During his first official visit to the United States last week Irish President Michael D Higgins made his way to Yonkers to visit the Aisling Irish Community Center.
Higgins, who was welcomed by hundreds of Irish immigrants and their families, spent an hour at the center. There he met with the Mayor of Yonkers, Mike Spano, who presented him with a key to the city.
The President, joined by many aides and security details, also spent a considerable amount of time chatting with local immigrants, young and old .
“There is great warmth and friendliness and humanity here,” Higgins said.
“I am elected as president for all of the Irish, wherever they may be, and I’m encouraging them to stay in touch with us.”
Higgins was elected to a seven-year term as president in October and took office in Dublin in November.
He described the visit to the center “as the most important (visit) I will ever make.”
The president, accompanied by his wife Sabrina, spoke in Irish to some of the attendees.
He also passionately spoke about the issue of the undocumented and expressed his support for the proposed E3 visas which would, if every passed, allow Irish people to come and work in the U.S. legally.
“I can keep the issue alive,” Higgins said.
“The Irish here who are out of status are offering their work,” Higgins continued.
“They are willing to pay taxes. They just want to feel secure. They want to know that if they become ill, they are not facing deportation. If you take the labor of people, you should try and achieve their getting to a form of security, and in time such citizenship as is appropriate.”
An undocumented worker who took the day off to see the president said “I want to believe this man. He might give us some hope because up to now we haven’t had much,” said the waitress withholding her name.
Michelle Brosnan, a Co. Sligo native, who has been living in Yonkers for nine years attended the center on Wednesday with her children.
“This is a historic day for my American born kids. I tried to get a picture with Michael D but that didn’t work out but just to be in his presence was great,” said Brosnan.
The Irish president was given many gifts from locals including a green crocheted wrap for his wife and The History of the Bronx and To Love Two Countries, stories of Irish immigrants, illustrated with black and white photographs by John Minihan. Co. Clare man Joe Cunningham, once a famous musician and born in Co Clare, gave the President the watercolor he’d painted of an Irish lake. Cunningham turned 100 in April.
Agnes Delaney of the Aisling Center told Irish Central Community News "Even though President Higgins had such a busy schedule (25 events), we were thrilled and honored that we were included. Our Young at Heart senior group were lining up an hour before his arrival in their best attire. Many of them left Ireland over 50 years ago, but they are all proud of the land of their birth.
“Joe Cunningham who left 83 years ago did an original painting for him and was sitting on the edge of his seat waiting to do his presentation. The President was genuinely impressed to receive such a lovely Galway scene. Eileen Moran presented him with a copy of our Book and DVD.
Continued Delaney, “It was a great day for McLean Ave. We invited all the local businesses and they all came and wanted to help us. Moriarty's got the ladder to fix the flags and Nuala Purcell closed her shop to take photos. Artuso’s Bakery came with a tray of cookies and Eileen's Country Kitchen sent down some Irish Soda Bread. We were also pleased that Mayor Spano and several others from Yonkers City Hall came. Several people waited outside to meet him and he did not disappoint them. He greeted everyone in such a warm and friendly way, I was glad to be part of it."
The centers have received $20 million in Irish government funds for the vulnerable, elderly and undocumented since 2004, “every penny of it well spent,” the President said.
“What is important is the kind of solidarity you show; the care, the instinct to look at strangers as someone like yourself.”
Higgins spent four days in New York and two in Boston. He attended a reception at the Irish consulate in New York City on Monday before meeting Mayor Michael Bloomberg and visiting the downtown 9/11 memorial Tuesday. He also attended a performance of the stage version of the Academy Award winning film Once, which is also nominated for 11 Tony Awards and he met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He arrived in Boston on Friday where he met with the Mayor of the city and led a famine commemoration event.