An Irish Baptist enjoys life in the United States
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Ten years ago, John Gracey came to the United States with Katherine, his American-born wife.
Gracey: I came to the United States for love. I married an American widow on the seventh of the seventh in 1997. I had been in sales most of my life, and when I reached 50 I discovered that it was hard to get back into sales at that age. And my wife was anxious to get back to her own country and her friends and family. So we decided to try the United States.
My wife had a little condominium in Schenectady, New York. We came there in October of 2000 and lived for eight years. I jumped at the chance to come live in America, and I have enjoyed my time here.
Gallacher: Was it hard to adjust to the United States?
Gracey: It was at first because all you guys drive on the wrong side of the road. That took some getting used to. (laughing) It was difficult for me to figure out what I wanted to do because I had been in sales for 30 years. I really didn’t want to do that again so we decided to do in-home care for the elderly. Katherine and I both went to work for an agency at a very low wage for the first year.
We saw that there was a real need for private in-home care so we formed our own little business and by the time we left New York State we had 15 employees.
Gallacher: Did you notice cultural differences?
Gracey: Being from Ireland I found that I was widely accepted by the American people. They’re pretty friendly towards the Irish. There were a lot of Irish and Italian in Schenectady, New York. I was interested to meet all the people from different cultures. And because you have the influence of all the different cultures, the food is so much better. I love food, and I was able to have all manner and types of food. In Ireland the food is basically potatoes, meat and vegetables.
Also, I lived in Ireland for 51 years, and it was beginning to get a bit small. America is such a vast beautiful country with so much to see and so much to explore. I really enjoyed living in America more or less right away.
There was some adjustment emotionally, though. I missed my four kids, but they were all grown and in their 20s. I spent a lot of time on the phone that first year. But after a year or two I felt more settled. I had made new friends and felt more at home.
Gallacher: How did your kids feel about you leaving Ireland?
Gracey: They had mixed feelings. On the one hand they were excited because they could come visit but on the other they didn’t want me to go because I’m pretty close to my kids. I’ve been able to get home to visit every two years.
Gallacher: What was it like for you growing up in Ireland. Has your family been there for generations?
Gracey: My ancestors were French Huguenots who immigrated to Scotland in the 1600s and then in the 1800s they came to Ireland. Growing up was fun. We were raised on a 100-acre farm. My dad was a cattle dealer and a farmer. I was the eldest of six kids, five boys and a girl. I was brought up in the Baptist church. Most people assume that if you’re from Ireland you’re Catholic, but I was brought up in a Baptist household.
We were taught the value of hard work, which was good. My dad and mom were fun people. They had a good strong marriage. My grandfather had died when my father was 5, so he had to leave school when he was 13 to work on the farm. He had to work very hard all of his life, and he made us work hard. We had to milk the cows before school and the same after, but we always had enough food.
Gallacher: Growing up did you hear stories of the Potato Famine*?
Gracey: I definitely knew of it. There are a lot of Catholic people who haven’t forgiven the English for their role in the famine. The English had food and they wouldn’t give it to the Irish, and a million died and a million came to this country. That’s why 40 percent of the American people can trace some ancestry back to Ireland.
In Ireland, we never recovered after that. We had 8 million people before the famine, and today we’ve only about 51⁄2 million livin’ there.
Gallacher: A lot of the land and the food in Ireland was owned or controlled by the English.
Gracey: That’s true. A lot of English and Scottish people came into Ireland, took the land from Irish and made them slaves on their farms. So that’s why there is a lot of animosity toward the English even to this day.
Gallacher: So today if you are an Irish Protestant you are seen by the Irish Catholics as aligning with the English?
Gracey: There are those that feel that way, but I think the media portrayed Ireland wrongly when gave the impression around the world that all Catholics and Protestants in Ireland were fightin’ one another. That really wasn’t the case. I was brought up on a farm where the Catholic and the Protestant farmers all helped each other out during the busy times, like the harvest. We were brought up with no animosity towards Catholics.
The trouble was in the two major cities Belfast and Londonderry, where a group of bad boys were seekin’ to turn Protestants and Catholics against one another. A small percentage on each side was tryin’ to aggravate the trouble. The media seemed to always focus on the bad news for the most part. And so the world got the impression that we were all tryin’ to kill one another.
Gallacher: Did people talk about it?
Gracey: If you read a daily newspaper you would read about it every day. We got tired of talkin’ and readin’ about it, and we just went on with our lives. I was a salesman for 30 years in Ireland. I saw very little trouble because I knew to stay out of those two flashpoints in those two cities. The other 90 percent of Belfast and Londonderry I traveled through safely with no problems.
But in spite of all the newspaper stories, most American people have a good impression of us. I have found that being Irish is a plus for me because people seem to like the accent, the Irish songs and the culture.
Gallacher: Yes, you seem delightful.
Gracey: (laughs) Well I like to have fun because it’s bad to take life too serious. In Ireland, we talk about “releasin’ the dolphins” into the blood stream, in America you call them endorphins. So when you have fun, play music and sing it releases stress. It’s not good to take life too serious. We need to have more fun especially in a recession.
Gallacher: Where did that philosophy come from?
Gracey: That came from my parents and my aunts and uncles. When we were young in Ireland there was no television. In the long winter evenin’s we would get together. My mother would get us around the piano and we’d sing. I learned to play the accordion, my sister the piano and my brother the mandolin.
Each of us learned to play a musical instrument and we loved to sing. We loved to tell jokes and tell tall stories about leprechauns and other things. So I think it came from my childhood and the culture I was brought up on.
It was a way to overcome the depressing winters we had there. Ten to 4 was the length of our winter days and you might not see the sun for three to four weeks. If it wasn’t raining, it would be overcast.
Gallacher: Some people would just take that time to complain. But your family used it as an opportunity to entertain one another.
Gracey: Well we had to so we wouldn’t get depressed. (laughs) I think it’s important for people to stay positive . We need to remember that we have more than most people in the world. Sing more and have more fun.
Note: When they’re not working one of their three jobs, John and Katherine Gracey visit the hospital and retirement homes in the valley and sing and tell stories.
*The Irish Potato Famine began in 1845 and lasted for six years.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.
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