A recent photo of the Doherty family.

'Audrey is fine; she's met somebody, and he’s a Drifter


When Audrey Doherty came to Westmeath in 1966, she intended to stay less than three weeks. Born in New York to Irish emigrants, Audrey Connolly, as she was known then, arrived in Ireland alone, recently engaged and just 19 years old. “My mom said, ‘You’ll be getting married next year. I’d like you to meet your Irish family. So she bought me a ticket.”

No one imagined that while tracing her roots, Audrey would plant some of her own. “I didn’t want to come. At that time, 1966, flying across the Atlantic on your own was a pretty big deal. And I was scared, and I was afraid of the plane.”

Her Irish-American family had warned Audrey not to find fault while she was here, telling her, ‘Don’t complain about anything, ok? Don’t say anything is small. Don’t say it’s cold. Don’t say the toilet paper is rough or dry. You’re only there for two and a half weeks; don’t complain!’

After a few days in Dublin with Aunt Nancy, Audrey went to stay with Aunt Winnie for the remainder of the holiday. Originally from Mayo, Winnie lived in Gaybrook, just outside Mullingar. “They did the land swap and my Aunt Winnie came up here; she didn’t really want to. She loved Mayo but she knew if she stayed there, all her kids would emigrate.”

Mullingar was much more of a culture shock for Audrey than Dublin. “We got off at the train station, and my cousin started to walk, and I was standing there on the steps and they said, ‘Audrey, what are you waiting for?’ And I said, ‘The taxi’. And they said, ‘It’s gone.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, it’s gone?’ ‘There’s only one.’ And I know it sounds funny, but I was totally shocked. And so we walked from the train station up to the top of Mount Street, the very top, and I put down my little suitcase and I said, ‘I can’t go any further. I just can’t walk any further.’

"I’d never walked that far in my life because the bus stops are every other block in New York.” Mullingar’s sole taxi driver was Billy Dalton, who also had a bookie shop on Mount Street.

After calling there, Maura Dalton told Audrey and her cousins to start walking and Billy would collect them on the way. “So we started to walk. We got as far as the tech, and I literally started to cry, ok? I mean, bawling. And I said, ‘I’m not going any further.’ And with that, Billy Dalton came along.”

That weekend, Audrey’s cousins took her to see The Drifters in Moate, where her first experience of Irish dance halls was “frightening”. “Now, I’d walk down the streets of New York in the dark, but to put me into that ballroom… it was wedged… and when the music started, they all just charged!” Audrey’s cousins had told her that “people will ask you to dance and you’ll have to dance. You’re not allowed to say no because they’ll put you out”.

“And this fella asked me to dance… and he kind of had these funny shoes that were halfway up his legs; he had wellies on! But I said yes because I thought I’d be put out… Then this other guy asked me to dance… So I danced with him and I stayed dancing with him because he was nice, and he brought me over and asked me would I have a mineral. I didn’t know what a mineral was.”

When the dance ended, Audrey’s second dance partner insisted on taking her home and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She “couldn’t get rid of him” so her cousin said, “Just pretend you’re with the band. Walk up near the stage.” People were hanging around getting autographs and Audrey stood near them, but her admirer followed her. “I must have said, ‘Just please, leave me alone,’ you know… and Dessie heard the accent from the stage, and he said, ‘I hear an accent out there. It’s New York. Where is it?’ Well, of course my cousins go, ‘Her, her, her,’ – one of The Drifters is asking!”

The Drifter in question was Des Doherty, piano player with the legendary showband whose lead singer was Joe Dolan. After chatting for a while, Des drove Audrey and her cousins home. “There was two other girls; they got in the back seat. One of them was English… it was a real Cockney accent… the English girl kept poking me with her umbrella. She’s saying, ‘I’m with ‘im. I’m with ‘im.’ I said, ‘I’m not with him!’.

He dropped the girls off in Springfield and then he drove us out to my Aunt Winnie’s.” After Audrey’s cousins got out of the car, Des made advances that weren’t appreciated.

“And I just told him what I thought of him, and I got out of the car and I went to go into my Aunt Winnie’s and the dog wouldn’t let me in.” Dessie was still turning the car and Audrey had to ask him to walk her in. “And he said, ‘It’s only a small dog.” I said, ‘Every time I go there it’s barking.’”

Obviously annoyed, Des said, “Right, I’ll walk you in.” Winnie got out of bed when she heard there was a Drifter outside, and insisted he come in. “So he had to come in and I’m after telling him what I think of him, and I can’t stand the sight of him… They make him tea and give him biscuits and my aunt shouts down, ‘You’ll sing us a song, lad.’ When Des said that he couldn’t sing, Audrey’s aunt said, “Sure, you’ll play us a song.” After Des explained that all the instruments were gone in the van, Aunt Winnie responded with, “It’s very late. You better go home. Your mother will be waiting for you.”

Earlier on, Des had promised to take Audrey out on the lake in his friend’s boat, but he left Winnie’s without any mention of it. “And then it dawned on me when I was going to bed that night: he broke a date with me!” A few days later her cousins “read in the paper” that The Drifters were in Mullingar the following weekend.

“So I thought, yes, we’re going. I’m going to get his attention again. I’m going to get him to ask me out, and then I’m not going. And I did. I went… A fella asked me to dance and I got the fella to go up near the stage, and Dessie spotted me and I pretended I didn’t see him. And then the next dance, we went up and he was trying to call me. He was saying, ‘Meet me at the side door.’ So I did, and he came and he apologised.

“So we went for a drive and we talked, and that was the following Sunday, ok, so that’s two Sundays in a row.” The band had a gig in Louth the next day. “And I went to the dance with them there, on the Monday, and on the way home, he asked me to marry him. And that was after a sum total of, I’d say, about 18, 19 hours, because it was only a few hours each Sunday. Crazy! We met August 7th. We got married November 7th, 12 weeks later… I know when I met Dessie, not the first time, but the second time – I can never explain it, nor will I be able to explain it to the day I die – but there was something happened, and I don’t know what. And it happened to him as well.”

Audrey never saw her first fiancé again. “I sent a big letter, a very, very big, thick letter.” He didn’t reply but their mothers kept in touch and Audrey heard “he got married eventually”. Meanwhile, Audrey’s mother Nora received a telegram that read, “Not arriving August 22nd. Don’t worry. I’m fine. Letter will follow. Aunt Nancy will call.” As Aunt Winnie didn’t have a phone, Aunt Nancy in Dublin had to contact Nora on Audrey’s behalf. She told Nora not to worry, that Audrey was fine, had met somebody, and “he’s a Drifter”. And that’s all they heard. So at first, they thought I’m drifting around Europe!”

“Nineteen and in a foreign country”, Audrey suddenly had to plan a wedding by herself. “I didn’t know where to go for flowers; I didn’t know where to go for a photographer, nothing. I had 20 minutes to pick out a dress… it was only about three weeks before my wedding.” Audrey chose her dress alone on Wicklow Street, when The Drifters had a gig in Dublin. “I went into this little French shop and I was thinking American prices… and I went in and they said, ‘Yes, have you a price range?’ And I said, ‘Maybe between three and four hundred.’ A car was £200! And they said, ‘Well, we have dresses; they’re about £50 or £60.’ But that was huge money then.”

Nora and several of Audrey’s relatives travelled to Ireland to celebrate Audrey and Des’s big day. “There was 15 or 20 of them, whatever family could come, and they got off the plane and my mother looked very peculiar… and the rest of them were drunk! They were all pissed as coots except my sister, my cousin Donald and my mother… I looked at Donald and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘Audrey, we sent you here for two-and-a-half weeks. We get a telegram, you’re not coming home, and Nancy’s explaining that you met a Drifter! It’s another phone call before we realise it’s a musician, which by the way, we didn’t think was much better. So,’ he said, ‘we’re here and we’re either drunk or on tranquillisers.’.”

As shocked as they might have been by the whirlwind wedding, the Americans were perhaps more astonished by their accommodation. “Dessie’s from Athboy and there was a hotel there but it wasn’t really geared for people sleeping in it – it was more of a small restaurant.” There was no central heating and while walking to his room, Donald’s foot went through the floor. “So we pull him out and there’s a hole, but there was a carpet over it! So we walk into Donald’s room and there were sash windows and he said, ‘Oh my god! They have the window open!’ So we put the window up. There was no glass in it! So at this stage, even I thought, oh my god!”

On the wedding day, a crowd gathered at the church in Athboy, “not to see the bride but to see Joe Dolan”. This made it even more embarrassing for Nora when her skirt fell off in front of everyone. “She had a beautiful outfit on and somebody found her a pin… and with everything that happened, you know, the cold and the hotel… Donald said, ‘It’s not too late; you can walk away from this. You don’t have to go through with this, Audrey, because I am telling you here and now, you will never make it in this god-forsaken country.’.”

But Donald was wrong. Although it took a while “to acclimatise to the damp”, Audrey had “a good life” in Ireland. “I met an awful lot of people and it was nice… there was a great social life. That said, being married to a musician “wasn’t easy”. “They worked five and six nights a week. And I was on my own… but you don’t think of those things when you’re young.

“I was really very cold… New York is cold, but once you go inside, it’s warm. You didn’t have that in Ireland.” Des and Audrey’s first home was in Newlands. “There was only about six houses there; the rest of them weren’t built yet. It was all just that little field… and we bought number 5… and it was a nice house, but there was no heating in it. The heating didn’t go in until a year later.” Once the heating was installed, Audrey had it on so often that an employee for oil company Esso remarked to another of The Drifters that, “Des Doherty must have built a mansion… they use the same amount of oil as Douwe Egberts!”.

As well as the weather, the food took a bit of getting used to. “I couldn’t believe there was no Chinese restaurant! I couldn’t get that through my head. There was no pizza, and desserts here probably weren’t as good, but the Greville had a lovely trolley, with several different desserts on it… When I came here, I didn’t drink tea at all. My mom and dad did; they were Irish, but I drank coffee. And everybody here drank tea.

"So if you went into anyone’s house, you were given tea. Well, you just got used to it, but I drank very weak tea.” Audrey recalls asking for the frozen food department in a shop called Lipton’s. “And they said, ‘Oh yes, it’s right behind you.’ When I looked behind me it was a freezer full of Bird’s Eye peas. That was it!” Grocer’s assistants would scramble to serve her, arguing over whose turn it was, because they loved hearing her pronounce certain words.

“And when I’d go in, I could hear them from the back: ‘Here she is! Here she is!’ Because I said ‘tomaytoes’ instead of ‘tomahtoes’… for me to say ‘tomahtoes’ back then was like being a show off, trying to do the Queen’s English; I couldn’t do it… And I couldn’t say the name ‘Doherty’. That’s very hard for Americans, we say ‘Dorty’.” Audrey got around this by spelling her last name whenever possible, rather than saying it aloud.

Seeing a friend bake for the first time, Audrey was “floored”. “I was out in Doreen Casey’s one day and she was making an apple pie. I’ve never seen anyone make an apple pie in my life… You have no idea, as a kid coming from New York, that people could do this. Because we went into these bakeries, and there was Greek bakeries and Italian bakeries… There was nothing you couldn’t buy: cakes, pies, nothing… Oh, when I saw Doreen make that apple pie… and when she finished, I went directly to the supermarket and bought everything.

The flour and the butter and margarine, whatever she put in at the time, and I wrote down the instructions… and I went home, and I made an apple pie, and I took it out of the oven and I just looked at it. Oh, it’s like I gave birth!” This was the start of a lifelong love of baking, and while it took some time to “conquer” brown bread, Audrey persevered and finally managed with a Darina Allen recipe that she tweaked.

In the 1960s, Audrey worked in the Manhattan office of a chemical company. In 2001, she joined Eircom as a telephone operator on their directory enquiries service, surprising callers with her New York accent. She enjoyed the role, even though they all got “funny” calls, especially after 11pm on Saturdays, when “you get the drunks”.

Upon hearing her voice, one caller became aggressive, outraged that an American had “a job down here with the earphones” when “there’s a lot of Irish people that need jobs”. Audrey’s response was more gracious: “I don’t know if you travel a lot, sir, but if you do, and if you ever go to New York or even Boston, you’re going to find there’s an awful lot of Irish working there, and I hope the people in my country treat them better than the way you just treated me.”

Audrey’s journey across the Atlantic echoed that of her parents, only in reverse. When they left Ireland for New York, Nora Hart from Kilmovee, Mayo, and Michael Connolly of Clarinbridge, Galway, were only 19 themselves. “They were from big families and small rocky farms… and there was no living, so they had to go to America. You get off the boat with your suitcase and know you’d never see your parents again, not in those years…

"My father arrived there and it was the crash of 1929, and he saw people picking food out of a garbage can and he thought, ‘At least I had potatoes.’ And my mom went over two years before, in 1927. Now, Mommy was lucky when she went out there; three of her sisters were already out. The first one had to save to go out. How they saved the first person’s money, I don’t know… When I went to Cobh the first time, I started to cry because I knew they left from there, and they knew they’d never see their parents again.”

In New York, Michael became a plumber with Rheingold Brewery before joining the navy. He served in World War II and Korea, and “landed up with a couple of pubs”. “When my dad was coming in after World War II, they docked in California and a lot of the Hollywood directors were there because all these men were coming through, and they would pick the ones that were good-looking… and they pulled my dad aside and said, ‘Would you take a screen test?’ He just looked at them. I don’t think he knew what it was.”

Nora’s first job in America was for Broadway composer and playwright George M Cohan. She soon became an in-demand housekeeper who “worked in millionaires’ houses” and “became quite friendly with the Guggenheims… she planned all their big dinner parties”. This is the same family, famous for their vast fortune, who established Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum. Audrey visited the Guggenheims’ enormous home with Nora once, and got lost on the way back from the bathroom. “Well, there must have been two or three doors in the bathroom because when I came out, I was in a different hall!” After a while, a grandson was sent to find Audrey. “He said, ‘Get lost?’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘Everybody does.’.”

Although Michael and Nora had married in 1934, it was another 12 years before Audrey was born. Her younger sister Maura was her only sibling. “I wouldn’t say we were spoiled; we certainly wouldn’t talk back; we knew our place… but I suppose having two children late in life, you’re going to be a little bit spoiled.” Audrey and Maura attended a boarding school where they “were probably the poorest kids”.

Audrey will never forget seeing her friend Lesley being collected one Christmas. “I saw this beautiful black shiny car pull up… and this man got out with a cap on and opened the door… and I heard him say, ‘Good afternoon, Miss Lesley,’ and Lesley got in.” On another occasion, when attending a birthday party at Lesley’s Manhattan townhouse, Lesley suddenly went under the table, telling her 12-year-old guests, “I’m looking for the button to press for the maid to come in.”

Michael died young, of a “massive heart attack” at the age of 53, while Nora passed away in 1984. Audrey returned to New York “every year or so”, usually in November, when there was “no dancing” in Ireland and all the showbands went to England. Her first child, Michael, was born in 1967 and “that was kind of something… to have another human, even a little thing, breathing”.

Audrey and Des had three more children: Tara, Lisa and Danielle. One by one, they all went to live in America when they were adults. She has nine grandchildren, all living in the states, except for Corey, who is the professional golfer in Tullamore Golf Club and lives a short walk from Audrey and Des.

“Now, I’m in my mother’s boat. I’m in my 70s and every time you say goodbye to the kids, you can see them; they don’t think we’re going to die.” Audrey has no regrets about emigrating at such a young age but acknowledges that she “gave up a lot” when she came here.

“When Mom died, I added up all the time I could remember, every time I was out there, from 1966 to 1984. And in all that time, if you put it all together, the months and the weeks, it was only two-and-a-half years… When you’re from one country and then you’re in another, it’s not easy. Half of your heart is in the USA and the other in Ireland. You love them both the same but in a completely different way.”