Early this week, I received an unexpected telephone call from Eoin O’Liatháin, President of the University Philosophical Society (the Phil) at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). The Phil is no ordinary student society. Founded in 1683, it is the oldest society of its kind in the world and boasts the likes of Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Mary Robinson as past members.
President O’Liatháin had a very appealing offer for me. Would I be willing to speak at a special Phil event, called “The Inaugural,” at which the former Speaker and current Democratic Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, would be receiving the Gold Medal of Honorary Patronage of the Phil in the presence of two members of Seanad Éireann (the upper house of Ireland’s parliament), the Vice Provost of TCD, a host of distinguished guests and hundreds of students? What’s more, a large delegation of Leader Pelosi’s congressional colleagues and other visiting Americans would be in attendance at the event.
How could I say no? I immediately accepted the offer and began making arrangements to attend. I was informed that Leader Pelosi would be speaking on the theme of E Pluribus Unum: the idea that, out of many peoples, we Americans are one. I started to formulate remarks that would comport with that theme.
I arrived at TCD shortly before the event was to commence and was instantly overwhelmed by the number of students, embassy and university officials, Gardaí, security staff and photographers outside. On entering, I took my place on the podium in the fabled Exam Hall at TCD and was warmly greeted by the first speaker, Senator Katherine Zappone.
Senator Zappone was appointed by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny to Seanad Éireann last year. She is well-known for her work on a variety of important causes in her adopted homeland and for her ongoing court battle to have her Canadian same-sex marriage to her Irish partner, Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan, recognised in Ireland. I was similarly greeted by the MC for the night, Senator David Norris, well-known as a fighter for human rights at home and abroad and, more recently, for his unsuccessful presidential campaign last year. The gregarious Senator Norris had the entire Exam Hall, especially the visiting Americans, laughing throughout the event.
Following eloquent recitations and approvals by TCD students of the minutes of previous Phil meetings, the speeches got underway. Senator Zappone spoke first and movingly recounted the story of her own Irish emigrant family, the ongoing struggle of women for full equality and Leader Pelosi’s exemplary successes in this regard. Senator Zappone also detailed her own personal journey that led her to become an advocate for marginalised and disadvantaged people in Ireland.
It next fell to me to speak just before Leader Pelosi’s keynote address. I began by praising the wisdom of the Phil for honouring Leader Pelosi, welcoming Congressmen Edward Markey and Richard Neal from my home state of Massachusetts and noting that several members of the congressional delegation had served alongside my uncle, Brian Donnelly.
During my remarks proper, in keeping with the theme of Leader Pelosi’s talk, I reflected upon the Irish America of which I am a product and which often forms the basis of my musings in this column. I stressed that, despite its detractors and deniers on both sides of the Atlantic, Irish America is a vibrant and powerful – in politics and in virtually every other area of endeavour – entity that continues to make significant contributions to both the United States and Ireland. I noted that the whirlwind, three day visit of the congressional delegation, which was absolutely jam packed with high level meetings from the moment of arrival until the moment of departure, was evidence of just how effective Irish America has been in cementing the special relationship between our two countries.
In concluding, I begged the indulgence of the audience and sought to make two quick points about this year’s presidential election. First, I reiterated my view that Florida will be pivotal to the outcome of November’s contest for a variety of reasons and not for the first time. And second, speaking specifically to the hundreds of students present, I reminded them that anyone who happens to have been born in the United States or who has an American citizen parent is entitled to vote in the presidential election.
It was then time for the main event. Leader Pelosi spoke about E Pluribus Unum and what it means to her. She drew an interesting parallel between speeches delivered in Ireland by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan in which they both committed the United States to nuclear non-proliferation. And with manifest passion, she described her role in the struggle to get health care reform legislation through the House of Representatives. She received a standing ovation at the close of her address that lasted for what seemed like a few minutes.
When the event concluded, I had the honour of accompanying the congressional delegation and several of the students to dinner. I happened to be seated across from Leader Pelosi, who I found to be an extremely warm and incredibly down to earth person. She impressed me with her knowledge of Ireland and her desire to foster ever more transatlantic cooperation. She was particularly interested in the impressive Irish students and was very encouraging of their varied hopes and dreams for the future. I also had the chances to talk to Congressmen Markey and Neal and to Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York, who were curious to hear about my own journey “home” to Ireland. Congressman Neal shared fond memories of the years he served in Congress with my uncle.
As I left the dinner and walked back to my hotel room, I felt the need to pinch myself. I had just been the warm-up act for one of the most powerful female politicians in the world and shared both my political analysis and casual banter with a good-sized congressional delegation over dinner. It was another of many extraordinary experiences that I have had in a decade living in Ireland. It was a night I won’t soon forget.