Thomas Laffey left Ireland in the mid-1950s when he was in his late teens to escape one of the worst economic times in his country's history. He came to live with family on Long Island, where years later he would found a real estate agency that today grosses $800 million.
On his way to living the American dream, the Irishman finished high school, did blue-collar work and served in the Army.
“There's no country like America," Laffey told Newsday in a 1997 interview. "In America, you're able to achieve whatever you want. No one stops you unless you stop yourself."
Laffey died of natural causes last Wednesday at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill, said his son Philip Laffey of Manhattan. He was 81 years old.
Though grateful for all the opportunities United States offered, Laffey held his homeland near and dear all his life. He even spent nearly a year behind bars in a case involving Ireland.
In 1972, Laffey and four other Irish-born men living in the United States were jailed for nearly a year after they refused to testify before a grand jury in Texas investigating alleged gunrunning by sympathizers of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.
The case for the men's freedom went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Back on Long Island, Laffey returned to growing his real estate business. Today, Laffey Real Estate has 13 offices in Nassau, Suffolk and Queens, according to Philip Laffey, who with his brother, Mark Laffey of Oyster Bay, are the agency’s principals.
Thomas Laffey was born on Jan. 3, 1938, in Lettergesh, County Galway, in the Irish countryside. He was the third of six children born to Michael and Catherine Laffey, who fished and raised sheep and cattle for a living.
In 1956, at the age of 17, Laffey moved to Mineola to with his aunt. A brother and a sister were already in living in the United States. At the time, Ireland was going through dark days, a period of austerity and few jobs described by historians as the “Dark Decade.”
Laffey, who went by the nickname Tommy, went to night school to finish high school. He received an equivalency diploma from Mineola High School in 1958, then took jobs as an electrician and tool and die maker.
Laffey served from 1961 to 1963 in the Army, according to his son.
Laffey had planned to return to Ireland but had a change of heart in 1964 when he met Eileen O'Grady, an immigrant from a county near where he was born. The couple married two years later.
Laffey went into real estate part time while he carried on as a tool and die maker. He worked in real estate offices in Williston Park and Floral Park before he opened Laffey Real Estate on Jamaica Avenue in Bellerose.
He had been working real estate in Floral Park in 1972 when two men entered and handed him the subpoena to appear before the grand jury, according to Newsday.
Laffey and the other men, who became known as the “Fort Worth Five,” were held in contempt of court after they refused to be questioned before the Texas grand jury, which was investigating an attempt to buy guns or explosives, supposedly to be used by the Irish Republican Army, which sought to end British rule.
Over 18 months, the men were freed, returned to jail, and eventually let out again after U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas ordered the men freed on bail.
Back in New York, Laffey told supporters that he saw himself as a political prisoner in his adopted country.
"We were railroaded 1,400 miles to an area where I've never been in my life,” Laffey said to the crowd, according to a Newsday account.
The ordeal, Laffey told Newsday in 1973, was a "long nightmare" and the grand jury expired without the men having cooperated.
Besides his wife and sons, Philip and Mark, Laffey is survived by sons, Emmett Laffey of Lloyd Harbor, Brian Laffey of Mineola and Desmond Laffey of East Williston; siblings, Mary Newcomb of Shoreham, and Kathleen Kane of Renvyle, Willy Laffey of Lettergesh and Joe Laffey of Limerick, all in Ireland; and nine grandchildren.
A funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Church of St. Aidan in Williston Park, followed by a traditional Irish celebration of his life — food, Irish music, Guinness beer — in the home in East Williston where the Laffeys raised their family and where son Desmond now lives with his wife and their four sons.
Laffey will be buried in Tullycross, Ireland.