Former dairy farmer Billy Lawless has become one of Chicago’s most successful restaurateurs. He wants to bring that same drive to his role as senator for the Irish diaspora, writes Maria Moynihan.
It’s been 40 years since Billy Lawless was interviewed by The Irish Farmers Journal. “We were in liquid milk in Galway city,” he explains, as he settles behind his desk at Seanad Éireann, “and I was rowing for Ireland at the time.”
An update, then, is somewhat overdue.
Because who could have predicted back then that Billy would become the first senator for the diaspora because of his work for the undocumented Irish in the United States, having immigrated there himself 20 years ago: going on to become one of Chicago’s most successful restaurateurs, employing over 300 people.
FROM THE WEST TO THE WINDY CITY
Among the framed family photos on the window sill, we spot one of Billy and his wife Anne with Barack Obama, snapped when he introduced the then-US president at a rally on immigration reform in the Windy City in 2014.
A long way from Dangan on the outskirts of Galway city – where the university playing pitches are today and where the Lawless family once farmed.
His mother, Nelly Fitzgerald, moved to Galway from Clonakilty in the 1940s and, according to Billy, “introduced, single-handedly actually, the small chick to all of the West of Ireland and the Aran Islands”.
“They used to call her Bean Na gCearc,” he smiles of the relationship she built up with the farmers’ wives that she advised on poultry keeping. “She was the first woman in Galway to have a government car.”
His father, Tom Lawless, was similarly “ahead of his time”, despite having left school at just 11, after his father died. With innovations like a portable petrol four-unit milking machine, he built up a successful liquid-milk business, supplying local hotels like the Skeffington Arms and the Great Southern on Eyre Square.
“That’s where I got my long arms from,” laughs Billy of how farming lent itself to his later rowing career. “Lifting six-gallon cans up three flights of stairs into the restaurants.”
With an outlying farm in Feeragh as well, Billy built up the business, but after marrying at 20 (“A much older woman: she was 21!”) and starting their family, he decided to sell up in 1977. “But I did love it,” he reflects, “it was a tough decision for me to make.”
Given his exposure to the hospitality trade through the milk business, perhaps it’s no surprise he went that route, buying his first pub, The Gallows, on Prospect Hill and gradually building his portfolio to include The Tribesman and Trigger Martyn’s on Shop St, and later The 12 Pins hotel in Barna, as well as becoming president of the Vintners Federation en route.
He also went into forestry, first in Woodford and later in Pettigo in Co Donegal. But yet?
“There was always a yen to open a business in the States and see could I hack it,” admits Billy, who finally took the plunge when his daughter got a college rowing scholarship in Massachusetts.
“I said: ‘Do you know what? That’s a sign,” he says, explaining how he, Anne and their four children, Billy Jr, John Paul, Amy and Clodagh, immigrated to the States on 1 January 1998 on a business visa after selling The 12 Pins.
“I was 47 years of age,” he says. “I remember my accountant saying to my solicitor: ‘Ah, he’ll be back, Billy. It’s just a fad.’ And I suppose if you had sat down and thought about it… man it was a monumental move. Lock, stock and barrel.”
RESTAURATEUR TO REFORMER
While Boston was the most obvious choice to set up in business, a trip to Chicago turned Billy’s head towards the mid-west, and he opened his first pub, The Irish Oak, just 100 yards from Wrigley Field, home of the famed Chicago Cubs.
“I didn’t even know who the Cubs were,” he admits, explaining that many people thought it was “hilarious opening an Irish pub in the middle of the holy grail of baseball”.
Clearly they were mistaken.
Today, Billy runs one of Chicago’s leading fine-dining restaurateurs, with The Gage and Acanto on Michigan Avenue, along with the Dearborn Tavern across from City Hall. He, however, credits his children with the progression of the business: all four are involved, while Billy Jr also runs The Beacon, The Dawson and Coda di Volpe.
“I think they did what I did with my father,” he reflects. “I progressed the farm on from what he had and multiplied the numbers, and my own children took what we had, The Irish Oak, and went up another notch, which is progression the way it should be.
“But the restaurant business is like farming. If you’re not a worker, you’re not going to make it. It’s as simple as that.”
But back to The Irish Oak days for a moment, which is where Billy first became engaged in immigrant rights and reform.
The pub quickly became a hub for the Irish community – particularly those in the construction industry – and Billy recalls the day in 2002 when he was approached by a group of tradesmen who were unable to get driving licenses due to their illegal status, looking for representation.
“They asked me would I help them to get drivers’ licences and I said I would,” he explains, “and we formed the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform to see what we could do in the State of Illinois for drivers’ licences.”
And while it took almost 12 years, Billy was instrumental in lobbying for the introduction of temporary visitor driving licenses (TVDLs) for the undocumented in 2014, which allows them to drive legally, without fear of being pulled over and deported.
“And since then, 280,000 have been tested and granted licenses,” he says, explaining that as TVDL holders must have valid insurance, it’s a “win-win” for all road users.
But while Billy started by representing the Irish community, he soon realised the power of co-operation with other groups, and went on to become vice-president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
He explains how they were “so close” to achieving immigration reform in both 2007 and 2013, but that with the election of President Trump, “we’re as far away as ever”.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. Who does?” he says, as he explains the day-to-day reality of the undocumented Irish in the US in the midst of such uncertainty.
“You can’t open a bank account, you can’t get a social security number and you can’t go on a plane,” he lists, explaining that heartbreakingly, many people have to watch their parents’ funerals “on Skype” because they can’t risk returning home.
“And you get the criticism: ‘Well, why did they have to go there in the first place?’ Well, they had to go. Most people don’t want to leave their native land,” he continues. “I left by choice; but 99% didn’t.”
STATES TO SENATE
Billy himself became an American citizen in 2014, receiving a personal letter of congratulations from President Obama. The following year he was awarded the accolade of Freeman of Galway City, as well as receiving an honorary doctorate from NUI Galway – but he admits that he was “flabbergasted” when he was chosen by Enda Kenny as the first emigrant Senator for the Irish diaspora living overseas.
“It’s just an incredible honour to represent them,” he says.
While reform might be at a standstill Stateside with Trump, he points out that more could be done here to incentivise people to come home. For example, to open up the help-to-buy scheme to returning emigrants, or to recognise no-claims bonuses earned abroad when getting car insurance.
“There should be no impediments for a young family coming home who wants to buy a home, who wants to work and has a job, doesn’t want to live off the State. That’s not what they’re coming home for,” he stresses.
“They want to be an asset to society. We shouldn’t have impediments in their way. We should be making it so easy for them.”
As a founding member of Voting Rights.ie, Billy is also fully supportive of the planned constitutional referendum to allow Irish citizens living abroad the right to vote in the presidential election in 2025 and has called for a worldwide grassroots campaign for a “Yes” vote.
Earlier this year, he also tabled the bill to end the closing of pubs on Good Friday – a bugbear since his Vintners’ days – but diaspora affairs are his focus going forward, as he commutes between Leinster House and the US.
“I’m working harder now at 66 than I was working 10 years ago,” he smiles, as the interview draws to a close. A gallop through 40 years in just over 60 minutes. Next time, we won’t wait so long… CL