BY BENJAMIN FANG
As one of the founders of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Woodside, attorney and advocate Brian O’Dwyer has been a longtime champion of immigrants.
O’Dwyer served as the grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade down Fifth Avenue on Saturday, March 16, which he called “the greatest honor that any Irish-American can have in this town.”
Three days before the parade stepped off, O’Dwyer spoke at the Queens Chamber of Commerce’s St. Patrick’s Day Luncheon at Antun’s in Queens Village about what this honor means to him and his advocacy.
“My selection, in a lot of ways, represented a championship of this community, pushing back against those that hate our immigrants and hate immigration,” he said. “Those that despise immigration despise their ancestors.”
He shared his family’s personal immigration history, which dates back to when his grandmother, Mary Agnes Rowan, came to the United States at the turn of the century.
The oldest of five siblings living in a farmhouse in Galway, Ireland, Rowan was just 16 years old when she left her homeland. The move was endorsed by her parents.
“They understood that her trip to America was the difference between starvation and not having hunger in that house,” O’Dwyer said.
Despite not knowing anyone in a strange, new land, Rowan made a living and sent back remittances every month “from the day she landed” until her death at age 88, O’Dwyer said.
“That sacrifice fed a family of five,” he said. “But that sacrifice also brought her to this country and made a life for my mother and now her grandchildren.”
When Rowan arrived, her first job was as a server at the Connolly Mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street. O’Dwyer noted that there were 100 servers in that building, and she was number 100, “the lowest of the low.”
Generations later, her grandson led a St. Patrick’s Day parade of 200,000 people, a parade that passed by that very mansion.
“For the first time ever, I’m going to stop that parade, just for a moment, and pay tribute to Mary Agnes Rowan,” he said during the luncheon. “That tribute to Mary Agnes is not to Mary Agnes alone, but to the many others that have come before and since, and have made their lives better and made this city and country better.”
O’Dwyer said Irish-Americans who forget where they came from “do a disservice to our people.”
“We’re not pulling up the ladder behind us because we’ve made it in society,” he said. “We are reaching down to pull up all those immigrants.”
O’Dwyer added that part of being in favor of immigrants is “being in favor of jobs.” He thanked the Queens Chamber of Commerce for their advocacy to bring Amazon back to New York City after the departure of HQ2.
“I think it is an absolute shame that this town may lose 25,000 jobs that could have gone to people just like us,” he said.
Tom Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber, added that they work hard all the time just to keep small companies from leaving Queens.
“For 25,000 jobs to walk out of here before they even got here is incredible,” he said.
Grech said the chamber, as well as many other business and civic organizations, are now trying to get Amazon to change their mind.
“Life is a negotiation,” he said. “Let’s hope they come to the table.”