Friday, April 4, 2008


Irish and Living with AIDS in New York

“I found out I had AIDS in 1994 when I took the blood test for the Morrison visa in Galway,” said Tomais O Saoire, a 31-year-old Irish house painter living in New York. “I felt that the ground had opened up and swallowed me whole. Everything I had worked for had been destroyed.”
Devastated and barred from returning to the United States, O Saoire snuck back into New York and started a two-year downward spiral of hard-drinking and two suicide attempts, with a seeming death sentence hanging over his head and all dreams of a legal status being crushed. But now with new medicines giving him hope for a long future, O Saoire has thrown himself into AIDS activism, co-founding a group called Irish AIDS Outreach to combat the still-pervasive ignorance in New York’s Irish community about AIDS. In a West Village cafe in Manhattan, O Saoire told his story.
“I come from a Galway farming family, one of nine children,” he said. “My parents were religious, but we still had our freedom.” After finishing high school in 1982, O Saoire traveled around Ireland and Europe. He started his sexual involvement with men after he began work as a painter. “In the 1980s, when I became sexually active, there was no knowledge in Ireland about HIV. There were loads of gay people, but people were still scared of opening up a gay bar or club. There was no protection, no idea of safe sex.”
In 1989, looking for a place to fit in, O Saoire moved to the United States illegally, settling in the Bronx. “Through word of mouth, I found work painting, doing fine finishes and trompe l’oeil work for businesses,” he said.
New York had been one of the world epicenters for the AIDS epidemic for about nine years when O Saoire moved to New York. “There was no education about the AIDS in the New York Irish community then and there still isn’t,” he said. He was still dating women as well as men when he moved to New York, but he eventually lived with a series of men.
In late 1993, while many of his friends had been called back to Ireland for their Morrison interviews, O Saoire was tense that he wasn’t going to get his visa. “When I finally received my notice, I celebrated for weeks on end.”
Back in Ireland that March, O Saoire found himself waiting in a clinic at the University College Galway for the results of his visa medical exam. “The doctor told me to sit down. I thought to myself, ‘Ah geez, I’ve got TB,’” the other medical reason for being rejected for a green card. The doctor told O Saoire that not only was he HIV-positive, but he had full-blown AIDS.
In a state of shock, O Saoire went to the U.S. Embassy in Dublin for his Morrison interview. “There were 300 people waiting, and they kept seven of us waiting for five hours while the rest of the people were processed. Several of the other people in this group were crying. I’m sure some others were in my position.
“When I went into the interview, the woman said, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve been refused [the visa] because you are IV-positive,’ meaning that I couldn’t return to the U.S.
O Saoire asked the embassy official about the fact he had a job, his possessions and his life in New York to go back to. “I’m sorry, there is nothing I can do,” she said.
Back in Galway, a devastated O Saoire told his parents that he was HIV- positive. “They stuck by me. My father insisted that it was not the end for me.”
A friend referred O Saoire to an Irish head nurse named Seamus working at an AIDS facility in London. “Seamus demanded that I come over and he took care of me, running a battery of tests. I took the blood test four more times, not believing I had AIDS. I thought I was going to be dead in six months time.”
Knowing he was going to be excluded from the United States, O Saoire flew to Toronto, Canada, and called some friends in the Bronx. The friends told him to go to Niagara Falls and rent a hotel room. In less than 12 hours, his friend Mary and her husband John picked him up.
“Through a hard rain wedrove across Canada to a place near Detroit. John dropped me off near two train tunnels and handed me a torch. He told me it was a two-mile walk through the abandoned tunnel along the train tracks to the United States.
“The tunnel was dark and filthy. Halfway through, a train came by in the tunnel next to me, filling my tunnel with diesel fumes. Though I was terrified, I remember laughing to myself that the headlines would read, ‘Irishman Found Smothered to Death Coming Back to America.’”
O Saoire, however, survived. “I came out into an old trainyard. My jacket was ripped and I was shaking, but I knelt down and said three prayers for my safe return. I waited in the rain with some homeless people, giving out my cigarettes, until my friends picked me up. I noticed the American flag was a half mast. I found out later Richard Nixon had died on that day.”
Back in New York, O Saoire’s life fell apart. “The next two years were mental hell,” he said. “I fell into a deep depression. I hit the bars and developed a heavy drinking problem.”
The irony of O Saoire being infected in New York in the early 1990s in that by then, the larger gay community in New York had made tremendous strides in AIDS prevention. Back home in Ireland, groups like the Dublin AIDS Alliance were forming to spread information about HIV and AIDS. The New York Irish immigrant community had seemingly been overlooked by these advances. “There is a lack of education in the Irish community about AIDS,” said O Saoire. “There has to be a rude awakening.”
O Saoire was terrified of being discovered as an illegal immigrant if he went to seek proper medical care. A friend, however, fixed up O Saoire with a false name and social security number, which allowed him to enter the U.S. government program that provides medication to people with HIV and AIDS.
In November 1994, O Saoire tried to kill himself. “I took 100 tablets of AZT [an AIDS medication] and whiskey. I called my friends and told them I’d had enough and good-bye. One of my friends who had my keys got into my house, pulled me out of bed and ran me around the apartment. At the hospital, they forced me to drink gallons of charcoal.” O Saoire allowed himself to be put under psychiatric observation for two weeks. “When I got out, my father and brother came over from Galway. It was their first time to the United States, so I insisted that we go sightseeing.”
Life improved for O Saoire until January 1996, when his friend Hessie was killed by a police officer in the Bronx. “Hessie had been there for me when I was in the hospital. He’d told me at the time, ‘Tommy, there is no need to hurt yourself. There are many people who care for you and their hearts are ripped to pieces by what you do to yourself.’”
O Saoire dove back into the alcohol and started smoking cigarettes and marijuana. He tried to kill himself again, swallowing twice as many pills as the first suicide attempt. Saving his life wasn’t so easy this time. “I was really sorry about what they put me through that time -- they pumped me out.”
O Saoire found the right psychiatric help and was put on the anti-depressant Prozac for a few months. He also joined an HIV support group named Body Positive. “My group is all gay, composed of decorators, architects and news reporters. Many of them are long-term survivors -- some have had HIV for the past 10 years.”
Medical advances against HIV also boosted O Saoire’s morale. Though he has never suffered any of the destructive opportunistic infections common with AIDS, he is taking the new protease inhibitors, which have knocked the presence of HIV in O Saoire’s blood down to undetectable levels. The drug therapy costs roughly $15,000 a year, but is paid for by the U.S. government. “For the Irish who have HIV, I urge them to stay in New York and not to go home,” he said. “This is the place where all the medical advances are.”
Optimism abounds in the American press over the new AIDS drugs. AIDS is not seen as a death sentence anymore, for those who can afford the new drugs. In fact, O Saoire’s own HIV support group has moved from weekly to monthly meetings because the members need less emotional support and want to get on with their own lives. Only time and medical results will tell if the rosy outlook is accurate.
O Saoire got involved with AIDS activism when he heard that Brendan Fay, an Irish gay activist from Drogheda, was setting up an AIDS group in the Irish community in New York. Fay was one of the founders of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, a group that has tried to march in New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade since 1991, but has been excluded by the Ancient Order of Hibernians who run the parade. After Fay received publicity for his involvement with ILGO, he was fired from his job as a Catholic school teacher.
“I know of dozens of Irish and the children of Irish immigrants who have died of or are living with AIDS,” said Fay. “We are getting together so that people living with AIDS do not have to live in isolation.
“It is not just a gay problem,” said Fay. “We have young Irish immigrants going into the bars and taking off their wedding rings. We also want to deal with women and children living with AIDS. Our goal is to give people the information they need to live happy and healthy lives in New York.”
Founded in September, Irish AIDS Outreach [IAO] now has 14 members. The group is composed of Irish and Irish-American men and women living with AIDS, social workers and several relatives of Irish who’ve died of AIDS. “We’ve set up a phone line and I am getting referrals about young Irish who are HIV-positive with no support, “ said O Saoire. “I tell them, for God’s sake, we are here for you.”
Irish AIDS Outreach has set up a men’s and a women’s support group. The group also plans to coordinate HIV education campaigns and the organize volunteers to help people living with AIDS, and will take part in events around World AIDS Day on December 1st. IAO has planned a community meeting entitled “Stories of Hope in the Time of AIDS” for December 5th at Flannery’s, a West Village bar. “It will be a relaxed environment, with tea and scones, and pints,” said Fay.
Fay said that though he has received a lot of verbal support for the new AIDS group, representatives from the Irish immigration organizations and church groups have yet to attend IAO meetings. One notable exception is Sister Edna McNicholas, an Irish-born nun who works with at-risk teenagers in the Bronx. “One of the Irish immigration leaders said that AIDS is not an immigration issue,” said Fay. “What about Irish immigrants being barred from the U.S. because they are HIV-positive?”
Recently up in the Bronx on Bainbridge Avenue, O Saoire went to the bar D.O’D.s, to speak with the owner Regina and to put up posters for Irish AIDS Outreach. Regina is from Cavan and has known O Saoire since he came to New York. “When I saw him after he came back from Ireland, he was very pale and had lost a lot of weight. I didn’t have to be told it was HIV. I kinda knew,” said Regina. “But he has friends here who don’t care if he is HIV-positive, if he’s gay.”
Regina said that many of her customers still scoff at the AIDS issue. “Men come into the bar, construction workers, and they think AIDS is a big joke,” she said. While Regina is talking, simultaneously serving the lunchtime crowd and dodging beer salesmen, an older customer reads the Irish AIDS Outreach poster on the wall. He makes an obscene comment and sits down at the bar.
To gain more medical benefits, O Saoire has taken part in the voluntary departure program of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, where he is supposed to permanently return to Ireland next year. He plans, however, to stay in New York.
O Saoire is still upbeat about his future. He wants to take his new boyfriend Des back to Ireland for his brother’s wedding in the near future. “My parents don’t know that I’m gay yet,” he chuckled. “Though after what I’ve been through the past two years, I am not afraid of anything.”


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