how the world sees america

Abusive Father, Fatherland, But America Stood By

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As a child, checks from America financed his father's alcoholism. At thirty, he invoked the memory of JFK in bar fights with British guys and in run ins with the British authorities who accused him of supporting the Irish Republican Army. Now Tom Dolan lingers on street corners in London's Trafalgar Square, seeking out the comfort of American strangers.

Over many hours, Tom slowly unraveled his life story for me. He has never visited America. His connection to the country is with the idea of America and of Irish-Americans, which gave him great strength in "hellish times."

In Tom's life drama, alcohol is the antagonist. It entered the stage shortly after his birth when his father returned from World War II unhinged, lusting for fights and women. One time his father tried to bring a broom down on his head, but his mother saved him with her arm, which broke in nine places. Since he can remember, Tom itched to leave the “filthy bog” called home.

In subtle ways, America provided some early escapes. Tom imagined the country as the far-off land of plenty magically issuing forth clothing and money in boxes sent by relatives. One article of clothing, green American gumboots, helped Tom escape to go fishing. He could trample knee-deep through any swamp without getting wet.

Unfortunately, along with clothes and money came more means for his father to procure alcohol. Tom remembers his mother walking miles down the road to intercept the mailman every week, hoping to catch any green dollars that might be waiting with him before her husband could whisk them away. She'd hike far only to find her husband had woken up earlier, left work, reached the town post office first, and was already drinking the money away.

At seventeen Tom left Ireland for England. He picked up odd jobs to get by, falling into a crowd of laborers that partied hard. As months passed, he became more and more like his father, drinking up to fifteen pints a night and smoking forty cigarettes a day, Tom said. He kept getting fired from jobs for falling asleep at the wheel of a tractor or showing up two hours late to the train station to usher passengers.

To support his expensive habits, Tom discovered his own voice. He knew he could sing drinking songs; he discovered he could also sing popular American country music by artists like Patsy Kline, and get free booze for it too. He became a regular performer at local Irish pubs, cultivating hordes of young female admirers, "Far too many to take home all at once." But Tom never forged any lasting relationships because he was too afraid of becoming like his father.

The bar scene was always dangerous, Tom tells me, but the IRA scare made it worse. When Tom won money gambling or playing pool, his incensed competitor would gather together friends and beat Tom, sometimes kicking him till he was coughing up blood, "and not stopping still."

When the British government harassed him, accusing him of being a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the stakes got much higher. He could not fight back. Outside the law, British citizens also picked fights with him, battling with broken bottles and fists against his Irish identity.

Once again, America offered some hope indirectly, and some sense of empowerment. When John F. Kennedy came to office as America’s first Catholic president, Tom was filled with pride. In the bars he’d always refer to this far-away man as his personal hero. He was "proud of America" and of his Irish relatives “getting along so well there.” In America there “was no stigma against them [the Irish].” They could prove their mettle. When Kennedy died, Tom could barely stand it, choosing instead to "get drunk for a month."

Tom Dolan sports his NYC sweatshirt.
At age 40, Tom finally entered a rehabilitation center run by nuns. After nine months he was released, and has touched neither alcohol nor cigarettes since. But his life is now spent almost entirely alone -- away from the club scene, away from drinking mates, and away from adoring women listening to him sing. “I can’t enter a pub and just drink Pepsi," he moans. Tom lives without any family or friends in government-provided housing near the Gipsy Hill train stop thirty minutes outside of London.

Most of his days now are spent on street corners, not begging for money, just hoping for some attention. American tourists, he says, are the most likely to give it to him: “When they hear my voice…” he tells me, “Americans just go on about their Irish relatives." They "love talking about it." Casual encounters sustain him. His favorite sweatshirt reads New York, U.S.A. Though he’s never been there, he wears it all the time, ready to defend it at any cost.

“I was walking down the street two weeks ago wearing this shirt. And two Arabs had a go at me…saying I shouldn’t be wearing…that American rubbish because Americans are murderers....I told them America had saved the whole world.” Talking to me now, he explained, “America stood by Ireland….I'll never forget that." More exactly, Tom seems to feel that when no one else would, America always stood by him.

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Amar C. Bakshi:

Tom Nolan, interestingly, is strongly in favor of whatever measures it takes to contain current Islamic terrorism. He doesn't think anything should be held back. But when I ask him about how he was treated, he gets irate. Are there links between IRA terrorism and Islamic terrorism? Yes, he says, but the latter is a far graver threat, and the times have become "so politically correct" that you can't address it sufficiently he says. Did America indirectly fund terrorist activity? Tom would say yes, but it wasn't anything like now....


Does this not raise the question: Was America, not so long ago, complicit in supporting, somehow, (Irish) terrorism?

It is interesting to see that the question was not even mentioned, only that "America stood by Ireland".

Possibly Syria and Iran are just "standing" by Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine...?

Amar C. Bakshi:

Should be fixed.

Musharraf :

I realize this comment has nothing to do with Amar C. Bakshi, but...

I click the "Can Musharraf Survive" link from the main page, and get this page. How does this have anything to do with Musharraf? Stupid Post...

Amar C. Bakshi:

Thanks Forgiven for the elegant post and for the well-placed quote!


For so many in the world, they have a love of the dream of America. What America could be and what it represents to them in a sort of fantasy. Sort of like the airbrushed pin-up with all of her blemishes covered and not based in reality.

Sometimes it is not the object of our love that we love, but the idea of love that we love. The goosebumps that it gives, the way it makes everything smell sweet like honeysuckle, or can do no wrong.

And then of course there is the reality...

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived and dishonest -- but the myth -- persistent, persuasive and unrealistic - John F. Kennedy

Jack, Ireland:

Langley, there is no comparison between the IRA and today's terrorists. None.


different kind of post, but i like it, sometimes connections to america are a bit more subtle, emotional.

it seems his experience accused of being an IRA man would color his view of terrorism today. don't know much about it, but how does he feel about war on terror


like the sweatshirt, but this one's a bit of a stretch.

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