Irish in WNY / Michael Collins and Kathy O’Leary
Back to the old country every summer
Photo by kc kratt
Names: Michael Collins and Kathy O’Leary
Collins: Licensed real estate salesperson with Hunt Real Estate in Buffalo
O’Leary: Chief of surgical anesthesia at Roswell Park; vice chair of department of anesthesiology, critical care, and pain medicine; and UB Medical School associate professor of anesthesiology
Collins: Father’s mother from Manor Hamilton in County Leitrim; father’s father from Drom Trasna-Collins, Abbey Feal, County Limerick; mother has Irish ancestors
O’Leary: Both parents from the Beara Peninsula of South West Ireland—mother, Anne Hartnett, from Ardgroom in County Cork; father, John O’Leary, from a townland outside Kenmare in County Kerry
Favorite Irish tradition:
Collins: “It’s not St. Patrick’s Day. I like anything that involves good traditional Irish music. One of the best traditional Irish bands in the world is Solas.”
O’Leary: The ease of socializing when being part of a community—friends, family, communal dinners.
Favorite Irish book, movie, etc.:
Collins: “The Wind that Shakes the Barley by Ken Loach. Authors include Joseph O’Connor, Colum McCann, Colm Tóibìn, John Banville, and Patrick McCabe. My favorite poet is the late Seamus Heaney.“
O’Leary: “Traditional Irish music.”
Dr. Kathy O’Leary grew up in Yonkers, New York, born to Irish immigrants. Early life revolved around a tight-knit community, and every year, her parents “went home”—to Ireland, where they retained their family house.
Just like O’Leary’s move to Buffalo for medical school, her parents’ move to the States was never intended as permanent. “In Ireland, my father’s shoemaking shop was attached to the house,” says O’Leary. “As times changed, people moved to cities, and other countries. They needed to find work. My mother was one of eleven; five siblings had moved to NYC. My parents followed in 1957, when my older sister was two.”
O’Leary was born in New York, but when she was two, the family moved back to Ireland. “We got on the ship with our steamer trunks,” she says. “But they couldn’t make a go of it.” After five months, they returned to Yonkers. “My father wasn’t educated; my mother was a nurse,” she continues. “In New York, she found work. He held blue-collar jobs, until some friends got him into the paper handlers’ union. He worked at the New York Times’ plant until he retired.”
Life in Yonkers revolved around Gaelic Park in the Bronx and an Irish community center (and bar). “My father played Irish football; I did Irish step dancing,” she says. When O’Leary was around ten, the family began going to Ireland for extended summer vacations, spending up to six weeks at the family home.
While O’Leary’s husband, Michael Collins, did not have quite as immersive an upbringing, he fully embraces the culture, country, and community through his family history and his wife’s. “My grandmother was the grandparent that I knew the most. She was ‘classically Irish’—she played the melodeon,” he says.
Collins and O’Leary have traveled to Ireland “pretty much every year since we met,” says Collins. “When I met Michael, he’d never been to Ireland,” notes O’Leary. “He was the first man in my life to jump right in. His enthusiasm made me realize how important that is to me.”
Their son John, fourteen, and daughter Nora, eleven, are both active in Irish-related activities in Buffalo, like Gaelic football and dancing. When they travel to Ireland every summer, staying in the home that’s been in O’Leary’s family for several generations, they quickly fall into an intimate and communal environment beyond that of a tourist experience. “People still talk about my father there,” laughs O’Leary. “I’ll always be ‘Jackie’s daughter.’”
Collins made a point to ensure that he and his family are all dual citizens. “It’s not just cool but eye-opening that my children have friends from another culture,” he offers. “Their comfort in non-American settings and contexts makes them more versatile.”
After their 2015 trip, the parents sat the kids down, and asked, hypothetically, “What if we go somewhere else next year?” With an emphatic “No way!” and presumably quick acquiescence, it looks like rebellion was avoided.
Jana Eisenberg is a regular contributor to Spree.