Irish American leader Don Keough calls for Irish Diaspora minister


What brought you there first to your Irish roots?

Well, I wanted to bring my children to Ireland. My father had gone late in his life and he was deeply moved by it.  I’ll never forget how proud he was to go.

It was the memory of my father. It was the happiest trip of his life, and he said he was so upset he didn’t go when he was younger so that was always on my mind. So the first time I went was when I could afford it. My father touched Ireland for me.

I brought my children and we drove everywhere. This was the early 1970s. I was so excited. I wanted to get involved. I remember years later reading your magazine Irish America and saying, finally, someone gets it.

You first created the links between the University of Notre Dame and Ireland.  There was very little connection until you came along. What made you want to do it?

Well, Notre Dame had an extraordinary Irish background. Almost all the presidents had Irish connections. It was just waiting to be connected into Ireland.

What made me do the Keough-Naughton Irish Institute was Professor Chris Fox, who I had met, and he told me we had an amazing Irish collection of books and major historical links and he had a deep interest in Ireland. I said, “Why don’t you do something?” Then the issue was how do we get it started.

He had the man, that great scholar Professor Seamus Deane who was being sought by Harvard and many other places and was deciding. I said to Chris, “Please go tell him I’d like to talk to him.”

So I talked to Seamus and said, “You have some amazing ideas about what an Irish studies program should be like we’ll give you the blank canvas and the paints and you paint the Irish studies program you want at the home of the Irish in America.” By golly, that was what exactly he did.

One of the most exciting things in my life has been to see it develop the way it has. It was perfect timing and Chris was a great leader, and the university supported it totally.

Some 10,000 students have studied there in the past 20 years and thousands go to Ireland.  Then Martin Naughton came on board as my partner. He has been amazing.

Martin and his family played a massive role in the success of Notre Dame game. It became a happening because of Martin and it was great that the Taoiseach was fully involved, and we even got the weather!
I always remember telling Martin about the idea of the game and really getting the Irish involved. He asked, “What took you so long?” It was a huge boost to the institute and we have enlarged our efforts and numbers in Ireland since.

I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the entire Notre Dame commitment has meant over $100 million in terms of everything in recent years

You have a great new Irish project as well.

Yes, the 1916 landmark documentary series.  BBC, RTE and PBS will show a three-part landmark documentary about the 1916 Rising and we have raised the money, almost $3 million for it. We are very excited about that. The series will run to coincide with the centenary of the Easter Rising.

What has Ireland meant to you overall?

Ireland has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. To have such an involvement there is a privilege. My family loves it and we have all spent amazing times there. I wanted to buy a house there, but my wife Mickie said I’d never leave it.

How is Ireland doing now in your opinion?

There were very tough times these past few years; this bubble burst caught Ireland more so than almost anywhere else in the world. Everyone thought the Celtic Tiger would go forever. The banks had been captured by the developers and a lot of people lost money in a hurry

So the Kenny government had no easy way to solve the problems, and so they had the toughest job of any country in the world.

They have done well. You hear a lot of respect for Ireland now over here. They faced the toughest problems and were the first to demonstrate that they were working their way out of it.

I look on what happened with a lot of pride on how they have done it. It has been very tough on the Irish people I know, but you have to give them credit. I’m very optimistic about what is going to happen.  A lot of smart Americans are getting involved there now, guys like John Malone.
Will you bring Notre Dame football back to Ireland?

It is not up to me but my own view is they will be back. The call to Ireland for Notre Dame is very strong. Maybe within the next couple of years.

Are you still bullish on US?

When I talk about the US I say never bet against it, these are the most resilient people in the world.

We have an amazing gene pool a collection of people from all over the world who came not to exploit but to find a new way to grow and develop, many of them were running away from poverty and oppression.

They could see hope here those that came. It took enormous courage for people to get up and leave in the first place.

I’m an absolute optimist; my own journey proves it from a small farm in Iowa to the presidency of Coca-Cola.