Last night I was sitting by the fireside in my old farmhouse in rural West Cork. The wind was rustling in the trees and I could hear the stream gurgling under the old stone bridge outside my front door.
The fire crackled softly, a candle was lit, and the baby was contentedly asleep upstairs: peace. As it was St Patrick’s Day, I was treating myself to a glass of whiskey: perfection.
Yet there I was, in a quiet corner of County Cork, in conversation with people in Tennessee, New Orleans and New York about our shared Irish heritage.
The Internet has changed our world in many ways. For the Irish Diaspora, it may yet prove to have very far-reaching and very positive consequences. Since journalism moved online, many writers have expressed mixed feelings about the ability of readers to instantly post comments. Some comments are very insightful, but others just vent spleen.
Yesterday, the advent of online commenting proved its worth to me. For St Patrick’s Day, I had written a short reflection on a moment in NYC a few years ago when my wife and I stumbled upon the Irish Hunger Memorial in Manhattan. [LINK] I was deeply moved by the comments posted from America:
An elderly Irish-American lady recalled: “my mother came as a servant girl and my father came as a laborer in the mines of Pennsylvania and the tunnels of New York. They taught us to love the United States and respect our Irish heritage.”
People from North Carolina and California told their family’s stories. Many had ancestors who arrived just after the famine. The emotional depth of the connection between the two countries was expressed succinctly by one American who said “my eyes did a bit of sweating upon touchdown at Shannon on my first and only trip to Ireland.”
Another spoke of visiting Cobh, Country Cork and imagining what her grandmother felt when the ship pulled away from the quayside there, taking her away from her beloved homeland forever.
What a privilege to be able hear all these people’s stories on St Patrick’s Day, even as I sat by my fireside, thousands of miles away in Ireland.
After my own grandmother passed away, we found boxes of beautifully written letters from her family members who had emigrated to America decades earlier. She missed them so much, but never saw them again. Carried by ship, those letters took weeks to arrive from across the Atlantic. A whole season would have passed by the time the reply came. Nowadays we can communicate instantaneously and New York City is only five hours from Shannon by plane.
Yesterday in Washington DC, the Irish Taoiseach was hosted by President Obama, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, all of whom have Irish ancestry. President Obama said that St Patrick’s Day is, “a day to thank the Irish people for all they have done for America; few nations so small have had such an enormous impact on another".
I felt that the thanks should go the other direction too, particularly as many Americans feel that positive sentiments about America rarely emanate from Ireland these days. All I can say is that the empty vessels often do make the most noise: there are always going to be a few noisy cynics and detractors. In truth, most Irish people think about America very affectionately, and have done since its very inception. Look at President Obama’s own words yesterday:
“This is rightly a day for celebration and good cheer between America and one of her oldest friends -– and it’s a partnership that extends to our earliest days as a Republic… let me leave you with the words from those early days that speak to why this has been such an incredible relationship between our two countries. These are words spoken by the father of our country, George Washington:
‘When our friendless standards were first unfurled, who were the strangers who first mustered around our staff? And when it reeled in the light, who more brilliantly sustained it than Erin’s generous sons? Ireland, thou friend of my country in my country’s most friendless days, much injured, much enduring land, accept this poor tribute from one who esteems thy worth, and mourns thy desolation. May the God of Heaven, in His justice and mercy, grant thee more prosperous fortunes, and in His own time, cause the sun of Freedom to shed its benign radiance on the Emerald Isle.’
The Taoiseach quoted a more recent US President, John F. Kennedy, noting how he once described Ireland’s Diaspora as a “fraternal empire.” Kennedy also said that “whether we live in Cork or Boston, Chicago or Sydney, we are all members of a great family which is linked together by that strongest of chains -- a common past.”
Nowadays, we can share a common front room too, online. Perhaps, centuries after having been carried away on wooden ships, the scattered Irish Diaspora is now finding gathering places on the Internet.