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Dublin: 15 °C Thursday 9 July, 2020

"I was desperate": Cork woman jailed for sneaking across Mexican border

Delia O’Callaghan spent a month in prison after trying to enter the US illegally after 15 years of living in Boston. Now she’s written a book about her experiences.

Delia O'Callaghan
Delia O'Callaghan
Image: F22 Photography

CORK WOMAN DELIA O’ Callaghan went to America for a short trip, and loved it so much that the next time she went back, she stayed there.

Without a visa.

Fifteen years passed, and the moment O’Callaghan never thought would arrive did: she was caught.

On the way to her sister’s wedding in Ireland, authorities in Shannon realised that she had been living in Boston with no visa.

American Dream

When her passport was stamped ‘denied entry’, O’Callaghan refused to let her American Dream come to an end. She had a home in Boston, a boyfriend called Frank, great friends, and a career.

She wasn’t going to let it go without a fight.

That led her to the Mexican border, in a friend’s car, practicing her Boston accent in an attempt to sneak back into the country.

I was just so desperate, so desperate to get back. The worst thing I thought was going to happen if I’m caught I’ll be locked up for night or two and send me home.

Her attempt failed. The American dream ended with a month’s stay in prison.



Today, she lives in Cork and dreams of returning to American again soon. Her five-year ban on travelling to America is nearly up, and she’s hopeful she’ll one day get a holiday visa.

But it’s unlikely she’ll ever live in her beloved Boston again.

O’Callaghan has now written about her life-changing experience in a book called Honeysuckle to Handcuffs, which she self-published.

“It’s great material but it’s an awful thing that’s after happening. I made lemonade out of lemons,” she said of her jailtime.

She took copious notes while in prison, and took two years off to write after her return to Ireland. O’Callaghan doesn’t quite describe the experience as cathartic.

Time is a great healer. So nothing I would have done would have made it easier or harder. Because it was an awful thing, I had to put a funny spin on it. In the last four years I’ve had so many downs – more so than ups. Not at one point did I ever say ‘I’m not doing this’.

The book is light and funny, rather than intense or dreary. There’s not a day that goes when O’Callaghan doesn’t think about what happened.

“Has it changed me? I suppose, yeah. I really did go into a sort of depression when it all happened. I really loved America and I didn’t want to be here.”

Even though there are kind of humorous bits in there about food and not being able to call my family, that was very, very difficult. I think I kind of put a lot of it to the back of my mind. There were lots of tears and lots of sad days. But you’d be surprised what you can do when you have to do it.

‘I always though the law would change’

She misses America – “I loved Boston itself, I loved my life, my job” – and the sense of freedom she had there. Over the 15 years she lived without a visa, she came home to Ireland many times, which gave her a sense that she’d never get ‘caught’ living illegally.

“I always thought the law would change,” she admitted, adding that she applied for the green card lottery regularly.

“In a way I did get a little bit cocky in that I did come home 22 times in 15 years. I don’t know if that’s being brave or stupid.”

She knows that she broke the law, and stresses that in her book.

“I got what was coming to me,” said Delia. “But then again I was never on benefits. I was there 15 years, I was never out of work, I gave donations, I never took anything from the system.”

These days, she believes that people who have been in the US illegally for a long time, and who don’t have a criminal record, should be awarded citizenship.

Her story bears a number of parallels to that of Piper Chapman, whose book the US TV series Orange is the New Black is based on. But O’Callaghan hasn’t watched that show yet, partly because of the many similarities.

Of her jail experiences, she recalls feeling fearful – about her elderly parents, what her friends were up to, and about her own safety. Some days, she “couldn’t get out of bed because I was just so nauseous with worry”.

I would be a strong person – not a lot would scare me to be honest. But I suppose it was the isolation and I knew that was the end of my life in America.

Her Irishness made her stand out. “It was in my favour, yeah definitely. Even the police officers, they’d chat and want to know what  happened to you,” she recalled.

O’Callaghan described the experience as “humbling”, and warns people thinking of emigrating to the US to learn from her mistakes.

“Just make sure you have your papers. I always thought ‘I’ll get married and it’ll be fine – I’ll meet an American’. One year ran into the next. My advice would be to definitely have the proper papers and don’t be thinking you’re above the law – because you’re not.”

From Honeysuckle to Handcuffs is available in Eason nationwide, Porters, Waterstones, Book Station, and other local book stores.

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