I wrote this book to enlighten my descendants. I am a retired teacher and routinely encountered students (including my own kids) who were convinced that prejudice against the Irish didn’t happen, or didn’t happen in America, or that it wasn’t as crippling as prejudice against people of color. Fun fact: four American presidents have been assassinated. Two had Irish last names (Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy). I don’t think that their names are irrelevant details.
My students were horrified when I showed them want ads in a newspaper from 1970—six years after the Kennedy administration and the Equal Rights Amendment—and they discovered gender-divided want ads with columns of ads ending in “no Negroes, Chinese or Irish need apply.” My kids’ jaws dropped and their eyes bugged out when they realized that I was banned from applying to two-thirds of the jobs on offer because my maiden name is distinctly Irish.
True Ellis Island story: I’m Linda Conaway because great-grandfather claimed he was the “Conway that got away, Conaway,” and insisted on that spelling when being processed through Ellis Island. To the best of my knowledge, every single “Conaway” in America is my fifth cousin or better. The DNA matches offered by the 23 and Me service tend to corroborate that bit of family folklore.
My father was a second-generation Irish immigrant. His father was brother number five and the first child born to the Conaways on American soil. My mother’s English ancestors first stepped foot in American in 1630. When my mother announced her engagement, my grandmother said, “Good grief, Betty, you’re a good-looking girl; you can hold out for better!” Mother’s parents agreed to pay for her wedding on the condition that she get married at her college, 1,700 miles away from their stately Winnetka home, since it would be less embarrassing that way.
So, this book is written in their memory; just as the fictionalized foreword suggests. My parents were two pioneers who dared to love where bigotry had been sown and were a power couple for over fifty years.