The annual Presidential Distinguished Awards for accomplishments by the Irish overseas were presented by Irish President Michael D. Higgins at a ceremony in his residence, Aras an Uachtarain, on Thursday night.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan and Diaspora Minister Joe McHugh were also present.

Irish community support

Nora Higgins (UK)

The Galway woman, who was born in Milltown, emigrated to Britain in 1955. She trained as a nurse in Edinburgh and Glasgow before going to London in 1960 where she married and had three children. She worked for 26 years as secretary in a school for children with severe learning difficulties. She retired at 63 and soon afterwards became a member of the management committee of Southwark Irish Pensioners Project, one of the largest Irish community organizations in south London. The organization provides a drop-in day service and a community outreach Service to hundreds of vulnerable older Irish people.

Mrs Higgins has been a tireless campaigner for older Irish people in Britain and spoke about her experiences as an emigrant in the 1950s in a very moving and memorable intervention at the Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin in 2013. Earlier this year, the 81-year-old abseiled 100ft down the front of the Golden Jubilee wing at the King’s College Hospital in London to raise funds for its skin cancer unit.

North American Honorees

Brendan Fay (US)

Community activist, theologian, filmmaker and public speaker, Brendan Fay is also co-founder of the LGBT group, Lavender and Green Alliance. He was also a founding member of the Irish AIDS Outreach organization in 1996 which sought to break the silence around AIDS in the Irish community in New York. He has been active on immigration reform, civil marriage, AIDS awareness and human rights. Fay coordinated "Silence to Speech" a documentary series on being Irish and gay in America. He also directed "Taking a Chance on God," a film about gay pioneer priest John McNeill.

Fay has been an activist for LGBT rights and, in particular, Irish LGBT rights in New York for decades. He formed the inclusive St Pat’s For All Parade in 1999 as an alternative to the 5th Avenue Parade. Along with Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy, he worked for many years to secure the right of Irish gay groups to march in the St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City, a right which was finally won in 2016.

Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy (US)

Co-founder of the LGBT group, Lavender and Green Alliance, Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy is a writer, social worker and community activist. With Fay, she formed the inclusive St Pat’s For All Parade in 1999 as an alternative to the 5th Avenue Parade. Along with Fay, she worked for years to secure the right of Irish gay groups to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in NYC, a right which was finally won in 2016.

The daughter of 1920s emigrants from Offaly and Tipperary, she co-edited two fiction collections by Irish women writers.

Norman P McClelland (US)

The son of Irish emigrants, Norman McClelland is a businessman and philanthropist based in Phoenix, AZ. His Shamrock Foods is one of the largest dairies in the southwest and one of the largest food distribution companies in the US. His philanthropic endeavors include giving 80,000lbs of food each month to a local food bank. He has also helped to create one of the largest urban parks in the world and donated the college of management to Arizona State University. He has also helped to build the Phoenix Irish Centre, Library and Genealogical Centre.

A member of the Global Irish Network, McClelland is proud of his Scots Irish heritage, with roots in Newry, and works hard to support an open and accepting Irish identity, inclusive of all the traditions of the island .

Business and Education

Robert G Kearns (Canada)

A key figure in the Irish community in Toronto, Robert G Kearns has built up a successful insurance business there over the past 35 years. Kearns’s other focus is on creating inspiring spaces in Canada that celebrate and commemorate the Irish presence there. He set up the Ireland Park Foundation, a charitable nonprofit organization, to celebrate the story of the Irish in Canada. He has been instrumental in creating the Ireland Park Famine Memorial along the quayside in Canada’s largest city.

Kearns is now engaged in creating a new memorial in Toronto, Grasset Park, to commemorate Canadian medical staff who died ministering to Irish Famine migrants. He is also a member of the Global Irish Network and has helped a number of Irish firms enter the Canadian market, including providing free office space for one company. He chaired the Ireland Fund of Canada for six years and helped raise funds for integrated education in Ireland.

Science, Technology and Innovation

Garret A FitzGerald (US)

UCD graduate, Prof Garret FitzGerald is a research physician scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. His research has contributed substantially to the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease by low-dose aspirin which has benefited millions worldwide. He has also won several major international awards for his work on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and is widely published in leading medical journals.

He is closely engaged in facilitating scientific endeavor in Ireland, establishing the successful Centre for Cardiovascular Science at University College Dublin. He was also a founding adviser of Science Foundation Ireland. He has contributed significantly to the training and mentoring of many Irish researchers, several of whom hold senior positions within Irish academia and industry today. Among the more than 100 postdoctoral and doctoral students who have trained in his lab, more than 20 are Irish and remain active in research.

In 2014, Science Foundation Ireland awarded Prof FitzGerald the inaugural SFI St Patrick’s Day Science Medal in recognition of his outstanding contributions to his field of expertise and to his ongoing support of the research community in Ireland.

Sir Terry Wogan (UK)

A Posthumous Award went to Sir Terry Wogan (UK) A favourite of Queen Elizabeth's, Sir Terry Wogan was a much-loved Irish broadcaster whose gentle good humor won him many fans during his career with the BBC. Best known for his breakfast radio show "Wake up to Wogan," before he retired in 2009 he had eight million regular listeners. His television chat show "Wogan" ran from 1982 to 1992. He also provided gently wry commentary for the BBC's broadcast of the Eurovision Song Contest and helped to raise millions of pounds for charity as the face of the BBC telethon "Children In Need." Throughout his career he was a respected and beloved representative of the Irish in Britain. The reaction to his death highlighted the significance of the Limerick man’s contribution to the community, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.

His rise to the highest ranks of broadcasting in Britain was recognized when he received a knighthood in 2005. He died of cancer in January 2016 aged 77.

Angela Brady (UK)

Architect Angela Brady has built her reputation in Britain over the past 25 years. She graduated from Dublin Institute of Technology’s school of architecture before completing a post-graduate scholarship at Kunstakademiet in Copenhagen. The Dubliner then spent a year in Toronto before moving to London where she set up the award-winning private practice Brady Mallalieu Architects with Robin Mallalieu. Their design studio specializes in contemporary, sustainable architecture.

Brady has been active in the Royal Institute of British Architects and Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland for many years. In 2000 she was a founder of the RIBA Architects for Change group, which campaigns for greater involvement in architecture by women and ethnic minorities. She was president of the RIBA from 2011 to 2013, the first non-British person and the second woman to hold the position.

Gerald Lawless (UAE)

A graduate of Shannon College of Hotel Management, Gerald Lawless joined the Trusthouse Forte hotel chain in the 1970s working with them in Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Britain for 23 years. This included a stint running the Shelbourne in Dublin in the late 1980s. In 1997 he began to work with the Dubai royal family, building their Jumeirah Group into one of the world’s best-known luxury hospitality brands. In his 18 years there, he developed Dubai’s seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel. He spearheaded expansion of the company’s portfolio, which now includes 22 hotels in 10 destinations and more than 100 restaurants from London to Shanghai.

In 2016 he assumed responsibility for strategic tourism and hospitality projects with Dubai Holdings, which is also owned by the royal family.

The Galway man is chairman of the World Travel and Tourism Council, chancellor of the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management and honorary president of the Jumeirah Group.

Peace, Reconciliation and Development

Martín von Hildebrand Mulcahy (Colombia)

Ethnologist and activist for indigenous and environmental rights, Martín von Hildebrand Mulcahy has played a key role in protecting the Colombian Amazon from illegal resource exploitation, principally mining, and in ensuring that indigenous communities living in these areas can exercise their legal and constitutional rights to manage their territories.

Von Hildebrand was born in the United States of an Irish mother and a German father. He studied in University College Dublin in the 1960s and at the Sorbonne. He has devoted his working life to promoting economic, social and environmental rights in the Colombian Amazon.

In the 1990s, he founded the Colombian NGO, Fundación Gaia Amazonas, which works to empower indigenous communities in the Amazon to exercise their constitutional rights to protect and manage their own territories, to protect the Amazonian ecosystem and support sustainable livelihoods and food security and sovereignty. Von Hildebrand is now working on a project to connect and protect the interdependent ecosystems of the Andes, Amazon and Atlantic coast of South America, spanning a number of countries including Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela.

Sr Mary Dolores Sweeney (Sierra Leone)

For 44 years, Sr Mary Sweeney has worked tirelessly as a member of the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, often with limited support, in the extremely challenging environment that is Sierra Leone in West Africa.

The 72-year-old Donegal woman arrived in Sierra Leone in 1972 as a primary school teacher, eventually founding and running St Joseph’s School for the Hearing Impaired, which now supports more than 200 children. Through her efforts at the school in Makeni, she has given education, skills training and life opportunities to vulnerable children in the developing country. She remained in Makeni to keep the school open during the brutal civil war in the 1990s and more recently she has played a significant role in coordinating much-needed support for the Ebola response there.

In recent years Sr Sweeney has widened her ambitions and focused her energies on promoting the development of a curriculum for the training of teachers for special needs education in Sierra Leone.

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