Q&A with an Irish immigrant

Fun fact of the day: Very few people who live in New York are actually from New York. Some residents, like me, have gravitated here from other states. Some are here on a travel or student visa, and some are here illegally. For my Writing & Reporting class, we each interviewed someone who’s immigrated to New York. I chose Peter Doherty, a bartender and bar owner from Tyrone, Ireland. This is the finished product.

In a dark, dingy, crowded bar on a rowdy Thursday night, owner Pete Doherty isn’t slurping his usual whisky. Tonight his drink of choice is a strawberry milkshake from McDonalds. One of his employees slapped it onto the low table in front of him a few minutes ago, and he hasn’t put it down. Since arriving here from Ireland 14 years ago, Pete has developed an affinity for the distinctly American treat—his employees know him well. And, more important, they like him enough to spoil him.

It’s easy to like Pete. He’s the tireless owner. The bartender who never gets it wrong. Your best friend, even if he’s meeting you for the first time that night. His short, stocky figure motors around the floor of the Grisly Pear on MacDougal Street, which he owns with two of his friends. His hair is starting to grey, but his good-natured basset-hound eyes sparkle. Like a lucky few Irishmen, he’s a little bit immortal.

Pete doesn’t really think of himself as an immigrant anymore. He met his wife at a bar he owned on Sullivan Street, and they have two American children. He takes trips to visit his family, but his life and his business are here now. New to the city myself, I ask how long someone has to live here before they can call themselves a New Yorker. Ten years is a good guideline, he says. Or, in his case, after he spent his first night on a park bench off 5th Avenue. He’s come a long way since then.

Why did you first come to the U.S.?

I came here just for the summer to work the Jersey shore, Seaside Heights, on the boardwalk. A lot of my friends had done it before and there were a lot of us; like ten of us had come over that summer and we all shared a house. I only stayed there for like two weeks because it sucked. I was like, ‘New York City is 90 minutes away. Why am I still here?’ I had a friend who was in New York City, so for the first couple weeks I stayed with him. But he was actually staying with a friend, so his friend let me move in as well. But then he and his friend fell out, so [the friend] kicked both of us out. That’s how I ended up on the park bench.

Which park was it?

On 5th Avenue there’s a little park on the corner of 27th. There’s an office tower and there’s a little park with a couple of benches. Me and my buddy both slept there. It wasn’t that we didn’t have money or didn’t live anywhere; we just couldn’t find anywhere [to stay]. We had no references.

After you left the Jersey Shore, where did you work in the city?

I got a bartending job. It was uptown. I bartended my way through college, so it was just an easy next step.

Where did you go to college?

The University of Ulster. I got a degree in sociology. It’s a dosser’s degree, we called it. It means it’s not hard. It’s studying pop culture, so it’s not very difficult. I never really thought it through. I just thought, ‘I’ll go to college.’ You’re guaranteed to get in if you pick an easy subject. It’s state-run so I didn’t have to pay much for my tuition at all, but I got student loans for living expenses. I’ve got thousands of dollars of student loans back in Ireland.

Are you working toward paying them off?

(Laughs, shakes his head) No!

Have you been back to Ireland since coming here that summer?

Oh yeah, I went home after that summer. I was here with a J1 visa, I went home just before Christmas at the end of November, and then I was home for six months. I’d just finished college and I was like, ‘What am I going to do with myself?’ And I thought you know what, I’ll go back to America. So I moved back here.

Was it difficult to get another visa?

No, it was pretty simple. You see this is pre-September 11, so it was way easier then. Now I don’t even know how you would go about it. Before September 11 they loved Irish people! Everyone in America did, so they were handing them out like candy. There were a lot of different programs back in Ireland that you could apply to and you were guaranteed a visa. That was back then. Now it doesn’t exist anymore. They’ve stopped all that and tightened up the borders.

Tell me how you went from working in bars to owning them.

It’s’ a natural progression, right? I just fell into it. I went out on a limb for myself. Every place is different, but you save money and once you have enough money saved you buy someplace, or you find an empty space and you build in it. I’ve built a bar before, but the guys who had this place before me went out of business. It was vacant, so I took it over. I just had to paint it and fix it up a little. It was nothing too crazy.

You didn’t have to knock any walls down?

No. Although I can knock walls down, I’m not very good at picking them back up (laughs).

What do you like about bartending?

It’s just fun. It’s a lot of fun.

Do you have any feelings about the recent vote for Scottish independence?

Oh, yeah! I’m really disappointed. I think they should’ve taken the vote and become an independent country. It has a huge amount of implications for Ireland; they would have to then give the Irish people the same vote because we’re a British colony. It would’ve made a huge difference. I might’ve even seen a united Ireland in my lifetime. When someone’s country is stolen from them by another, that’s something people are passionate about. So I like the idea of it, but I’m not really that proactive.

Where in Ireland are you from originally?

I’m from the north—Tyrone. I also lived in Belfast for like six years. But I’m from a really small place of about 3,000 people.

What makes Ireland, or Tyrone in particular, different from New York?

Everything’s different. Back home we have [a sense of] community, and you don’t really have that here. The food tastes better, the meat tastes better, everything tastes better in Ireland. Animals are fed what they’re meant to be fed. Everything is different. You should visit.

Would you ever move back?

Not to live, if that’s what you mean. I don’t think I could ever live there again. I think New York gets a hold of people and there’s an energy and a pulse about New York. It’s hard to leave.

Q&A with an Irish immigrant

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