A united Ireland has been a lifelong dream of Irish American activist and attorney Sean Downes, so accepting the Gael of the Year honor from the United Irish Counties at the organization’s annual dinner dance this Friday (tonight) at Antun’s in Queens Village will be especially meaningful.
“I’m very happy to be honored by an organization representing all 32 counties,” Downes told IrishCentral's sister publication the Irish Voice during an interview last week. “I’ve always worked for the dream that there can be and there should be a united Ireland.”
No one has worked harder in Irish America to make that goal a reality. If there’s an Irish cause that needs support Downes is always there. He and his brother Larry, along with businessman Fay Devlin, co-founded the Friends of Sinn Fein fundraising group back in the 1990s which has raised millions of dollars to support the political growth of Sinn Fein in Ireland.
Downes has also worked on a number of notable Irish legal cases here, none more famous than Sean Mackin’s request for asylum. The years-long journey wound up with Mackin’s wife Philomena and daughter Jennifer being granted asylum, with Mackin eventually being issued a stay of deportation which allowed him to adjust his status and eventually apply for U.S. citizenship.
Downes was a new attorney not long out of law school when he went to work for the famed Irish firm O’Dwyer and Bernstien in downtown New York. One of the firm’s leaders, the Irish civil rights activist Frank Durkan, was a mentor to Downes.
“I remember Frank asking me if I wanted to work on the Sean Mackin case, and I jumped at it,” he said. “I helped [attorneys] Richard Harvey and Gerry Keough. It was very memorable. [Civil rights attorney] Pat Finucane testified in Sean’s case before he was murdered. The judge asked us one day how Pat was and Richard told her he was dead. That really moved things along.”
The seeds for Downes’ involvement in Northern Ireland were sewn by his maternal grandmother, a native of Cobh, Co. Cork who moved in with the family not long after his father died when the Downes children – all seven of them – were young.
“Nana was great. She helped raise us. She always told us that the conflict in Northern Ireland had nothing to do with religion, and had everything to do with British imperialism and a false border. She instilled republicanism in us at an early age,” Downes recalled.
Downes’ mother Mary went back to work as a nurse after her husband passed, and Nana, as he calls his grandmother, was a formidable lady too. She was employed as head of maintenance at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, “this little Irish lady overseeing all these male janitors,” Downes laughs.
The death of Bobby Sands on hunger strike at the Maze Prison in 1981 was a day that Downes will never forget. He was outraged and joined hundreds of other protestors at the British Consulate in New York the day afterwards.
Trouble was, he also had a final that day at Queens College. He skipped it without thinking twice.
“The professor called and said he was obligated to fail me. He asked what happened and I explained to him about the protest. So he allowed me to come in and re-take the final,” Downes remembers.
During his time at Queens College he spent six months at a study abroad program in Dublin, and loved every minute of it. He never traveled to the North.
“We were always told it was so dangerous and that we shouldn’t go there. When you think of it, it’s so unnatural,” Downes said.
Things are different now. Downes has no doubt that a united Ireland will happen, likely sooner rather than later.
“It is catching on. Even the young people of Ireland are seeing that it should be one country with the same set of laws. And Brexit has only served to accelerate this. There is no doubt in my mind that Ireland will be united,” he says.
Downes, who is married with two grown daughters, is also passionate about maintaining the Irish tradition in America, even though legal immigration is difficult. He plans on stressing pride in Irish culture in his remarks at the United Irish Counties dance.
“We have to work to keep our Irish traditions alive in America, and we have great leaders who are doing that,” he said.
“We’ve got the Irish Arts Center, the Irish Rep, all the Irish centers and many other groups. Mayor David Dinkins once said that New York is a gorgeous mosaic of ethnic groups and he was right. We just need to make sure to keep the green in it.”
Downes’ legal practice includes representation of clients in construction and car accidents and other similar incidents. He also continues with his pro bono work on behalf of the Irish whenever he can.
“It’s something that I will always do. I’ve made the best friends of my life in the Irish community and I’m very grateful for them,” he said.