Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, gave a heartfelt keynote Address at Irish America’s Business 100 luncheon on November 30. Here it is in its entirety.
I want to thank Irish America magazine for including me in this very impressive group of 100. We represent a broad spectrum of business and industry in this room and the one thing that I know we all have in common is our wonderful Irish heritage.
When I was here twelve years ago I had the great privilege of addressing this group, and Don Keough was a part of the program that day. And I recall that he introduced me with enormous grace and kindness so it’s especially gratifying for me to be here today as he is inducted into the Hall of Fame. Congratulations Don on this incredible honor.
I did jump at the chance when Patricia invited me back because the first time I was here meant so much to me. In 1998 my husband and I had recently moved with our family from New York to Los Angeles and we were still making the adjustment and trying to get used to the distance away from our family and everyone we held dear in the world who happened to be on the east coast. I’ve come to realize that feeling of home and that sense of belonging, being welcomed with open arms, just has to be Irish. No matter how far you’ve traveled or how long you’ve been away, it sticks. And I think it starts when you’re born. You’re welcomed into the world with a wonderful embrace from everyone who came before you, everyone who will be a part of you, and they want you to know that you are loved and you’re something special.
In my home I have proof. I have a letter that’s framed and mounted on my wall that my grandparents wrote to my parents on the day that I was born. It’s a tough one to read so I’ll cut to the chase on the part that I think resonates the most for all of us in this room. They wrote: “I’ll bet you’re very happy with your new charge. It will be very interesting for you to live out your lives giving everything for the comfort and advancement of your family, and most of the pleasure will come when you have to deprive yourselves of some comforts to afford their desires.” The spirit and the promise of that letter have prevailed throughout my life because everyone in my family is referred to as “our.” “Our Anne.” “Our Donald.” “Our Rosemary.” I grew up thinking that “our” was one of our family names that just got passed along and was applied to everyone named Sweeney. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized it was a possessive, it was a claim on each of us so we knew we were part of the family – connected and inseparable from one other. And it wasn’t until much later that I truly understood the power of that claim: that whenever any of us are together, wherever that happens to be, we’re home.
My husband and I are both from Irish families and we now live a good 3,000 miles away from our parents and a long way from our siblings and other relatives. Our children are grown now too. Our son Christopher is living on his own and our daughter Rosemary is thousands of miles away at college. But when we get together in any combination, to celebrate any occasion – and the Irish celebrate every occasion extremely well – we’re home, in a way that’s hard to describe to anyone not blessed by that Irish tradition.
My husband’s grandmother was from Dingle, which means two very important things. First, he claimed his Irish citizenship, which he proudly did just a few weeks before I spoke at the Irish America event in 1998, and I remember bragging a little bit about that in my speech that year. He officially became an Irishman and Bill and I took the children to Dingle to see where his grandmother was from. Well my husband’s grandmother was the eldest of nineteen children – nineteen – one of whom was actually born after his grand mother moved to the United States, so she didn’t get to meet her youngest sibling until she was in her 70s. Now, it was an extremely large family then and it’s even larger now, a couple of generations later. But the first day in town we were standing in a restaurant and just happened to run into two of his aunts and four of his cousins who were visiting from the US. And when I asked them if they knew how we could get in touch with any of the cousins in Dingle they have me this blank look and they told me to just go out and stand on the sidewalk. And by the way, if you happen to be a Fitzgerald or a McLoughlin from Dingle, you are welcome to our house for dinner any time.
A few years later I had the honor of traveling to Ireland with the Special Olympics – I’ve been on the board of the Special Olympics now for ten years. Instead of being in hotels, our special olympians stayed with Irish families and were welcomed like family. As a board member, I was invited to walk into the stadium with the American delegation of special athletes during the opening ceremonies. I remember being thrilled by all this pageantry – by the roar of the crowd, by the expressions on the faces of our athletes as they took it all in and they realized it was for them. As the host country, the Irish team was the last to enter the stadium, The crowd’s response was deafening. I didn’t know that any single space, even one the size of a stadium, could hold that much joy. It was homecoming between thousands of Irish hearts and it was truly magical.
No that long ago, Disneyland celebrated its 50th anniversary, also with great fanfare, and we were all invited to the celebration down in Aneheim. When we entered, we walked down a gold carpet and the path was lined on both sides by the cast members that work at the park. Instead of their traditional greeting (I’m sure those of you who have been to Walt Disneyworld or Disneyland have heard it: “have a magical day”), which they’ve been using this greeting for half a century now, they greeted each of us by saying “welcome home.” I loved it. Because for that moment, at least, everyone got to feel a little Irish – being welcomed home as part of something special.
My father’s family, the Sweenys, are from a village in Co. Mayo. My mother’s family, the O’Connells from Co. Kerry, and her father’s family, the Tormays, emigrated from a thatched cottage in Kells, Co. Meath. My widowed great-great-grandmother put three of her nine children on a boat to America to live with relatives in Pennsylvania. My great-grandfather, Hugh Tormay, was just thirteen when he made that trip, leading his six year-old brother and his four year-old sister into the unknown. When I thought about how much courage it took for those kids and the incredible sacrifice their mother made to give them an opportunity for a better life, I realized it wasn’t unique to our family. It was just one of the countless stories of Irish immigration to the new world. Hugh Tormay and his siblings were just three of more than one million people who left Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century. And Ireland’s economic downturns in the 30s and the 50s and the 80s sent more people far from home.
According an economics professor from Trinity College in Dublin, immigrating is a cultural norm, even if it’s not a preference. The Irish know how to do it: they build networks and they take care of each other. In light of Ireland’s economic crisis, another generation is beginning to scatter across the globe. And recently, I’m sure you saw, the New York Times discussed this recent wave of Irish immigration, 65,000 people left the country last year and they estimate that another 125,000 may follow them this year. I’m sure they’re going to come back. The article also highlighted how Irish parents are drawing strength and support from each other, as their children start new lives elsewhere out of economic desperation. Unlike my great-great-grandmother, kissing her children goodbye and wondering if she’d ever see them again, I’m hopeful that this time technology will step in – phones, e-mail, facebook and skype – and enable families to stay in closer contact and give us a new way to communicate the great cultural of Ireland as their children embark on new journeys.
But it’s hard. It’s hard enough to send your kids out into the world toward their passions and ambitions. Watching them go even though they don’t want to, but because they have no other choice, has to be devastating for everyone involved. But I have to wonder if this constant history of so many hearts and homes broken in half by immigration only deepens our devotion to the Irish family and makes it so important – and easy – for us to come home whenever and wherever we come together.
However it came to be, that sense of home and belonging, I believe, is inherent in being Irish. For me it’s in the stories that have been passed down through the years and it’s one of the many things I gave thanks for last Thursday [on Thanksgiving]. And I thank you, for inviting me to come home to the Irish America Business 100. It’s an honor to be included and it’s a true privilege to be with you today.