Back to the old country -- how an Irish American views living there
An 'outsider's perspective on Ireland's politics and current affairs
“Your grandmother would be sending the men in white coats for you.” My father said this to me only half-jokingly in the summer of 2001 when I announced that I was relocating for a year to the west of Ireland. Horrified by her parents’ stories of dreadful poverty and appalling dearth of prospect, my grandmother would doubtless have been aghast that her grandson was actually choosing to move back “home.” Cognisant of the then-roaring “Celtic Tiger” economy – which I doubt my grandmother would even have fully accepted had she lived to see this century – and the opportunity I had been presented in my ancestral country (and more importantly, county), my parents were delighted to see the back of me.
Little did I know that my accepting a one year fellowship to teach legal skills in the law school at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway) would change my life forever.
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Ireland had always been a central part of my identity growing up on the east side of Milton, MA, a town that abuts the city of Boston and was, until very recently, the most Irish city or town in the United States. While most of my friends had at least one Irish-born parent, my slightly more distant lineage didn’t affect my “street cred” in East Milton because of my family’s prominent involvement in Boston and Massachusetts Democratic politics since emigrating there from the west of Ireland. My great-uncles served on the Boston City Council; one was later elected Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General of Massachusetts; and both held various appointed positions at the city and state levels.
They were outdone as Irish-American politicians, however, by my uncle, former Congressman Brian Donnelly. For my Uncle Brian, despite being a representative of the people of Boston neighbourhoods and cities and towns south of Boston, became Ireland’s man in the United States House of Representatives. In addition to pushing what became known as the Donnelly Visa through the Congress, Uncle Brian was the “go to guy” for Irish diplomats on Capitol Hill on everything that mattered to Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s.
My own family travelled to Ireland and Scotland (my late mother was born and raised just outside Glasgow) for a number of very enjoyable vacations in my youth. And two trips – I have to admit that both were a blur – with friends after I began practicing law were even better. I soon realised that law practice was not for me and began to investigate the possibility of making use of the Irish passport I’d held since childhood and living and working in Ireland for a time. After a long and frustrating search for professional employment, I was lucky enough to be offered the fellowship at NUI Galway.
A one year fellowship turned into two. A year then spent between Washington, DC and Boston was such a spectacular failure that the news that the fellowship I had held at NUI Galway was being converted to a permanent academic post was like a gift from God. I applied for the job, accepted it when it was offered, and continued teaching at the law school for six more hugely rewarding years. And now, having been granted a two year leave of absence from NUI Galway, I am leading an inspired project that is funded by a great Irish-American, Chuck Feeney, and seeks to expand the use of law in the public interest and for the benefit of marginalised and disadvantaged people in Ireland.
One thing that has never waned in my time in Ireland is my love for and, speaking frankly, obsession with politics across the ocean in my town, my city, my state and my country. Having been actively involved in politics and in government at home, I was a geographically detached onlooker with no real outlet for my first several years in Ireland. But thanks originally to the intercession and encouragement of a good friend before the historic 2008 presidential campaign, I now comment regularly in the Irish print, broadcast and online media on politics and current affairs in the United States to a very interested Irish audience. My obsession extends with equal vigour to Irish politics and I am fascinated both by that which is similar and all of that which is quite different to the politics I grew up with.
At a personal level, the media work I’ve been fortunate enough to get to do has paid off in a most unexpected way. As a lifelong news junkie, it was always female news anchors and reporters, not movie stars or models, by whom I was infatuated. My affections were always unknown and most certainly unrequited. Yet here in Ireland, I managed to marry one: RTÉ news presenter, Eileen Whelan. Together, we are raising a son, Seán, who is 12.
Ten years on then, my story is the opposite to that of countless Irish people who have found the United States to be their land of opportunity. Ireland has been mine. My grandmother wouldn’t know what to make of it.
This column will look critically at Irish politics and current affairs from something of an “outside insider’s” perspective in the very complicated and worrying reality Ireland and the people who live on this island currently face. It will also periodically examine the extraordinary, ever-evolving and, to me, sacred relationship between Ireland and the United States, the two countries I will always be proud to call home.
I’ve written this first column because my upbringing and life experience invariably shape my outlook and I think it’s vitally important that a writer’s readers know “where he’s coming from.” I promise that you will read about a lot of different people, issues and places in this column – that you will agree and disagree with, like and dislike what you read at different times. I can only hope that you will enjoy it. But I can promise that you’ll never have to read about me again!
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