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Don Cunningham: What I Found in the Emerald Isle

By Colin McEvoy on July 5, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on July 4, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

My wife and I recently returned from a trip to Ireland and England.

We are both of Irish descent on our father’s sides of the families. Although we’re in our 50s, we had yet to visit the Emerald Isle.

Like the rest of those with Irish surnames, we’d been subjected to the regular “you have to go” chorus, and regaled with tales of the wonderfully nice people, the beautiful countryside, and the glorious pubs.

Let me drop the column spoiler right now: it’s all true. You do have to go! (Warning: Best to avoid me on St. Patrick’s Day and at family gatherings, I am now qualified to be “that guy.”)

In addition to the visit, the other required part of the Irish-American pilgrimage back to the land that was left behind is the search for family name history. Although my grandfather and his brother had exhausted the search for their grandparents’ hometown to no avail during their lifetimes, I felt compelled to do my part while in Dublin, as did my wife on her side. We each ponied up our 12.50 in euros at the Irish Family History Centre in Dublin.

The records are electronic now. And the young Irish lady assigned to help us was fantastic. The result, however, was the same. When they left, they left.

Neither Thomas Cunningham nor Bridget Dillon — who, after leaving Ireland, met and married in Conshohocken — ever wrote anything other than “Ireland” on any official record as their place of origin. No county, no town. Family lore has it that they came from County Clare. We spent time there. Beautiful place, and it’s still ripe with Cunninghams and Dillons but so is the rest of Ireland.

My wife, Lynn, also didn’t have any Irish luck with her family names, Collins and O’Loughlin. But, she did find out her dad’s grandfather died at Bethlehem Steel when he was crushed between two railroad cars. We didn’t see that one coming.

Shortly after learning of another tragic death in the Collins family, we dropped the genealogy search, figuring some things are best left in the past. We moved on to the Irish Immigration Museum, located next door.

It was here that we made a connection.

Turns out, the steerage sections on the ships that left Limerick for New York and Philadelphia in the 1860s were pretty much the same as a coach seat on a flight home today.

Yeah, their journey was longer and they had the whole seasick thing, but at least they could get up to stretch their legs. Modern budget airline travel is an exercise in claustrophobic pain endurance, particularly if you get the dreaded middle seat.

We often hear that our technological developments like the microwave and the internet came out of either the U.S. space program or the military. I’m pretty sure that the airlines lifted their new seat size and space-cramming program from the CIA’s interrogation and torture program.

In exchange for getting out of the middle seat on a 7½-hour flight back from Shannon, Ireland, I may have confessed to any interrogator’s demand.

I certainly don’t want to make light of the journey that my great-great-grandparents, Thomas and Bridget, underwent leaving from somewhere in famine-ravaged and poverty-stricken Ireland in the late 19th century, but hey, 150 years later there should be a bit more of an improvement.

You figure since 1870 the world has developed antibiotics, anesthesia, space flight, electricity, artificial limbs and hearts, telephones and mobile phones, automobiles, and, yes, airplanes. Seems like modern science and common sense could have developed airplane seats with more than 28 inches of clearance from the back of one seat to the front of another.

For those slow on conversions, that’s only 2 feet and 4 inches of space. The typical seat is now about 17 to 18½ inches wide. Unfortunately, the typical human is about that wide. The typical American is much wider. The land of milk and honey sought by all those immigrants has translated into their progeny being the land of the large and overweight.

While some of us could use a diet, it’s a bit difficult to make yourself shorter or reduce the size of your frame. The only time in my life I’m glad to be a mere 5 feet, 9 inches tall is when I board a plane. I truly feel for those 6-feet, 4-inch folks unless, of course, they’re seated next to me.

There’s nothing scarier than the perp walk of passengers coming down the aisle as you horribly assess the size and weight of each one hoping that you get a child or a little old lady or welterweight wrestler cutting weight sitting next to you. Fortunately, most of those really big guys from Texas fly first class.

That leads me to the real travesty of this completely unnecessary situation: It’s all about money and those with enough money don’t experience it. It didn’t used to be this way until the airlines decided they needed to make a whole lot of money, and they found out that they could get away with it.

In fairness, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and following the recession of 2008, major airlines were losing money, which was followed by the consolidation of carriers, the reduction of costs, the monetizing of every asset from bags, to drinks, to boarding order and, of course, cramming more and more people into less space and fewer flights. The process worked and airlines are now making money, lots of it. In 2018, total projected airline profits are about $34 billion, according to Statista, which compiles transportation and logistics industry statistics. American Airlines, United and Delta are in the top five of profitable airlines, ranging from about $5 billion to 8 billion in annual profit.

And, since those with money either fly first class, buy premium seats with more space or fly in private charter planes, there is no outrage from the rich and powerful, which is typically what drives change. In fact, airline shareholders rather like the profits and stock price growth.

Therefore, short of an unlikely consumer revolt, a flying boycott or the emergence of a disruptor with a new model, change is not likely. So, here’s how I look at it. In a modern life so far removed from the experiences of our ancestors that’s loaded with comforts and conveniences, flying coach keeps us close to the 19th century immigrant experience.

And, despite the pain of flying to Ireland — all of you with Irish surnames — really do have to go.

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