"The Plan Was Never to Publish"
What do you hope your readers will take away from your family’s journey and hardships?
As I tell book clubs and library groups, we can never forget that Briarhill to Brooklyn is an immigration story.
Americans are almost all immigrants, and somewhere on everyone’s family tree is an ancestor who came to America seeking freedom and opportunity. Those ancestral grandparents and great-grand-
parents were all brave people who faced the hardship of crossing an ocean—or, in today’s world, maybe it’s a dangerous trek across a desert or a river. The journey has never been easy, and the immigrant is sometimes not well-received.
Even in the 1850s, when the Irish arrived in America by the thousands, they faced discrimination, persecution, and hatred. Clearly, Briarhill to Brooklyn is an Irish immigrant success story, but its message of perseverance and survival resonates with generations of immigrants from many countries.
Of all the family members you mentioned in your book, who is most similar to you in personality and mindset?
In writing Briarhill to Brooklyn, I probably put a little bit of myself into several of my characters. Maybe it’s weird, but, because I share the given name John with several of my ancestors, at different scenes in my book various characters were written as though from my own perspective—John, the Da; John, the Angel; or Stanley, Martin’s oldest son, John Stanley. As a retired CPA, making Cate the family’s organizer and “banker” probably also reflects a little of my personality.
But the character with whom I most closely identify must be Martin, and, after all, he’s my great-grandfather. In the 10 chapters in which Martin narrates in his first-person voice, I tried to create a well-rounded character. He’s a little gruff and aggressive; he’s loyal, a little tender, and compassionate. Martin liked baseball and tipping a glass now and then, and I’m not saying I’m as compassionate and tender as Martin, but I do like baseball and beer.
Are there any family traditions from Ireland that were kept within your family even after they left?
I don’t have a list of Irish traditions to add here, and maybe that’s part of the reason I wrote Briarhill to Brooklyn. Without traditions, I was afraid the story of my family’s ancestors—our Irish heritage, the history of their bravery—would be lost in future generations. But I honestly don’t know what might have been considered a tradition in potato famine–era Galway. Certainly, there are no recipes, songs, or dances that have been passed down through our family from that era. The losses the family suffered only days after arriving in Brooklyn may have created a rupture in family traditions that we never overcame.
What are some new traditions that were made in the United States?
One tradition made in America might be medicine. While Briarhill to Brooklyn is a blend of fact and fiction, it is well-documented that one of the siblings, Dominic, became perhaps the most preeminent physician in Brooklyn. He delivered thousands of babies for Brooklyn’s incessantly procreating Irish, German, and Italian immigrant communities. Dominic didn’t have any offspring, but his brother Martin had children, and two of Martin’s sons, George and Marty, followed in Dominic’s footsteps and became doctors. In the next generation, two of George’s sons also became Brooklyn doctors, as did one of Marty’s. The medical profession skipped my generation, but my son is a doctor, and I have Bodkin cousins whose children are doctors, including—finally—a woman!
What made you decide to self-publish?
Briarhill to Brooklyn was born after a failed attempt to construct a family tree that would be of any interest to my siblings or my kids. The ancestry tree was boring, so my new goal became to write a book documenting my family’s story. My plan was that—decades from now—my granddaughter could pass the Bodkin history along to her grandchildren. I didn’t have enough facts to write a family history, so after years of trial and error, writing and rewriting, the book became a novel.
In the beginning, the plan was never to publish the book. I even talked to a printer about printing only a few leather-bound copies of what I had written, so I could give them to the family, but the printer’s requirements for the cover, professional editing, and interior design encouraged my decision to “do it right” and then sell the book.
What has been your experience in getting your book out to readers?
In the beginning, I thought writing was at times overwhelming, but then I thought the process of learning how to self-publish was just as daunting. After publishing, marketing became the new challenge. It’s as tough as I read it would be and seems endless. My wife will tell you I spend more hours each day working on some aspect of marketing than I spent writing. But the effort has its rewards and, with over 16,000 copies sold, I think I’m doing okay.
Looking back over the legacy created by your family, is there anything you wish they could have done differently?
That’s hard to answer without being drastic. If Da and Mam Bodkin hadn’t decided to come to America, I’d be Irish. However, considering the conditions that existed in County Galway in 1848—famine, starvation, typhus—there is a good possibility I wouldn’t be here at all. Without getting into the details of death and migration, the population of Galway declined by about 30% during the famine years, and the odds of Martin (my great-grandfather) dying before I was born are too great for me to imagine being Irish. So, I’m glad we came to America.
I don’t know if this qualifies as something I “wish they had done differently,” but you’ll read in Briarhill to Brooklyn that Martin began his family while living in New Jersey and my grandfather was born in Hoboken. I guess I’d rather be a third-generation New Yorker!
Brooklyn has changed a lot over the past few decades in terms of demographics and economic opportunities. How has your family dealt with the constantly changing N.Y.C. landscape?
Most of my line of Bodkins began moving to Long Island around 1950. Some stayed in Brooklyn—at least part-time—through the ’60s, and at least one of my Bodkin cousins lived in Brooklyn for decades. I don’t know if I ever asked my parents why we left Brooklyn, but I can guess it was in search of more green space for what would eventually be our large family. Or maybe it was my father’s desire to commute to New York on the LIRR for an hour every day for 30 years.
I visited and walked around Brooklyn a couple of years ago and was pleased to see the restoration and preservation in many of the neighborhoods where the Bodkins had lived, but disappointed by others.
What advice would you give to someone considering a big move into a new country or state?
Go for it—take the risk, be ready to work hard, and enjoy the experience.