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Reflections from Boston Radical steps needed to make the American Dream achievable for all

Columnist Larry Donnell reflects on the US’ shortcomings for its citizens as he travels home for his beloved aunt’s funeral.

AND SO IT was that I found myself, wholly unexpectedly, boarding an Aer Lingus flight at Dublin Airport, bound for the city of my birth, on Monday, 25 March. Listening to aviation expert Kevin Byrne and Pat Kenny on Newstalk this week discuss just how irrational the fear of flying is renewed my embarrassment at how I comported myself on both legs of the transatlantic journey.

I have been scared of air travel since a horrendous experience of being in a tiny propeller plane that careened across the sky between Philadelphia and Worcester, Massachusetts on a stormy night in 1994. I would estimate that I have safely crossed the ocean approximately 80 times in the past two decades. Yet the sheer terror that invariably grips me when the large jet commences its taxi toward the runway persists.

To those unlucky enough to have to sit next to me as I grunt, grimace and shudder at the slightest hint of turbulence, I sincerely apologise. The unfailingly kind and professional cabin crew, who typically have to comfort and reassure this nervous wreck that we will make it, have my eternal sympathy. I would not do their job – or deal with the likes of me – for a €10 million annual salary.

In conversations with recent Irish visitors to the traditional favourite destinations or to seldom trodden territory in the United States, the same two topics came up. Number one, the expense of nearly everything is extortionate. A few informed me that they’ll never complain about the prices here again. Number two, the stench of weed is inescapable, no matter where you go. Their unanimous, depressing observations are spot on.

Irish Christmas shoppers once kept customs agents busy when they arrived back from America with overloaded suitcases, having purchased anything that wasn’t nailed down at huge outlet stores. There were bargains aplenty. Whether it can be attributed to Covid-19 or the scourge of global inflation or a multiplicity of complex factors, this is no longer true.

Eight dollars for a dozen eggs. Twenty dollars for a glass of wine. Five dollars for a local paper with scant content. The daylight robbery goes on and on.

And the thing that really riles many foreign tourists is that the figure on a menu at a restaurant or pub isn’t the actual charge; it’s a fraction of what is ultimately due when tax and tip are added in. As I kept saying to my pals, I don’t know how you do it.

And that is before endeavouring to pay for a third-level education. A Boston Globe headline ran on 27 March: “The cost to attend these New England universities will top $90,000 a year this fall. Expect more to follow.” Even allowing for the widespread availability of financial aid, that is patently absurd.

Drug laws and policy in the US were and remain in need of reform. That said, the full legalisation of marijuana in Massachusetts, supported by a majority of the electorate (including this overseas voter) in a 2016 referendum, has had a profound consequence that can simultaneously be termed annoying and ominous.

The streets of Boston city centre, and of surrounding suburbs, are permeated with the nauseating odour of pot. This is awkward for parents to explain to their young kids holding their noses in protest, on the one hand, and, on the other, there are detrimental effects on habitual smokers and on society more broadly, although the drug’s proponents argue persuasively that it is less dangerous than alcohol.

While nothing readily links exorbitantly high prices and increasingly prevalent drug use in public, they are intertwined elements of the cultural milieu in the US in 2024.

The model is under serious strain at the moment. Some prosper, but very many are hurting. A substantial swathe of the citizenry is devastated.

I am not one of those often smug pessimists who claims that the country is irretrievably broken. It is manifest, however, that radical surgery is needed to repair the polity and make the American Dream achievable for those who can’t grasp it. Critics of Joe Biden are correct in that he doesn’t have all the answers. The tens of millions who have latched onto Donald Trump in the hope that he will be a panacea could not be more wrong, though.

Deeper musings on the condition of the first of my two homes aside, I returned there because of the relatively sudden death of my aunt, Louise Lydon, the last of my father’s siblings. The four of them, Dad, Paul, Brian and Louise, died within three years of one another. She was 86 and had a full, happy life. Still, it was heart-breaking. When I was told the bad news, I knew I had to go.

It was inspiring to see her children and grandchildren battle through their grief, rally around her surviving husband, my Uncle Paul, and give the retired nurse, who was remembered as a wonderful, caring person, the marvellous send-off she richly deserved. What sums up Aunt Louise’s goodness for me is that, despite the passage of time and the thousands of miles separating us, a birthday card conveying love appeared every November in the post box in Wicklow for her now middle-aged nephew.

And so it was a couple days after she was buried that I found myself in an Uber headed for Logan Airport from the house in East Milton, on the city’s southern fringe, where I grew up and where my brother and his wife are raising their son. Gazing at the Boston skyline as it came into view made me realise that it will forever be the place above all that I know and love so well, notwithstanding how much it has changed and how long I have been gone from it.

It also conjured up a potent mixture of contrasting feelings at the conclusion of this short trip – of what might have been, of perpetually being betwixt and between, of family and friends old and new, of always being welcome, but equally, always being an outsider. The emigrant’s lot.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with

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