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Senator Charles Schumer photographed with President of ILIR Ciaran Staunton

A refreshing week in Irish America - Community fights for Ireland and for the Irish people

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Senator Charles Schumer photographed with President of ILIR Ciaran Staunton

Charles Schumer and Ciaran Staunton from ILIR
I’ve just returned to Ireland after a week-long business trip to Boston to discuss the work of my Dublin-based organization with potential supporters in the United States. Not fully knowing what to expect, I was quite unsure and uncertain on my arrival. To my great delight, however, the trip was an extremely productive one.

I spoke with a number of high-powered Irish-Americans from the fields of philanthropy, business, law, academia and politics. All were hugely interested in the work we are doing to facilitate broader access to justice and expanded use of law for those now on the margins of Irish society. All pledged support and assistance of various types to help us attain our myriad goals.
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But at a more personal level, the trip again manifested what had always been obvious to me about Irish America before I moved to Ireland. Irish-Americans are connected at a very deep level to their ancestral homeland. Consequently, and even more importantly, they are devoted to Ireland. Irish-Americans keep abreast of what is happening here. They celebrate the country’s triumphs – as well as their county’s victories, as a Dubliner based in Boston for many years and his offspring reminded me at a pub last week! – and lament Ireland’s struggles.

From the Kildare emigrant barman who worries for his elderly mother’s health and the quality of care she will receive if admitted to the hospital back at home, to the first generation Irish-American who can’t sell his late aunt’s house in Connemara, to the quintessentially Boston Irish lawyer concerned about a second cousin unable to find a professional job in Dublin despite having a master’s degree in her field, Irish-Americans are fully engaged with the difficulties confronting Ireland in 2011. And they want to help.

That Irish America wants to help is clear from the reaction of the people I met with in my personal and professional capacities. It is equally evident in the inspired partnerships and endeavours I heard about, which are emanating from the Boston Irish community and are aimed at helping Ireland in this, another hour of profound need.

Living in Ireland, it is easy to forget that so many Irish-Americans are invested in their ancestral homeland. Why? There are at least three reasons that come to mind.

First is the complicated, often jaundiced view of the Irish people toward their American cousins. My own cousin’s wife once told me of the unwelcome torrent of chores that a phone call announcing that “the yanks are coming” would unleash. Each time, the house would have to be painted, the shower upgraded and the kitchen fully stocked. She has nothing other than great memories of those visits and remains in regular contact with her American family. Yet the idea that such a special fuss had to be made of the “yanks” because they had so much and took so much for granted across the Atlantic can only trigger resentment – whether it simmers at a conscious or subconscious level. Her experience is far from unique.

Some of that entirely understandable resentment rises to the surface very quickly in Irish people when they witness the at times buffoonish antics of visiting Irish-Americans. A small percentage of Irish-American visitors seem to regard Ireland as a theme park, which they are determined to fit their own preconceptions of what their ancestral home is like. While Irish people immediately point to their garish clothing – tweed caps, Aran jumpers and green everything – I have found myself in the presence of Irish-American visitors who pass ridiculous, easily overheard comments to one another and conduct themselves reprehensibly both in Irish cities and in the countryside. Regrettably, a few have been my guests.

Second is the undeniable anti-Americanism that exists in Ireland. Spurred on by their belief that “might makes right” is the defining trait of American foreign policy and an uncharacteristic willingness to accept at face value some of the most sensationalist stories they hear about what Americans consider to be “normal,” a small number of Irish people just don’t like America or, in turn, Americans. This anti-Americanism is shared by some in the very small circle of very powerful people who help to shape Ireland’s civic discourse. I have come up against it on several occasions.

Third is the negative view of Irish America that has been espoused in recent years by certain individuals directly or indirectly affiliated with it. They allege that the caricature of Irish America – with its shamrocks, green beer and reverence for the Notre Dame football team – is Irish America. As such, it is impotent, lacking in clarity and, perhaps most damningly, not serious.

Certain of these individuals argue that, as Irish America is not homogenous in its belief system, it has no, or very little, political clout left. Moreover, they claim that Irish-Americans are really just like other Americans, who have fully assimilated into life in the new world and for whom the old country is an increasingly dim memory. Perhaps because they know of the controversy it will generate, the Irish media allows these individuals plenty of space to articulate their views.

My trip to Boston brought reality back into focus. Despite the inherently complex relationship between Irish people and their American cousins, despite the creeping anti-Americanism here and despite the disparaging sentiments of a vocal minority, Irish America is still large, still powerful and still committed.

There is no more tangible testimony to this reality than what my wife told me she heard Irish Central’s Niall O’Dowd discussing on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland radio programme while I was away. United States Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is introducing legislation to allow Irish people to live and work, at least temporarily, in the United States. This represents a tremendous step forward for the undocumented already living in America’s shadows and for young Irish people desperately seeking opportunity wherever they can find it. Given that Senator Schumer acted in response to the entreaties of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, it also represents a strong rebuke to those who deny the vitality of Irish America.

In this difficult time, Irish America remains undaunted and continues to fight for Ireland and for the Irish people. As a proud son of Irish America who now calls Ireland home, I can only urge Irish-Americans to keep it up. We need you now more than ever.

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