Jack McQuoid (1910-1985): Migration, Immigration & Emigration – Writing Lives

Jack McQuoid (1910-1985): Migration, Immigration & Emigration

‘These American songs seemed to be her favourites. They seemed to inspire pictures of a land that was rich and free – a land that was a good place to go to – and such pictures were conveyed to me.’


Jack’s mother was the first to present America to him as the land of prosperity. ‘The “talkies” seemed to stimulate in us an interest in America.'(109) It seems that any means of entertainment during the 1920’s in Northern Ireland revolved around the prosperity of America. The economic depression that was occurring around Jack may have been the reason as to why so many looked to America as a land of hope.

‘Yet, at home, if one had money at all one could afford good food and good entertainment. Some of the entertainment was practically free.’(109)

Those who were lucky enough to still have a job during the 1920’s in Northern Ireland could only afford the luxury of avoiding malnourishment or boredom. During his late teenage years, Jack took on an engineering apprenticeship down at the dock’s in Belfast. His only motivation to do so was the same as his step-uncles and grandfather which was prospects of a better life and opportunity to travel.

Many in Jack’s workplace were being made redundant due to the economic depression. After realising that he may not survive his apprenticeship, ‘I got my bags packed in the June of 1930, and boarded the tender at Queen’s Quay.'(111) At only 20 years of age Jack takes on a most perilous journey into the unknown simply based on rumours, ‘that the streets were really paved with gold.'(109)

Luckily, a stranger gave Jack an address in Pasadena before he boarded the ferry. ‘Keep that box safe on ye till ye get there. It may come in useful…I should have goin’ back there the day myself… but I couldn’t get the price of the fare.'(111)

‘My friend Jerry was waiting for me when the liner docked. He said he had been given the day off from work so that he could come down to meet at the boat, and would be free to show me round the city. It was not until later he admitted that on that day he had lost his job.'(114) Already Jack’s image of America as land of hope is diminishing. The economic crisis that was occurring back home was just as bad in America.

Jack reflects back on his education and ponders why education does not prepare children for the harsh realities of life. ‘I came to realise that there was a thing called economics, a very important thing, and that at school we had been told practically nothing about it.'(115)

Jack’s idea of America being a street ‘paved with gold’ was no longer a reality in his eyes as he witnessed the real America. ‘There sat hundreds of men looking listless, looking tired, looking ragged, gaunt, and unshaven. This was my first glimpse of America’s new unemployed.'(115)

Strikers fighting for better jobs to support their families.

Hopeless and lost. Jack decided to continue on his journey to find prosperity from inspiration from the address in the matchbox given to him by a stranger! Random acts of kindness can have such a marvellous impact on other’s lives. ‘Though I held on carefully to the matchbox that had the California address in it, as things turned out, it was my uncle whom I first contacted in Pasadena. Uncle Jim was managing an orange ranch owned by a president of an oil company.'(121)

(Previously mentioned in my introduction) Most of Jack’s family on his mother’s side emigrated to America during times of economic hardship. Jack had no previous contact with his uncle. By chance he got lucky to locate him and secures a job from the kindness of his uncle. Not many others were as lucky as Jack to have family in America to give a helping hand. ‘He helped me to get a job on a smaller ranch near the foothills in Arcadia, a small neighbouring town that had once been a rather wild frontier town near a race track.'(121)

Photograph of an orange grove in Arcadia (1929)

Jack’s apprenticeship knowledge aided him in his new job. ‘I had to look after the irrigation system, and my engineering experience came in useful.'(122) Jack is astonished by many people’s ability in America to switch from an office job to a labour job in order to earn a living. ‘The manager of the ranch was once a bank manager in Arizona. It was astonishing to me, fresh from Belfast, seeing Americans changing their jobs from desk to bench, from bench to railway track or orange ranch, and then move up again perhaps to a director’s chair.'(122)

Eventually Jack started to see the benefits of living in America. ‘It was my manager who sold to me my first car. It was an old Model T Ford that he let me have for five dollars – about the price for a pair of shoes.'(122) Being able to afford a car back home was a symbol of wealth. Jack was able to live the life of luxury he desired but was still cautious of the economic status of America: ‘In writing home to my friends, I was always careful about advising them if they expressed a wish to come to they USA.'(123)

Advertisement of a Model T Ford car.

Howard Zinn addresses the chaos of America’s economy during the 1930’s. ‘Clearly those responsible for organizing the economy did not know what had happened, were baffled by it, refused to recognize it, and found reasons other than the failure of the system. Henry Ford, in March 1931, said the crisis was here because “the average man won’t really do a day’s work unless he is caught and cannot get out of it. There is plenty of work to do if people would do it.” A few weeks later he laid off 75,000 workers.’(Zinn, 2015, 446) Henry Ford created the symbol of wealth(Model T Ford car) for the working class man. This tycoon fed off of the working class man’s labour but continued to ridicule them and blame the crisis on their exhaustive labour.

‘In spite of the depression, I had saved a few hundred dollars. As the pound slumped, the British shipping lines, through their American agents, started to offer trips at sea, that carried a few passengers, were offering passages from California to England for forty pounds or even less – one way.'(129)

Jack decides to take the opportunity of cheap travel by taking a trip back home. ‘It was obvious that in California the depression would get worse before conditions would begin to improve.'(129)

America not only offered Jack the chance of prosperity in terms of material items, he was able to further his education. ‘I had attended night classes at the Junior College on writing, and I thought that if I were to go home for a while, I could live for a short time quite cheaply on what I had saved, pursue my writing, then return during the economic recovery period well equipped to follow my new interest. Oh, the optimism I had in those days!'(129) Jack’s present narration offers a humorous insight into his naivety of hoping to return to America.

Ironically, the matchbox Jack received made him continue his journey to Pasadena. Likewise, this note made up Jack’s mind about whether or not to travel back home. ‘As I took the note I could not help thinking: “Is this the note in the matchbox incident in reverse? Aye, reverse perhaps, in more ways than one!'(130)

It seems that Jack had luck by his side during the perilous time of the depression in America. ‘I will always remember the look of concern on the bank teller’s face when I presented my bank book at the desk and said I was closing my account.'(130) The following day Jack is informed by his colleague that all the banks are foreclosed. ‘I could see the look of desperation in his eyes. He was a man who still had a job, yet had no money with which to buy a meal.'(132) Despite not knowing if he would return back to California, Jack gave his colleague $10 to keep him and his family going.

Jack compares his return to Ireland to his fondness for theatre. ‘My first sight of Ireland after three years absence likened to a stage set! Oh yes, in my delightful innocence then I had not much knowledge of the world of the theatre and make believe.'(149) He comments on his prior innocence to the world of acting that he soon encounters upon his return to Ireland.

‘There was a sense in which the autobiographers found themselves unable to write easily about their family life.'(Gagnier, 1991, 229) Jack contrasts this statement as he talks about his father throughout his memoir. Jack writes in a nostalgic tone as he reminisces fond memories spent with his father. ‘It all seems so long ago. Now that I am much older than my father was then, and have a son of my own over thirty who is about to be married this year, I feel a bit shocked at the comment: “Dear old dad! After three years he just looked the same.” Ah, but then I had no knowledge of the changes the next decade would bring.'(153) Jack is appalled how at a young age he did not appreciate the time he had with his father. A younger Jack was shocked that his father had not improved in anyway compared to how he had excelled from his three years in America.

Interestingly, Jack later speaks of his time in California at the end of his memoir by informing his reader that he had attended the opening ceremony of the 10th Olympics. His memory of the experience was brought back by the 23rd Olympics taking place in the same stadium. ‘Some landmarks seemed familiar and they took me back in memory fifty two years when I and my cousin Bill went to see the opening ceremony of the 10th Olympiad at that very same stadium when it was just newly built.'(316)

Opening Day at the Olympic Stadium (Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum), July 30th 1932

Jack compares California of the 1930’s to that of the 1980’s. ‘They were not so elaborate as those of the say before yesterday, but then California was still fresh and anew. There was no smog then, no elevated motorways, not half the population of that city today, and not much crime.'(316) Jack identifies how society has developed by being able to display such an elaborate event. Although, he does identify the environmental drawbacks of ‘smog’ and social ones of ‘crime’.

The following extract is from Jack’s diary that he wrote on the 30th of July, 1932: ‘Fifteen minutes before the Olympics ceremonies began, we made our way towards the stadium. By this time thousands of people were moving in the same direction, but there was no jostling or cramming.'(317) Jack reflects on a simpler time in his life when society was not as overwhelming as it is in his present time of writing.

Jack conveys the vast grandeur of the stadium but reflects on the impact it had caused society at the time. ‘It was rather breath taking, entering the stadium for the first time. It had been built at great cost at the time of a depression, but it spread work around when jobs were few.'(318)

Similar to Edna Bold, Jack also quotes T. S. Elliot in his work. It is fitting that Jack ends his memoir and experience of America by quoting T.S. Elliot as it creates a cyclical effect of his writing. ‘I keep thinking of T.S. Elliot’s lines that says that the end of all our exploring is to go back to that place where we started and see it for the first time.'(320) Jack reflects on his experience of being a young naïve boy eager for travel that shapes him into the man he is today.


Gagnier, Regenia.  Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832-1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

McQuoid, Jack, ‘One Man in his Time’ pp.328, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, vol. 4.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper, 2015.

NB: all pictures and images have links of their source.

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