. So we got the meeting going, and we called up the old – there was an old immigration committee in place and it was, I think, run by Tom Murray (who just died actually a couple of weeks ago) and we met with him. We talked to Joe Murphy who was with the [Irish] Echo [newspaper] at the time, [who] said we should meet with that committee and see if they would, you know, work with us. We would have one organization going; we wanted them to merge with us and go forward as a united front. We met with them in Conway’s,(2) and they were not interested. They looked at Sean Minihane and Sean Benson –
LA: Was Sean Benson there then?
MO: No he wasn’t, Sean wasn’t involved then. Sean Minihane, Pat Hurley, and Dave Clark (who is now married to my niece), and myself, and Joe Murphy, and Dennis Ford – and this guy, Tom Murray, Tim Murphy, Tadhg Murphy –
LA: Was the priest there too?
MO: Father Matt – that’s Father Matt Fitzgerald I’m talking about – yeah. He’s the one that came in and spoke at the [Cork] organization to –
LA: To remobilize things.
MO: Yes. So, they were not impressed. They thought that the young people were just too anxious and too –
MO: No, the better word, I guess, they were too – arrogant would be too strong a word. They thought they were just too pushy for their own good. And they said no, they weren’t interested in joining us. So we went ahead, we sent out the notices, we put ads in the paper, and we had our first meeting. And we brought in somebody from Boston, who had started a group up there, I don’t remember the name of the organization. But we invited all the counties, and we had a nice gathering. But we didn’t know at the time that it was the night of the meeting of the United Irish Counties [Association] which, because Cork was not affiliated at the time with the United Irish Counties – we had stopped our affiliation because of some problems with one of our delegates – but we wouldn’t be aware of the dates they met, so that was unfortunate. But some of the delegates came to the meeting. And out of that grew – that was the first meeting of the IIRM and we just went from there. We formed a branch in Boston, and Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.
Excerpt No. 4
On the media’s role for the IIRMDisc 1, 52:40–54:50
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
LA: How did you know even how to approach Congress, who to go to, or what kind of plan? I mean, you had this idea that you want to legalize the Irish – how do you even begin, and how did these two young guys that are in sort of the front from Ireland understand the system well enough to get –
MO: It’s truly amazing to all of us! If we ever thought – I know I never thought that we could get a bill in three years. I remember Sean [Minihane] and Pat [Hurley] would say, “We must get a bill! We’re going to have a bill next year” and we’d think, “They’re crazy. We’re not going to get a bill.”
LA: They’re all of twenty-five, right?
MO: Yeah. Twenty years to get the last bill! 1965 to 1986, twenty-one years to getting Amnesty, to get to work on that bill. They think they’re going to get a bill next year? No. There’s no hope. But, getting back to what you said, I don’t know. We were – the press came, we didn’t look – the media came to us, it was amazing. All of a sudden you had Channel Four [WNBC]; Chris O’Donohue, he was with Channel Five [WNEW]; Jim Ryan came to interview us. There was a momentum there, it caught on! And we had – there was a guy that worked at the Echo. He’s dead now also (he died quite young, actually) and he started the whole thing with a piece in the Echo, you know.(3) And then the Irish Voice [newspaper] started later [December 1987]. And that was a big – their whole purpose was to –
LA: That was their mandate. Their editorial mandate.
MO: Yeah. And then Pat Hurley got interviewed by the [New York] Times!(4) We had all these papers looking for us. Looking for news, we were news. And it was – Sean Benson would say it was smoke and mirrors. But we used to get calls saying, “Could we have a listing of our membership?” They thought we had thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Yeah, we had members but, I mean, it was a handful! I mean it was a core number that changed the bill.
Excerpt No. 5
Reflections on her Irish Immigration Reform Movement experiencesDisc 2, 23:14–24:28
Transcription of Excerpt No. 5
BH: So, twenty or fifteen years removed from the whole situation, how do you lookback on the whole experience with the IIRM [Irish Immigration Reform Movement]?
MO: Oh, it was very, it’s very rewarding. As I said, it’s – I am just delighted that I became involved. Didn’t intend to become involved, it just happened. It evolved into this huge national organization and I’m happy to be involved in an organization that was successful. We were the only organization I think that ever realized our goals. I mean, the AOH [Ancient Order of Hibernians] has talked about – they worked on different things, but they haven’t been as successful as we have been. And they had the wherewithal to go with immigration reform and they had the national organization and the funds to do it and they failed to do it. And that’s where I think we jumped in and took the bull by the horns and we moved on and we were successful. And we’re very proud of that, that we made a difference in the lives of so many, in a very, very short time frame. But had we known – as I said earlier, we would never have gone forward. I would have said – I thought then that we were crazy. But it was ignorance. Ignorance is bliss.
- Bethany Hartzell (BH)
- Linda Dowling Almeida (LA)
- Mae O’Driscoll, circa 2005. Photo by James Higgins, courtesy of Mae O’Driscoll.
- In 1969 Bernadette Devlin (b. 1947) was an elected member of the British Parliament, representing Mid-Ulster.
- Patrick Conway’s Restaurant on East 43rd Street, New York City.
- Mike Devlin (d. February 1990).
- Marvine Howe, “Invisible Aliens: Irish Fear Effect of New Immigration Law,” New York Times, April 17, 1987, p. B1.