Brian J Donnelly, a former American politician, died a few weeks ago and although I never met him and knew almost nothing about him, he had a major impact on the lives of my family. In American and Irish-American political circles, he was a politician of note – but to us, he was the man responsible for one of the biggest adventures our family had.

We were a young couple with two small children, struggling in an economy with high unemployment and interest rates of 16%. One night, John and I were in a pub when we saw on the news that Irish people were among those that could apply for what they called “Donnelly Visas”, which would allow one to live and work in America. Unlike many a plan we’d hatched in a pub, we actually went ahead with this one and applied.

Just five months later, after an interview at the US embassy and a medical, we stood in Shannon Airport with Ma and Da in tears, our lives packed away in four suitcases. We had never been to America and I think our innocence was a bonus. I honestly believe that if we had thought more about it, we wouldn’t have gone.

Those first few weeks were a whirlwind of trying to get our heads around the system and looking for an apartment and jobs. We were, and will always be, grateful for the support we had from US-based family members – Bridie, Cathy, Denis, Dorothy and Paddy. Our sons were two and four years old at the time, and we had to grapple with pre-kindergarten, childcare and transport systems, but we saw it as an adventure.

We decided we would go for a year and make a million. We stayed for seven, and didn’t.

BacKyard barbecues

We did live a typical American life for those seven years and became very au fait with backyard barbecues, camping in woods where you’d fully expect to meet a bear and appreciating the joys of air-conditioning in the summer. We got involved in local sports and made friends with other parents standing on the sidelines of soccer, tag football and basketball games. We also found that Americans work really hard – and we nearly always had three jobs between us. With much less annual leave than in Ireland, we didn’t get home as often as we’d have liked, but unlike those without Donnelly visas, we did get home for weddings and, sadly, for my father’s funeral.

There were ups and downs and we missed home, but I’m really glad we went. And I’m really glad we came back. While we didn’t return with filled pockets, we did bring back something far more valuable: our daughter, Niamh.

The Donnelly Visa allowed us to live and work in the US without looking over our shoulders (and without the constant worry of being found by immigration authorities and shipped home). We met so many out there who had gone out for a few months, overstayed their visas and couldn’t see a way out. We also knew many who, like ourselves, were living in Ireland with no hope of getting a job or having a mortgage. Brian Donnelly introduced a visa system that changed the lives of many. I’m only sorry I never wrote to thank him while he lived. I hope he knew how much his work was appreciated. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

As a footnote, I couldn’t finish this week’s column without mentioning the man I shared all those adventures with – and whom I married 40 years ago this weekend. We were each other’s first mate on our voyage through life together. I see him every day in the faces of our children and I know how proud he would be of the adults they have become. We celebrated 27 anniversaries together before he died, and while I miss him, I also know how lucky I was to be loved. To be loved is the greatest gift.

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