On Thanksgiving night, more than 100 American Democrats living in Ireland and their families gathered at the Dublin Hilton to enjoy wonderful food, the warm company of family and friends, and the American football playing on several big screen TVs.
They were joined this year by a number of recipients of the Donnelly Visa, who told their own personal stories about what the visa meant to them and how their taste of the American Dream changed their lives forever. 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of legislation that allowed some 20,000 Irish people to obtain green cards and to avail of a chance at a new life in the United States. Democrats Abroad Ireland honoured the champion of the visa legislation, former Congressman Brian Donnelly, with an award for his Outstanding Contribution to the American Experience.
This special event was covered on the RTÉ main evening news (see clip below) and RTÉ news presenter Eileen Whelan served as MC for the night.
Congressman Brian Donnelly, an Irish-American Democrat from Boston, dedicated himself throughout his seven terms in the United States House of Representatives to Irish issues and was the “go-to guy” for Irish diplomats on Capitol Hill on everything that mattered to Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In statements that were read out at the event, Irish Voice and IrishCentral.com founder Niall O’Dowd and Congressman Richard Neal praised Congressman Donnelly’s efforts in fighting for the undocumented Irish in the United States. O’Dowd noted that:
“The Donnelly Visas were the single biggest breakthrough for the Irish in America since the 1965 Immigration Act effectively ended legal emigration there. Brian Donnelly seized the moment, as soon as it became clear than tens of thousands of Irish were once again emigrating to America, fleeing economic hard times. We have always had great champions in Congress and Brian is right up there alongside Ted Kennedy, Tip O'Neill and others.”
The Donnelly Visa recipients who spoke so eloquently at the event were inspiring and humorous in equal measure.
The Marshall family – brothers, Kevin and David, and their father, Frank – spoke of their experiences of the Donnelly Visa. Frank recalled his own reaction to the news that his sons were getting a chance at a new life in the United States: delight at their opportunity, but sadness at their absence. Kevin and David recounted how their American educational, personal, and professional endeavours changed them and ultimately opened the doors to successful careers back in Ireland.
Maura O’Rourke, a Limerick native, remembered that she arrived in New York with just £200, but she eventually worked her way through higher education and climbed the ranks of the worlds of banking and finance.
And Seamus Galligan, a Cavan native who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, regaled the crowd with hilarious tales of four Cavan men in one New York apartment fighting to the death over every last cent of every last bill that came in and of how at least one of them initially regarded the Donnelly Visa as a scam that probably would get them deported.
Larry Donnelly, Congressman Donnelly’s nephew, Legal Counsel to Democrats Abroad Ireland and an IrishCentral.com columnist, accepted the award on his uncle’s behalf. In a statement thanking the event’s organisers, attendees and his well-wishers, Congressman Donnelly concluded:
“To the thousands of Donnelly Visa recipients in the US, in Ireland and around the world who did me, but more importantly our two great nations, so very proud: Go raibh míle maith agat!”
Democrats Abroad Ireland Chair Dennis Desmond closed the night by extending his thanks to all involved in the event and urging Americans living in Ireland to register to vote at votefromabroad.org in the critical upcoming election year.