By Laura Hawbaker
It’s the end of May, and the invasion has already begun.
Every summer, an influx of Irish flock to Chicago. Like migratory birds, 1400 to 1500 Irish students descend upon the city with J-1 visas in hand. The J-1 is a three-month work visa for students between college semesters. Usually 19-21 years old, they seek out seasonal work—furniture removal, scooping ice cream at Navy Pier, slewing drinks in the beer gardens of an Irish pub. For the span of the summer, these “J-1-ers” work and party hard, sleep by the dozens on air mattresses, then return home.
“J-1-ers don’t tend to travel in ones or twos. They come in twelves,” says Paul Dowling, a former J-1-er who now serves as the Director of Social Services at Chicago Irish Immigrant Support.
Of the thousands who come, anywhere from 550 to 700 make their way to Armitage Hardware, its nondescript windows lined with Girl Scout cookies, tiki torches and barbecue grills for sale. They come seeking one man: Dan O’Donnell.
O’Donnell sits at his paper-strewn desk in the cellar of the hardware store. On the phone, a girl from Sligo asks, “Am I talking to Mr. O’Donnell? He’s a legend over here in Ireland.” Read the rest of this entry »