John Keane (Fairhill, Galway City to Cary, North Carolina, USA)

John Keane (Fairhill, Galway City to Cary, North Carolina, USA)

 John Keane

John Keane’s childhood memories of Galway are filled with innocent street games and joyous trips to watch the stars of the big screen. By the mid 1960’s however, he was fighting in Vietnam on behalf of his newly adopted US home. Now retired, John and his extended family enjoy their regular trips back to his native homeland.

Name: John Keane

Now living in: Cary, North Carolina, USA

From: Fairhill, Galway City


John Keane’s childhood memories of Galway are filled with innocent street games and joyous trips to watch the stars of the big screen. By the mid 1960’s however, he was fighting in Vietnam on behalf of his newly adopted US home. Now retired, John and his extended family enjoy their regular trips back to his native homeland.

My full name is John Daniel Keane although people who still know me in Galway call me Jack. I grew up in Beattystown, Fairhill in Galway’s Claddagh. I started in the Claddagh School, around 1949. I remember the headmistress, Mrs. O’Donoghue, who was very kind. I remember getting big pieces of bread and butter and jam at the Claddagh School. I don’t remember how often, but I remember enjoying it a lot. I then went to St. Patrick’s School (near the market), which was run by the Patrician Brothers. I remember Brother Alphonsus and Mr Mahony who were both very kind and also Brother Killian and Brother Cuthbert.


A Galway Childhood

Growing up in Galway was great in many ways. Most families were just getting by, so no one had a lot of toys, etc.  We had a lot of freedom though to wander around, we played on the street without worry about traffic, just a very few cars, some bicycles and Mr. Griffin’s daily milk delivery via horse and cart.

Like other families, we gathered seaweed from the beach to use as fertilizer in the garden. My grandfather was a great gardener, sowing potatoes, cabbage, onions, lettuce and wallflowers. I started a small business, selling the excess at the market on Saturdays. My grandfather would stand at the gate of St. Patrick’s and watch me sell. He wasn’t very helpful though, since every time he saw someone he knew looking at the vegetables, he would come over and give them away for free! I’d protest and he’d say, I know that old person and they are poor and have nothing. I did not make much money and I wasn’t happy that he was giving it away. I eventually understood that there were people worse off than us and that my grandfather was simply being kind-hearted. This man also served in the British Navy in WWI, as did many of his generation from the west of Ireland. He and my grandmother Kate (Conneely) Lally are buried in Forthill Cemetery.

We played CAD, this involved cutting a stick about six inches and tapering the both ends like a pencil top which you laid on the street, then using a longer stick, you whacked the tapered end to pop it up in the air and while in the air, you whacked it to send it as far as you could, this would be repeated until you missed hitting the smaller stick, then someone else got to play. There was lots of competition, yelling, total fun. Where we got the knives to taper the sticks, I don’t know, but I suspect some of the mothers in Fairhill wondered what happened to their kitchen knives. If you were lucky to find a decent length of good rope, you could tie it to the ESB pole and swing away round the pole. We would bet on card games with bottle tops, Vegas here we come! When it got cold enough (freezing) we would carry water in bottles, cans, anything we could use and spread water on the path down at the beginning of Lower Fairhill Road, behind the Dominican Church to create a slide. It was mad fun! On the dark nights, we often tied thread to peoples door knockers, hide behind a wall or a bush and pulled on the knockers, wait for someone to answer, wait until they went back inside, waited a minute and did it again and again. Lots of people believed in ghosts, so we did our part to keep that going. There were lots of other games that some of that generation may remember, ‘Jack / Jack show the light’, ‘Donkey’, ‘Billum Borem’, ”Marbles’, ‘Jacks’ etc. We managed to have fun. My favourite ghost story is on an evening coming from a Dracula movie at the Town Hall when we met Mrs McDermott at the bottom of Fairhill Road. She advised us to not go up the hill as there was a man standing at the top of the hill with his head under his arm, we scoffed at this story, but she said ‘I warned Ye’. We continued up the hill just a bit, and then our imaginations, fed by the Dracula movie got the better us, we thought we saw something stand at the top of the hill and in a terror, we all hightailed it back to Father Burke Road and went around Lower Fairhill. I’d say Mrs. McDermot had a good laugh on all of us!

Indeed, the cinema was a great source of entertainment for us. Every Sunday afternoon, if you could find the four pence to get into the matinee at the Town Hall, the Savoy or the Astoria. At the Astoria in particular, you would line up in the hallway all the way on the right – that was a special access to the cheap seats, keeping the rowdy kids away from the rest of the patrons! Then you would fight to keep your place in line, so that you could get one of the tickets. You had to be tough or were a member of a tough gang that would make sure you weren’t pushed out of line.  Once you got your ticket, it was a mad dash to get to the entrance door at the end of that hall to the rows of seats all the way in the front.  The cinema was built at a slant downwards to the front, so you had to lean your head back at 45 degree angle to see the screen.  They often sold more tickets than there were seats, so you could end up with someone else squeezed in with you in your seat. Whether it was the Astoria or the others, you had to get there early, get in line and fight to keep your place, so you would get one of the limited cheap tickets. When the movie was over, some real fun began. On the way home, we would re-enact scenes from the show we just saw, jumping over walls like Errol Flynn did as Robin Hood, or a Pirate. If it was Hopalong Cassidy and his sidekick Gabby Hayes, we would form a posse and go after the bad guys who robbed the stage coach. Then there were the ‘serials’ which were short stories that continued each week like a soap or a horse opera. Usually, at the end of each serial, one of the good guys / gals would be in mortal danger, gone over the raging falls, or dropped into the river of fire or some other dire fate. Of course next week, the hero would rescue them pulling them back from a certain death. That scenario was repeated every week and we eat it all up. We would be talking about it all week. It fed our imaginations and was the best fun!!

Emigrating to the US

I found various jobs in Galway including Naughton’s Shop Street, McDonogh’s Wholesale Grocery and Eason Wholesale News and magazines but decided to leave for the US aged 20 due to the lack of opportunity and frankly because of the way that working people were treated by employers. Another factor was that I had relatives in New York who seemed better off and more excited about their lives in the US. My uncle Sean Lally sponsored me for a visa and I arrived in the Bronx NY in 1964. It was so exciting, walking around NY was like living in a movie. Being in New York was mind blowing, Galway would fit in to a small corner of NY. That’s still true. There were many Irish immigrants in the city and lots of places to go dining and dancing. Initially, I hung out mostly with Irish people, but as time went on, I began to appreciate the diversity of the people in the city. I worked a couple of jobs (elevator operator and security guard) in the Garment Center in midtown Manhattan. I have to admit I was not adventurous with food that I was not used to, so I stuck to places that had the kind of food that Irish immigrants likes. There were many great choices back then.



I went to school and got my High School Equivalency Diploma. In 1965, I was called to serve (drafted) into the US Army after I was in NY for a year. I had to make a decision do I go or go back to Ireland. I decided there was no going back, I wanted to stay in the US and this was the price that had to be paid. I was inducted at Fort Dix, New Jersey and joined a group of others, mostly teenagers, just out of high school. We were inoculated, outfitted and then put on a bus to Fort Benning, Georgia, where we were met by a fearsome Drill Sargent, who, when he heard that we were mostly from New York and New Jersey, welcomed us to the “United States”. Basic training lasted nine weeks, I think. It was a blur, lots of running, jumping, yelling, breaking us of our civilian personas and whipping us into army shape. It was tough, but most of the people we started with made it through

Next stage was Artillery training. That took me to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where we learned all about 105mm Howitzers, how to operate them, shoot them, etc. It was winter and very cold, so I was glad when that ended. Our next assignment brought us to Fort Lewis, Washington. When I arrived, there were only enough people to take out one Howitzer for training and practice. I thought this is going to be a great assignment. I liked the Seattle / Tacoma area, very green, grey, cloudy, kind of like Ireland. That only lasted a month or so, before people started arriving by the hundreds. We learned that the 4th Infantry Division was being re-activated and prepared for assignment to Vietnam. I honestly did not give that much thought. What we knew about the war was not that alarming. We spent months training, live firing the Howitzers at the range in Yakima, Washington.

We were transported to Vietnam via a Navy ship, stopping in Guam for refueling. It was very crowded below, but we got time up top each day mostly for training. Finally arriving in the middle of the monsoon season at Qui Nhon. Then by truck to a muddy place that would become the 4th Infantry HQ outside Pleiku in the Central Highlands. Now, we Irish are used to rain, we can describe different kinds of rain, like the Eskimos can describe different kinds of snow. The monsoon season in south east Asia is something else entirely, three months of rain the Irish have no name for.

Bit by bit, the base was built and we finally got out of our mud holes and got into tents. That did not last long, as soon after operations began in support of Infantry units scouring the area from Pleiku to the Cambodian border in search of North Vietnamese units trying to move south to the Delta. This is how that worked –  the infantry would be given an area to search, they would secure an open field or create one. Then we, the artillery would come in using Chinook Helicopters to move us in to the field. The Howitzers would be positioned to support the operation. We would then fill hundreds of bags with sand to create a wall around the Howitzers and the Ammo. Over the next few days / weeks, the infantry would do their searches. Some would stay with us to guard our position. We would fire to support them as needed. During this time we eat ‘C Rations’, cans of meat / Franks & beans /other uncertain ‘food’ items. We often traded for certain items that were more popular than others. Then we would pack up and go back to base to wait a week or so for the next operation. This was repeated all through my year there.

We were often targets of mortar attacks, but you’d develop a keen sense for their sound and get into a trench as soon as possible. I experienced only one major attack. This was from a North Vietnamese unit near the Cambodian border, The noise from us firing at them and them firing at us and in addition artillery fire from other supporting units in the area and air cover dropping shells and bombs all around us, It lasted until just before daybreak, when they withdrew, leaving their dead and wounded behind. It was insane, I don’t know how we kept going, but we did. I’m still close friends with one person from that unit and I often think about so many others. That experience taught me that war is beyond stupid, a waste of human life, the scars that never really heal. It’s madness…

When I returned to the Army transition operation in San Francisco in 1967, other than completing the paper work for release from the Army, they told us to let our hair grow, don’t mention we were in Vietnam, go back home and live our lives. This was a result of the demonstrations in opposition to the war that were happening across the country and the verbal abuse that some soldiers were getting from demonstrators. I took that advice to heart and moved on with my life. I did get a warm welcome from my cousins on Long Island (Luckies, Sweenys, McGuigans). I also made a trip back to Galway, so my parents could see that I was OK.

Returning to the US

I returned to NY in 1967. I worked in the Garment Center for a while, then joined IBM where I had the good fortune to travel all over the USA, Europe, Australia and Asia. I also finished my Bachelor of Arts in Business Management at Dominican College in Blauvelt NY. After 30 years I retired and went back to IBM for another 8 years as a consulting project manager (PM), retired from that and spent several years doing project management consulting in the energy field. I’ve lived in North Carolina, New Jersey, Kentucky and now North Carolina. Along the way I worked as a volunteer teaching PM Certification Preparation for people who had lost their jobs or soldiers who were coming out of the army, all of whom needed additional skills to add to their resumes. I think after three retirements, I’ll hang it up and relax.

I got married to my wife Carol in 1971. Her parents are from Mayo and Sligo. We honeymooned in Galway and have also made numerous trips since then. I always find the changes in Galway to be quite remarkable – all for the best I’d say. While there have been several trips over the years for family occasions such as wedding and funerals, one of the memorable returns was with my whole family for my parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. My parents, Michael and Nora (Lally) have since passed away and are buried in Bohermore Cemetery. My four children and nine grandchildren are very aware of their Irish heritage. They too have made numerous trips to Ireland over the years. My youngest daughter spent a year 96/97 at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown. My sons have also been to Ireland several times with their families. Just recently my youngest son and his family and in-laws did a tour of the Wild Atlantic Way, then attended the wedding of my nephew Stephen in Galway. Both grandsons are sure they are going back. They loved meeting their Irish cousins. The eldest, Aiden, presented a report to his class on his trip.

I have a sister, Josephine Flynn (Dennis) and her family in Galway and Cavan. A sister Maura Heenan and her family in Manchester, UK. Lots of Cousins in Galway – Lallys, Phelans, Griffins, Kellys, Muldrews. As mentioned I also have a number of Irish relatives here in the US – Luckies, Sweenys, Sandovals, O’Connors, Esquibels, there are a lot us in this US diaspora!  I’ve built my life here in the US, but a piece of me will always belong to Galway.