Unafraid of Crossing Oceans, Una O’Hanlon Says Hello


here are three good things about Boston College’s dining halls: the omelettes, the muffins, and Una O’Hanlon.

If you’ve ever eaten in Mac, you know who she is—the cashier who greets people by name, asks about their weekend, and smiles at each pre-caffeine zombie student that comes to her line. Her friendliness and happiness are unrivaled, and her Irish brogue makes her impossible to miss.

Born to farmers in a small town called Carnmore just outside of Galway, Ireland, O’Hanlon is no stranger to hard work. She was a middle child, and the only reprieve of a daughter among nine sons. After her mother fell ill following the birth of her youngest, O’Hanlon became the de facto mother to her siblings. She cooked, cleaned, and babysat as a young teenager, while her father worked on the fields. Although O’Hanlon’s mother was called a stay-at-home mom, she did all of the work that the men did, and more. It certainly wasn’t always easy, but O’Hanlon feels incredibly fortunate to have been part of a close family.

“I was lucky to come from a family that was very happy,” O’Hanlon said.

O’Hanlon recalls always having friends and family over to their home, as her parents had family living across the country who needed a place to stay when they came to visit. Her parents’ devotion to faith, family, and friends is what made them who they are, and what O’Hanlon and her brothers try to emulate in their own adult lives.

O’Hanlon observed that while other families around her had falling-outs because of land or other familial issues, hers endured and stayed as tight-knit as an Irish wool sweater. In 1985, O’Hanlon decided to take a six-week trip across the United States and Canada. She traveled to Chicago and New York, ending her trip in Brighton, Mass., where five of her brothers already lived.

While leaving her lifelong home for the U.S. was a big decision, it was also an easy one. When O’Hanlon first came to the U.S., it was to visit her five brothers who had already immigrated. 1985 brought O’Hanlon to Canada, Chicago, New York, and ultimately Brighton, which already felt like home.

“I knew this is what I wanted,” she said. “I loved the life here.”

On Monday night of Labor Day weekend, O’Hanlon went out to the bar where her brother worked. She wandered into a bar filled to the brim with Irish people, including Jack, a man that she had never met despite him living a short distance away from her in Ireland (think: Newton to Brighton). Although O’Hanlon went home shortly after, she returned back to the States the following year and began dating Jack seriously after that. They now have three kids and are happily married.

When O’Hanlon arrived in Massachusetts, she had no idea what she would be doing for a living. She left behind a stable, but monotonous, job as a secretary at a car dealership, where she missed being able to interact with all different kinds of people. She never questioned her decision to move to Massachusetts—while other people came with the idea of eventually returning home, O’Hanlon never planned on going back. She was excited and happy about the endless possibilities before her, knowing that America could give her the freedom to pursue things that she actually wanted to do rather than what she was expected to do.

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O’Hanlon felt a strong social pressure in Ireland—people talked, and you were supposed to listen. People who worked jobs that weren’t considered “professional” by the status quo were often looked down on, and it seemed that you couldn’t live freely without people gossiping and judging. O’Hanlon felt that when she came here, she could do whatever she wanted—get a job, go out for the day—without facing the whispering of her neighbors.

“That’s one of the things I liked,” O’Hanlon said. “Anybody could do anything.”

O’Hanlon took advantage of being able to do whatever she wished without judgement—she worked odd jobs as a nanny and house cleaner before she had children, at which point she took off so that she could spend time with them at home. When her youngest was 5, she went back to work part-time, alternating hours with her husband so that her kids never had to be left with a sitter or uncared for.

While she was working at a sandwich shop, she met a Frito-Lay distributor that she became friendly with. He always told her that she should apply to work in the dining hall at BC. He promised that it was a great opportunity and said that she should give his name if she ever changed her mind. O’Hanlon wanted to wait until her kids were old enough, but she applied to work at BC in 2000.

BC can feel like the most Irish place in the U.S. at times. I’ve never met so many Jacks and Shannons and Kates. It seems that every other person seems to have a claddagh ring on, and “I’m Shipping up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys plays at every football game. It makes sense, considering the roots of BC’s founding. And while BC is no longer a school only for Irish immigrants, the culture is still very much present.

O’Hanlon says that working at BC is the best thing she’s ever done. The pace, the people—it all caters directly to her passion for talking to people. She did notice, however, that working for a large company was very different from what she was used to at home, where everyone knew everyone. She felt that there wasn’t a personal aspect to the job in the way that she was used to. Instead of feeling downtrodden or overlooked, O’Hanlon made some changes of her own to feel at home at work.

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As time passed, she grew friendly with students, asking them about their day, learning their names, and making conversation with anyone who was willing. She loves that she’s running around all day—you can often see her leaving the register to fix the toaster or running back to the kitchen to grab something for a student or coworker. What might be stressful or overwhelming for someone else is what O’Hanlon thrives with. She just thinks never a dull moment and carries on with a smile on her face. O’Hanlon is so content that she wants to remain here until she retires—although she thinks she would consider taking a part-time job after that.

O’Hanlon believes that working is one of the most important things you can do. She doesn’t want to become the common retiree in Ireland—spending most of her time at home, forced out of work, expected to be mostly sedentary.

“I think you need to socialize,” she said. “You need to interact with people.”

O’Hanlon does have other plans for retirement beyond working—she hopes to spend as much time as possible with her children, and their families. Her daughter is engaged, planning to get married this year, and O’Hanlon is excited for when she decides to start a family. Ideally, she would be able to split her time between Ireland and here, keeping in touch with her family as her parents did.

Her three children have all finished school: Rory graduated from BC in 2013, Sarah graduated from the University of Maine in 2014, and her youngest, Laura, just finished at the University of New Hampshire and is planning to work in fashion merchandising. O’Hanlon believes that her children are incredibly lucky—even though they grew up in the U.S., they are very familiar with their Irish heritage and spent summers on the farm back home. They were incredibly close with their grandparents, but didn’t know any of the hard times that O’Hanlon and other Irish immigrants did while they were growing up.

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O’Hanlon always reiterates how lucky she and her family are. She sees herself as lucky to have decent and good parents, lucky to work at BC, lucky to not know the hard times that other people did. O’Hanlon is above all things grateful—she has the ability to enter any situation and make it better because of her own incredible personality and ability to love others. She acknowledges that she got to where she is because of hard work. She believes that people shouldn’t be afraid to work hard, and that’s something that she and her husband made sure to encourage in their children. They never skipped school or acted irresponsibly—O’Hanlon taught them that there are some things you just have to do. She thinks that her values come from her upbringing.

“That would be the one thing that made me who I am: my parents,” O’Hanlon said.

      Featured Image by Taylor Perison / Heights Staff 

Colleen Martin

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