The Irish and New York City—it’s nothing short of a love affair.
One stretching back over four centuries and intensifying as the city served as a refuge for Irish immigrants seeking to escape the devastating hardships of all too frequent economic downturns and even famine.
A metropolis of mythic proportions, gilded in glamour and underlaid by grit, NYC embodies its nation’s reputation as ‘the land of opportunity;’ and well, if you can make it there…
Orla Sadlier reports
Don O’Neill — Creative Director of THEIA
“New York and America have always been a big part of my life. Both my mother and her mother before her left Ireland as young women and moved to the States for work. Mom went to New York and became the nanny to an uber wealthy family who lived on Park Avenue during the 1960s.
When she returned to Ireland, after my father proposed to her, she brought back the most amazing wardrobe, a trunk full of dresses from Bergdorf Goodmans that her incredibly generous and glamorous employer had gifted her, so these extraordinary mementoes of New York populated my childhood.
My aunty Breda also lived in the States, she was a teacher who would arrive home every summer when we were kids with tons of brand new American school books for us. Amazing books that ignited a passion to see the land they had come from. She also brought packet mixes of all these different American dishes that were completely foreign to us and, of course, coffee!
She would put the coffee on in the morning and watch it as it bubbled up through the percolator was like a mystical process; it would fill the whole kitchen with its rich, exotic smell. As a child, America was for me just this amazing, faraway land where all these magical things came from.
I moved to New York September 30th, 1993 on the advice of Christian Lacroix’s astrologist…I had managed to secure a green card while I was working as an intern for Christian Lacroix’s couture team in Paris and so wasn’t sure whether I should give up this amazing opportunity and take my chances in New York. Life at Lacroix was fascinating, and Mr Lacroix himself was a kind and generous man.
In spite of my terrible French, I confided in him that I had gotten a green card and that I didn’t know what to do. He said to me “I have an astrologist I use all the time, she is wonderful and as a gift, to you, I’ll send you to see her and let’s see what she says.” So I went to see her, and she told me that my future lay in the United States! And that was it, I packed up my portfolio and my suitcase, along with my letters of introduction from Mr Lacroix and off I went.
It was a real struggle when I got here, definitely not a cake walk! While I met all these fabulous people, my portfolio was very heavily influenced by Lacroix, the king of extravagant, dramatic dressing and the early nineties in New York was all about minimalism, clean and simple dressing. I remember Donna Karan going through my portfolio and asking “who the hell wears this stuff?!”
New York designers just couldn’t relate to it at all. I kind of horrified everybody with my beads and ruffles and so ended up having to take a job in Macy’s monogramming towels and shirt cuffs. That was my first job in New York. I was here almost eight months before I got a job in fashion. Thankfully though things went from strength to strength from there and I haven’t looked back since.
I’ve lived in New York for 23 years now and have always been embraced and made welcome here. The Irish are loved. In relation to fashion here, I think your personality has a lot with how people perceive your product. A desire to be out there meeting customers is very much part of our Irishness; I love people, and I love to talk, and for those who know me and have met me, I think that impacts on how they feel when they wear one of my dresses.
There are designers who remain in their studios; they’re inaccessible, locked up in ivory towers; people tremble and shake around them but that’s just not in our nature, our self-deprecating sense of humour won’t allow for any of that. And that’s endearing; it makes us very approachable. I love to engage with my customers, and I’m genuinely thrilled to bits and over the moon that anyone chooses to wear something I’ve made.
Since launching THEIA in 2009, I’ve thankfully been kept extremely busy here. While the dream is to someday develop into a lifestyle brand and perhaps even do a couture collection, I have my hands full at the moment with the next collection due to debut in February and a new bridal collection in April. I do try to get back to Ireland at least four times a year though; it’s very important to me to keep that connection strong.”
Lucy Quinn :PR for LA Force
“New York has always had a draw for me. Although it is one of the most competitive cities in the world, it is a place that rewards hard work. After completing my degree and laying the groundwork with a year of hands-on work experience in Dublin I felt was ready for a new challenge and decided to make the move to New York.
Coming from Dublin, where everything is within a stone’s throw of each other, New York can be an intimidating place. It is, however, what you make of it and I’ve found it to be a city that adopts you as its own. There’s a huge diverse and creative culture, and if you’re willing to put yourself out there, it’s hard not to fall in love with it. The job struggle can be tough at the start, but persistence and confidence is key.
New York is nobody’s forever, and I think the attitude in the city represents that. People are here to enjoy themselves which creates a spontaneity that I admire. It is an exceptional place to live in your twenties, and I’m really lucky to work in an amazing office with around 80 girls that are all similar in age.
I find nobody wants to spend time in their overpriced box apartments, so we meet in bars most of the time. That probably sounds aggressive, but the drinking culture is extremely different to home. Here one drink means one drink and people do stick to this!
One of the most important things I’ve learnt since moving here is ‘fake it till you make it’—you can trick yourself into thinking you’re able to achieve anything and frankly speaking, that’s enough. Once you get into business, you realise that nobody really knows what they’re doing. Confidence is key!
As amazing as New York is if there was one aspect of Irish culture I could impress upon it it would be our “It’ll be grand” attitude. When the Irish face problems we typically take a calm and relaxed approach. The NYC approach is slightly different; there can be an unnecessary panic and hysteria over even the smallest of issues. This was definitely an aspect of New York culture I had to get used to.
For now, I’m very happy in where I am and what I’m doing. I’m lucky that I’ve found something I’m passionate about and that I can turn that into a career. I’m not sure what my future holds five or ten years down the line, but New York has given me the outlook that anything is possible.”
Niamh Kavanagh – Model & Food Blogger
If I’m honest, moving to New York was somewhat of a hasty decision. As much as I love Dublin, I felt as though I needed to move away, expose myself to new things, grow as a person; and what better place to do that than New York City?! There are so many opportunities here which I just can’t get back home.
The city is so diverse, and I am forever kept on my toes. There is never a dull moment here and no day is the ever the same. I do a lot of freelance work, so whether it’s modelling, writing or research, my schedule is always changing.
New York can be a daunting city at first, but once you find your groove, it’s just perfect.The city is very career driven, and people are so motivated to be successful, not unlike home, but the scale on which things are done here is huge. There are endless possibilities to grow in NYC, and the key is to network.
It’s not what you know but who you know that matters over here. Coming to a new city can be scary but everyone I have met has been so helpful over the last year, and I just hope that one day in the future I’ll be able to return the favour to other people starting out in their careers.
I definitely think being from Ireland is a bonus here; we have a great reputation with everyone that I have met or worked with. In terms of modelling, it gives me a little edge and makes me different to others in the industry. It has also helped me form connections with other Irish living and working in the city.
I recently interviewed Sean Muldoon, owner of the Dead Rabbit, voted best bar in the world this year for the second time, and I think the fact that we are both from Ireland meant we had a better connection. Us Irish tend to look out for one another when we’re away from home.
Right now though, I’m very happy in New York and hope to stay here for the foreseeable future. I’m sure I’ll be home in the next few years, ready to begin a new adventure but until then, I want to gain as much experience here as possible and continue making amazing memories.
Stephanie Quilligan — Interned with Vera Wang & currently digital content manager
“Job opportunities that was definitely my main reason for leaving Ireland and moving to New York; the lack of them in Ireland and the abundance of them in New York. I wanted to get experience in house with top designers and unfortunately there just isn’t much opportunity for that in Ireland. I had been over to visit friends in New York and fell in love with the place, so I made arrangements straight away to go back a bit more permanently.
I absolutely love it here; I love the atmosphere, the social and cultural aspects and how every single day is completely different to the one before. There are so many amazing food places to eat so I’ve made it my mission to tick off some of the best throughout my time here. I’m also still working my way through all the famous tourist spots!
Careerwise, I just couldn’t believe the opportunities that were available to me when I first got here. There are so many massive fashion companies based in New York, so I found something almost immediately after moving over.
I will say however, I started off as an unpaid intern and that was extremely hard given how expensive the city is. You work 10-12 hour days for little or no money. So while the opportunity to work with big designers is amazing here, it’s perhaps not quite as glamorous as it seems.
Being Irish also stands to you here; I think the fact that in general we’re very friendly, open and helpful is a great advantage in New York. Networking is really important in this city, so these kind of traits really help you to get where you need to be, or meet who you need to meet.
My hair seems to attract a lot of attention here also. I have definitely ended up in some funny situations because of it. For example, a famous portrait artist approached me and asked if I wouldn’t mind sitting for him as he had never painted a red head before. It was a very bizarre situation which ended in somebody actually buying the portrait! Only in New York!!
If I could bring anything back to Ireland from New York, it would be the ‘can do’ attitude of the its people. I have really noticed since being here that they don’t sit on their ideas or career aspirations, they go out and make things happen. It rubs off on you, and I love that about being here.”
Photography by Emily Quinn