Mr. O’Brien’s Legacy



West Side Detroit/Croagh Patrick, Ireland

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

I learned a lot from my grandpa, John Francis O’Brien, a native of Cork city (Ireland) and an immigrant to America. He used to always say that he was closest to God when he was connected to nature.

Grandpa was quite an unusual character in our working class neighborhood on Detroit’s West Side, just a few miles from the city’s central core. Ours was a lower middle class haven inhabited by white urban ethnics and blacks who’d migrated from the South. It was a hodgepodge of cultures, typical of most big cities in America, but there were no Jews. The Jewish people lived in their own ethnic enclaves and were basically an unknown quantity.

What made Mr. O’Brien (as the neighbors affectionately called him) different? Grandpa had a soft brogue that sounded laced with music. He wasn’t the usual “rough and tumble” sort of guy that lived in the area. He did not curse or drink. He was quite cultured even though his formal education consisted of only six years at a Christian Brothers school. He didn’t carry a lunch pail or work in a factory. He ate lunch from a brown paper bag and was plumber who carried a toolbox with great pride.

Grandpa also had a small, thriving vegetable garden in a well-worn city block with more concrete than grass. He walked five miles each day, so he knew more people than most in our rather insular community. When young thugs bothered him, he’d hit them with his sturdy wooden cane. He was a man of few words, but his actions spoke volumes. He rarely got mad or excited, except when he was listening to a Tigers game on the radio or watching a boxing match on the television.

Surprisingly enough, Grandpa’s daily treks through the bustling Detroit streets allowed him to speak to God. He could block out the sounds of the city as he walked, finding food and solace for his soul. Grandpa fully understood Henry David Thoreau’s words, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Detroit was just another big city to Grandpa, as his journey from Ireland to America had seen him living and working in Cardiff, London and Toronto.

Grandpa’s innate spirituality was at the very core of his being and made him very special. He was a man of intense prayer and deep inner peace. He lived a simple life, and he wasn’t the least bit enthralled with the things of this world. He was a gentle person, but strong in spirit. He taught us that the hectic pace of the world distracted us from God. He was a devout man. He lived and breathed the Good News.

Grandpa wasn’t tortured by feelings of regret, doubt or defiance. If he were alive today , he’d be the first to shrug his shoulders and laugh at the writings of the bitter and angry John Patrick Shanley. He would’ve quietly scolded Shanley for failing to recognize that institutions like the Catholic Church and the US Marines are made up of all types of people, both good and bad…

When Grandpa died at the ripe old age of 92, the streets of Detroit lost a weary but contented traveler… He died a happy man who’d led a full life.

In 1997, I journeyed with three of my six sisters to Ireland. It was our way of paying tribute to the land of our ancestors, and especially to Grandpa O’Brien.

We felt closest to our beloved grandfather when we visited Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. En route to Croagh Patrick, we visited Grandpa’s birthplace – Cork city in County Cork.

Cork is a lot like San Francisco, its sister city. It is an old port city with rolling hills and Victorian houses. The River Lee divides Cork into two sections, and as a result, an astounding array of bridges and quays form trails throughout the city.

Grandpa’s family home was located in a tough, impoverished part of Cork A dark and dreary neighborhood filled with people hardened by life. We were glad that Grandpa had escaped the mean streets of Cork.

Croagh Patrick is where we felt Grandpa’s ghost the most… It is where St. Patrick prayed, did penance and fasted for the people of Ireland. It’s a wondrous place! Croagh Patrick was known as Crochan Aigh, the mount of the eagle, before it became associated with St. Patrick. The legend is that St. Patrick retired to the summit of the mountain for contemplation, fasting, penance and prayer. He remained there alone for 40 days and nights, following the example of Jesus Christ and the great Jewish prophets Moses and Elijah.

As pilgrims, we climbed Croagh Patrick and followed St. Patrick’s footsteps. There are three levels to the peak or summit, which is called St. Patrick’s bed. As we made our journey, we felt humbled by God’s powerful presence and the awesome beauty of His creations.

When we came down the mountain, we crossed a small road and visited the National Famine Memorial of Ireland. It’s worth the stop, to see the sculpted coffin ship embedded with stark depictions of human skeletons.

On the plane back to America, four sisters discussed how their grandfather probably daydreamed of the land of his birth on his daily walks…

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